His second tour with the Teen Titans was going better than the first, but the tower was definitely not where Damian wanted to be. Sure, he was... not antagonizing the Titans quite as much, but it wasn’t about that. His family was back in Gotham, and for the first time since he’d come to live in the manor, he was getting along well with all of them. And now Dick and their father thought he needed to develop better social skills in general while he was still young?
Tim was the only one who had argued with them about it. He’d said that it would be better if he grew comfortable with everyone in Gotham first before being thrown into the bigger world. Some time ago, Damian might have been insulted and haughtily declared that he could handle anything, but now he’d had never been happier to have him for a brother. As much as Damian hated to admit it, maybe the girl with the eye-patch – Rose – was right:
He was having major separation anxiety. Damian had considered simply leaving the tower and returning to Gotham on his own. He knew he could do that but he also knew his father and eldest brother at least would be disappointed, so he grudgingly stayed and tried very very hard not to snap at everyone.
His late evening walks in the local park helped a little, though the stares and occasional ‘Are you lost, son?’ were getting tiresome. Damian just wanted to be alone for a little while, and the tower was just too damn noisy. Anyway, it was nothing personal, and the park was nice and quiet this late in the evening. Except for the occasional shady characters, of course, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle.
Like tonight. Tonight, a woman was thoughtless enough to go jogging at this hour with her headphones on which practically screamed an invitation for a mugging. She didn’t hear the man sneaking up behind her or when Damian disarmed and knocked him out and unceremoniously tied him up to the nearest lamp post. She just continued jogging. The boy rolled his eyes and went to radio the local police.
“Well, well look who just made little league.”
The voice belonged to a figure that stepped out of the shadows, and Damian momentarily tensed when he saw the street lamp glinting of the Red Hood’s helmet. Then the man removed it, and the boy breathed an audible sigh of relief. No hood meant Jason wasn’t here to fight.
It was a bit odd walking with him just in civilian clothes. He wasn’t Dick or Tim, but there was a sense of kinship he couldn’t quite assign a name to. He was their father’s son – Damian understood that now – and more than that, there was a connection from Talia al Gul as well. He might not have shared Damian’s genes, but Talia had given Jason his second life back, or else the youth might have forever remained in that Autistic-like state he’d been in when he first dug himself out of his own grave.
The oddity of it all didn’t detract from the fact that Damian was happy to have someone else connected to his real life in Gotham here and found that, all issues aside, he actually liked this prodigal brother. Jason didn’t talk much, but that was okay because neither did he. It was fine just to walk and know that they didn’t always have to fight every time they crossed paths.
“Timmy says ‘hi’,” Jason gave him a sidelong glance as they sat down on an empty bench. “Haven’t seen the bats, but I bet they do, too. How’s life at Teen Tower?”
“Okay.” The boy shrugged a little. “The manor is better.”
“I bet. Bigger budget, better toys, and much more oxygen to go around. I always thought we had it better than those JLA wannabes. Don’t get me wrong, they mean well and all, but it’s all kind of... juvenile.”
Someone else might have pointed out that that Damian was a kid, but not Jason. Not when both knew that neither one of them have ever truly been children, forced to grow up fast either by life on the brutal streets of Gotham or with the League of Assassins.
“Is there something going on that the Titans should be aware of?” Damian asked finally. “Something in the city?”
“Is that your subtle way of asking what I’m doing here?” Jason smirked. “I ran into our former Teen Wonder three nights back. After the mess a few months ago, we’ve sort of... informally teamed up to push as much of the drug traffic out of Gotham as possible. He mentioned you were here, so I thought I’d drop in for a visit. Timmy seems to think you might be a little homesick”
Damian shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “Whatever.”
A smirk. “Yeah, me too, kiddo.”
It was too cold to remain sitting for long so they rose and continued the walk.
“Sorry I couldn’t bring you Alfi’s famous tea cakes,” the young man said. “I haven’t had time to stop by the tower or the manor.”
“Have you?” Damian tilted his head up at him but tried not to look too hopeful. “Before.”
“You mean have I gone to see dear ol’ Dad?” Jason raised a brow. “You should work on that subtlety thing, but to answer your question, no, I haven’t. But... I did talk to Tim and worked with him on a few occasions. That counts, right?”
