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Tim really was getting a hang of this new identity thing. Robin would never have made that dramatic speech he just made to Tam. I’m going to take them down from the inside out. Christ. Now that was a Red Robin speech. Only an identity forged from an insane cascade of identity crises and an intense downward spiral would say something like that about not just one but two assassin cults.

Well if there was one thing Tim’s parents didn’t pay other people to raise it was a quitter. He’s got three hours before he has to leave to enact his super Salvage My Morality, Take Down the League of Assassins and Those Spider Dudes and Save Bruce From the Timestream (Hell Yeah) plan, patent pending. The best part was the plan was only three steps long. 1) Organize three fake hits to lure in the Spiders for capture and questioning 2) Prevent the League from killing any of the spiders (somehow???) 3) Take down the League of Assassins. Boom. Easy.

So easy in fact that he had time to investigate his weird hunch. If there was any instinct that Bruce had honed to perfection in him during his time as Robin it was the instinct to pursue a mystery to its conclusion even at great risk to life and limb.

Like the knowledge of Batman and Robin’s identities, like Bruce being alive, this mystery felt more like faith than logic. Like a line hooked in his chest drawing him in. The clues were unspooling before him beckoning him on, he only had to follow. From the oblique mentions in Ra’s computer system, tangentially tied to files on the Detective and on Talia, from his red lit room deep in the Cradle through winding corridors, to the solid wooden door before him, far away from any well trafficked area, hidden, protected.

When he raises his hand to test the handle he finds the door unlocked. It swings open soundlessly. The room does not contain mysterious weapons or files or rows of tubes containing baby Bruce clones. It is a bedroom, and there is someone in it.

Tim immediately assumes a ready stance. Snooping in someone’s room in the base of the League of Assassins probably warrents a murder attempt. The figure doesn’t immediately turn and charge Tim however. They remain where they are- head bent over their lap flipping lackadaisically through a book, not reading any of the pages; seemingly occupied with the action alone. Tim quickly takes stock of them. Dressed in typical League fashion, dark colored robes and leathers with the hood pushed back. Not very large, height was hard to judge while they were hunched over, but Tim wouldn’t put them at more than 5’ 6'' maybe less. Sex was probably male, skin was light brown, a head of short dark hair hid their face.

“Hey,” Tim says. Any thoughts of how he'll follow that up are instantly wiped from his mind when the figure looks up.

Blue eyes, a spray of dark freckles, a scar splitting the left brow from a knife nearly dodged, a head of dark curls, features changed by the years gone by, but nonetheless instantly recognizable.

“Jason,” Tim says. How many times has he talked to this dead boy’s memorial case in the Batcave hoping he was listening? How many times has Bruce visited a grave that was empty? Because it must be empty. This was Jason. He knew it like he had known that Bruce was Batman and Dick was Robin. He knew it like he knew that Bruce was alive. He had the same scars, a clone wouldn’t have those, an imposter wouldn’t have those. They wouldn’t know to. No imposter could know this face as well as Tim did. How many nights had he spent following this boy across the Gotham sky? How many times had he framed his matchstrike smile in his viewfinder? How many hours had he spent, developing those pictures? How many hours had he spent looking at them, in pride, in admiration, in mourning?

Christ. Christ. It’s Jason.

“Jason,” Tim says again, more urgently. Frantic with some kind of suspense. Like jumping from a roof and waiting for his grapple to catch.

Jason turns to look at Tim, and there is absolutely nothing behind his eyes.

-

This is fine. This is absolutely totally fine. He just needs another plan, a new plan, a better plan, he needs to add a fourth prong to his incredible three prong plan to solve his life. He’s Robin. No he isn’t. But he had been Robin. He had fought side by side with Batman, proved himself again and again and again to the man. He had saved people.

Christ. He had been Robin. He had been Robin because the boy- the man, in front of him had died, and left the role empty.

He stops his frantic pacing to stare at Jason for another few moments, bringing his time spent staring at Jason dumbfounded up to 17 out of the last 20 minutes.

Jason has gone back to reading his book, or rather flipping through it. Tim didn’t think he had the ability to absorb it right now, to process it. He reacts to stimuli; light, sound, touch. He has the same physical skills that he had before he died. Tim rubs at his aching jaw once more. He had grabbed Jason’s wrist to take his pulse and Jason had snapped out a punch to his jaw so fast he hadn’t even felt it until after his head had already jerked to the side. Clearly some amount of muscle memory remained. The question was what else did?

Is Jason simply empty beyond that? Is he body but not soul? Is he really in there, buried too deeply for his anger or his quick wit or his match strike smile to surface? Is he trying to dig his way out or is he too hurt to?

There are too many questions. Questions of how long he’s been alive, and how he even is. His face has changed, matured. He has been alive for at least some of the four years since he had died. His scars remain, along with new ones. The divot in his cheek is probably from the crowbar. Tim can see the edge of red waxy skin peeking out from the shoulder of his tunic. The explosion. Tim wonders for a moment, terribly, if he opens the tunic up if he might see the Y of an autopsy scar on his chest. Nausea rolls through him and he has to swallow the flood of saliva in his mouth twice before he can redirect his thoughts.

Saving Jason; he has to do it. Jason was his Robin. His hero, his hope, his guiding light. Jason is a person who deserves to be saved for once in his life, instead of the other way around, even if it was years and years too late.

Okay. Saving Jason. Step one: information.

“Jason, can you understand me? Just nod or shake your head if you can’t speak,”

Jason looks up at the sound of his voice, but his eyes slide away after a few moments, uninterested. He jiggles his knee and thumbs at the edge of his book, fanning the corner of the pages.

“Robin,” Tim says and Jason jolts like he’s been electrocuted. His gaze returns to Tim again more intent than it’s been since he entered the room. There is a struggle there, working it’s way across his face.

Jason reaches a hand out and grips his cape. He works his jaw for one moment, two, three then finally; “Ro-” His voice dies halfway through the word but Tim can read his mouth moving through the last of the word. But Jason was Robin; he grits his teeth and swallows and tries again, always again. “Robin,”

Tim needs to save him.

“I’m going to save you,” Tim says. “I’m going to save you, Jason.”

-

Tam is mad. She’s pissed, furious, a thousand other adjectives for being so angry it’s keeping her calm.

She’s mad at her dad for controlling her life, for making her go after rich boy extraordinaire Tim Drake. She’s mad at Tim for turning out to be some fanatic vigilante wearing the stupidest costume known to man. She’s mad at Tim for getting her mixed up in this crazy cult and leaving her in a cave to go fight the stupidest most gimmicky assassins on Earth. She’s mad at Tim for leaving her here without saying anything, only leaving the most cryptic note ever penned; a crudely drawn map of the cave system she’s in with an x over one of the rooms and the message Go here for help. Most of all right now she’s mad at these stupid assassin cultists for sucking so bad at being ninja’s and getting slaughtered by these spider guys.

“I’m mad,” she reminds herself and jolts herself from her hiding place to keep moving. If she stops being mad for even a second she thinks she’s going to lose her mind and stop being able to move. She’s never seen this much blood in her life before. She tries to block out the sounds. The wet tearing, the screaming. It’s not happening. Not to her. She needs to move, she needs help.

She runs from the room and deeper into the Cradle. She memorized the map the morning she woke up to find it and the anger makes it easy to remember, to be brave.

“Left,” she whispers to herself “Left, second right, left,”

Her heart is pounding out of her chest. “Left,” she whispers and hears something moving behind her. A voice.

“Girl, little girl.” it sing-songs “Come out, come out wherever you are,”

For a second she almost forgets to be mad, almost trips into the pit of fear and drowns in it. Sound, rasping, movement on stone. She ducks right.

Weapons, thank God weapons.

She grabs a gun and a sword and ducks down. She remembers her training. The self defense classes, the sweat and sore muscles and satisfaction and safety found in them. She remembers the shooting range, the gun a heavy weight in her hand. She remembers the muffled sounds of fire through the ear protection, the jerk of the recoil, the paper targets.

There are the sounds of footsteps from the door. The voice promising her that she’ll be fine. That she’ll be host to his children, his spiders, that they’ll eat her from the inside out. She holds her breath. Presses her back hard to the crate.

She isn’t prepared for this, isn’t trained for it. She isn’t ready. She remembers her teacher for Krav Maga telling her the most dangerous thing is hesitating. Any move, even a bad one is better than hesitating.

She swings around the crate and brings the sheathed sword down across the man’s face and runs. Takes a left and then the second right and then-

The man slams her into the cave wall and all the breath bursts out of her.

“Now you’re going to suffer,” the man says and she secures her grip on the gun, “What’s the matter? Scared?”

“Yes,” she says and raises the gun, jams it under the man’s chin so she won’t miss no matter what. But even as she does it she knows something’s wrong. Can feel it by the hair on the back of her neck rising. She’s talking and he’s talking and she can’t hear any of it- can’t-

“Don’t move or I’ll-” she says.

“You’ll die,” a new voice behind her answers.

In her mind she is praying. Dear God Dear God. She doesn’t want to die. I repent all of my sins oh God have mercy-

“Help,” She says out loud no understanding of how loud it is beyond the pounding of blood in her ears.

The monster behind her raises a clawed hand, the monster before her a sickle, and the moment is so long. So long and she can see it coming from a mile away.

Then so fast she can only take it in in pieces. Silver. A wet thunk. A scream. A dark blur slamming into the head of the giant behind her like a freight train. It grabs the beast’s mandibles and rides it to the ground. There is a crack of skull on stone.

The blur unfolds and she can see it’s a person, small, dressed in black like the rest of the ninjas. The other monster, the one that looks human, is clutching a knife in his shoulder when she looks.

The ninja takes position before her. Out of the corner of her eye she can see an open doorway. Help. The help that Tim promised her. He hadn’t left her here all alone.

The two monsters, the man and the beast, do not stay down for long.

The beast roars up and charges the ninja. They collide and grapple, and the ninja is driven back easily. It isn’t really a contest. The beast is inhumanly strong and has four more arms than her ninja. But just as he’s about to be crushed the ninja jumps back. He walks his feet backwards up the wall and flips over the beast’s head, forcing him to release his grip.

The ninja’s heel comes down on the man’s injured shoulder as he lands, forcing him back to the ground just as he began to rise. Then the ninja bends and rips his knife free.

Tam can only watch the fight, it is so fast, so brutal. The ninja is small, and quick, like a hornet he darts in and stings; his palm slapped down hard over the man’s ear, bounding off the wall to slam his knee into the monster’s face. Then he darts away, darts between them, tangling them up in each other before slipping out from between them like an eel. He takes his own hits silently, rolling with them, bouncing away from them, elastic, but never wounded, or at least never acting it. It’s almost playful, except that his face is utterly blank, his eyes still and empty, like the flat surface of a pond.

Exactly what the fuck has Tim gotten her into?

The ninja’s dagger is a gleaming silver thing. The wavy blade seems to slither and move in the dim light as he flips it easily between his hands. Silver then red then silver again as the blood slides free.

The ninja is incredible. He is a machine. His face is still the glass surface of a pond, it doesn’t ripple as he slams his blade home in the monster. It doesn’t ripple at the touch of spiders crawling up his arm. It doesn’t ripple as he swipes his arm through the flame of a wall mounted torch to kill them.

The monster slams him in the gut and he crumples like his strings have been cut. The other one raises his sickle and a tide of spiders rises along with it. The ninja’s expression remains placid. Still in the face of death.

Tam jolts forward and slams the butt of her gun down on the man’s face. The ninja looks up at her above him and his expression ripples. He seems surprised. Jesus.

“Come on,” Tam says yanking on his arm “Let’s go,”

The ninja flows to his feet with Tam’s momentum and follows it through into a vault. He uses her shoulders like a springboard slamming his heel into a cluster of the monster’s eyes. With the moments chance he’s earned them they begin to run, his hand fisted in the shoulder of her sweater to keep her with him.

-

Tim fucked up. Tim fucked up big time.

He had completed the first two steps of his plan with a one third success rate. One member of the Council of Spiders acquired alive and well. There were only two steps left; save Jason and take down the League of Assassins. Then Tim had fucked off to get yelled at by his zombie parents and not tell Dick anything about his undead brother even though he maybe probably should have. It was just that he didn’t want to be called crazy again. Cause he wasn’t.

Anyway.

Tim fucked up. Now Tam is alone in a League of Assassin base that’s under siege by Spider Assassins, with her only hope of rescue being a single ex-Robin of questionable capacity. Sure Jason had punched Tim in the face, but he got punched in the face a lot; it couldn’t be that hard.

Back to business. If he could just make his way to the main computer terminal he could review the security footage and find Tam and Jason and then his plan would be back on track. He just had to get to the computer terminal. Then he could find them and save them and destroy the League of Assassins. If he could just get to the computer terminal he could still be a good person. He could still save them. They would still be alive. If he could just do this one thing, if he didn’t fail.

“Please,” he says to no one at all.

Then he encounters his first bit of luck all year; Jason and Tam charging down the corridor towards him. The burst of relief and joy is so foreign as to be almost unrecognizable. For the first time in so long a weight had been lifted from his shoulders instead of added.

“Jason!” he shouts “Tam!”

-

Tam keeps running. Her lungs are burning and her muscles are splitting, but it feels so far away. Separated from her by a blanket of dark fear.

She doesn’t know where she’s going and Ninja Boy hasn’t shown any signs of life since she saved his life.

Her hand trembles. The blood on her grip around the gun feels tacky. She’s never hurt someone like that before. The wet crack of the man’s nose, the burst of blood, the flare of shock and satisfaction in her at the instinctual violence.

Just keep running. That’s all. She doesn’t have a next step. She doesn’t know anymore. Tim hadn’t left her any other cryptic notes.

Then they turn the corner and there's the man himself.

“Jason!” he cries “Tam!” and for the first time since Tam has known him he doesn’t look sad. Hope, real hope, thrums to life in her chest in response.

Her ninja bodyguard, Jason apparently, assesses Tim for a long still moment, his hand fisted in her shirt still, his eyes flat and blank like a shark. Then tension eases from him and he releases her to approach Tim. Something in Tim’s eyes lights up at that. Like every miserable fire that’s been banked in him, that’s been suffocating, has finally been given a breath of air.

Jason turns from them to face the hallway behind, assuming a ready position, dagger drawn. Tim’s eyes stick to him a moment longer, drinking him in. His shoulders square, his chest expands, like just the sight of Jason can prop him up, like that easy approval is all he needs to keep his spine straight.

Who the fuck is this Jason guy?

-

“We just have to get through this door into the core and-”

“We have to run,” Tam interrupts “there’s two behind us and I don’t know how many more,”

Tam is afraid. Tim adds it to the pile; of things he should feel guilty about, of things he doesn’t have the bandwidth to feel right now. It’s a short list; bloody determination and a small curl of warmth in his chest.

Should it really mean so much that his predecessor judged him safe for a civilian in a danger situation? Probably not, but damn does it anyway.

“I can hear them,” Tam says. His heart drums away in his chest.

“I’m sorry,” he says “I never meant to involve you,” almost. Almost almost almost. “I have to do this,” and he does. He needs to be good again. He needs to earn Jason’s regard. Robin, Jason had said and Tim wants it back so bad. He wants to be that again.

“What if there’s more inside?” Tam asks and Tim can feel the jinx in that hook into his chest.

The door hisses open and there stands Ra’s Al Ghul.

Fuck.

Fuck. Fuck. Double fuck.

“Come on,” Tam says but none of them move. “We have to go,”

“Ra’s, you’re under attack,” Tim says but his mind is buzzing. It makes no sense. “You have to get to safety.”

“The Demon’s head fears nothing.” Ra’s says and Jason’s hand is tangled in Tim’s cape trying to pull him back.

Then Ra’s Al Ghul is suddenly dead on the ground.

