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           The sun was the color of blood orange.

            It hung low above the water like a swollen belly, blistering the white sand with its lingering heat. Though when the sun fully set the temperature on the island would go down a good fifteen degrees, the air would remain balmy and damp. The heat would still cling to the rocks, the broken surf, and the palms that attempted to shade.

            The island was quiet.

            So quiet, he could hear the hum of the fridge from the kitchen over the gentle lap of water that remained steadfast and constantly in the background. He’d left the windows open to let in the breeze, little though it was, and it blew delicately at the sweat dampened hair clinging to his forehead and neck.

            He watched the sunset from his chair, a forgotten book in his lap, a glass of tea with pearled beads of condensation soaking the end table.

            Alfred wouldn’t mind. This place had never really been anyone’s but Bruce’s. He’d always let him have it his way.

            And there was no one to quietly reprimand here. No one to worry or to fret.

            It was only Bruce and the setting sun on an island that felt very far away from Gotham.

            It was what he needed. What he kept telling himself that he needed to move on. But as the days blurred together and the sun pummeled the memories, he still felt him. He still saw him everywhere he went. Every room. Every night. Every time he closed his eyes and became entrapped in dreams that had him rushing to the bathroom to empty his stomach.

            He was still inside. Still haunting. Ever tormenting.

            Bruce remained seated until the sun sank beneath the water’s lip and the darkness made his skin flush with goosebumps. He forced himself to sit still a moment, maybe two longer than he wanted to in the subtle creep of darkness before reaching for the lamp. Golden light filled the living room and he sighed audibly, pushing himself weakly to a stand.

            It was late. He should eat something.

            Alfred had given him that warning look when he’d last video-called and the old man had looked too worried over Bruce’s health. And it was true that Bruce had seen better days. He could use a few extra pounds and a solid year of good sleep.

            He just didn’t know how to make those things a reality.

            He was never hungry. He was always tired but could scarcely close his eyes before terror awaited him. Before hands and lips would assault him in his sleep and he’d awake thinking Kal would be wrapped about him again. It didn’t seem to matter that it had been two weeks.

            Nothing had changed.

            No, that wasn’t exactly true. Everything had. He was doing worse.

            Bruce scowled at the shadowed kitchen, then strode purposefully to the refrigerator to force himself to eat something. He made a ham and cheese sandwich and ate half of it. The carrot stick he managed to nibble as a side, felt like a small victory. He took it.

            Bruce still showered every day. Sometimes twice a day. His skin always felt—dirty. Slightly too tight and ill-fitting. When he stared too long into the mirror he saw Kal’s blood dripping down his chin and it made him feel hollow. Strangely—empty.

            Padding around the house now dressed in pajamas, Bruce closed all the windows then flipped on the A/C. He’d never be able to even think about sleeping in the incessant heat without it. When he left the bathroom light on so that it illuminated the hallways, Bruce did his best not to chide himself.

            It made sense to keep it on. In case he needed to use the restroom in the middle of the night and forgot where he was.

            But he still felt niggling shame that he needed it on. That it wasn’t simply a want. If he tried to sleep without some sort of light on, he would slip headlong into a panic attack.

            Climbing into the down blankets, Bruce reached for his phone for the first time that day and made his daily phone call to the manor.

            It wasn’t a surprise that Alfred was the one to pick up.

            “Master Bruce, excellent to hear from you. How’s the island today?”

            “Hot,” he murmured, sinking further into the pillows. The cooler air pumping through the vents felt heavenly.

            “I can imagine. How was your day?”

            “The same. How are the boys?”

            There was a pause, some clatter of what sounded like dishes being laid out, “Well enough. Master Timothy has been a bit withdrawn. Master Damian more surly. But nothing I can’t handle.”

            “Has Dick been by?”

            “He’s come over when he can. Everything’s been a bit up in the air since—recent events and he’s been working to coordinate with the newly reformed JLA.”

            Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose, “Right. I—” never want to hear about them again, because it makes me think of Kal and everything he did, “I’m sure he’s doing a good job.”

            “Of course, sir. It’s nothing you need to worry about. Everything is handled.”

            Was he relieved to know that no one needed him? Yes.

            No.

            Bruce didn’t know what he felt. There was barely enough room in his mind for one day of feelings at a time let alone the rebuilding of an entire world government.

            “That’s good Alfred. Can you put Damian on?”

            “Just a moment sir.”

