Jason was still breathing when Bruce found him.
Bruce being who he was, what he was, took in everything around them—the dull roar of the fire, the caustic odor of smoke, the shush of debris-littered sand beneath his boots, the coppery taste of blood in the air. But his brain shunted that information to the side to be cataloged and analyzed later. All he could focus on was his son.
Bruce could hear him breathing even above the chaos of the bomb’s aftermath, a wet, rattling gasp that made the boy’s shoulders twitch with effort.
Bruce had been screaming his son’s name from the moment he crested the dune and saw the black plume of smoke belching into the sky. His throat was bleeding raw with the force of those cries, but he couldn’t stop.
“Jason, hold still. Hold still, I’m here, I’m getting you out!”
He couldn’t see his boy. Half the building had come down on Jason, and Bruce had spent the last portion of eternity feverishly hauling planks and beams off Jason’s fragile body.
He’ll be okay. He has to be okay.
“Don’t move, Jay, I’m coming!”
Bruce could see a sweaty mop of black curls with ends slicked into points against a bloody temple. Jason’s face was turned away, slumped into the sand, and his pale neck glistened in the firelight. Bruce’s view ended at those twitching, heaving shoulders, the rest disappearing beneath rubble.
With a desperate, raging cry, Bruce gripped what had been the side of the building and dug his shoulder beneath the main beam. Boots slipping and scrabbling in the sand, he dug in, then heaved the debris off and away before crashing to his knees next to the boy.
Bruce ripped off his gloves and reached for his boy, then stopped, fingers flexing, paralyzed by the sight of Jason’s broken body. Without the Robin uniform, without those black curls he knew so well, he wouldn’t have recognized his own son. And Bruce’s brain—his stupid, awful, worthless brain—took in every detail without giving any solutions in return.
The bruises. The cuts. The burns. The blood. The shattered bones. The twisted limbs. How could he fix this? He had to fix this.
“Jay-lad.” It was hardly a name, more a groan that stretched from deep inside him, as mangled as its young owner.
But Jason heard, and he understood. He tried to turn his head. Bloodless, blood-smeared lips moved, tracing the shape of Bruce’s name. It was enough to free Bruce’s suspended reach.
Gently, oh so gently, Bruce’s hand cupped his boy’s head, touch feather-soft against the curls.
“I’m here, Jay. I’m here, I’m here. Help is coming. Just keep breathing for me, son.”
Jason’s chest, or what was left of it, rose again, the cavity of smashed ribs deepening as his lungs fought to work.
“That’s... that’s it. Keep breathing for me.” Bruce swallowed hard against the rising bile in his throat and tried to keep his voice gentle, soothing. His other hand reached out and carefully wiped away the blood bubbling at the corners of Jason’s mouth.
Bruce. Jason’s lips moved again, unintelligible sound gurgling at the back of his throat.
“Shh shh shh, I’m here. I’m here. Just stay with me.”
Bruce couldn’t tell if Jason could hear him. If he could feel Bruce’s touch or anything beyond his own unimaginable pain. If those panicked, roving blue eyes with their black-blown pupils could see anything beyond his own fear.
He wanted to hold him. Wanted to scoop that broken body into his arms and shelter it with his own until the miracle he was praying for arrived. Bruce wanted to hold his boy. But his stupid, awful, useless brain hissed warnings of spinal injuries and paralysis, of the harm he could cause by giving into sentiment at just the wrong time.
So Bruce watched the rise and fall of that broken chest as if it controlled the rise and fall of empires, and he whispered promises to his son that he could never keep, and he pledged his strength, his fortune, his own life, to anything and anyone that would listen if only they would save his boy.
“I’m here, Jay. I’m not going to leave you. Keep breathing.”
Jason’s body went rigid as his chest rose in one sharp breath and held.