Then the shadows of the room are peeling back to reveal the faces of the Council of Spiders and Wanderer is purring “The game is over,”

Triple fuck.

Tam is talking, her voice high and thin with fear, but Tim can’t hear her over the thoughts in his head. This isn’t right. Ra’s isn’t the type to be killed by a threat he saw coming. The body on the floor is a fake; it’s not him. As soon as Tim registers the thought he hears the real Ra’s Al Ghul in his ear.

Ra’s is asking him to tell him what he learned in the desert so that the information isn’t lost with his life. Bruce and Tam and Jason. His burdens just keep multiplying, heavier and heavier. If he doesn’t live through this no one will know to save Bruce. No one will know to save Jason. They’ll never know that he’s been alive and breathing here. They’ll never know that Bruce is still alive and breathing somewhen else.

“Go to hell,” Tim says.

“Maybe I’ll see you there,” Ra’s simpers, then a click, then dead air.

One more second. One last moment before Wanderer realizes. A thousand thoughts jolt through his mind, a crackling cascade of chemical reactions. Deductions lining themselves up and knocking themselves down. His brain working always working, just like Bruce taught him.

“This is not Ra’s Al Ghul,” hisses Wanderer

“Move!” Tim shouts and leaps.

Think. Think think think think. That’s all Tim has. Think of what he’s been taught. Guilt and self-pity and all his burdens, he sheds them one by one. Faster. That’s all that matters now. Anything else is asking to die.

Jason is moving beside him and it is good. It is so good. So nostalgic. To move with someone else trained by Bruce. Tim slams one of the spiders in the face and Jason is there crouched and ready to flip them over his shoulders into the next enemy. The jolt of it lights him up. That little hit of Robin magic he’s been missing.

Widower’s blade swings for his neck and he dodges. Too slow. Jason leaps forward and springs off his back. Tim goes down, Jason goes up, the blade passes through air between them. Jason slams knee first into Wolf. There.

“Tam!” Tim screams “Door!” and God bless her, Tam starts to run, Jason right there to snatch Sac by the hair as he runs after her.

Can Tim really shout the instructions to her? Do they have the time? Tim and Jason were trained by Batman but these are seven highly trained assassins. Pain reactions only last milliseconds for them. The fight just isn’t sustainable. Every time they buy a moment with one there’s another one in the way. They’re hopelessly outgunned.

Then Pru is there and the White Ghost isn’t far behind. Thank God. Their odds just bettered themselves tenfold.

“Get to the computer.” he shouts to Tam, but is quickly intercepted by the Widower.

Widower is talking a bunch of shit about the desert and Tim’s luck. Why does every villain who fails to kill him properly have to make it into some kind of personal vendetta. Though, as Tim shoots him in the face with his grappling hook, he has to admit that the vendetta may not be entirely one sided.

“Pru, Ghost, you have to get out of Cradle now!” Tim orders. They don’t of course, instead preceding him into the control room. He turns to follow “Jason, cover me,” in the millisecond it takes him to turn he sees Jason’s lips pursed and eyes narrowed. It’s a Robin expression, the most he’s seen from Jason so far, I’m listening, it says, but not obeying.

Jason catches Wanderer’s kick to the chest, and nearly slits her achilles tendon before she slips back.

Jason can’t hold the line forever. Tim gets to work.

“You’re out of time,” Tim says to Pru and Ghost “Get out while you still can. There’s no future for the League of Assassins,”

Ghost doesn’t listen of course, starts ranting. Tim keeps typing. Prudence, turns and walks away, listening for once.

“Goodbye,” She says and it thuds in his chest.

There’s a crash and Jason is driven back into the room bleeding.

The computer asks him if he’s sure.

“What are you doing, Redbird?” asks Wanderer.

“Winning,” Tim says and presses Y.

A thousand computers around the world short out at once. Thirty second until detonation.

“What have you done?” seethes Ghost. Just another person to add to the end of a very long list of people who want him dead.

“Expediter was right. Letting me in here was a mistake. I know who I am Ghost, and I’ll be coming for you,” Tim says “All of you. Consider this your head start. In fifteen seconds the Cradle is going away. I suggest you listen this time and run.”

Another successful speech by Red Robin.

“Jason,” Tim says and Jason darts forward from across the room, snatching Tam and crushing her between them. Tim fires his grapple, and they shoot upward through a vent towards safety.

The building shakes and fire follows them up the tunnel, but they’re finally free. They land and roll across the grass, their huddle unraveling as they go. The sky is bright and blue overhead and all the bad guys have been defeated, everyone saved. Tim feels like laughing.

“I can’t believe it,” Tam says breathless “I’m alive,” she shouts “I’m alive!”

Tam is alive. Tim’s alive, and so is Bruce. Jason-

Jason is huddled on the ground shaking with his hands over his ears.

“I need a word, Timothy,” Ra’s says in his ear. It just never stops.

“Hey, Ra’s. Anything exciting happening where you are?” Tim asks, trying to muster that Robin charm, but it’s thin. Jason’s forehead is pressed to the ground, back bent, revealing the slick red burns scars that creep up the back of his neck, from the last time he was in an explosion.

“You are a very dangerous young man,” and from the mouth of the serpent it feels like a condemnation.

“I’ll take that as a compliment, coming from you Ra’s. I told your White Ghost and I’ll tell you,” he swallows unsure if the high whine is his ears is from Jason or the explosion “I’m coming for you next, you murderer.”

“Oh I have no doubt,”

“Really? Just calling to tell me how dangerous I am? That crippling your entire League is no big deal?”

Ra’s keeps on telling him that the damage is nothing to him, but Tim is listening to Tam.

“Jason?” she says her hand on Jason’s back “Jason, can you hear me?”

“I’m calling to tell you I believe in an eye for an eye,” Ra’s says and Tim feels the tension restring itself across his spine “As you hurt my business, I shall destroy yours. I will see you soon Timothy,”

Click. Dead air.

It really never ends. Tim goes to his knees beside Tam and Jason laying his hand beside hers on his back.

“Let's go home,”

Chapter Text

Steph really didn’t think the dynamics could get more awkward than her ex confronting her in his dead dad’s man cave about her broken promise to quit vigilantism. She should have known better. It can always get worse in Gotham.

Worse goes like this;

“Cassandra?” Tim asks from behind her. Oof. Not everyone was over that huh? Though she supposes Tim hasn’t been back in town since she took over the mantle which means- “Stephanie!?”

“Tim,” She replies. Smooth.

“You swore to me you’d stay out of costume,”

“You demanded I stop being Spoiler,” And here they go again. Another go round on the carousel of blame. Tim Drake straining under the weight of his messiah complex and Stephanie Brown incapable of not fucking up.

“You’re still playing dress up then?” Tim sneers and the hypocrisy is choking.

“Let’s not throw stones, Boy Wonder, I’m not the one dressed up as Dr. Mid-nite,”

“I don’t-”

Crack!

Steph whips her head around to find another person in the cave. A figure standing before the Robin memorial.

They’re on the short side, dressed in black cloth and leathers, hood pulled back to show the back of a head of dark hair. League of Assassins uniform. Before them Steph can see the memorial case is cracked, and as she watches the figure reels back to deliver another vicious punch to the glass. The cracks spread, the sound of the impact ringing in the now silent cave.

“What the hell, Tim?” Steph yells running for the case “Who the fuck is that? Are they League?”

Crack. Blood splatters on the glass from the figures split knuckles but it doesn’t slow them down any. Crack. Crack. Crack.

“I can explain,” Tim says, sounding for the first time like the earnest young boy Steph had known.

Steph clears the final distance and freezes in place. It’s a boy not much older than her, but that isn’t the shocking part. The figure's face is utterly without expression. Mouth flat, brow untense, eyes a thousand miles away as he destroys his hand against three inches of glass. Crack. The figure delivers another punch as she pauses. Blood trails his fist as he pulls it back for another blow.

“Stop!” Steph screams and jumps forward. She latches onto the figures arm, and there is something so wrong here. So wrong about the incongruity between action and expression, about someone, face calm, unflinchingly hurt themselves again and again. It’s chilling.

As soon as Steph gets a hand around his arm his expression cracks open. All the feral rage that had been missing as he destroyed the case is suddenly present. He writhes and jerks in her grasp, desperate, nostrils flared, teeth bared. He screams and it is awful, an animal snapping, caught in a trap.

“Stop!” Steph cries struggling to pull him back “Stop,” She feels sick, chest squeezed down, heart pounding. Blood smears across her cheek from his hand as she grapples him into a full nelson. He puts all his weight into her grasp and kicks wildly at the case. She stumbles under the sudden weight, but his heel successfully drives through the glass and the case shatters into a thousand crystal pieces.

The mannequin in the Robin suit tips ignominiously from the pedestal into the glass on the floor.

The stranger seems to calm looking at the destroyed memorial. The fury bleeding from him as he goes slack in her grip, leaving his heaving breaths the only sound in the cave. She tentatively releases him, and all he does is take his weight back on his own feet, still staring, arms limp at his sides. Blood drips onto the floor from his mangled hand. When she steps back from him she can see his face is wet.

“You better tell me what the fuck is going on right the fuck now, Tim.”

-

Dick loves all his brothers. Really he does. Even when they run away from Gotham after their father’s funeral leaving him to look after a city that can generously be described as hell on earth and the world’s tiniest assassin (who is also a brother who he loves) alone. Even when they do all that and also don't answer literally anyone’s calls for months on end. He loves Tim, he really does, he’s happy he’s back in Gotham.

He just wishes that Tim hadn’t chosen to announce his return to Gotham by breaking into the Batcave. Which of course sends him an alert in Wayne tower since his biometrics haven’t been added to the system since Oracles take-over of the Batcave due to Tim being MIA. Said alert, of course, wakes him and Damian in the middle of an eight hour nap that he had spent all week scraping together the time for.

It’s fine. He’s Batman. Batman doesn’t need to sleep.

He and Damian arrive twenty minutes after the alert went out. They’re dressed in civilian clothes thanks to Steph giving them the all clear from her position in the cave. The suits are packed up in the trunk of their car of course, because you can never be too careful.

“What is the meaning of this Drake?” Damian questions as soon as he clears the car door.

Off to an auspicious start.

Tim blows right past the comment, turning to look at Dick.

“Okay,” Tim said “So I have good news and I have bad news,”

Shit. That never meant anything good.

“Start with the bad news,” Dick says

“Right. So I kind of got mixed up with Ra’s Al Ghul and he’s sworn revenge on me and Wayne Enterprises and basically Bruce’s whole legacy,”

Shit shit shit. Dick closes his eyes and breaths deep. In. Hold. Out. He strains to keep his shoulders straight under the added burden. He’s Batman. He’s Batman now, he has to.

“And the good news?” Dick asks, trying with moderate success to hide the strain in his voice. Tim winces anyway.

“Right,” Tim says again, “Steph?”

“Yeah yeah,” she calls from the deeper in the cave, from the medbay. Dick feels a pit open up in his stomach. This good news doesn’t seem very good. “Let’s just throw ‘em in the deep end huh? Now certainly wouldn’t be the time to nurture some kind of ability to communicate,” She gripes marching from the medbay towards them. She’s trailed by another person, no one that Dick immediately recognizes. He’s struck by a sudden frisson of fear that he and Damian are here in the cave, maskless.

Then the person looks up and the bottom drops out of the world.

“Tim,” Dick forces out. He needs to sit down. He needs to lie down and then wake up in his own bed. He can’t do this. He needs to wake up. He needs to wake up.

There was a reason that Dick shut Tim down when he said that Bruce was still alive. First, logically, because Tim had gone through an unimaginable amount of loss in such a short time. He was crumbling under the weight of it, anyone could see it. He had no evidence to support his point, only blind hope. Second because Dick wanted it too badly.

Hope was a deadly thing. Dick had responsibilities. To Gotham, to Damian, to Bruce’s legacy. Dick had dealt in hope since he was nine years old and first donned a cape to go out into Gotham’s black night. He had breathed it and bled it and nurtured it. But he had never been stupid. If Dick allowed himself to believe Tim, believe that Bruce could come back, even a little bit, even for a moment, he could never come back from that. He could never return to logic. He could never return to Damian or Gotham or Batman. If he allowed that hope to take root in him at all he would never be able to kill it.

He has Damian now. Has Gotham and his mantle and a thousand thousand people depending on him. He has Tim back in Gotham now.

He can’t have Jason. He needs to wake up.

.Damian says, and pounces "جثة"

The-boy-who-isn’t-Jason tips his head at the sound of Damian’s voice then snatches him from the air and spins and throws him deeper into the cave. Damian lands on all fours with a vicious expression Dick has learned to recognize as pleased. Not-Jason stands across from him with coiled readiness. His eyes are narrowed just the slightest bit in what might be playfulness. Dick is reminded incongruously of a documentary he once watched of tiger cubs play fighting.

“Drake, how have you acquired جثة?” Damian says, his imperiousness dented by his unusually childish joy as he circles the other boy. The other boy for his part stands still and quiet with an air that Dick struggles not to categorize as indulgence. “I would not think Grandfather would relinquish him easily,”

Grandfather. Ra’s Al Ghul. Rage bubbles up in him instantly, in his blood and lungs and throat. He can feel it frothing over. How dare he? How dare he take Jason and play with his life like this? Take his body and make this thing? Play God like that?

No. No, he needs to calm down. He needs to think. He strains and slowly, one at a time untenses his muscles. Breathe. When he can see again he looks to Tim to see him watching Dick warily from the corner of his eye.

“Tim,” Dick repeats, “Is that who I think it is,” and he can’t make it a question. He needs to establish the facts, one at a time.

“Yes,” Tim says “I found him at a League base and I-”

“No,” Dick says “Is that really him, or do you just think it is? Have you run tests? Fingerprints? DNA?” and the instant hurt on Tim’s face pangs in his chest. They used to trust each other, he used to take Tim by his word- But he cant. Not like this. Not about this. He just can’t. He can’t allow the hope until he knows.

“Yes,” Steph cuts in before Tim can, cutting what was sure to be a horrific fight off at the pass, “We’ve been running tests while we waited for you to get here. Retinal scans and fingerprints match. DNA is still running and we haven’t been able to get him to speak for a voice match, but preliminary tests say yes. Also,” and here she pauses and looks sidelong across the cave, “Also that,”

Dick follows her gaze and finds Jason’s memorial case shattered beyond repair.

“He went berserk as soon as he saw it, Dick,” Tim whispers “His scars match too. The ones from before and also from-from his death,”

Dick feels so sick. For the first time in his whole life he feels like his balance might fail him. He can’t do this. He can’t. He just- But Tim is looking at him. He’s looking at Dick and asking him to believe him. His face is so earnest, so desperate, his little brother.

“Okay,” Dick says “okay,” and Tim smiles at him, really smiles, for the first time in a long long time. Okay.

Dick looks to Damian again. He’s straightened, keenly observing their conversation and serious tone, all his brief childishness folded away again. Another failure.

“Damian, you know him?” Dick questions.

“Yes, جثة, he was often present at whatever League base I was staying in. He is a competent fighter and satisfactory sparring partner,” Damian answers, arms folded in parade rest.

“What is that you call him? Jutha?” Dick asks.

“Yes,” Damian says “جثة. It means corpse.”

Dick swallows. He can see Tim glaring and Stephanie wincing.

“That’s Jason, Damian,” Dick says, and they’ve never talked about Jason to him. They never really talk about Jason except - except to warn other people off the vigilante life, except to blame him. Still, Damian isn’t stupid, his head whips immediatly to the memorial case which had Jason’s name carved directly into it.

“Oh,” Damian says distantly, shocked. He turns back to his companion and seems to take him in again in a new light. “This explains the level of consideration he received from Grandfather and Mother. I always found it strange given,” Damian pauses “His condition,” he finishes tactfully.