“I suppose.” The boy kicked a stone. “You should still talk to Father though. He’s... happier when you’re around.”
“I don’t think so,” Jason smiled a bit sadly.
“Yes, he is.” Damian insisted. “Go see him. You’ll see.”
* * * * * * * * * *
He hadn’t actually planned on taking the kid’s advice.
It was in a moment of weakness brought on by exhaustion and blood loss that Jason stumbled into the cave. He couldn’t begin to remember how he actually got past Bruce’s elaborate security settings. He should have gone back to his apartment, but ever since his encounter with Tim and Damian a month prior which lead to the first real conversation he’d had with Bruce in years, Jason could no longer deny the pull of the manor, its promise of warmth and comfort.
The cave wasn’t exactly warm, but it had an undeniable scenes of comfort and familiarity. He was both a little relieved and disappointed that no one was home. Jason dropped into the big chair in front of the main computer and slowly removing his jacket, checked the shoulder wound. Digging out the bullet and then practically bathing the entry point in alcohol had hurt like hell, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. The wound was already clotting. Unable to stay awake any longer, Jason threw the jacket across his chest for added warmth and leaned back in the chair with a sigh.
He was exhausted enough that he’d hoped he wouldn’t dream, and it was nothing he remembered, but an unspecified amount of time later he gasped as he came awake. Survival instincts kicked in in a flash, and Jason blinked to asses the situation. He was in the cave, his heart was pounding – whether it was from the dream or being awakened, he didn’t know – and Bruce was standing over him, a slight frown on the older man’s face. Jason relaxed again and swallowed.
“Are you alright?” Bruce didn’t even ask what he was doing there.
“Peachy.” The youth closed his eyes again. “Sorry to barge in like this.”
“If I didn’t want you here, you wouldn’t have been able to come in.” It wasn’t arrogance. Jason knew it was true. Again, the fact that he was at least in some way, welcome, was comforting. “What’s happened? Are you hurt?”
He didn’t open his eyes but moved the injured shoulder slightly in response. “Drug dealers in the south east end. They’d been...” He tried to remember what had caused the fight. “Hanging around at the school yards.”
He was half expecting Bruce to ask if he’d killed any of them. Instead he felt the man move forward and lift the edge of his jacket to get a better look at the wound. Jason tried not to wince at the little bit of motion. It was a mess of clotted blood and other fluids, he knew. A part of him wanted to hide it, but Jason honestly didn’t have the strength. He wished the man would just go away and let him sleep a little longer.
“ ‘m fine.” He groaned. “Just give me another hour or so, and I’ll be out of your hair.”
“You’re not going anywhere in this state.” The tone brooked no argument. “Except upstairs to the house.” Another groan. “Come on, Jason. You’ve lost a lot of blood, and you’ll be much warmer and more comfortable in bed in your room than in a chair in the cave.”
He opened an eye at this. “My room?”
“Yes, your room. Exactly like you left it,” Bruce was pulling at his uninjured arm now, half forcing, half helping him up.
He didn’t have the strength to argue. Somehow, with the older man’s help, Jason made it to the room. The direction felt familiar, but it was dark and he didn’t have a chance to look around before he literally dropped onto the bed atop the covers. Undressing was too hard of a task, though he had remembered to remove his boots on the way up from the cave – Alfred would have had a fit about mud on the carpets. Jason gave a content sigh and buried his face in the pillow.
He waited for the sound of retreating footsteps, and when they didn’t come, Jason sighed. “ ‘m fine,” he repeated. “Quit nagging.”
“That’s what parents do.”
He could hear Bruce taking a deep breath, and Jason winced a little. Maybe that was cruel, but he was too tired for any more conversation, and a moment later the door did close as Bruce finally let him sleep.
It was a bit odd waking up in this room in the morning. The pain in his shoulder was still there, but Jason couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so rested. He stretched as much as the shoulder allowed and glanced over at the alarm clock which read a few minutes past nine in the morning. He grinned. It felt just like old times, like a Saturday morning after a particularly grueling patrol night with Bruce but no school the next day.