Bruce didn’t hear the exhale, but he felt Jason’s body go limp beneath his hands like a taut line sliced in two. The desert, empty now of the wet, grinding rattle, rung with silence, then filled once more, this time with the high, inhuman wail of a dying heart.
And, at last, Bruce held his son.
It had all happened almost too quickly for Dick to follow. They had fought their way out of the temple and were coming down the mountain, battered but on their way to freedom. Bruce’s training kept them focused, but they knew that the plateau was only a short hike away. They had survived, and they were almost giddy, jubilant with victory,
Dick had been in the back, purposely positioned between his brothers and the broken army of temple servants they had left behind. The others were haphazardly spaced in front of him, but all visible down the path below him. Dick had seen the first warrior step out before his brothers had noticed anything amiss. He had just been too far away to do anything but shout.
The warriors were armed with swords. In an age of concussion grenades and machine guns, swords should have been nothing. But Dick had lost all of his weapons while fighting his way free of their captors, and he knew his brothers had as well. When you had nothing, the gleaming, hungry blade of a sword became something again.
Damian had been in front. He’d pulled ahead as they had drawn closer to their destination, rare youthful exuberance overriding caution and common sense. His attention had been on his footing when the first assassin materialized from behind a boulder. Dick’s panicked shout had allowed Damian just enough time to dive out of the path of the swinging blade, but his shoulder caught a jutting rock, and he was too slow to rise.
Dick was too far away. He was too far away and unarmed. He was living his nightmare—feet too slow to reach his brothers, brain too fast not to work out how the swordsmen would cut through their ragged line like tiger claws through tissue paper. They would die on this mountain. Bleed out on the snow almost within sight of the plateau, just close enough that Bruce could collect their bodies with ease when it was all over.
The odd man out. The wild card, for good or ill. The unpredictable ace up their sleeve. Their magnet for trouble, collector of odd experiences. Too cynical to be Dick, too rash to be Tim, too undisciplined to be Damian. Raised on the streets. Trained by a Bat and a Flying Grayson. Raised again by assassins. Comrade of drug dealers, mercenaries, and thieves. Their family stories always seemed to twist on a “but Jason.”
But Jason stepped between Damian and his attacker, a small knife appearing in his hand as if by magic. Dick knew Jason could kill. Had killed. Dick had seen it before, in Gotham, with guns and bombs and fists and gravity. He had never seen Jason kill like this. It was the blinding flash of blades, the blur of a tan leather jacket and dark curls, the splatter of red blood on grey stone. And then it was done.
Jason stood with his back to Dick, panting, one hand on his hip and the other still clutching a small knife soaked to its hilt. Six men lay crumpled at his feet. All dead as stone.
Tim was the first to move from his rooted position just below Dick. He dropped the hand that had been outstretched toward his brothers and scrambled down the path, boots scraping and slipping in his haste. He was kneeling at Damian’s side a moment later, helping his little brother to his feet.
Tim’s movement was enough to jolt Dick forward. He followed the same path, acrobatic grace lending him a more controlled descent, but the crash of his boots against the mountainside was just as frenzied. In only a few seconds but far too long, he skidded to a halt in front of Tim and Damian and yanked them both into a tight hug.
“Are you okay?” Dick asked, voice stripped hoarse by adrenaline. “Are you hurt? Are you both okay?”
He jerked both boys away at arm’s length and studied them. No fatal wounds that he could see. A bruise on Tim’s cheek and a superficial cut on Damian’s jaw, but both from the temple fight and not the ambush. Heart still pounding, he pulled them both in again for another bone-crushing hug.
Damian hissed, but his arm joined Tim’s in wrapping around Dick’s torso and holding him close.
“God, you’re both going to give me gray hairs,” Dick mumbled. He pressed his nose into Damian’s scalp, breathing in the familiar scent of sweat and shampoo and dog before doing the same to Tim.
Tim, again, was the first to break free of the moment’s grip. “I think demon brat dislocated his shoulder. We need to get him to the plane.”