His condition. And what exactly was that condition? Jason hasn’t spoken yet or reacted to anything besides Damian’s direct attack. Looking closer his eyes don’t really seem to be tracking anything.

“What is his condition?” Dick says looking closer. Jason looks different, or at least Dick thinks he does. It’s almost a miracle that Dick recognized him, it’s been so long, and he never really knew him to begin with. He still has the freckles, the curls, he’s lost some of the lankiness he once had. He looks more grown up than Dick remembers, short, but they had always known that he would never grow up big, not with the early malnutrition. His right hand is wrapped in bandages. He's dressed in some of Dick’s spare clothes, a t-shirt and sweatpants, taken from his locker in the cave. The T-shirt hangs off him and the sweatpants cover his feet so only his toes peek out.

“He’s physically capable,” Tim says “And he reacts to some stimuli, but he doesn’t,” Tim bites his lip “He doesn’t act on his own, only reacts, and he’s only spoken to me once,”

“What did he say?” Dick asks.

“Robin,” Tim answers “He said Robin,”

Jesus. Jesus. Dick doesn’t know how to do this. He doesn’t know how to take this. He’s so scared. He should talk to Jason. He should try and talk to him, he’s the only one here that knew Jason before, maybe it will be different for him. But he can’t kill the fear in his chest that Jason won’t know him. That he’ll approach Jason and he won’t get anything. That he didn’t do enough when Jason was alive, that Jason won’t remember him at all. Dick has hurt Tim and he’s struggled with Damian, but he never even knew Jason.

He’s Nightwing. He’s Robin. He’s a Flying Grayson. He takes the leap.

He approaches Jason and Tim, Steph, and Damian all step to the sides to let him through, watching keenly. Jason’s focus, without Damian to engage him, has slipped off him, like so much water.

“Jason,” Dick says standing before him. Nothing happens. Jason’s eyes don’t slide to him, he keeps looking over Dick’s shoulder and after a moment moves to pick at his bandages. “Little Wing,” Dick says, quiet, and Jason twitches.

Then the alarm blares. “Alert. Hack in progress. Location: Thompkins Clinic.” the cave system warns.

“Computer, recognize Batman003,” Dick says and he’s lost Jason. Dick holds back a sigh. It never ends.

-

Steph can’t say she’s never entertained herself with the thought of what the Bat Cult would do if confronted with caring for a normal child. Undead, fully grown Jason Todd hardly qualifies as a normal child, but this shit fest is really knocking all her prior fantasies out of the park.

“We need to go check on Leslie’s clinic,” Tim says.

“Well we can’t just leave Jason alone in the cave when he’s like this,” Dick snaps back “He could wander off a cliff in here. There aren’t exactly guard rails.”

“Well if you’re so concerned why don’t you just stay here then,” Tim replies, unbearably snide, like little brothers everywhere. Dick looks like he’s swallowed a lemon at the suggestion. Ah bat people and their insatiable need to be doing everything themselves all the time.

“This conversation is pointless,” Damian interjects “جثة is perfectly capable of looking after himself,”

“We don’t know that,” Dick says. “We don’t know anything,”

“He was left unsupervised in the League constantly and never came to any harm,” Damian replies smartly.

“Oh yeah let’s rely on the League for what the proper measures to keep him safe are,” Tim sneers.

“I feel more confident leaving جثة here alone than I would you, Pretender.” Damian sneers back “He’s smarter at least,”

Incredible. Steph never thought she would see the day when Damian actually seemed fond of anybody. Of course that person had to be catatonic zombie whose knee jerk reactions all seem to be related to violence, but baby steps.

“Enough,” Dick says, annoyed. “Someone needs to go and someone needs to stay here,” Dick says and looks at Steph finally.

“Don’t look at me,” Steph says “I’m out of your jurisdiction Batboss. I’ve been promoted,” She says gesturing to her Batgirl costume.

“We could always put him in a holding cell,” Tim ventures.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,”

So much better than anything she could have imagined.

-

Barbara is out having a perfectly pleasant evening with the charmingly secretive Nick Gage when all communication in Gotham shuts down. Can’t leave Gotham alone for a second.

Thankfully she and Nick excuse themselves at the same time, saving her the awkwardness. The journey to the Batcave is quick and painless. The surprise doesn’t come until she’s already inside.

“Excellent,” Damian says as soon as she’s an inch inside the cave “Now that you’ve arrived I can stop this farce and rendezvous with Batman,”

Damian’s already sitting astride a motorcycle, has been since before she came in by the looks of it. At her arrival he starts the engine and opens the garage doors.

“What farce?” Barbara says moving towards the computer.

“Babysitting,” Damian spits and disappears down the tunnels towards Gotham proper.

Ominous.

Barbara scans the cave again, newly vigilante and there-

Oh. Ohohoho. Dick is a dead man as soon as communications are back up.

The computer dings behind her. Jason Todd, the screen reads, DNA 100% match. So fucking dead.

Barbara never had Dick’s acrobatics or Bruce’s fighting prowess, but she was better at thinking, especially objectively, than any of them. She could plan for efficiency first unfettered by morals or emotions, then she could par down and edit plans based on those things. She knew something that none of the other bats had ever known, you don’t have to be guilty just for thinking something.

All this to say that she didn’t go into shock when she saw this maybe-Jason, she started thinking. The DNA test, the appearance, the fact that he had been left unrestrained in the cave. Conclusion; he was real. How had he come back? He looked older, he was acting oddly, he was dressed in a League of Assassins uniform. Inconclusive, but interesting. Her head buzzed with a thousand tests to perform, a thousand leads to investigate. His coffin, his scars, medical records- She shut down the thoughts. Time to let the emotions in.

Shock, anger, grief, guilt, regret, joy. Joy, joy, joy. It’s been a long, long time since she’s felt it this strongly. Joy. It lit up her chest. Once a Robin always a Robin. Joy.

“Jay,” Babs says and it is the upwards swing of a grapple, rising and rising, out of gravity's reach. His name is so sweet in her mouth where she thought she would never say it again. The news of his death when she was already drowning had been like an anchor dragging her deeper. The world is horrible, that tragedy said to her, it is just as bad as you think. Bad things happen to good people and it never stops. Nothing can be done about it, nothing can be fixed. Not you and not Jason.

Jason turns toward her and she can still read his face. The expression is smaller now, slighter than it had been, but she can see it, that thinking look she had seen so many times on him while tutoring him, while watching him be Robin. She knew that face, and she believes again, more. This is Jason.

Jason doesn’t speak but she can read his mouth shaping the word. Barbie. Her heart seizes in her chest. She never let anyone call her that until Jason and especially hasn’t since. It’s Jason. It’s really, really Jason.

“Yes,” Barbara says “yes, it’s me.” She looks so different she knows. So different than he remembers. The last time she ever saw him she was deep in the throws of her depression and anger at her injury. As angry as she’s been recently it’s easy to see the difference looking back. She’s a new person now.

Jason takes one step forward and then another, once he’s close enough he reaches out and tugs gently on a lock of her hair. He used to do it all the time, any time he wanted her attention, and she had found it endlessly annoying. She used to read it as schoolyard crush hair pulling, and hated it, but as time went on it read more and more as the actions of an irritating and endearing younger brother. By the time Jason died it had been a lovable and reciprocal inside joke.

Barbara laughs wetly at the gesture and reaches up to return it. His hair is still the same mess of curls as it was and she can’t resist ruffling it, like she used to, to annoy him. His eyes narrow just slightly just like she hoped they would.

He hasn’t grown that much taller, just like they all suspected he wouldn’t. Not that Jason hadn’t still held out hope, the job of any good Robin, he had explained to her. He looked older. He hadn’t remained unchanged all these years they had been mourning. He hadn’t been paused like he was in their memories. She has missed him. She lets her hand fall from his hair. She has missed him so much.

Stephanie’s Ricochet comes roaring into the Batcave on autopilot, with a note taped to the side. A better Batgirl every day, that one.

“And of course we’re being attacked by the League of Assassins too,” she says reading the note. “Well then let’s get to work, Jay,” It just never ended, she thinks, smiling.

-

Steph is feeling pretty good about her night all things considered, arguments with her ex aside. They successfully stopped Leslie from getting killed, she was reminded she’s personal friends with Supergirl when the alien herself smashed a satellite out of the sky on her behalf to reestablish communication in Gotham. Also she totally kicked the ass of a League assassin single handedly while Tim watched on in useless stunned silence. Even if it did turn out that said League assassin was Tim’s personal goon, Pru, from his time spent soul searching with the League.

Score 1 Batgirl, score 0 Boy Idiot.

As frosting on the cake they had acquired a full list of targets for the League and Tim had actually deigned to not only apologize but also ask for her help. Will the miracles never cease?

Now all she had to do was speed back to the manor and make sure that Tam and Vicki Vale didn’t get unceremoniously offed by a bunch of ninja assholes and then maybe gloat a little to Barbara. Honestly sometimes she felt like a kid getting good job stickers from a teacher trying to get praise from Barbara. If good job stickers happened to be the most valuable currency known to man. Positive validation was hard to come by in this Batcult, sue her.

She’s sprinting across the manor lawn when someone takes a weed whacker to her morale. There’s already ninjas there and one of them is about to take Tam’s head off with a sword. Shit. Shit shit shit shit. She pulls out a batarang but she can already see that she’s too slow. The dread is already rising in her stomach as she pulls back her arm to throw. She has to try even if-

No need to try actually. Vicki Vale bludgeons the ninja across the face with a shovel and a suitably pithy one liner. Fuck. Yes. The gut punch of relief, shock, and badassery momentarily winds her. No one died. She didn’t get anyone killed.

She tunes back in just in time to hear Tam tell Vicki that she and Tim are engaged. Her brain briefly bluescreens.

What.

A ninja immediately intercedes and gets an arm around Vicki’s neck with a knife poised to slit it. Steph throws her batarang on reflex (thank you Babs). The ninja fall unconscious, the day is saved.

She catches the batarang as it rebounds and scrapes up just enough cool to ask “Is everyone alright? And, um, did I hear you correctly a moment ago?” she pauses then tacks on “miss,” Instead of the reaction she wants to have, which is grabbing Tam by the shoulders and shaking her and asking a lot of questions. Mostly WHAT!!?? and WHY?????

Score 2 Batgirl, score 0 fucking up her secret identity and looking like an idiot.

“Yes,” Tam says immediately and forcefully, her eyes a little manic. Her amazing detective skills (thank you Barbara and thanks for nothing Batman may you rest in peace) and the presence of a reporter known for hounding people, plus the sparse details of his adventures Tim has provided her clue her in that this is maybe just a lie that Tam is desperately doubling down on in a moment of panic.

Strong empathy for the deep and terrible hole that Tam is digging for herself suddenly wells up in her chest. She gives Tam a solem and probably incomprehensible nod. Tam nods back, confused.

Vicki Vale clears her throat. Shit.

“I’m going to check the area for more assailants,” Steph says, maybe a little loudly and immediately marches off to do just that. Smooth. Super smooth. Score 3 Batgirl, score zero getting eaten alive by a shovel wielding reporter.

The perimeter check doesn’t reveal any more ninjas and just as the silence and Vicki Vale’s extremely pointed looks are becoming excruciating Tim radios in. Steph snatches the radio with the immediate relief of something to do besides avoid Vicki’s glare and resist the urge to whistle innocently.

“Report,” he says. At the sound of his voice under the glare of Vicki Vale, Steph is struck with the realization that Tim is also going to have to deal with the clusterfuck that Tam accidentally created. She is filled instantly with a powerful sense of schadenfreude.

“Vicki Vale and Tam are safe and secure,” Steph chimes in amongst a slew of other vigilantes reporting their success in protecting the other members of the League’s hit list. Last to chime in is Wonder Girl who was tasked with protecting Barbara and their resident zombie down in the cave.

“Barbara Gordon is fine,” Wonder Girl reports “She kind of didn’t need me. Um the other one as well,”

“Yes,” Barbara interjects “We are. And you have a lot of explaining to do, Red,” the foreboding in her tone is chilling. Steph’s schadenfreude instantly doubles. Everything’s coming up aces for Batgirl tonight

-

Dick tries to look on the bright side in life. It’s like his whole brand. The League of Assassins try to kill everyone Bruce cared about in Gotham and destroy Wayne Enterprise? Brightside; nobody died and he and Tim actually had a conversation. Tim Drake, their resident high school dropout and 17 year old had to become CEO of Wayne Enterprises in order to keep it from the hands of Ra’s Al Ghul, in what must have been one of the stupidest contingency plans ever concocted by Bruce? Brightside; hilarious. Tim goes mano a mano with Ra’s Al Ghul and flings himself to his apparent death out the window of a skyscraper? Well at least Dick is there to fucking catch him.

Dick has just arrived back in the cave, an unconscious Tim slung over his shoulder, to snag some medical care and debrief. After sloughing Tim off onto a cot to be treated by Alfred when he arrives he turns to find Barbara Gordon. His ability to find the brightside in any situation sees an immediate dip.

Babs has been Dick’s dear friend for many many years, over a decade. They’ve been through thick and thin together. He is intimately familiar with the look on Barbara’s face right now. It’s the face she wears when she’s thinking about how to most efficiently kill him where he stands. Yikes. Jason is sitting on a rolling chair behind her tipped forward and rolling his forehead against the back of her wheelchair. Oh fuck. Double yikes.

Barbara watches him catch on in real time, vicious satisfaction curling her mouth as he realizes the depths of his situation. “Richard,” she says cooly. Richard. Triple yikes.

“It’s Tim’s fault,” he immediately says “All of it,”

There’s a sharp bark of laughter as Barbara’s serious face immediately crumples. Dick’s still got it. “So much for the big brother act,”

“You’re just an only child. You wouldn’t understand,” Dick replies, but watching the thoughtless way Barbara reaches back and tugs on a lock of Jason’s hair when he tilts too far and knocks their heads together, he realizes that probably isn’t true. She was always in Gotham with Jason when he wasn’t, Robin and Batgirl, together again.

“Dick,” She says “what happened?”

“Tim found him in a League of Assassins base while he was off looking for Bruce. We still don’t know how, but it’s him, all tests so far confirm it,”

“We need to check his grave,” Barbara says, the skin around her eyes is tight “I think he might have broken out of it. The state of his hands is,” She looks off to the side and her jaw flexes.

Dick circles Barbara’s chair, jolted awake by the unwelcome horror at the suggestion. He picks up one of Jason’s hands to examine and Jason rears up like a started horse. He jerks his hand back while the other swings around in a vicious haymaker that he only softens at the last moment to thump Dick’s chest instead of winding him. In the span of a second Jason has reacted with instinctive violence and then reassessed Dick as a threat and calmed. The longer Dick spends around him the more tangled the question of Jason’s competence becomes.

All questions wash away in the face of Jason’s hand, now hanging unresisting in his grip. It’s been brutalized. The skin is thick with scarring across the knuckles and the pads of the fingers, around the nail beds. His ring finger doesn’t curl right, as Dick straightens and releases his fingers it curls back further than the others; like a ligament is damaged.

It paints a horrific picture. Like Barbara said, the kind you might get from breaking out of a coffin. Beating and clawing at the lid of it until it gave way.

Jesus. He can feel horror and rage welling up in him leaving a sour taste in his mouth.

“I’ll call Superman to come look,” Dick says “It’d be too much trouble to try and get it exhumed,”

Jason tugs on his hand in Dick’s grip. There’s something on his face when Dick looks something wide eyed, his breathing coming just a tick faster. Does he understand what they’re saying? Are they right? Is he remembering?

Dick closes his eyes against the weight of it all. It just never ends.

“Let’s go check on Tim,”

Chapter Text

Alfred has been serving the Waynes for many years. He has been there since the very first night of Batman. He has seen many things in that time that defy imagination. It is so very rare that the abnormalities they encounter can be called miracles.