            “Father?”

            “Damian,” Bruce’s voice didn’t waver, but his free hand fisted in the comforter, “I miss you son. How’s everything?”

            A long sigh, “Nothing is ever right without you here Father. When will you be coming home?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “Grayson has been insufferable. He’s done nothing but boss me around. And Drake—Gods, I want to throttle that little twit.”

            Bruce smiled, despite the flutter of homesickness that rushed his middle, “Please don’t hurt your brothers.”

            “I wish we were with you.”

            Another long pause, one where Bruce wondered if he was doing the right thing. He wondered if any of this was helping him at all. Then he cleared his throat and the moment of uncertainty passed. He had to do this. He needed to separation the get his head back into a workable space.

            At the present moment, he was nothing but a knot of anxiety and fear. He was weak.

            It was unacceptable.

            “Put Tim on the phone. I want to talk to him for a moment too before I go.”

            “Fine.”

            “Damian?”

            “Yes?”

            “I love you.”

 

            Bruce woke to the smell of woodsmoke.

            For several seconds, he lay perfectly still, body stiff, heart racing so hard it hurt to breathe. He couldn’t move a muscle. He couldn’t make his fingers unclench or his jaw unlock to even scream, but God he wanted to. He wanted to fight. To run.

            Those rough hands were on his hips, tugging them back into a firm body that was punishing more than it was soft. Those lips were at his ear, biting down on the lobe, whispering words he didn’t want.

            A broken sound made it passed his lips and Bruce surged out of bed, the temporary paralysis abruptly gone.

            He fell immediately when his legs wouldn’t hold him. They were shaking too badly. It didn’t matter. Desperation had already latched onto him and he was in full-fledged panic. Crawling, Bruce backed himself into the corner of the room, reaching blindly in the pre-dawn light for the night stand where he kept the shard of kryptonite they’d dug out of Kal’s dead corpse.

            He knocked the lamp off and the light bulb shattered on the hard-wood flooring.

            Bruce hardly noticed. His eyes were riveted to the bed, his fingers already curling bruisingly around the green shard from the nightstand. He’d reached the corner of the room again and his back was pressed into it.

            Bruce stayed curled into the corner, the kryptonite poised in front of him until the burn of the sun returned and it shone brightly over the bed. Still, he stayed put, hands cramping, ass dead asleep. He couldn’t uncurl. He couldn’t move.

            He felt sick and weak and dirty.

            There was no one in the bed.

            Kal is dead.

            Kal is gone.

            Kal will never come back.

            Bruce told himself those things over and over. He tried to say who he was, where he was, and what he was doing in a mantra that was meant to ground himself, but it wasn’t working as well as it had before.

            He fell asleep in the corner and when he woke again, the sunlight had dwindled to evening hues. Burnt orange. Reds. Vibrant shades of color. It should have been breathtaking, but he couldn’t recognize anything save another day having passed—with him squashed into a corner petrified of shadows.

            He struggled up to a stand, pins and needles stinging his legs and arms. Skirting the bed, Bruce grabbed his phone on his way out of the bedroom and he called the third number in his speed dial list.

            Jason.

 

            “Jeez old man, what have you done to the place?”

            Bruce blinked through sandpaper eyes at his second oldest son and scowled over the kitchen bar, “It’s not that bad.”

            “When did you last do dishes?”

            “It’s not really been a priority.”

            “At least you’re showering. But damn,” Jason walked around the island and lifted a brow at the steady pile of garbage bags. “you know the island authority can come pick this shit up, right?”

            “I know.”

            “I’m not gonna even ask then,” he hummed, rocking back on his heels, “hungry?”

            “No.”

            “I am. I’m going to make something to eat. Assuming you haven’t let the food go to rot as well.”

            Bruce ignored Jason, who’d only just walked in the front door like he owned the place, then rummaged around the counter for a mug to put coffee in. Most of the dishes were dirty. He’d been reusing the same ones or not using dishes at all since they were all dirty.

            “Eggs alright? I won’t make them too spicy.”

            “Fine.”

            Jason shrugged, “Bruce, you called me, remember?”

            Bruce took a long sip of the cold coffee in his mug, wincing as it stung the sores in his mouth from biting his cheeks, “I know. I’m just—adjusting.”

            “You look pale.”

            “I’m always pale.”      