In other words: heaven.
The rest of the room felt no different, so much so, that Jason got a sense of... something odd. Bruce hadn’t exaggerated that it was exactly as he’d left it. It was the room of a teenager that looked like it hadn’t been disturbed in years. Pictures of happy memories stood perfectly preserved on book cases; images of him and Bruce and even some with Alfred and Dick. There were no pictures of Tim or Damian. Suddenly a thought came to Jason’s mind about the rooms of missing kids that became shrines. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but somehow he was. After all, he’d been dead, not missing.
The manor was largely empty as he walked through it, eventually ending up in the kitchen. Jason figured no one would mind if he helped himself to some breakfast. The only thing that had changed about the kitchen was an upgrade of some of the equipment. Everything else was still where Jason remembered it, so within minutes he had bread in the toaster and the coffee maker gurgling along. Plucking an apple from the basket on the counter he hopped onto a bar stool and waited for the coffee to brew.
It was eerily quiet, he noted glancing around, then recalled while Damian and Alfred at least still lived here, they along with Dick, were probably at Wayne Tower. Did Tim still live at the manor or did he have his own place? Jason couldn’t recall. Did that mean that Bruce was alone at the manor? It was a depressing thought. Everyone in the JLA might have thought of Batman as a loner, but the truth was that ever since he’d taken in Dick, Bruce had always had a family in one form or another around.
That same man came walking through the kitchen door just as the toaster had popped the bread back up. Jason grabbed a slice and looked up. He was about to assure the man he was leaving or come up with some kind of witty remark, but all that died on the way out of his mouth when he saw the expressing on Bruce’s face. It lasted a mere second, but in that heartbeat, he could have sworn that his surrogate father was... scared? No, that couldn’t be right.
“I just got up,” Jason managed instead. “Figured I’d grab some food before...”
He trailed off as Bruce nodded and visibly relaxed. “How’s the shoulder?”
“I’ll live.” Another nod. Jason shifted uncomfortably then began sliding off the chair. “I should get going.”
“Where?” The older man’s voice was quiet.
The question caught him by surprise. So much so that Jason stopped.
“Home,” he finally said, even though the answer felt like a chunk of glass lodged in his throat.
“This is your home, Jason. You belong here.”
“No, it isn’t!” For some reason he felt defensive. “I didn’t belong here even when I lived here, never mind now.”
“Maybe you didn’t feel like you belonged here,” Bruce agreed. “And that’s on me. That’s my fault. I knew the transition was difficult, but clearly I didn’t give it enough attention. I didn’t give you what you needed. I wasn’t a good father.”
He didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to hear that Bruce thought he wasn’t a good father, because the truth was that as far as Jason was concerned, a contest between Willis Todd and Bruce Wayne was no contest at all. Nor was it a contest between Catherine Todd and Sheila Haywood, who had first abandoned then betrayed him. He should have understood that, Jason realized. Maybe then he might have survived.
Blood didn’t make a parent.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Jason swallowed. “I wasn’t ready and I didn’t listen. I never listen. And I got myself killed. End of story. There wasn’t any more training, anything that you could have done to...”
“It wasn’t about training,” Bruce cut him off. “It was...”
“I get it...”
“No, you don’t.” He sighed and bit his lip as if looking for the right words. “Dick had parents. I was the mentor but I never had to... parent him much. You, on the other hand, had to raise yourself, probably even when you lived here. It’s not right and it wasn’t fair to you. I should have been more of a father.”
“Think you got that backwards. The way I remember it, I was a lousy son.”
“So come back. Give us both a chance to make things right.” Again there was a note in his voice that was dangerously close to pleading. It set Jason’s world on its head. Batman didn’t plead.
“I worry about all of you,” Bruce continued, “but you most of all. At least Dick, Tim, and Damian are where I can keep an eye on them. I worry about where you sleep, if you’re warm enough, if you have enough to eat.” A pang of guilt shot through Jason’s gut. “I don’t ever want to find you the way I did the first time.”
“Then you might want to consider better security on those wheels,” the young man quipped.
“I’m serious, Jason.” Bruce remained unmoved. “Don’t give me this bravado, just be honest. I know you don’t sleep well. You never slept well, but especially after...” He stopped himself.