“Alfred,” Dick says to him “I need to warn you before you go in,” and Alfred braces himself. It has been such a hard year and it is yet far from over. Dick takes a deep breath, eyes closed to prepare himself and it is harrowing to watch, the dread in Alfred rises at the sight. “Jason is alive. He is alive and he is in the cave. He’s not mentally all there, but-”

“Step aside,” Alfred says.

“Alfred-”

“Step aside this moment, Master Dick,” Alfred says and marches forward. Dick breaks like the tide before him, stepping aside.

There was a moment when Alfred was serving in the Queen’s army where he had been pinned down, pinned down for hours, when reinforcements arrived, when the gunfire died. That moment, when he had been staring death in the face and suddenly the possibility of living opened up before him, had been unbelievable. He didn’t know how to think it, to understand it. He didn’t know how to see hope again. That is this moment. That is the sight of Jason before him now.

“Master Jason,” Alfred says. It is the silence after gunfire when he finds himself still breathing. It is the light of dawn after a storm. It is his grandson before him now miraculously alive.

Jason hones in on him like a hunting dog. Jason turns to take him in and he is stunning. He is a man, the features of his face grown from when Alfred last saw him, like he told himself they never would be. He has grown. He has grown, God above, he’s grown. Alfred never thought he would see him grown. The line’s of his jaw squared and the last of his baby fat gone.

“My dear boy,” Alfred says and his voice is hoarse, his eyes hot. “My dear boy,” he says again and embraces Jason.

Jason’s arms come up to wrap around him and they are strong and real. Jason’s arms wrap around Alfred’s ribs and Alfred’s around Jason’s shoulders and Jason tucks his head into Alfred’s shoulder, like he did when he was smaller. “How I’ve missed you, Master Jason,” He whispers into Jason’s hair “I do not have the words to tell you how I’ve missed you,” He feels Jason’s chest hitch against his then strangled, half complete, muffled by his shoulder,

“Alfie,”

The tears spill over. What a miracle. What a miracle this is. His hand brushes the slick skin of a healed burn scar at the back of Jason’s neck. What a miracle.

After a minute passes Jason’s arms slacken around him and Alfred pulls back. He keeps a hand on Jason’s cheek, just to keep looking. He takes a handkerchief in his other hand and wipes his eyes. Jason still has freckles, still has the mess of curls that Alfred had spent hours gently unknotting when Jason had first arrived at the manor with hair matted and dirty. Jason’s eyes have drifted away, focus lost. As they stand together, Alfred just taking in Jason’s features, Jason will occasionally come back to some clarity. He’ll look back to Alfred or lean into his hand for a moment, but he can’t seem to maintain the attention. The brain damage from- Alfred does not even want to consider it.

Dick is standing off to the side gaze averted, but waiting with baited breath for him to finish his assessment. Jason is picking at bandages on his hand.

“None of that now, Master Jason,” Alfred says gently taking Jason’s hand “Why don’t we go and get something to eat then, Master Jason? You’re skin and bones,” He’s not but Alfred needs to do it. He needs to care for him now, it’s essential that he does.

“We’ll be upstairs, Master Dick,” Alfred says “Retrieve us if there is anything else you require from me,”

They’ve moved out of the manor since Bruce died, but there are still some nonperishables that remain in the cupboard, and Alfred is nothing is if not resourceful.

-

Literally thank God for Alfred. Besides the obvious like life saving medical care, Dick hadn’t even considered the fact that Jason hadn’t eaten. Dick had never been responsible for someone who couldn’t just...tell him when they were hungry. So yeah, Jason hadn’t eaten since he got here and Dick would eat the cowl if Tim had thought about Jason eating either so who knows how long before that.

It’s such a relief to have another adult here, an adult who’s more adult than Dick. Barbara is an adult too of course, but she, like all other bat people, runs on a different wavelength than normal. She probably would have thought of the food issue sooner than Dick since she doesn’t have an Alfred around to remind her to eat normally, but it would have been a while regardless. Now Dick is free to think about other non-life-sustaining things. Like the mission report and the mystery of Jason’s resurrection, and harassing Tim to death about his frontpage fake engagement to Tam.

“So, like, am I required to be here right now? Because I gotta be honest Wonder Girl seems like much better company if you know what I mean. Like I think the Batgirl thing is gonna do a lot for me right now if I go upstairs and try and shoot my shot,”

“Disgusting, Brown, trust you to reduce Batgirl to such drivel,”

“No no she’s right. Batgirl does a lot for your game. Wouldn’t you agree Dick?” Barbara smirks, meeting his eyes as he rounds the corner to the medbay where they’re all waiting around Tim’s bed.

Dick clocks Damian’s disgusted face and says “So much. Totally irresistible I would say,”

“Disgusting,” Damian says with feeling “Relinquish the Batman mantle to me at once if this is how you will be behaving,”

“This is normal Batman behavior,” Dick says “Quintessential even. Your dad-”

“Gah!” Tim shoots bolt upright in the bed.

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Steph says.

“And welcome home,” Dick says laying a hand on Tim’s shoulder.

“Ra’s,” Tim says, all work this guy.

“Gone. We swept the place, but he must have booked it after your little test flight. Wanna explain that one to me? Like how you knew I’d be there to catch you?”

“You’re my brother Dick. You’ll always be there for me,” Heartwarming. Dick hauls Tim in for a hug.

“Absolutely not,” Dick hisses in Tim’s ear “You won’t be getting out of this that easily, you manipulative little weasel. We’re going to be having a talk,”

Dick pulls away and ruffles Tim’s hair with a smile. Tim smiles back. Ahh family.

“Bruce is alive and I have proof,” Tim says “I know this is hard to hear, but I please believe in me,”

Dick stops breathing, the hope leaps forward like a chained dog. It jolts through his chest. He can’t, he can’t.

“We have a lot to talk about,” Dick says, blank.

“Yes, don’t think your little stunt with Wayne Enterprises has passed me by,” Damian says “I’ve already filed seventeen motions with the board for a “no confidence” vote,” Ah that was Dick’s Robin. Always coming to his rescue. He suppresses a smile.

“That’s nice, Damian,” Tim says “Steph is something up? You’ve been smiling at me this whole time,”

“Oh well, I’m just so happy for you,” Steph says “I mean this is an important moment in any young man’s life and I’m just so glad to be here with you,”

“Yes, quite,” Damian says, doing a much worse job than Steph at hiding his glee.

“What-” Tim starts.

“Tim, I know you’ve been away for a long time, but I thought I was still your older brother,” Dick says in his best “I’m not mad I’m just disappointed” voice “I thought you would tell me something like this at least,”

“Dick, I don’t-”

“Tim, this isn’t the time to be making excuses,” Barbara says solemnly. She always has his back. “We all know,”

With that she tosses the newspaper into Tim’s lap with a level of aplomb fit for the stage. Boom. Batgirl and Robin. They’ve still got it.

The look of horror on Tim’s face as he reads the headline about his supposed engagement is not something Dick will soon forget.

-

Steph is walking up the stairs to the manor.

“Ahhh!”

“He’s got a fucking knife!”

Steph is running up the stairs to the manor.

She bursts into the kitchen to find Jason locked in combat with the original members of Young Justice minus Tim. Jason is brandishing a kris in ready stance, his little toes peeking out from Dick’s sweatpants in a way that is incongruously adorable. Kon, Bart and Cassie are hovering in a loose triangle in front of him, Kon foremost in the triangle is holding his hands up as if trying to calm a startled horse. As Steph watches Jason flips the knife easily in his hand to be blade down and lunges. Superboy flinches back as the knife cuts through his shirt like butter.

“That cut me!” Kon says hysterical “That knife actually cut me!”

Lightning trails across the room as Kid Flash darts about nervously.

“Whatdowedo!?” he squeaks as Jason easily turns to the new threat. In one smooth motion Jason goes to sweep Kid Flash’s legs. Bart easily hops the leg sweep but as soon as his feet leave the ground, and therefore his ability to use his speed, Jason darts in shoulder first and flips him back first into the tile.

“Oof!”

“Cassie!” Superboy says shrilly as Jason turns his deadfaced stare back to him. “What do I do?”

“Just hit him?” Cassie says attempting to edge around Jason to flank him. Jason whips his knife at Cassie, she knocks it from the air with her silver bracers, but Jason is already moving.

“I can’t hit him!” Kon says “It’s Tim’s undead brother! Ahh!”

Jason has jumped up and sprung off the edge of the counter to wrap his thighs around Kon’s neck. He twists and the momentum brings Kon flailing to the ground, with Jason’s legs locked around his throat.

“Cassie!” Kon hisses, as Cassie freezes in place adopting the “calming a horse pose” before them. “Help me! Should I just let him choke me? Should I pretend to pass out?”

This seems like an opportune time for Steph to step in. She steps forward and screams at the top of her lungs,

“Alfred!”

A moment later Alfred materializes in the kitchen doorway with a mason jar of home canned spaghetti sauce he must have been fetching from the cellar in hand.

“Master Jason,” Alfred says reproachfully “that will be quite enough,”

At the sound of Alfred’s voice Jason jolts, and then after a moment of careful examination of Alfred’s expectant face, loosens his grip on Superboy.

“Quite right,” Alfred nods “Now why don’t we all sit down and food will be ready in just a moment. It has been quite a trying night I believe,”

At that they all pick themselves up and assess injuries and straighten their clothes. Jason retrieves his knife and returns it to it’s hidden thigh sheath. They all sit down and sit in anticipation of Alfred’s cooking. Steph slides into a seat next to Wonder Girl as Superboy bemoans his ruined shirt. Some nights in this Batcult leave Steph wondering just where the hell she went wrong. This isn’t one of them.

-

The world is kind of looking a lot better after sleeping for eight hours and eating Alfred’s spaghetti. He’s got Tim back in Gotham and Jason alive and well in the penthouse with him and Damian, and proof that Bruce is alive. Batman felt a lot lighter when there was an end in sight.

His goals were also a lot less nebulous than they had been. Find enough evidence to unravel the mystery of Batman’s location in time and go get him with the help of the Justice League. And then in his free time figure out how his younger brother had defied all laws known to man and come back to life. Barbara was taking point on that one though, investigating irregularities and writing programs to comb through John Does in Gotham hospital records. Life was looking up, the sun breaking through the clouds, the sight of the finish line at the end of a marathon.

Alfred wanted to move back into the manor now that Jason was back and Bruce was on the way, but Dick wasn’t ready for it. Also, conveniently Jason had destroyed the shit out of his Robin memorial, which made for a great excuse why they shouldn’t let him loose in his room just yet.

For now they remained in the penthouse, using the bunker. Specifically Alfred had magicked workout clothes that actually fit for Jason out of thin air and now he was sparring with Damian.

Sparring was maybe a little generous to describe what they were doing. The whole thing seemed to be more or less an excuse for Damian to get flung around a lot. First Damian would kick off the wall then Jason would sidestep and snatch him from the air as he flew past, then spin and throw him like a discus. Next Damian would run in and blows would be exchanged at a rapid pace. The exchange ended with Jason dropping to his back with Damian’s wrists in his grip and planting a foot on Damian’s chest to launch him through the air behind himself. The next exchange with Damian jumping and flipping over Jason’s head, hands planted on his shoulders, then somersaulting backwards through Jason’s legs to end crouched in front of him again. Each blow Jason landed was gentle, teasing and in return Damian attempted to be the same. It was a way for Damian to practice kindness, and playfulness without danger of humiliation.

Dick isn’t jealous of his catatonic, zombie brother. He isn’t. That would be insane and totally inappropriate. Even as he watches them roll across the floor, Jason’s hand carefully cupped around the back of Damian’s head to guard it. He isn’t jealous.

Dick really really really wants to spar with Jason.

“Master Dick, Mister Kent is here to see you,” Alfred’s voice speaks through the intercom.

“Tell him I’ll be right up,” Dick replies

The drive to Gotham cemetery is relatively quick and quiet. Tim and Dick had spoken to Diana and Clark the night before about their evidence that Bruce was alive and lost in the timestream, all parties promising to investigate further. They had then informed them of Jason’s reappearance, more of a courtesy, than an announcement. Dick had called later, privately to request Superman’s help with this. Clark had accepted, of course. Now they exchanged pleasantries in the car, too much anticipation for anything else.

“Thank you again for doing this,” Dick says as he puts the car into park.

“There’s no need to thank me,” Clark says again, “You know I’m always here, if you need me,”

And Dick does know. Clark has always been there, as much as Bruce has, sometimes more. He’s glad to have him now, as they trudge through the damp grass towards a grave Dick hasn’t been to visit in years. He hasn’t had the courage, and worse than that, he hasn’t had the urge. The wound was healed, the mourning was done. No need to keep remembering.

They stop before the headstone, and for a solemn moment only stare, as it begins to drizzle. Then the muscles around Clark’s eyes tense in a way that Dick recognizes and he looks. A moment passes as Dick observes only the minute flicker of Clark’s eyes.

“He’s not down there,” Clark says and something in Dick unwinds, gives further into hope, “I think you were right,” Clark says next and all good feeling dissolves. Clark meets his eyes serious and sympathetic as only he can be “There’s a hole in the lid of the coffin and angle and method suggest it was broken open from the inside. He dug his way out,”

Horror and grief rise up in him and he curls his hands against it. Closes his eyes and tips his head up. When will it be enough. When will Jason have suffered enough.

“Dick,” Clark says resting a hand on Dick’s shoulder, “This means that really is Jason you have. He’s alive and with you now. He’ll be okay,”

“Yeah,” Dick croaks, swallowing “Yeah, okay,”

-

It’s three days before Barbara’s programs turn up any leads she thinks are worthwhile. It actually takes seven iterations of code before it comes up with results Barbara finds satisfying. Unsurprisingly in a town like Gotham searching all the hospitals in the city for a period of five years for a John Doe between 13 and 20 years of age (just to be safe) with black hair turns up a lot of results. She can’t narrow the results down by injury because as it stands they have no idea how much whatever resurrected him did or didn’t heal him.

In the end she finds her results. She is Oracle after all.

She’s in her apartment with Jason, when she finally hits bedrock sorting through the results of her search filters.

Alfred is out buying necessities for Jason, Dick and Tim are putting out fires at Wayne Enterprise, and Damian despite stringent protest is not an approved chaperone for Jason. Not that Jason really seems to need a chaperone. He eats, uses the bathroom and looks after his personal hygiene under his own power. He doesn’t really do much without prompting. At most he’ll fiddle with objects in his immediate vicinity. Most often books. And it’s not exactly like they have to worry about him hurting himself, considering the proficiency with which he uses his kris.

So Jason is sitting on her couch flipping through her copy of the Silmarillion, when she finally stumbles upon the medical records she thinks are Jason’s.

It’s a Shakespearian tragedy. His fingerprints and DNA were wiped from the system to protect his identity as Robin. The police stop their search for the hole Jason clawed out of at ten miles when Jay walked twelve. Jason only said two words in the hospital, Bruce and Dad.

“Oh, Jay,” She says and he looks up from his book. She reaches back and rests a hand in his hair, he leans back into the touch, closing his eyes. She wraps up the files and sends them to Dick. Only one mystery left to solve, “We’ll get you your Dad back Jay,” She whispers and watches a tear slide back to soak into the hair at his temple “I promise.”

Chapter Text

It’s four days after the confrontation with Ra’s Al Ghul when Dick musters both the time and the courage to have the conversation that he promised to have with Tim. They are standing at the island in the kitchen of the penthouse in casual clothes. Leslie is by to have a look at Jason and Dick has left Alfred to take the heat from her about that. Damian is in the bunker with his katana “improving upon perfection” so they should have plenty of time to talk.

Dick considers opening the conversation by apologizing to Tim for calling him a manipulative little weasel, but in the end Tim was being a manipulative little weasel so he doesn’t.

“Tim,” Dick says “how did you know I would catch you?”