Dick remembered Damian’s hiss and quickly loosened his hold. “Sorry.”
With his arm slung around Tim’s shoulder and a hand on Damian’s head, Dick twisted toward Jason, who was still looking down at the men scattered below him. At the weight of three sets of eyes landing on him, Jason turned only his head and met Dick’s gaze. His face was pale, almost green, and splattered with a fine mist of blood. It took Dick a moment to piece his coloring together with the slant of his jaw and the blaze in his eyes. He was angry. No, he was furious. But when his eyes met Dick’s, he smiled. All teeth.
“Let’s not keep Daddy Dearest waiting, boys.”
The next few yards of the mountain sloped gently, the grade mild enough that even Babs would have had no trouble. Jason took the lead again, slowly, and the others moved at an even pace behind him. Dick refused to let go of either boy. But when the gentle incline degraded into rocks and rubble, Jason paused at the top and waited for his brothers to meet him.
Dick pulled to a stop and peered down the mountain as well, expecting to see another trap, more dangers. There was nothing, just hunks of granite and scrabbly tufts of grass. He turned toward Jason to ask over Damian’s head why he had stopped, but Jason’s gaze met his and then dropped. Dick’s eyes followed and his heart plummeted the rest of the way down the mountainside without him.
Jason’s hand remained at his side, not perched in satisfaction, but clutching. There was little to see against his black shirt, but it was hard to miss the bright red blood steadily flowing across the back of his pale, wind-chapped hand before disappearing again into the dark fabric of his pants. Dick couldn’t tell what degree of bad the wound was, but he could tell it wasn’t good.
“I could use a hand on this next part,” Jason admitted, voice steady and cool. Both of the younger boys looked up at him, then followed Dick’s gaze down to the wound. One of them—Tim?—gasped. “Not that I couldn’t do it myself, but I’m not really in the mood for a face full of rocks.”
Another flash of teeth. “I’ve got my looks to consider.”
Dick breathed something between a prayer and a curse and lifted his arms from both of his brothers to reach for the third. He felt Jason’s stiff posture loosen slightly as he slipped under the man’s knife-wielding arm. Up close, Dick could see the blood dripping off the point and the seepage that had crept up into Jason’s sleeve. Dick stared for only a moment, then turned his head to meet his brother’s gaze.
“I’ve got you,” Dick murmured. “Ready?”
Something flickered in Jason’s eyes, indistinct behind the impenetrable blue. Then he smiled again, a toothless smirk, and turned his attention toward their path. “You better, Dickhead.”
As they started down the mountain, Tim and Damian scampering ahead of them, Jason’s sotto voce monologue embroidered their path. “What happened to the handsome one? Well, he was kidnapped by occult monks, fought his way out of a death trap, and single-handedly defeated an entire squad of elite assassins. Then the idiot of the family dropped him off a cliff. Such a shame.”
Dick’s lips quirked, and he could hear Damian snort up ahead, but that didn’t stop him from leaning in and asking, “Seriously, Jay. How bad is it?”
Jason’s eyes cut to the side, studying Dick for a moment, then rolled expressively. “I’m dying, Dickie. My insides are on my outsides. I’ve been gutted. Vented. Disemboweled. Eviscerated. Exenterated.”
“Fancy,” Tim muttered just loud enough to be heard. Jason kicked a rock down in his direction.
“I probably won’t even make it to the Batplane,” Jason moaned. “You’ll have to leave me here. They’ll make me a trail marker. Reach the skeleton with the sweet jacket and you’re halfway to the temple of doom.”
Despite himself, Dick chuckled. “You’re awful, you know that?”
And so they went, each careful step embellished with a colorful curse or an elaborate moan from Jason. Jason’s hand kept a firm hold on his side, and his breathing was shaky by the time the plateau was within reach, but even Damian was smiling reluctantly, despite the constant threat of another attack.