            Jason flipped an egg, then popped the top on a beer he must have found in the fridge. It was nine in the morning. Bruce merely rolled his eyes and went back to his cold stale coffee. He wasn’t one to judge at the present time.

            “I thought you’d have spent at least a little time in the sun. This is an island.”       

            “I have.”

            “When?”

            “It’s been a few days.”

            Jason pursed his lips, turning off the burner. Grabbing two forks, he put a pot holder on the counter then motioned at Bruce to join him.

            “You’ll have to eat out of the pan since there’s no plates.”

            Bruce silently obeyed, putting tasteless eggs into his mouth and forcing himself to swallow. Jason said nothing when he ate only half of what he normally would and nothing still when Bruce meandered back out of the kitchen and took up a position by the sliding glass doors to stare at the beach.            

            “Why did you come out here Bruce?”

            “I thought it would help.”

            “Has it?”

            Bruce looked over his shoulder at Jason, a boy who’d become a man without him present and sighed. “Not really.”

            “You need to see someone.”

            Bruce snorted, “That’s rich. Coming from you.”

            “I’m serious Bruce. You need a doctor.”

            “If they can remove the bit of my brain that Kal fucked up, then sure. That’s what I need. If not, they can’t help me.”

            “They can talk to you. Give you meds.”

            “Meds?” Bruce whirled, suddenly angry at Jason and his intruding. What had he been thinking asking his son to help him? This was a mistake. “I don’t need to be drugged out of my fucking mind when I’m already losing it Jason.”

            “That isn’t what I said.”

            Bruce growled, a low feral sound that didn’t sound like him at all. It sounded like Batman and he had no place in this moment. But it felt good to not feel so weak. It felt good to be angry, rather than helpless.

            “I didn’t ask you here for that.”

            “Then why did you?” Jason snapped back, taking a threatening step nearer that had Bruce backing up. It did something to him that it shouldn’t have. That it never used to. Batman quickly and effortlessly slipped away from him and Bruce was left naked. “Why am I here? Why did you call me and ask me to come? Hmmm?”        

            Bruce had backed up into the sliding door and felt a lurch in his stomach when he realized there was no where else to go.

            “Why am I here, old man?” Jason hissed now, stepping so close Bruce could feel his warm breath on his face.

            He could smell woodsmoke and feel impossible heat from impenetrable skin.

            No.

            That wasn’t—

            “Bruce?”

            Bruce blinked, throat working to swallow with a suddenly dry mouth. His hands were trembling so badly he couldn’t hide them, not that he’d be able to as he was plastered against the sliding door like his life depended upon it.

            Gritting his teeth, Bruce forced his gaze to Kal—no Jason—and found his son staring at him. He’d backed up a few steps and looked—apologetic. He didn’t look angry. He didn’t look threatening at all.

            Jason would never hurt him. Not like that.

            But his body was shaking and he felt sick. He felt so sick.

            Bruce bolted for the bathroom, giving Jason a wide berth as he just managed to get to the toilet before heaving up the eggs he’d just eaten. He stayed until the sweaty clammy feeling of sickness passed and his muscles had stopped seizing.

            Jason stopped him before he could disappear into the master bedroom.

            “Bruce, you need help.”

            “I don’t know what I need.”

            Jason’s brow knitted, as he reached carefully to grab one of Bruce’s hands. His grip was calloused, and cool. Not Kal’s. “I know. Let me help you. Let me dig you out.”

            “I don’t—I don’t know—” Bruce’s throat wanted to snap closed as he felt the horrendous sensation of tears burn the backs of his eyes, “I’m not OK.”

            “No, you’re not.”

            “I—” Bruce swallowed, a single traitorous tear falling.

            “B, come on, I’ve got you.”

            Bruce shook his head, but didn’t stop Jason from hugging him. Neither of them said anything when Bruce started crying harder into Jason’s leather jacket and clinging like a child. And when Jason helped Bruce back into bed, closing the blinds and the world away, there were still no words needed between them. Jason understood. It was more than enough.

Chapter Text

                Vermouth, woodsmoke. Bruising, punishing touches, fingers gripping hard enough to leave prints for days. Heavy, sweaty weight, pressing down on all sides, suffocating. So hard to breathe past the ache in his lungs, past the grinding in his middle. Sloppy wet kisses to neck and face. Sweat dripping down his legs, down his neck.

                No, blood.