Tim does not do him the honor of being honest with him. “I told you Dick,” he says “You’re my brother. I knew you would be there to catch me,”

“How?” Dick says. There’s a lot to be said about being friendly, about being the good cop, but in the end Dick was trained by Batman too. He knows how to make silence work for him.

“I’ve known you for years, Dick,” Tim says and Dick can just see it. He can see how this conversation could stretch into minutes and even hours. How Tim would keep dancing around the truth and sidestepping and obfuscating until Dick was so tied up he forgot the purpose. Tim is trying to use Dick’s affection for him, their history, to get him to let it go. Dick won’t allow him to. He cuts to the chase.

“Were you trying to die?” Dick says and Tim stops. Everything in him slows to utter stillness. The casual look on his face crumples into blankness, his hand held up in faked placetation falls limply to the counter. He is a glass wall, smooth and impenetrable and behind that he is a computer. He is looking at Dick and evaluating, all the boyishness carved out of him by grief, bled from him by a thousand cuts.

He doesn’t say anything for a long long time and Dick waits. Dick waits for him like he has a hundred times before, on a rooftop, in the cave, on his own couch with the phone pressed to his ear.

“No,” Tim says, blank and tired “not trying,”

Dick doesn’t close his eyes at that, because that isn’t a blow to take lying down.

“But it would have been fine,” Dick says “if I hadn’t caught you?”

It hurts to say. It hurts to think. That his little brother, that his family, could once again fall and hit the ground and never get back up. That Dick being in time, that Dick succeeding this time in catching them, hadn’t been necessary. That Tim would have been fine if he had never gotten back up.

“I just needed to win,” Tim says and his blankness is cracked, and the desperation underneath is showing through.

And Dick has fought those fights. Fights that are so long and terrible that by the end it doesn’t matter if you live through it, as long as you’ve won, as long as you can rest after. As long as it’s done. Dick has lived through those fights and he has lived through the after. And he is grateful now to be alive, even if he wasn’t then.

“I just needed to win,” Tim says and his chest hitches, and Dick surges forward and gathers Tim to his chest. “I needed him to be proud,” Tim sobs “I-I ne-needed,”

“I know, Tim,” Dick whispers into his hair “I know, and he would be. He will be. I am.” He presses Tim to his shoulder and rubs circles in his back. “I am. I’m so proud of you, Tim. You’ve worked so hard. It’s okay now, it’s okay. I’m here. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay, Tim, I know you will. You’ve been so strong,” Dick says, and on and on, he holds Tim and brushes his fingers through his hair and rubs his back and just holds him. Eventually Tim holds him back.

-

For a group of crime fighting geniuses it occurs to Steph that they can all be really fucking stupid.

Steph is at the Penthouse taking a break from school work to watch crap TV during her shift babysitting Jason. Alfred does adorable things like have Jason help him cook or read aloud while Jason listens contentedly when it’s his turn. Tim runs experiments on him in a way that Steph thinks borders on the psychopathic. He digs through Jason’s room and retrieves things and takes notes on Jason’s reactions. About half the time Jason completely ignores him and Tim’s filled a whole notebook with the deep meanings he thinks these reactions have. Steph thinks that the main result of these experiments is gonna be Jason being royally pissed with Tim for going through all his shit if he ever does get back to himself, but nobody’s asking her opinion. Dick mostly just flits around anxiously when it’s his turn. By the end of Dick’s shift Jason is usually as peevish as he ever gets. Steph thinks that’s probably a pretty average reaction to getting hovered over for a few hours, but Dick always seems devastated by it.

Steph and Babs mostly just leave him to his own devices until he seems to want attention. Usually Jason will go Steph’s full shift without wanting her attention. He’s a little more active with Babs, approaching her once an hour or so to tug on her hair. Babs will tug back fondly and after the ritual is completed he’ll drift back off seemingly reassured.

The only time Steph got a reaction from Jason was when she sat in front of the couch where Jason was sitting to use the coffee table and he had, without prompting, reached out and started braiding her hair. He had combed through the hair a few times then divided it neatly into sections and by the end of a minute Steph’s hair was in a tidy braid. She had offered a hair tie from her wrist bewildered and he had slapped it on the end of her braid before returning mutely to his book.

Steph has garnered a repeat performance from him twice since then. Muscle memory. If you can trigger the right impulses, he can do a lot of things.

They probably should have thought more about that.

Jason’s just starting a braid fingers buried in her hair when the TV flickers to an emergency broadcast. Joker. Quarantine. That’s all Steph catches before they flash the Joker’s mugshot and Jason loses it. His hands go tight in her hair and he slams her forehead into the coffee table stunning her.

“Shit,” she garbles but it’s covered up by the cacophony of Jason putting his bare foot through the TV. He tears it free with a splattering of blood, skin shredded up to midcalf and the drywall behind the TV destroyed.

He rips the TV from the wall with an animal sound.

When Steph was eight years old Batman busted a dog fighting ring near her apartment. It was not until she was crouched in an alley retrieving her makeshift kite that she realized not all the dogs had been rounded up. A dog had crawled it’s way out from under the dumpster already growling and the terror that took her then was brainstem deep. Later she would understand how sad that beaten dog was but then she was only fear. The dog’s wild eyes met hers and the prey animal in her understood immediately. Her dad was scary, but he had rules. This dog did not have rules.

Jason is that dog. His lips peeled back from his teeth and the whites visible all the way around his eyes, ready to savage anything that moved.

Steph is not eight years old anymore. She is not Spoiler. The fear of facing something that cannot be reasoned with trickles down her spine and she does not simply react. She's Batgirl now. She thinks.

She only has a moment before Jason, chest heaving as he stands over the remains of the TV, will turn to her. She has a theory from watching Jason these past two weeks, cooking in the back of her head. Jason is a Truth Table that takes inputs and spits out reactions. Jason is not a dog, he is a human being who operates only on muscle memory and he is viciously triggered by the sight of his murderer. His brain is telling him he needs to fight.

She just needs to give him a different input. His eyes lock on her and they dart forward at the same time.

She deflects his wild punch, but when his other hand snatches the fabric of her shirt, drawing the collar tight across her throat, she lets him drag her in. She wants to get close. She reaches forward and, hoping she’s not being an impulsive idiot again, she tugs gently on his hair.

He jolts to a stop, just as Steph feels the cold edge of his dagger against her ribs. She breathes. He breathes. Waves seem to roll through him like the shivers of revulsion or repression. His hand spasms at her throat, his face a terrible snarl. They are so close she can feel him trembling. She can see and hear and feel the desperate fear in him. See his wild eyes and the flare of his nostrils. Hear the strangled whine in his throat. Feel the blade resting against the skin of her side waver, drawing the thinnest sliver of blood. He is fighting. She takes a gamble.

“Robin,” She whispers, and he eases.

He drops his head on her shoulder and she can feel him swallowing, breathing out and in and out again. The hand holding the knife drops from her side, the hand clutching her shirt releases and he pets through her hair twice in comfort before dropping that hand too.

Steph breathes out long and slow, head aching, a thin line of blood dripping from her side, and knocks her head gently into Jasons’s.

This fucking family.

-

Tim is on top of the world. He’s attended two therapy sessions with the therapist in Metropolis that Dick had conned him into seeing when he was emotionally vulnerable and he hadn’t burst into flame as soon as he entered the office. And even better than that Bruce is returned from the timestream. There was a bit of trouble with Bruce being possessed by some kind of evil time robot technology and also dying briefly so they could get rid of all the Omega Energy he had built up time hopping without blowing a hole in the timestream. But everything’s fine now, hooray! All in a day's work for Red Robin and the Justice League.

Tim can’t take his eyes off Bruce. He’s so desperately relieved to see him alive and well. He isn’t crazy, he never was. Bruce is alive. Tim was right. He felt this relief in the desert when he saw the first cave painting and he felt it again when he delivered his evidence to Dick and the Justice League and was believed but it is greater now.

Tim was right.

It is different to see his father’s chest rise and fall, it is different to touch the pulse point at his wrist and count the beats, feel the warmth of his skin.

Bruce spends an hour or so getting looked over and briefing with the JLA. Tim spends the whole of it sitting next to him, holding tight to his wrist. Every beat of his pulse against Tim’s palm is new belief. He was never crazy, his mind didn’t lie to him. Bruce is alive. Bruce is alive. Bruce is alive.

“Let’s go home, Tim,” Bruce says with the same relief that is singing in Tim underlying his words. “You can debrief me on my time away as we go,”

Fuck.

-

Bruce is charging through the penthouse still in his Batman suit hunting for this supposed “Jason.” Tim had given Bruce a comprehensive report on the imposter on the journey to the bunker in Wayne Tower and then through the comms as he went to render aid to Dick and Damian with the latest Gotham villian. Dr. Hurt. Stupid name.

Retrieved from a League of Assassins base, empty coffin, DNA match. Rage churns in him at the thought. That Ra’s would take Jason’s body and do something monstrous to it. That he would dare to do something so disgusting. Bruce will find the imposter and remove them from the penthouse to ensure Alfred and the other’s safety then he will hunt down Ra’s and- And he doesn’t even know. A thousand, thousand violent fantasies instantly well up in him, grotesque and reprehensible. Everything in him sings to enact them at the thought of Jason disturbed or corrupted. At the thought of his own appalling failure, again, to protect Jason. He tries to rein them in, but his blood is roaring and his head is pounding and he can taste pennies in his mouth.

Someone will pay dearly for this. He’ll have to perform tests. A thousand more than whatever the others thought to do. They’ve always been creatures of hope, but he’s Batman and he knows better. He’ll have to prove to them that this Jason is a fake. And the anger and loathing rises in him again at the thought of enacting that pain upon them. He’ll have to perform tests. To determine how much of Jason this creature is. How much responsibility he bears towards it.

He breaches the final door to the den. Stephanie is cleaning up the remains of a shattered television and Alfred is crouched in front of the couch speaking to someone. The creature. Pity and bitter rage sour his mouth at the sight of it. Then it turns.

After Jason died living in the manor had been torture, torture that he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Every room and piece of furniture and floorboard had memories of him. Around every corner, there were fights, and laughter, and sick days spent lounging together. He had lived every day with Jason’s ghost and it was like being flayed alive, but the thought of forgetting anything was worse. The memories were barbed arrows hooked into his flesh, horrific, but to tear them free would be even worse. The thought that one day Jason’s memory would be as faded and malleable as that of his parents was utterly unbearable. He had engraved every moment onto his memory. Lived them again and again, so he would never ever forget.

He had forgotten though, eventually. One day he had woken up and the thought had struck him that he didn’t know the sound of Jason’s laugh anymore. It was like losing him again. Failing him again. He didn’t know his own son anymore. He was reprehensible, irredeemable.

As Jason turns to him now he knows him instantly. He knows the blue of his eyes and the shape of his brow and ridge in his nose where it had once been broken. As he surges forward around the couch he knows him again. He knows him by the pattern of his breathing and the mole on his neck and tapping of his foot. Three taps then two then three with his right foot. Jason had always done that when he was nervous. He knew him. He just knew him. It was his son. He would know him instantly, anywhere.

“Jason,” Bruce says and his throat is tight, his eyes hot. His chest is volcanic; black and brittle cracking open to spill light and molten heat. He can’t name the feeling in him only knows that it is wholly good. The opposite of grief. “Jaylad,”

“Dad,” Jason says jolting to his feet “Dad, dad, dad,” he pleads.

“I’m here,” Bruce says and seizes Jason in his arms. Jason is warm and solid and alive. It is so good it hurts. He doesn’t know how to cope with it. Every little thing is a new starburst of joy, is Jason alive again. His smell, the tickle of his curls on Bruce’s chin, his fingers wrapped tight in Bruce’s cape.

Bruce rips one hand away from Jason with the pain of tearing it from a bear trap and yanks his cowl back, so he can see him better. Jason. His son, Jason. “I’m here. I’m here, Jaylad. I have you,” He says again and again and a thousand other things he can’t even hear and clutches Jason close. Crushes him to his chest.

“Dad,” Jason sobs. “Dad,” and they are both crying and crying and crying. And then they are on the floor as Bruce’s legs give out and they are still crying. It’s so good. He hasn’t felt good in a long, long time. The feeling of it is the same as the first time he was stabbed. The sharp shock and pain of it burrowed deep in his chest.

Alive. Alive. Alive.

He can feel Jason’s hot hitching breath against his collarbone, the expansion of his chest as he breathes, Bruce’s arms like iron bands around him. One cradling his neck and head close and the other pinning his torso to Bruce’s. He is never ever ever going to let him go. His beautiful son.

“Dad,” Jason hiccups, finally calming.

“My son,” Bruce says pressing a desperate kiss to his hair. “My precious son,”

And he keeps holding on.

Chapter Text

Dad. Dad. Walking. Stairs. Cold.

“Put this on, Jay,”

Dad. Okay. Glue. Sticky. Face itches. Stiff. Familiar. Mask. Good. Good, good, good. Yes.

“Come with me,” Dad. Batman. Okay.

Light. Tingling. Walking. Walking. Big. Metal. Space. Cool. Yes, very cool. Dad. Catch up. Door. Room.

“Lie down here, lad,” Dad. Batman. Okay. Lying down.

White. Machine noise. Close. Closecloseclose.

Bad.

Bad.

Badbadbad.

No.

Hit.

Hit.

Pain.

No.

Hithithit.

-

"Frankly his brain scans are unlike anything I've ever seen before. The level of scarring here should leave him dead or completely comatose. That he's able to walk around and respond to stimuli as much as he does is incredible," Dr. Mid-nite says gesturing to the results of the MRI they’d just performed, "Will he be able to fully recover? Maybe. I don't know. The neuroplasticity of the brain shouldn't be underestimated, but there's clearly factors at work here beyond simple human healing. I mean you've told me he's actually formed words in response to stimuli. Looking at the scarring on the Broca's area I would have said that's impossible.”

There’s a faint tugging in Bruce’s chest. Urging him towards something that might be joy or gratitude, but he is already mired waist deep in the feeling that overtakes him after every victory. Dissatisfaction, as thick as tar. It sits heavy and putrid in his chest, dragging him forward like a yoke, until he’s destroyed every good thing in his life or made it perfect.

“What do you recommend?” Bruce says. Bruce has a hundred plans lined up in his head and if he runs through them all he’s sure he can think of more. But the simplest is the advice of a qualified doctor and if Mid-nite won’t tell him what he wants to hear he’ll find someone who will.

“I’d recommend having J’onn take a look, and if that doesn’t pan out, have one of those magic types give it a go. Like I said this is beyond normal medicine. Not that most of the stuff I do here is remotely normal.” Which Bruce thinks is a little rich for a guy with a wood owl on his shoulder. “I might be able to tell you more with an fMRI, but well,” Dr. Mid-nite trails off.

To say that Jason had not liked the MRI machine would be a severe understatement. He hadn’t minded lying down on the bed but as soon as it had slid forward into the enclosed tube to begin he had lost it. Thrashing and beating his hands against it. He had almost broken Bruce’s jaw kicking him when Bruce grabbed his ankle to haul him free, it was only by the grace of Jason’s feet being bare that he hadn’t. It had required Bruce sitting in the room with him talking and holding his hand through the full hour for him to acquiesce to it. Still he wouldn’t look at Bruce or allow him to touch him now. The pain of that rejection is like a bur, sticking to Bruce no matter how much he tries to brush it off as necessary.

“Regardless I do have a bit of normal advice. Since he is able to talk at least a little a speech therapist wouldn’t go amiss. Lots of people need them after experiencing brain trauma or waking from a coma. I can’t promise how effective it will be since the treatment has higher efficacy the closer it’s administered the initial trauma, but you’re certainly not hurting for cash so might as well. And assuming you can get him fixed up I feel I ought to warn you. There are a lot of complications and changes that can come from brain trauma, behavioral and cognitive. Irritability, Obsessive behavior, apathy, memory problems, attention span etc. etc. I’ll send you an email and I recommend you do your Batman thing and research it to death yourself.”