Still, Dick couldn’t remember ever being so relieved as he was then to see Bruce and Alfred rushing toward them, the Batplane’s engines cycling quietly in the scrubby grass of the plateau.
“Dick!” Bruce barked out as he reached them. “Status report.”
“We were ambushed on our way down.” Dick followed a gesturing Alfred to the plane, still supporting Jason, whose feet were starting to drag. “Six assassins. Swords. One of them nicked Jason.”
“Nicked?” Jason repeated, aghast.
“And Damian’s shoulder might be dislocated,” Dick continued, ignoring his brother’s dramatics.
Bruce nodded once, lips pressed into a stern line. “Alfred will need to see to Jason’s injury. I can help Damian with his shoulder. Tim, you and Dick check each other for anything adrenaline might have masked.”
Dick had often read books where characters described a nearly physical burden being lifted from them after an ordeal, but he’d never experienced the sensation so viscerally as he did when they finally reached the waiting plane. Bruce and Alfred were here. He was no longer in charge. Both Jason and Damian could be put to rights. They’d made it. They were safe.
Dick helped Alfred lie Jason down on the cot in the back of the plane before helping the others. Together he and Tim followed Bruce’s instructions, carefully scrutinizing each other for hidden injuries that their fight-or-flight responses might have deemed unimportant in the moment. To the side, Damian whimpered as Bruce popped his shoulder back into place, then scooped the boy into a gentle hug.
It was only when Alfred sharply sucked in his breath that Dick realized how deathly quiet the back of the plane had become. He felt reality shift slightly, the way the tenor of a dream quivers and darkens when simple nonsense transforms into a nightmare. As one, the standing members of the Wayne family clustered together and peered over Alfred’s shoulder.
Jason lay still on the narrow cot, conscious but boneless. Even the furious greenish tint of his skin had faded away into a bloodless pale. Alfred had pulled up his shirt to reveal the truth. Jason’s grip down the mountain hadn’t been only to stanch the bleeding, but to hold himself together. At some point in the blurred fight, a blade had snuck under his defenses and slit open his abdomen, nearly from hip to hip. The blood that had trickled through his shirt and over his hand had been nothing compared to the steady flow that had soaked unseen into his pants.
Over Alfred’s shoulder, Jason opened his eyes and met Dick’s.
I’m dying, Dickie. My insides are on my outsides. I’ve been gutted. I probably won’t even make it to the Batplane. You’ll have to leave me here.
Jason dared to smirk. “I told you,” he said, smoker’s rasp deepening wearily into the scrape of metal across concrete.
“Shut up,” three voices snapped as one. Bruce said nothing.
“I’m afraid I am far too modest to work with such a large audience, so if the young gentlemen will take several large steps backwards?” Alfred’s voice, though even and soft, sent all four spectators stumbling back.
Alfred’s back blocked most of Jason’s body from view. Dick could see Jason’s face and upper torso. Bruce, being taller, could probably see a little more. Damian and Tim, being shorter, could probably see a little less. Both boys stood further back as well, Tim just behind Bruce and Damian behind Dick. Dick could feel the little boy’s hands creep up and latch onto his shirt, not seeking a hug or even acknowledgement, but clinging for comfort. It was just as well. Dick felt as if all of his blood had plummeted to his extremities, turning his limbs into dangling weights. He couldn’t take his eyes off his brother, but he could feel Bruce next to him, as obdurate as the mountain itself.
Somehow, Jason had managed to resume his squawking. Dick could see his blood-spattered face contort almost comically every time Alfred touched him.
“Ow!” Jason whined, voice briefly high like a child’s again, before he devolved into fiercely spat profanities. “Alf, you’re butchering me, c’mon!”
“Jason.” Bruce didn’t raise his voice or snap it through the air like a whip. On the contrary, his voice was low, soft even, except for the tension held taut like an anchor line in a storm.
Jason huffed, but nodded slightly, and fell silent.