“I manage. You’d be amazed at what coffee in large quantities does.”
“Is that all? Just coffee?”
It took a moment for it to sink in what he was implying, and then Jason all but laughed. “Are... are you asking if I’m on drugs? Seriously?”
“Are you?” The look Bruce gave him was not without sympathy. “You can tell me if you are. I won’t...”
“No!” He should have been angry at the inquisition that was half-way to being an after-school special, but it felt oddly good to know that he cared enough to ask. “No, I’m not on drugs. If I ever even thought of it... I’ve seen Roy Harper, okay? I never want to end up like that looser.”
“Don’t be so quick to judge Roy.” For the first time since his arrival, Jason saw a look of disapproval. He frowned.
“Why not? He gets points for kicking the habit the first time, but how stupid does he have to be to go back to it.”
“His child’s body was pulled out of the ruble.” Was it just his imagination or had Bruce’s voice quivered? “There are very few people who can even begin imagine that kind of pain. Do not judge him.”
A child’s body pulled from the ruble... In their family there was only one person who didn’t have to imagine the pain. Oh, fuck! Suddenly Jason could see it as clear as day: Bruce commissioning the casket, picking out the suit, looking at him one last time as the lid closed.
His father had to bury him.
“Bruce... Dad,” It slipped out before he could stop himself. Jason clenched his fists setting them hard against the kitchen table. It felt so strange to realize that sometimes it was his father who needed comfort and reassurance. As it was, all Jason managed was: “I’m here. I’m okay. Really.”
“You’re alive,” Bruce agreed. “But you’re far from okay.”
His problem, as Jason realized that night as he sat on the edge of one of the rooftops in the slums of Gotham, was that he’d been a selfish little shit. The same problem he’d had when he’d gotten himself killed. He always thought he knew better, knew everything. Dying had sucked, no question. Thinking that his father didn’t love him enough to avenge him, had simply wiped him from memory and replaced him was unbearable.
Jason knew better, now. Should have known better then, really. He’d seen the room, talked to Bruce. He could tell that his life and death had had a profound effect on him. He scoffed. Grown man, and he was still after his father’s attention. Then again, how was it different from anyone else?
Someone landed on the roof behind him, but Jason didn’t have to turn to see who it was. Too light to be Bruce, not light enough to be Dick.
“Can you believe how quiet it is?” Tim strode out of the shadows.
“Some of the Gothams of the multiverse are calmer,” Jason replied. It was a little strange, but good how easily they lapsed into a normal conversation when a year ago they would have come to blows on sight.
“Yeah, well, it’s surreal for this one.” The teen dropped on the ledge next to him. “I’m actually thinking of heading home and getting a solid eight hours of sleep. How weird is that?”
Tim frowned. He could tell Jason was distracted. “What’s up with you?”
The man shifted slightly, stretching out one leg and bending the other to get the blood flowing. “Remember when I tracked you down at Titan Tower? We fought.”
“Yeah. You beat me to a bloody pulp just to prove you could and wrote ‘Jason Todd was here’ on the wall.”
Tim didn’t sound angry though. More like he was trying to blow the whole thing off. Jason frowned slightly, not taking the bait. He didn’t really want to fight with the teen. He didn’t really want to fight with any of them.
“You said that no one could forget me. Did you mean my death? Bruce was hard on you because he didn’t want you to make my mistakes.”
Tim sniffed and wrinkled his nose. The question clearly made him uncomfortable. “I think maybe Dick can tell you better. Maybe Alfred. I wasn’t there immediately after you died, but I saw… we all saw what it did to him. It was like…”
“Like he broke,” Jason mused.
He'd seen variations of the story in his travels throughout the multiverse. Other versions of Bruce Wayne who had lost their Jason and what it had done to them. Likewise, he'd met versions of himself in worlds where it was Bruce who'd been killed and he the survivor. Even in the supposedly overall better worlds, none of those men looked happy. For the most part, they were all... lifeless.