“Thank you,” Bruce forces out.

“No need to strain yourself,” Dr. Mid-nite smiles, shutting down the computer that had been displaying Jason’s MRI scans. “Seeing Batman get kicked in the face was payment enough,”

-

Cave. Chair. Sitting. Green man. M- Mar- MM- No. Maybe. J- J’o- Green Man.

Looking. Someone looking. Inside. Deep. Exposed. No.

“Be calm, Jason, I am here to help you” No. No. Looking. Digging. No.

“It’s alright, Jaylad, J’onn is here to help,” Dad. Okay. Okay. Calm. Yes. J’onn.

Looking. Like-like, pages, paper smell, ink. He doesn’t know.

Talking. Very far away. Hard. “-like being buried or perhaps very deep underwater-” Buried. Yes. Deep. Yes. So hard to hear. Far.

“-elp him?” Dad. Hmm.

“-plant guideposts in his mind. Perhaps once a week. It would-” Hmm. Hmm. Cold. Cold. Bat sounds. Deep. Dark.

Talking. Talking. Walking sounds. Drip, Drip. Cave sounds. Time. Click-clack. Computer sounds. Cold. Swish, swish. Cape sounds. Warm. Pressure. Hmm. Hand. So deep. Hand in hair. Scared. No. Dad. Good. Good. Hand on shoulder.

“It’s going to be okay, Jaylad.” Okay. Good.

“I promise I’ll fix you,” Fix. Fix. Bad. Wrong. Broken. Fix. No. No. Dad.

“I’ll help you heal so you can be yourself again,” No. No. Chest. Pain. Touch. No blood. No. No. Wrong. Hurt. Bad. Dad. No. Dad. Can’t breathe. Not good. Hand on his shoulder. Dad. No. No. Bad. No hand. Bad. Leave. Up. Go up. Throat hurts. No. Up. Face wet. Hurt. Outside. Be safe. Leave.

-

“Wait- No, waitwaitwait. You lost Jason?”

“Hrm,”

“Don’t you “Hrm” me, asshole!” Dick says into the phone an inch from hysterical and three inches from laughing if only out of sheer incredulity and rage “How could you possibly lose an entire human being? You’re in the manor!”

“Dick,” Batman says, and it is Batman now, “Focus on the matter at hand,”

 

“Oh like you were focusing on-”

Dick.

“What happened?”

“We were in the cave after J’onn’s examination. He seemed less cognizant than usual afterwards. I left him to his own devices to see if he would regain lucidity on his own. After about an hour I went to speak with him and he left the cave. He was...upset,”

Even over the phone Dick can clock the emotion in Bruce’s voice, two parts confusion one part guilt. He probably tried to say something comforting that was actually horrific and Jason ran off to lick his wounds. Ughhh. When it wasn’t one thing with Bruce it was another.

“Okay, I’m on my way back. Just hold tight.”

So much for getting out of the house for a while. Now that Bruce was back Dick could have gone back to Bludhaven or New York, but he didn’t want to yet, not with things still so up in the air with Jason and with Damian. He wanted to stay at least until they both got settled in. Not to mention Bruce would need time to train before he was ready to pick up the Batman mantle again. Still staying at the manor full time with Bruce and Alfred and all his brother’s, at least as long as Tim was still renovating his new place, was not exactly what Dick considered an ideal living situation. Still needs must and Dick’s alone time was not as important as his runaway, semi-comatose brother.

By the time Dick arrived back at the manor, Bruce had typed him up a whole dossier on his portion of the grid search he’s doing of the manor and grounds. Dick immediately disregards it, as is his prerogative as a Robin alum, and moves towards the west rose trellis.

Sure enough when he pulls himself up onto the roof he finds Jason sitting on the spine of the roof facing him, right arm hooked around the weathervane knees to chest. Once a Robin, always a Robin. Dick clambers up towards him and takes a seat two feet away, legs sprawled down the incline.

“How ya doin’ Jay?” he says, turning his head to face him. Jason doesn’t react outright, doesn’t look at him. Keeps his eyes blank and straight ahead on the treetops of the manor’s forest. His right foot is tapping a nervous pattern on the shingles, left hand tracing a pattern on the roof next to his hip, the string of his hoodie in his mouth. His hands have new bandages. His face is wet. Goddamnit Bruce.

With no other reaction forthcoming Dick applies himself to trying to decode the pattern his left hand is tracing. Ten shapes left to right before it repeats. Numbers. 9, 1, 7, 2, 8- Dick’s old phone number.

Something snags in Dick’s chest and yanks hard. He remembers giving Jason that phone number, written out on a piece of cardstock ahead of time so he wouldn’t back out at the last minute. Things with Jason had been so hard for him back then, a tangled mess of hurt and jealousy that made him shy away from getting close. Things with Bruce were so difficult and lonely and when he was in New York with the Titans he knew that he was the only one who could really understand. When he was safe and away from Gotham he wanted Jason to have someone that understood. Understood, the way only another Robin could.

Jason had hardly ever called and half the times he did he had gone to voicemail, for a thousand reasons, only half of them good enough in hindsight. But all of Jason’s actions now are muscle memory. How many times had he traced Dick’s number on that card, and thought about calling? How often had he done it for it to remain now when almost all of him had been scooped out and burned away?

Responsibility drummed in his chest, a responsibility that he had given himself over four years ago. It felt good. Hopeful. Like the clean desire in him that had driven him to Nightwing in the first place.

“Bruce being an asshole again?” Dick asks. Always a good guess, especially since that had been what he’d given Jason the number for in the first place. Jason’s eyes flash to his face briefly. He does have tells if Dick really looks for them and Dick can really look; he’s Batman.

“That’s what I thought,” Dick says like Jason has really spoken “When isn’t he being an asshole is the real question. I mean holy communication issues Batman!”

Jason’s eyes narrow slightly in amusement. Dick smiles. So far so good. Time for a little payback. He’ll kill two birds with one stone.

“Have I ever told you why we have lenses in our masks now?” Dick says “We didn’t used to have them. Just swung around getting bugs in our eyes all night long.”

Dick darts his eyes to Jason’s hand, still tracing his phone number, keep going, it says. Okay, good.

“It wasn’t the bugs that got the Batman though. Oh no, B could take bugs to the face all day long no problemo. It’s the bat in him I think. No the great and terrible Batman was brought low by the dreaded, the terrible, the Condiment King,”

Jason’s shoulders hitch once like half a silent laugh. Dick beams and scooches a few inches toward him across the roof.

“Got a full serving of mustard straight into his eyes. I swear I’d never heard B scream before. Not when he got shot, not when he fractured his femur. Just then, just the mustard.”

Jason’s right foot is slowing in it’s nervous pattern. Dick scooches a little closer.

“I was back around the corner, see, when I hear just this terrible screaming and I think to myself “oh god Batman is being killed!” and I run around the corner fast as anything and he’s just there clutching his face yelling his damn head off while Condiment King is just standing there stunned.”

A little closer and Jason doesn’t lean away.

“We met eyes and I swear I’ve never had a truer connection with anyone in the world, we were just so confused. I said to him “Was there acid in that mustard?” and he says to me “no” and we go back to standing there while B cusses up a storm. “It’s just mustard?” I ask, “Just mustard,” he says.”

A little closer still and their shoulders are touching and Jason leans into it and Dick’s heart is beating out of his chest. He keeps going.

“And we finally both get it together. He starts doing the evil laugh thing and I get over to B and start doing my Robin thing. All “just give us a little thyme and we’ll mustard a counterattack that you won’t relish,” you know? And by this point B is crying, and I mean crying with the snot and everything-”

-

Days. The Green Man (Martian Manhunter. J’onn J’onzz.) comes. Thoughts come and go like the tide. They are hard. J’onn comes and his head aches and he sleeps and sleeps and sleeps.

“That’s good,” someone (Leslie. Leslie Thompkins.) says. “He’s healing,”

It’s difficult. Sticky. Tangled. Delicate. Frustrating. He thinks and thinks and thinks. The words are so far away. He can see the glitter, taste the sweetness. Sugar. Spun sugar. That is what his thoughts are.

Cave. The cave. Dark. Cold. There is a memory very far away. The feelings come first. Warm pressure on his shoulder. Bruce. Damp. The smell of underground. The sound of speaking. The ups and downs of it. The words last. The words most difficult.

“If you spend a week in the complete darkness of a cave you won’t be able to tell if you’re awake or asleep anymore,”

His head aches, with digging up the words. That is his head now. It is a deep, crooked cave. It is total darkness for a long, long time. It is being awake and asleep at the same time. It is the unknowing stretching on and on and on.

J’onn (the Green Man) comes and there is light, there is a little bit of light. He knows which way up is. Still it is difficult. Still he is climbing and the stones are slippery under his fingers. The tunnels narrow, scraping him, holding him, suffocating him, as he tries to wriggle through. It hurts. He wants it. He wants it so bad.

The tide goes out. No thinking. Bad. Bad. His head hurts. His head hurts so damn bad. He wants. He wants. The dock. The smell of brine. Salt. Fish. Thrashing. Gasping. Dying. That is how he wants it. Needs it.

Alfred. Dishes. Soap. Water. Rinse. Repeat. Good. Calm. Alfred’s calm paper hand on his cheek. The sun. Good. Good.

Dick. Talking. The up-down of words. Up and down. Like birds. Far away. He tries. He closes his eyes to listen. He tries. The tide is far away. He opens his eyes. Dick. The blue of his eyes. Sad. Sad.

The woman. Card. Apple. Remember. Okay. Again. Again. She is here to give him his words.

A long time ago. Before. Mom. Needles. Blue inner arms. Deep dark pits for eyes. Cold. Cold. “One more baby. Just one more,” Just one more and one more and one more. That is how Jason wants his words.

His head hurts. One more. One more. Remember. Remember. He wants.

The tide goes in, the tide goes out.

Dad. He sees his moods move in and out with the tide, but always that look. I’ll fix you. I’ll fix you. I’ll fix you. Hurt. A splinter in his chest. Again and again with every breath it pierces him. Bruce’s sad eyes and strong jaw. I’ll fix you. I’ll fix you. I’ll fix you.

The boy. (Tim.) Watching. Watching. Watching. Spotlight eyes. Always watching. He remembers. The staff, black cape, red armor. Watching in the fight. Watching after. Watching now. It is there too when Tim looks at him. Watch, watch, watch. Fix, fix, fix.

In Jason’s room, hidden away in the safest place in his desk, there is a watch. Old. Special. Broken. He remembers it. He- There is an inscription on the back of the watch. He thinks of it, holds the letters tight in his mind. He knows them. He does. The feel of them under his fingers. Thomas Wayne. Special. Little gears. Little pieces. So small so delicate. Broken. He was putting it together. Automatic watch. Needs attention. Fix it. Fix it. Special. Fix it. Work and work and work. Good. His heart like a bird in his chest. Fix it. Happy Birthday Bruce.

That is how Tim watches him. That is the fix fix fix in his eyes when he looks at Jason.

Then Barbie. Barbie comes and she says “Do you want to read today?” And if the tide is in Jason will say “Yes,” he will make the word. Some days it comes immediately, some days he has to snatch it like grabbing a fish from the water with his hands, and it takes minutes. Barbie waits. Always. When the tide is low Jason will tap the book because the words are gone and Barbie will smile at him. Sharp, proud. Then they read. Jason remembers. Tutor.

When the tide is all the way gone he will braid her hair and she will read the words out loud. Jason will listen to the up-down rhythm of them. Sad. No, bigger. Longing.

Damian. Ibn al Xu'ffasch. The boy. He knows him best when the tide is low. It is low now.

“جثة” The boy. “I wish to spar,” Okay.

Stand. Close book. Put down. Bye-bye. Follow. Stairs. Cold. Cave. Mats. Take off shoes. Tape hands. Sticky. Open, close. Okay. Ready.

Fight. Fight, fight, fight. He understands. Hit gentle. Play. His heart is light. Catch. Spin. Throw. The boy lands on all fours like a cat. Cute. His heart is light. He understands. Fun. Play for Ibn al Xu'ffasch.

Ibn al Xu’ffasch. Jason remembers. So small. Attacking. Cute. Small. Pick up. Throw. Ibn al Xu’ffasch smiles. So cute. Kids should play. Yes. No fighting. No hitting. Too small. Play.

Talia Al Ghul. Jason remembers. Safe. Safe. Pain in his face. Talia. Okay. Safe. Stay still. Don't hit.

Ibn al Xu’ffasch. Damian. Play. The tide is changing. His head is aching. Play. Damian. Play. Okay. Okay. Okay. Pay attention. Damian. No. No. The flip. The twist. The flourish. Robin.

Pain. Blood. Salt taste. Blood. Robin. Don’t hit. Robin. Safe. Safe. Good. No hitting. Stay still. Robin. Robin. Robin. His head hurts. His chest hurts.

“Get up,” Ibn al Xu’ffasch. No. Robin. “Get up!”

The boy. So small. Scared. Sad. Angry. No. No. Bad. Wrong. Get up. But. Robin. Robin. Stay still. Safe. No. His head hurts.

“Damian!” Dick. Safe. Safe.

“Get up,” The boy. Scared. Sad. Hurt. “Fight,” Crying. Oh no. Bad. Get up. Fight. But. Robin. Robin. No. Safe. Stay still. Stay-

-

Damian hated جثة getting better. Everyone was so happy with his progress, so devastated that it was so slow. Only Pennyworth acted reasonably, acted like he liked جثة as he was. Grayson was always chattering at him like جثة could understand, could reply. Drake was always poking and prodding at him like جثة was another one of his projects. Father- I’ll fix you- Damian’s mouth tasted sour. Father didn’t bear thinking about.

It was all so idiotic. So stupid. It left ants crawling over his skin every time he thought about it. جثة didn’t need fixing. He was- he is-

There was always a thought Damian had held in the back of his head when he lived with the League. Back before he knew that جثة was anything else, back when every whispering voice was a potential enemy. He had never thought the words fully. They were too precious to bring into consciousness, to risk with reality. جثة was special, was irreplaceable, did something he could not depend on anyone else in his life to do.

جثة would not hurt Damian. Could not hurt him by tattling on him, or speaking, and would not hurt him with his fists, refused to, seemed incapable of doing so. Second, just as important, more important, جثة would not allow Damian to hurt him. There was no such thing as a peer for Ibn al Xu’ffasch, but-

Still, always, mother was right. Friend had never been closer to conscious thought than now when he was mourning it. He saw the blood on جثة’s face, felt the blood on his own fist. Couldn’t make out جثة’s expression through the hot blur in his eyes, only that جثة had one. Mother was right.

Anything that could think could betray you.

-

Alfred knew that Dick liked to watch Damian spar with Jason. A habit that was born partially of affection for the two and partially from envy. Every other member of the family had been forbidden from sparring with Jason except for Damian after the revelations Damian delivered about Jason’s habits.

Jason would never raise a hand to Talia. No matter the provocation he refused to defend or retaliate against her. This, Damian said, was a mark of the trust that existed between them. Things were different between Damian and Jason because of the special relationship they had, unmatched by any other in the family. While it was a matter that might be subject to some debate, no one had the heart to test the theory. None of Alfred’s family could bear the notion that they might hit Jason and he would simply allow it without fighting back. Thus Damian’s smug throne was secured. Alfred found Damian’s display of childishness both insufferable and supremely reassuring. Damian could do to act more like the child he was.

All this to say that to find Dick in the cave with Damian and Jason was no surprise, but to enter the cave to the sounds of yelling was.

“What the hell was that?” Dick, shocked and warming up to anger.

“Nothing,” Damian, his voice hoarse and disdainful.