The world had shrunk to this tiny, quiet space. Six people breathing. Dick, Damian, and Tim at varying degrees of quickness and tightness. Alfred and Bruce, low and deliberately steady. Jason, wheezy and loud.
Alfred’s careful fingers tucked in a stitch that was deeper than the rest. Jason’s body tensed with pain, back arching slightly as he sucked in a deep breath and held it.
Five people breathing.
Tim, half-hiding behind Bruce’s back, was the only one close enough to catch him as he fell.
“FATHER!” Damian’s high, terrified cry sliced open the silence.
Jason erupted like a tiger caught in a snare. He clawed at the cot, trying to push himself up. Alfred cried out, warning of wounds and fresh blood and popped stitches as he tried to force Jason back down. Dick sprang forward and tried to grab his brother, but got a fist to the face for his troubles. He staggered back. Bruce’s and Tim’s knees hit the floor. Damian was still shouting Bruce’s name.
Jason swung the knife that had never left his hand, blind with panic now. Alfred jumped back, narrowly missing a gutting of his own. Bruce’s palms slapped against the floor of the plane as he caught himself, Tim’s arms straining against his waist, Damian’s around his shoulders. Fresh blood spurted weakly from Jason’s wound, and he wavered but never stopped trying to get his feet on the floor.
Dick shook his head free of stars and plunged in again, dodging the flailing knife to pin Jason’s wrist to the bed. Alfred was by his side again, using what wiry strength he possessed to hold down Jason’s other arm. Dick risked loosening one hand from Jason’s wrist to snarl his fingers tightly in the other man’s two-toned hair. He slammed Jason back against the cot and pressed his face as close in as he dared.
“Bruce is fine!” he roared.
Jason froze, chest heaving, eyes the wide white of an animal’s.
“He’s fine,” Dick repeated, more quietly this time. “He fainted.”
Reality flickered again, shifting from dark nightmare to surreal absurdity as the words hung in the air. Even Dick hadn’t realized the words were true until he spoke them. Behind him, he heard something heavy shift.
Jason licked his lips, then attempted a rasping laugh. “Bruce? Faint? I don’t think so, Dickie.”
Dick slowly unclenched his fingers, first releasing Jason’s hair, then his wrist. Violent red streaks branded Jason’s skin like a cuff, four lines curving down and one curving up in the outline of a hand. Dick and Alfred stepped back to make room Bruce.
Bruce’s bulky frame swayed almost imperceptibly as he looked down at his secondborn, his face nearly as pale as Jason’s. Dick stood ready to catch him if he fell again, but Bruce stayed upright as he reached out his hand.
Gently, oh so gently, Bruce’s hand stroked Jason’s sweat-soaked curls. His other hand rose, the backs of his fingers wiping the blood from his son’s cheek.
“You stopped breathing.” The words were spoken no louder than wind-swept sand across the dunes, but they struck everyone with the force of a thunderclap.
Jason’s eyes closed briefly, brow furrowing. “Oh.” His eyes opened again, unblinking as they connected with Bruce’s.
Bruce’s broad shoulders slumped faintly, then pulled back, strong and straight once more. “Let Alfred finish stitching you up, and we can go home.”
Jason dipped his chin slightly and let the knife fall from his fingers to the floor. “Sorry, Dad.”
No one spoke again for the remainder of Alfred’s treatment. Bruce stayed at Jason’s head, their fingers loosely interwound. Jason’s breath hitched only once or twice more, and then only as briefly as he could manage. Dick watched it all with his arms wrapped around his brothers, their heads pressed to his sides.
When it was all over and time to fly home again, Dick took control of the plane. It felt strange to sit in the pilot’s seat with Bruce nearby, like wresting control of the family limo from Alfred. Tim sat next to him, his steady, silent copilot on the flight back to Gotham. In the bucket seats behind them, Alfred fussed quietly over Damian’s bruises.
And in the back, carefully folded onto a narrow hospital cot, Bruce held his son.