Jason was the first to admit that he hadn't taken the news of his role being given to another well. He'd reacted calmly enough when Talia had showed him the surveillance photos of the then-new Robin, but that night, sitting on the bed as he looked at them on the wall across the room, he felt like he wanted to die all over again. He'd spent a long time hating Tim. Thinking about it now, he was grateful to his younger brother.
There was no doubt in Jason's mind that Tim had saved Bruce's sanity and possibly his life.
“Okay, to make this feel a little less like slumber party gossip and save what’s left of my sanity, how about a bear?” Tim opened his mouth to protest. “Right. I shouldn’t be contributing to the delinquency of minors, should I? But I’m starving, and that grease truck down below smells good.”
They ended up with a couple sodas and gyro wraps. Tim sat with his back against the brick wall that covered the entrance to the roof while opposite of him Jason leaned against a pipe with his boots pushed against the same wall on Tim’s right.
“So what brought on this heart to heart?” the teen asked. “Not that I mind…”
“I crashed at the manor yesterday,” Jason confessed. Tim raised a brow. “Yeah, so… there was kind of no avoiding Bruce.”
“Did you talk?” He could tell the teen was trying not to sound too hopeful. “He likes talking to you. For real, I mean, not when weapons are involved.”
“Yeah, that’s what the little bird said.” Another raised brow. “Did I mention I went to San Francisco?”
“You saw Damian?”
“Yeah. He seems kind of… meh. I don’t think he too into your friends. Not that I blame him… I probably wouldn’t be too thrilled if I was forced to hang out Dickie bird’s palls twenty-four-seven. Maybe Donna…”
“If there was no sign of carnage, I’m happy.”
“I don’t think he is.”
“Hey, in my defense, it was Bruce and Dick’s idea. I’m not always the kid’s number one fan, but he’s really better off here for now. It’s good that you went to see him though. He likes you.”
Jason almost choked on his drink. “What’ve you been smoking?”
“No, he does,” Tim insisted. “Let me put it in perspective for you. It took Dick a month to feel confident enough that we could be left alone in the same room without killing each other, but you he’s just cool with. Weird.”
“Maybe.” The man took a bite of the gyro in his hand. “So what's your take on it?”
“Me coming back.”
“You've been back,” Tim grinned. “What do you call what we've been doing with the drug trade?”
“A temporary informal team-up brought on by guilt at getting you shot up with heroin?”
“Yeah, can't say I'm too thrilled about that one. Look, I know you don't hate us all as much as you want us to think, otherwise you wouldn't even feel guilty about that. So what's the problem?”
Jason sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “My violent tendencies? Inability to get over issues? You clearly severely underestimate how fucked in the head I am.”
“Oh, I don't think anyone doubts how fucked up your are.” Jason laughed. He'd never heard the teen really curse. “And we can sit here and compare notes on whose loved ones died when and how it screwed us up. Granted, you actually died too so that's a big point in your court, but as far as I'm concerned, the bottom line is that you being around makes Bruce happy. There's very very few things in the world that do, and that pretty much tops the list. So if you can make a little bit of an effort and come around more often, I know that everyone, especially Bruce, would be grateful.”
Jason thought about that. Maybe... maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to at least try. To come to the house once in a while if only to see Bruce. He could try, he reasoned. For his father, he could try.
“Besides,” Tim grinned taking a gulp of soda. “With you back, I wouldn't have to be the only middle child anymore.”
“Oh, well, in that case...”
It occurred to Jason at point a few months later amid his slow integration back into the bat clan that he’d become the stereotypical college kid. Which was funny because he’d never actually gone to college, but still he felt like a guy who came home every once in a while for a home cooked meal and to do laundry. That was a little how it was, except that he did his own laundry at the mat a few blocks away from Park Row and sometimes ate at the manor, but never at a full scale family dinner. He didn’t interact with more than one or two other people at a time, but on very rare occasions, Jason even slept in the room that had once upon a time been his.
He hadn’t slept over that night, but he did arrive fairly early entering from the cave as he usually did. Checking the refrigerator was first on his list – the preoccupation with food that he’d developed as a child on the streets never completely went away – and when Jason arrived in the kitchen, he saw that Bruce was already there, drinking a cup of coffee. He nodded a greeting and reached for another cup.
Somewhere upstairs, a door slammed. That was promptly followed by incoherent yelling.