“That was not nothing, Damian! You can’t just hit people like that. I know you’re better than that and I want an explanation right now,”

Alfred rounds the corner to find Dick with Damian, pinned in his arms, back to chest, the boy’s arms restrained to his sides, facing away from him. Jason is sitting on the training mats opposite facing Alfred, his expression strained, hand pressed to his temple, eyes glued to Damian. His mouth is bloodied.

“He’s not a person!” Damian screeches, jerking in Dick’s hold.

Damian-

“جثة is not a person,” Damian continues, wretched “He’s fake. Everything he did was fake,”

“Damian, that’s not-”

“Father said so! He’s broken, he needs to be fixed so he can be Jason,” Damian spits the name like poison, “جثة isn’t real. Father said so. He said so. He’s not real. He was never my-” And suddenly Damian is crying.

Great heaving sobs like any other ten year old in the world and Dick without even a second of shock turns his hold into an embrace, turning Damian and cradling him to his chest. Damian holds tight to Dick, face hidden, protected in the hollow of his neck. Damian is slurring out nonsense between sobs and Dick is whispering reassurances in his ear.

Dick has things well in hand and besides Master Damian would not appreciate the knowledge that someone else has seen him like this. Alfred has other business with which to attend.

It has been a long long time since Alfred has been this angry with Bruce. He has always known that Bruce has certain social failings that he failed to address in Bruce as a child and which Bruce has failed to address as an adult. But that he could say something so abhorrent to one of his own children is beyond the pale. Alfred turns and stalks from the cave.

“Master Bruce,” Alfred says, tone clipped and precise as he arrives back to the study where he had left Bruce. Bruce immediately comes to attention. Alfred’s chest feels like a pit of smouldering coals, his lungs a terrible bellows. He feels like he could spit sparks at any second, burn his tongue on the anger of it. His voice is calm only by virtue of amputating all inflection from it. “You have done something which requires immediate explanation. Did you or did you not imply to any member of this household that Master Jason is broken or that he requires fixing to return to being Master Jason?”

“I-yes, Alfred,” Bruce says. “I only meant to reassure Jason-”

“Enough,” Alfred says. “That is utterly unacceptable.” He cannot find the words to say how unacceptable that is. To say how foolish and ungrateful and poisonous it was to say such a thing. “You will never repeat such a thing again.” Alfred says, stepping right up to Bruce. “You will apologize to Jason for ever having said it.” he jabs a bony finger into Bruce’s chest “That boy is your son,” Alfred hisses “He is not almost your son, or your son once you fix him. He is your son now. He is your son if he never gets any better than he is now, and I expect you to treat him as the miracle that he is. Love him. Be grateful.”

Bruce has never been an easy man to read, but Alfred has raised him since a boy and he can see the shame in him now as clear as day.

“Do I make myself clear?” Alfred says, voice unyielding.

“Yes,” Bruce replies, hoarse.

“Very good then sir,” Alfred steps back and straightens his coat. He takes a breath and breathes out all the smouldering remains of his anger. “Now that you understand I expect that you’ll have apologized by the end of the night,”

-

His head hurts. The split on his lip is a small pain. Unnoticeable. Normal. Comforting. His head. His head. Someone has taken a pry bar to his skull and is peeling it open. Pain. Pain. Walking. Room. His room. Good smell. Fabric. Paper. Clean. Good. His.

His head. His head. God. Jesus. Shit. Fuck. God. His head. Window. Cold. Good. God. His head. Breathe. Just breathe. Paper. Books. God. Shit. Memory. Old. Book. Story. Zeus. Pain. Pounding. Knocking. His head broken open with hammer and chisel. Out pops Athena. Fully formed. That is Jason. His head filled up with a person knocking. Trying to get out. A real person. A whole person. I’ll fix you. His head hurts.

He is deep in the cave. He is gasping in low tide. Robin. Robin. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. Damian. Ibn al Xu’ffasch. The boy. He was- He’s- It doesn't make sense. I’m Robin and being Robin gives me magic. Robin. It was-it’s supposed to be- His head hurts. His head hurts. His chest hurts. Breathe. Breathe. Knocking.

“Can I come in, Jay?” Dad. Bruce. He grapples for the words to reply but they are so far. Shadows on the cave wall. “I’m opening the door, Jay, just nod or shake your head if you want me to go,” Dad. God his head hurts.

The door opens. Jason doesn’t turn. Nods his head against the window. The click of the door as it closes again.

“Does your head hurt, lad?” Nod. “Okay, do you want painkillers?” No. He wants-he wants-

“Dad.” Jason says. The words are too far. Flickering on the cave wall. Ephemeral. He wants just that to be enough.

“I’m sorry, lad,” Dad puts his hand on Jason’s head. He brushes the hair back. The pressure on his scalp is so good.

“Don’t stop.” Jason chokes out.

“Okay, son. I wanted to talk to you.” Jason’s breath fogs the window. He rolls his forehead to put the cool glass to his temple, to look at Bruce. His face is hot, his hair damp with sweat from the pain, but Bruce doesn’t take his hand away. “I think I said something I shouldn’t have to you before. I- I love you Jaylad. I love you so much and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I-”

Bruce closes his eyes. Guilt. Any Robin would know it at a hundred paces. Guilt. Pain. It was the thing Robin was supposed to cure Batman of. Robin. His head hurts so bad. He clenches his fist. There is something frightening and terrible lurking in the back of his mind. A monster. A realization he doesn’t want to have.

“I should have saved you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I didn’t save you son,” Dad. The hand in his hair trembling. Bruce’s face. His face. So wretched when he looks at Jason. The pain. The crowbar. The fire. The smoke. Jason closes his eyes. He can’t look. He can’t look at Bruce like this.

“It’s okay,” Jason croaks. He doesn’t have the words for more. For the hope in him that hadn’t died even when he closed his eyes to a blinking zero. Hope. Love. Safety. The thought that someone was coming had lived with him in his chest until the very, very end. It had been almost as good as living.

“It’s not,” Bruce says and the sharpness hurts Jason’s ears. “It’s not okay, Jason. I’m your father it was my responsibility. Mine,” He sounds wretched. Still wretched. Angry. Jason’s head hurts. It wasn’t- Bruce wasn’t- Jason’s face is drawn tight, his throat choked. The words are so hard. So far. Listen. Please, listen.

“Dad,” he chokes out “it’s okay,” His head hurts. He doesn’t want. He doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t want Bruce shot full of shrapnel and asking Jason to stop the bleeding. It was his. The pain, and the smoke and the dying. His. His like the books and the bed and the room, and like Robin. He can’t. Dad. Listen. His head hurt. Fuck. Fuck. His head hurts. The words are so hard. Cutting him as he tries to grab on. He can’t talk. He can’t do this.

“Jason,” Bruce says and it’s so hard to listen like this. When there’s knocking in his head. When there’s a monster there. Waiting to tell him something horrible. “Please. I never meant for you to get hurt,”

“Stop,” Jason says. “Stop. I need- stop.” He has to breathe. Just breathe. His head fucking hurts. Everything is so slippery. So hard to hold onto. “Stop. Stop. Just stop. Please stop.” And again and again. It pours from him until he can make himself grasp another thought, the pain putting him on pause, putting his head under until he can scrabble up enough lucidity to surface. “It’s okay.” He grits and his dad looks so hurt. So torn up and broken. Jason -- Robin wants to fix him. Wants to help him. But his head hurts. The words won’t come. He can’t. And anger too. The anger of Bruce not listening. Never fucking listening to him. “Leave.” Jason tells Bruce’s wounded face. He closes his eyes against it, swallows. Jesus his head. “Don’t talk. Don’t talk. Talk when I-when I can talk.” He’s so tired. His head hurts so much.

“Okay,” Dad (Bruce) says, hoarse. His hand leaves Jason’s hair and that hurts too. Feels wrong. But he can’t. He just can’t and Bruce can’t either. The click of the door. Open. Closed.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

The world is fuzzy. Dark echoey. He is deep, deep in the cave. There is pain, far away aching. There is light there. There is a monster there. He takes a step and the black swallows him.

He surfaces an unknowable amount of time later. “Master Jason,” a voice says. Al-Alf- Safe. Something cool and wet on his forehead. It dims the ache. “Drink this,” Salty. Warm. Good. A sigh. “At least you’re not concussed, dear boy,”

It is dark. Very dark. The voice comes and goes. Safe. Quiet. All the pain is far, far away.

Jason opens his eyes. Sweat pricks his skin, his heart rabbits in his chest. He’s scared. He’s very, very scared. There is something on the cusp of thought. Knocking, far away. Knocking. A monster. Light. Bright, bright light. Laughing. Laughing, laughing, laughing. I’m Robin and being Robin gives me magic. I’m Robin and- I’m Robin- I’m- I’m- I’m- There is a monster. Jason Todd is not a coward. He takes a step forward, and the black rises to meet him.

“Yes, he’s woken a few times, not very lucid, hardly enough to eat and look after himself,”

“Alfred I just want-”

“I think you’ve done quite enough, Master Bruce,”

His head hurts. There is light. Faint far away. He knows it will be bad, but he needs- he needs. Anything is better than being buried. The black takes him.

There are small fingers pressed to his split lip. “جثة,” A voice says. Small. Safe. Love. Love. “.أرجوك سامِحني,” Please forgive me.

Protect. Protect. Sad. He wants to open his mouth. He wants the words. He struggles towards the light. “أنا أسامحكم,” He says. Thinks he says. I forgive you. He slips backwards into the dark.

His head hurts. Someone has been hitting him. Metal. Pain. Laughing. 10. 9. 8. Jason crawls towards the light, but the time runs out and everything goes black.

Jason opens his eyes. He is in his room. He is deep in the cave watching shadows flicker on the walls. His head is pounding. There is light, bright, bright light, around the corner. Out of the cave. Pain. Fear is an old, old friend. He has known it since he was young. Jason Todd has never been a coward. Brave, before Bruce ever handed him the Robin costume and brave after he took it off his body for the last time and put him in the ground. He steps into the light. Into the truth he’s known since he froze in the spar with Damian. Since he smashed his foot through a memorial with his name on it. Since an underground room where he opened his mouth and called another boy Robin.

Bruce replaced him.

Jason remembers Ethiopia. He remembers meeting his mother so filled with hope and joy that he was fairly floating. He remembers Sheila pulling a gun on him. The shock of it, the utter betrayal that held him in place through the first few blows of the crowbar. Every good feeling in him grabbed and ripped free by the fistful, bleeding out of him across the floor. Like being gutted.

This is worse than that. He had given Sheila hope, he had given much more to Bruce. His throat constricts. His chest crushed downward. His eyes burn and trail acid down his cheeks. He feels like he has been opened up, his ribs pried open, and every raw tender thing in him touched, rifled through, discarded on the floor. He trusted him. He trusted Bruce. Trust. Trust. Trust. He sobs a wet animal sound that takes his feet out from under him. He heaves into the floor. Forehead pressed to carpet, curled as small as he can. Trust. He wants the tide to go away again. He wants it to go away. Please. Please.

Replaced.

He can hardly breathe. He feels light headed. He feels ruined. Left for dead. Discarded. Replaced. Dear God, Replaced. Magic he had called Robin, but it wasn’t really. It wasn’t magic. It was Bruce. It was feeling safe and loved. It was feeling utterly special to someone, to Bruce. But it wasn’t true. It had never been true. Everything special about him had been peeled off his corpse and given to another boy.

Fuck. Fuck.

His face is wet, his throat is thick, but the blows never stop. There is another monster still knocking in his head and this one, he knows, is worse than the last. He saw its face just over a month ago when he had almost killed Steph.

The Joker is still alive.

Fear. It grabs him by the throat. Takes him by the back of the neck and forces his face harder into the carpet. Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear that found him even when the tide was low. Fear that found him even in Robin’s colors. He can taste blood. He can taste smoke. He can feel both filling up his lungs, choking him. Fear.

He can see black at the edges of his vision. His heart is a frightened bird against his ribs. His lungs the size of a thimble. He’s so tired. Strung tight with adrenaline, but he can see the end of it looming before him. He’s so tired. Fear. It burrows into his spine and puts down roots. It strings itself tight across his muscles. He’s so tired. He thought he was done with this. Bruce promised him he was done with this. You’re safe now, Jaylad, you don’t need to be afraid. Safe. Safe. Fuck. He thought he was done with this.

The sobs don’t stop coming. He’s dizzy with them, the carpet wet with tears. Fear. It won’t let go of him. How humiliating. How humiliating. He’s so stupid. He never learned, no matter how often anyone taught him. I promise I’ll get clean this time sweetheart- I’m sorry son I didn’t mean to hit you I was just so angry- The Joker is long gone. There’s nothing to worry about- You’re safe now, Jaylad- So fucking stupid.

Shame burns him. Like hot coals in his chest. Replaced. Shame. Unavenged. Unprotected. The pain. The beating. The crowbar. The fear in him watching the timer tick down. The belief in him that at least he would be the last person Joker ever hurt, at least something would be stopped by this. It had all been meaningless. Meaningless to Bruce. He feels broken open, the marrow of him scraped out and devoured.

He wants his dad. He wants to be taken into Bruce’s arms and held securely, made to feel safe, like nothing in the world could ever hurt him. But that safety isn’t real. Was never real. Shame pricks at him again for the wanting, and then suddenly he is furious.

Rage. It burns up everything else in him. Wipes him clean. Fury. Only Fury. Only the red hot heat of it eating him up. The pressure in him only takes a moment to build, to become unbearable. He lashes out. The drywall buckles easily under his fist and the jolt of pain in his hand is the only real thing in the world. He does it again and again, burning up inside. He tears posters from the walls, and breaks picture frames, rips the drawers out of his desk. He can’t stop. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t. He’ll burn up into nothing otherwise.

Replaced. Unavenged. Every time the inferno abates to allow him to breathe he feels the pain of it again. Like a lion with a thorn in its paw. Like the gap of a lost tooth. He can’t stop poking at it, hurting himself, sparking the fire back to life.

It only stops when he’s too tired for more. Left heaving, hunched over in the center of his destroyed room, exhausted, hands mangled. The pain is no less acute at the end of it. The anger banked to embers, but the wound is still raw. Replaced. Replaced. Replaced. It beats a tattoo on the inside of his chest. Replaced. Thrown away. Buried and forgotten. His murderer let free. His murderer alive, while he lay rotting. He closes his eyes and tries to breathe through it.

Knocking. Gentle knocking.

“Jason? Are you alright in there?”

-

Tim along with everyone else in the manor were under strict orders by Alfred not to bother Jason, and especially not to infringe on his space. For the past week while Jason was laid up in bed Alfred has been the only one to visit him, putting aside one visit from Martian Manhunter to confirm Jason wasn’t about to have some kind of catastrophic brain hemorrhage.

All that aside he just heard some pretty concerning sounds from Jason’s room and he feels within his rights to check on him.

“Jason? Are you alright?” Tim presses his ear to the door, but hears no reply. Is Jason hurt? Just struggling to speak? With every second that ticks by, his worry increases. “I’m coming in,” he says and eases the door open.

Jason’s room is a war zone, everything that could be easily moved is along with some things that aren’t. The floor is littered with scattered papers and shattered glass, one section of drywall smattered with dents. The expression of Jason’s face as he stands in the epicenter is unrecognizable. His face is streaked with tear tracks, his brow is drawn with something like grief or anger or fear, his mouth a thin slash that could be annoyance or outrage or repression. Tim can see the slow, purposeful movement of his chest as he breathes, see the twitch of his jaw, the restless curl and uncurl of his fists.

Tim’s studied facial cues and body language, but it’s never been as good as the whip quick intuition of Steph and Dick, and especially not as good as Cass. He can’t parse the look on Jason’s face, only knows that it’s raising every hair on the back of his neck. His emotional intelligence may be abysmal, but his sense of danger is finely tuned.

Tim coils in preparation. He doesn’t want to fight with Jason. Doesn’t want Jason hurt, doesn’t want Bruce’s disappointment. Also doesn’t want to be stabbed to death in his own house on the off chance that Jason wore his kris to bed.

His mind is a well oiled machine and he has a trick up his sleeve as long as he can be quick. Something to tip the scales against violence. If it can work for Steph it can work for him.

He darts forward. Jason catches him by the front of the chest, almost knocking the wind out of him. His eyes are wild teeth bared, his hand strangling the front of Tim’s shirt. Still Tim manages to snatch a lock of hair and tug gently.

“Robin,” He says and all ambiguity disappears from Jason’s expression. Rage. Pure, unadulterated rage.

Fuck.

“No,” Jason grinds out, teeth bared, eyes flashing. He slams Tim up against the mutilated section of drywall and it caves further under the force. “Not Robin,”

“Jason,” Tim says, and doesn’t know what to follow it up with. Jason is talking, he’s lucid, he’s here in the moment with Tim and he is brimming with hate. Not Robin, spit at him like a condemnation. He’s been afraid of this since Jason started to recover. Tim knows the pain of being replaced while he wasn’t looking well. He held it close to his chest and nurtured it for several long months. Still feels the sharp pang of it if he thinks too hard.

“Jason,” He tries again, his own hands wrapped around Jason’s wrist where he presses him to the wall, “I understand.”

You?” Jason says, voice ragged, incredulous, accusing. He presses Tim harder into the wall, the force now on the cusp of bruising. Head trauma Tim’s brain recites may result in extreme irritability or aggression.

“Jason, you don’t know what you’re doing,” Tim says and immediately knows it was the absolute wrong thing.

“You,” Jason snarls at him, “Don’t. Fucking. Know. Me,” Each word is halting, forcibly dredged up one at a time. “You. Don’t. Fucking. Know. Me!” he says again louder shoving Tim. “Who are you?” He demands “That-that you can just,” He presses two knuckles hard to his forehead for a moment, “Just come into my fucking house, and-and my fucking family, and my-” Jason chokes before he can finish, but Tim knows what he was going to say; my fucking uniform.

“Jason,” Tim says at the frayed end of his patience, hurt and feeling stupid and pissed for being hurt and feeling stupid, “calm down,” It’s never the right thing to say, but Tim doesn’t have anything else.

“I’m not your fucking toy,” Jason snarls, “I’m not your fucking toy to fix and give back to Daddy. And even if I was, even if you could, he wouldn’t make you Robin again,”

Tim punches Jason square across the jaw. Before he can blink. Before he can think about what the fuck he’s just done, Jason hits him back. The flash of pain, the taste of blood. Everything falls straight out of his head except the fight. It’s vicious and graceless. They fall into the fight like wild dogs. Punching and kicking and grappling across the floor, no thought to the glass and detritus there. Jason gets a fist in his hair, yanking his head back. Tim scrabbles at his face, two fingers hooked in his open mouth, the others digging their nails in below his eye.

“Boys!” Bruce. It’s like a cold bucket of water over Tim’s head. He freezes and limply allows himself to be dragged off of Jason.

Jason is not so docile. He releases Tim, but glares acidly at Bruce all the while. Rolls to his feet petulantly.

“What,” Bruce says, tone forbidding “do you think you were doing?”

“Chatting,” Jason says, biting the word off with bared teeth, meeting Bruce’s gaze evenly.

Tim knows that Bruce and Jason had a fight right before Jason started his self imposed exile a week ago. As far as he knows they haven’t talked since then. Tim’s stomach flips nervously that this is their first conversation since. He knots his hands together. If only he hadn’t started a fight with Jason. If only he had known the right words to say to defuse him instead of- Still the wound of Robin was too raw to ignore. Not when Jason had taken a sledgehammer to it.

“Tim,” Bruce prompts through gritted teeth. Tim can see the anger, but also underneath the helplessness that spawned it. Stupid. Why did he have to fight with Jason?

“We, um, we were talking and he-well, I hit him,” Tim says.

Bruce scrutinizes him for ten long seconds. It’s worse than being trapped under a microscope. It’s like being the center of attention for ten thousand burning suns. Tim flicks his eyes to Jason nervously. Jason is still glaring, uncowed.

“It’s unlike Tim to lose his temper over nothing,” Bruce says, turning his burning gaze to Jason, “Did you say something to him, Jason?”

“Maybe,” Jason says, contemptuous. So what? His glare reads, and Tim can feel the tension rising.

“You can’t antagonize your brother, Jason,” Bruce says and Tim watches Jason’s anger flare higher at the word brother.

“You wanna talk to me,” Jason says slowly, “about things we’ve done to Tim?” He is almost laughing with it, brows raised. Something horrible is about to happen. Tim knows it instantly. From the sweat that breaks out on his palms, and the frantic beat of his heart, and his gorge rising in his throat. Something horrible is coming.

It’s clear in the bracing hunch to Bruce’s shoulders, the blankness on his face. It’s clear in venomous satisfaction of Jason’s expression, in the instant flip from increduly to absolute rage.

“You ruined his fucking life,” Jason snarls, voice thick with accusation.

It’s a nuclear bomb of a comment. Silence rings in its wake. Bruce whips his head towards Tim, his face stunned, desperate, horrified. It’s too quick for Tim to school his expression. He knows his face has told Bruce something he didn’t want it to, maybe the truth. Whatever it was Bruce looks ruined by it, torn open, shattered. Shit. Shit shit shit. Damage control. He needs- he needs- but he feels cut off at the knees. He doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know how to stem the bleeding.

And while they’re fumbling, Jason slips from the room, leaving them in the aftermath of the detonation, and disappears.

-

There’s a tapping at Dick’s window.

“Jason?” he asks, opening the window to Jason perched on the narrow sill.

Jason doesn’t reply, just clambers inside, forcing Dick a step back to make room.

“You look like shit,” Dick says, and Jason does. His clothes and hair are disheveled, there’s a red mark on his jaw that Dick is sure will be a bruise by the end of the hour, his bare skin is littered in small thin cuts. His hands are also mangled again, and his eyes are very red. Jason used to cry a lot Dick remembers. Every emotion, anger and fear and empathy felt so strongly that they overflowed. Jason had been so embarrassed by it, but Dick thought it was endearing. He still does, even if the sight now makes his heart pang.

“Thanks,” Jason croaks, “Take me out of here,”

“Of course,” Dick says without thinking. He gathers his phone, keys, and wallet, jamming his arms into a jacket as he goes. He doesn’t think Jason has ever asked him for anything before. “You need anything?”

“No,”

“Alright let's go,” They tromp down the stairs toward the garage, “Bruce being an asshole again?” It’s always a good guess regardless of circumstance.

Jason ducks his head and hunches his shoulders. Sulky. Probably a bit of mutual assholishness then.

Dick hums, “Well, I’m the fun one so we’ll steal his car anyway,” Dick says, snagging the keys to the mustang. That nets him a small grins from Jason, light blooms in his chest and he grins back.

“Where to captain?” he asks once they’re strapped in.

“Barbie’s,” Jason says, one knee pulled to his chest, fiddling with the window.

Dick turns the key in the ignition, hitting the clicker for the garage door. He makes a curious sound in the back of his throat as he backs out.

“She’ll understand,” Jason says.

“Understand what, Jace?” Dick asks gently.

“I’m not broken,” It strikes Dick like a kick to the chest.

“Of course not,” he says, urgent. Jay hums in reply.

“You’re not so bad,” Jason says “Bruce. Tim. They’re bad,”

And of course they would be, Dick thinks. They can never help themselves when there’s a problem to be solved. But that’s the issue isn’t it? That they think of Jason like a problem.

“I’m sorry,” Dick says, Jason doesn’t reply, just lays his cheek on his knee to look at Dick, blinking slowly.

“Okay,” he says finally, it’s as good as forgiveness.

-

“Babs,” Dick’s voice comes over the intercom, “it’s your favorite Boy Wonder,”

“Oh? Jason’s with you?”

He laughs “As a matter of fact yes,”

Curious. Babs buzzes them up. Jason’s been laid up in bed for the past week, and now he’s come for a personal visit. A moment later there’s a click and her door is swinging open and Jason and Dick are shuffling inside and taking their shoes off.

“Nice pajamas,” Babs says to Jason, because they’re Wonder Woman and it’s true, “Also you look like shit,”

“That’s what I said,” Dick exclaims, Jason only steps forward and tugs gently at her hair. He has his other arm curled around his stomach, his brow furrowed, his eyes red.

“What happened?” she asks softer. Jason works his jaw, opening and closing his mouth to the start of syllables without success. His eyes are closed in frustration. “Keywords only,” she says, “I’m smart I can figure it out,”

“Tim,” He says, touching the start of a bruise on his jaw.

Interesting, a little surprising. “I assume the other guy looks worse?” she says teasing. It draws a small smile out of Jason. Mission accomplished. Tim can handle a little roughhousing and it’s not even close to her job to stop them from fighting. “Why?” she asks more seriously.

“Robin,” Jason says, his voice so, so small. His eyes are closed, both his arms hugging himself. She hears Dick makes a soft wounded noise behind them.

She understands. She remembers the grief of Batgirl. The death of a part of her that had been so essential, so joyous, because she was too changed to ever wear it again. It was a loss on top of a loss, a future and present closed to her.

“Because you can’t or because someone else can?” She asks because she remembers Dick, when Jason first came around. She knows her own shameful jealousy at Steph and Cass even though her mantel is one she has freely given.

Jason just shakes his head. This close she can see that his eyelashes are wet.

“Joker,” he says, voice ragged. Understanding strikes her again, like a tuning fork, ringing out and resonating between them. “Bruce, he was-he was supposed-” his voice is barely a whisper.

Barbara doesn’t have any excuses to offer for Bruce. She doesn’t have any emotional explainations that she cares to offer. She meets eyes with Dick and quells whatever words he might try to say. She has something much, much better to offer him; answers.

“I’ve got you,” She assures, tugging his hair. She rolls back, “Take a seat I’ll be right back,” She rolls to her room and collects a laptop and headphones. She returns to the living room to find Jay curled on the couch and Dick on the phone.

“You lost Jason again?” Dick is saying into the phone, “Well, how long ago was it, are all the cars there?” a pause, “I have no idea if he can drive, Bruce I’m just asking! What even happened? Fine be that way, I’ll start heading back,” He hangs up the phone.

“Well that seems like my cue to leave,” He says pulling his shoes on, “I trust you two have things well in hand. I’ll keep him busy for a bit, but I figure you’ll have a bat knocking at your door by the end of the night,”

“Dickie,” Jason says from the couch, “thanks,”

Dick beams back at him, “No problem, Jay, I’ll see you two later,” He ducks a kiss to the top of Jason’s head and brushes one quick on Barbara’s cheek and then he’s out the door.

“You good to read?” Babs asks. Jason nods then shakes his head, puts a hand in his hair and yanks in frustration, finally he shrugs. “No problem,” Barbara replies, clicking through the accessibility settings on the laptop, “Text to speech and voice to text, it has access to all the Batcomputer files. Catch up on what you missed. Go wild,”

Jason accepts the laptop into his huddle eagerly, scrubbing his eyes and setting his jaw. There’s nothing a bat likes better than answers.

-

Bruce is in many ways a coward. He’s scared of failure, He's scared he’s made the wrong decision with his children, scared he’s failed them. And for over a month he’s been scared of Jason getting better. He knows better than anyone that he failed Jason, that he failed him in so many ways, drove him away, put him in danger, failed to protect him. There is no making it up. He knows that, so he’s lived in anticipation of the day Jason recovers enough to know it too.

He’s so, so scared to lose Jason again, but at least this time if he does it will be by Jason’s choice. It will be because Jason is alive and well enough to make the choice.

Before any of that, he needs to find Jason. He needs to know he’s safe. He closes his eyes and thinks of Jason and Tim earlier this evening. Jason furious as he always became when he was hurt, Tim miserable and guilty. Tim’s face shocked, but free of protest at Jason’s accusation. You ruined his fucking life. It all needs to wait. Wait until he knows Jason is safe.

He’s been out looking in the Batsuit for ninety minutes, three hours total since he notices Jason’s absence, when Dick finally confesses what he knows.

“Barbara,” he growls into the phone.

“Dick finally gave up the ghost huh?” she replies easily “He held out longer than I thought. He’s always been a little weak to a frantic Batman,”

“Jason is with you,” he can’t make it a question.

“Yes he’s here and I’d recommend leaving it that way,” she sighs, “Bruce, he’s upset, rightfully I think. The best thing is for you to give him space,”

“I can’t,” Bruce says, the last time he left Jason alone- “Jason doesn’t-”

“Jason doesn’t need you watching him like a hawk every second of the day. Jason needs your trust and your respect. He’s perfectly capable of making decisions and I’m perfectly capable of keeping an eye on him. He doesn’t want to see you, don’t come,”

But they both know that he will. It’s like a compulsion. He needs to see Jason needs to know he’s okay, needs it more than he needs to try and make amends with him right now. He hangs up on Barbara and swings down to the Batmobile. He can be at Barbara’s apartment within fifteen minutes.

Every second of it passes like an eternity. His mind can believe that Jason is safe with Barbara, but his heart cannot. It cannot believe anything, that Jason is alive, that he is unharmed, without Jason before his eyes. He just needs to see him. Just needs to make sure he’s okay. His heart is beating out of his chest he can feel his pulse in his throat. Every action feels taken on autopilot, precise and unalterable. He just needs to see Jason.

He grapples up the window and it is the work of moments to slip inside.

“Jason,” he says, and the figure on the couch turns. The bruise on his face is a lurid blue where it was only a red splotch before, his eyes are still red. He’s been crying. Crying more since Bruce last saw him.

“What?” Jason croaks, his knees are to his chest, a laptop balanced atop them, headphones pulled down around his neck. On the computer there is a mission report, one from years ago now, from when Tim first became Robin.

Bruce doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know how to convey the enormity of his guilt, his grief, how to ask for a forgiveness that he would never grant himself. Regardless Jason needs to know. He needs to know that Bruce is sorry, even if that won’t change anything. He pulls back the cowl, Bruce needs to be the one to say it.

“I failed you, Jason,” he says voice rough, “I’m sorry,”

“For what?” Jason asks, quiet, expressionless.

“I should have saved you,” He says.

“No,” Jason says, eyes closed, voice thin, “I said. I said, it’s okay,”

“Jason-”

No,” he says “I said. It’s not about saving, Dad,” Jason opens his eyes and meets Bruce’s gaze, “Why is the Joker still alive?”

Bruce’s heart stops. It’s like being shot, the force and shock of it in the moment before the pain rushes in.

“I-I wanted to kill him, Jaylad,” he swallows, ashamed, fervent, “I don’t think I’ve wanted anything more in my whole life, but- I can’t, I just can’t,” He doesn’t want to say it to him, doesn’t want to tell Jason, to show him how rotten he is inside, how ruined and terrible. He doesn’t want his son to know, but-but Jason is asking. “If I killed him I wouldn’t ever be able to stop, I wouldn’t be able to turn back from it,”

“Why?” Jason says, and he is that little boy. He is the same little boy whose body Bruce held until long after it went cold. He is the same little boy who Bruce loved, who Bruce loves, “Why?” he’s almost crying now and Bruce wants to comfort him, wants to brush his hair back like he used to, wants to hold him in his arms and know that he’s safe, that Bruce will keep him safe from everything.

“Just Joker,” Jason pleads, “He took me away. He took me away from you.”

“I’m sorry,” Bruce says, “I’m sorry,” He can barely get the words out. His little boy, his Jaylad.

Jason closes his eyes and puts his head down on his knees. “Please, leave,” Jason whispers.

His little boy. He’s seen that he’s safe. He leaves.