His hand drew back. “What was that?”
“Damian is upset.” His father replied surprisingly calmly. Jason blinked.
“And you’re here... drinking coffee...” The young man’s brow creased. “I thought you were trying this whole parenting thing.” Bruce raised a brow over his mug, and he sighed. “Oh, it’s just me you’re parenting? Listen, I know this is hard for you to follow, but try to keep up: You parent the angry ten-year-old,” he pointed upstairs, “before he becomes an angry twenty-something-year-old.” The he jabbed a thumb at his own chest. “See how that works?”
“I never knew you were so funny.”
“I try,” Jason smirked. “I rarely succeed, but I try. So, seriously, what crawled up the little bird’s butt?”
Another slam of the door from upstairs. This time the screaming was accompanied by the sound of something being thrown against a wall. Jason raised his eyes at the ceiling, but Bruce remained impassive.
“Tim’s in San Francisco and Dick just left for New York for a week or so and I refused to take him on patrol with me.”
Jason blinked. “It’s... almost eight. Are you saying he’s been at this all night?”
“No, I left late. He was still sleeping.”
“Wait so, you didn’t tell him you were going, then went out, and left him here? Okay, again, probably none of my business, but why didn’t you take him with you?”
Bruce pressed his lips into a thin line. “He’s doesn’t follow orders well.” Somewhere in there was the unspoken ‘like certain other Robin who got himself killed’. “Actually, it seems it’s just my orders he doesn’t like. He listens to Dick. Most of the time.”
“I know he’s gone out with Timmy before,” Jason wasn’t quite following the logic of keeping the younger Robin out of the game in this case. “Are you saying he listens to him but not you?”
“I shouldn’t have let them go that time.” Bruce’s tone was firm. “You’re the only reason Tim or both of them aren’t dead.”
“Umm... thanks? Or is it ‘you’re welcome’? Did you know you have major control issues?”
“Except when it comes to managing the tempter tantrum of your ten-year-old.”
There was more yelling, and Jason could see that despite his bravado, the whole thing was wearing on Bruce. The man put down his cup and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I want to know how Dick does it. Honestly.”
Jason threw back his head and practically howled with laughter. It was just too good.
“How does he do anything? He’s Dick “I’m a fucking acrobat” Grayson. The whole of the multiverse is generally in love with him, and everything he does is perfect by all accounts. And I’d like to note that I find it hilarious that you’re jealous of his parenting skills regarding your kid.” He took a deep intake of breath and caped Bruce on the back. “Face it: us mere mortals just can’t compete. Accept it. I have.”
“Tim never acted like he was jealous.” It looked like Bruce was trying very hard not to laugh.
“Ahh, that’s because he – like the rest of the multiverse – worships the space Dickie bird flies through. Little suck-ups, both of them.”
“Lucky you don’t have that problem.”
Upstairs the door opened again, and this time Damian must have decided he really wanted to be heard. It didn’t slam again, but Jason got an earful of something that sounded dangerously like, “I hate you! I wish you weren’t my father!”
All humor dropped from the air like a stone, and when he chanced a glance at Bruce, he saw that the man’s expression hardened. Still he didn’t move, and the young man gritted his teeth. Enough of this bullshit.
A few minutes later he was physically carrying his youngest brother down the stairs and to the kitchen. No small feat, considering Damian kept squirming and yelling and doing everything else imaginable to wriggle out of his grasp, but Jason was strong and held him tightly under one arm. He placed him on the floor in front of Bruce.
“I don’t know what happened to get your panties in a twist, and I don’t really care,” he told the glaring ten-year-old. “You’re going to cut the crap and you’re going to turn around and say ‘I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean it. I love you, and I’m never going to do that again’ or so help me, even your beloved Dick Grayson won’t save you. Now!”
Apparently sufficiently startled – and hopefully a little scared – Damian blinked at his brother, then chanced a glance at their father before fixing his eyes to the floor at Bruce’s feet.
“I’m sorry for my behavior, Father,” he said solemnly. “It was childish.”
“Well, you are a child,” Bruce said reasonably. “I accept your apology, Damian.”
Yours, too, Jason.