Blood dripping down his legs, wetting the sheets. Soaking his back, sticking him in place like glue. Breathy grunts, his own, becoming strangled cries. A hand, wide and hard pressed to his mouth to silence him. He’s suffocating. The room is getting smaller, the pain more punishing.

                Seconds crawl by; one, two, three, four.

                Kal slows, the pain ebbs, the hand loosens on Bruce’s mouth and he gasps for air, greedy for relief. Lips find his ear, teeth bite down. Breath rushes over his skin and he cringes away.

                “Mine. All mine.”

 

                Bruce woke hard.

                Eyes snapping open, hands scrabbling for a weapon, breath sobbing out of his lungs. He tried to move and found out that he couldn’t. There was something sitting on his chest. Kal. Kal is here, still here. He didn’t leave.

                “B, take a breath.”

                Bruce jerked at the unfamiliar not-Kal voice by his ear, body stiffening into an immovable board, heart hammering so hard it hurt to breathe. It hurt to think.

                The room was dark and it felt smothering. He couldn’t see who was speaking but he could feel what was holding him down now. An arm, thick and muscled, male. His panic ticked up a notch, a soft cry breaking the seam of his lips as he struggled in earnest to break the grip. But he was uncoordinated and sloppy. Weak from the adrenaline dump so he only managed to squirm futilely in the sheets, tangling his legs like a noose on a neck.

                “B, breathe. It’s Jason. I’m with you now. You’re safe.”

                Jason. Jason was here.

                He blinked into the black, gripping the arm on his middle, digging his nails into the skin without conscious thought. Every instinct he had was on alert, every urge to run in place. But that voice, didn’t belong to Kal.

                That voice was Jason.

                Jason meant he was—safe.

                Safe.

                That arm around his middle, holding him in place, holding him like it was keeping his guts inside his stomach meant safety.

                “Safe. You’re safe now. It was just a dream.”

                Bruce sagged into the mattress, hands releasing their death grip, body going limp. He could feel the pressure of tears at the backs of his eyes, and the boneless sensation of having lost a fight. But he didn’t have any physical injuries. At least, not on the outside. Internally, he was hemorrhaging. Bleeding out, day by day, week by week.

                Without a word, because at this point, there really didn’t need to be, Bruce rolled to his side and curled into Jason’s chest.

                After a week of constant nightmares, Jason had demanded that Bruce let him sleep with him. If not in the same bed, then at least in the same room. It would be easier for them both when the inevitable terror set in and Jason’s steady calm was needed. A few days into their room-sharing, Jason had simply taken over the bed and Bruce had silently agreed. It had helped. Not by much, but enough that he’d graduated to sleeping a few extra hours a night. Which was better than what he could have hoped for.

                Bruce breathed in steadily, taking in the scent of leather and cigarettes not woodsmoke or vermouth. Jason smelled like Jason. It was grounding. It was calming in a way no amount of leaving the lights on or meditation could achieve. For all his training, for all his experience, Bruce had seemingly lost everything in the wake of Kal. He was barely functioning, let alone the master of his mind. His mind was a fucking playground of messed up memories and terrorized emotions.

                “Do you want to talk about it?”

                Bruce risked pressing closer, ignoring how comforting it was for Jason to wrap both arms around him and hold him there. He could hear Jason’s heartbeat beneath the shell of his ear, steady and constant. He could feel the sheets, not ropes, on his ankles cool and crisp. The lazy whir of the overhead fan swishing the air. The quiet thrum of the waves beyond the windows, reminding him this was a different place and time.

                Kal was dead.

                “It’s always the same.”

                “That doesn’t mean talking about it won’t help.”

                Bruce felt his eyes slipping closed and he fought it. He didn’t want to fall back asleep and end up right back beneath Kal. He didn’t think he could stomach two panic attacks in one night. “You don’t need to hear that.”

                “I need to hear whatever you need me to hear. I’m not gonna break B.”

                “I know,” Bruce whispered, wondering how the hell this was right that he was using his kid to make himself feel better. The role reversal was pitiably laughable. Wrong. He shouldn’t need Jason to chase away the demons. But here they were, Jason holding him tight to his chest like he was a broken little child in need of a protector. Bruce wished that weren’t such an accurate description.

                “Kal was—” on top of me, hand pressed over my mouth, using me so roughly I wouldn’t be able to stand when he was finished, “hurting me.”

                One of Jason’s hands had started to rub circles into Bruce’s back and it was lulling, like the steady cadence of a white noise machine to induce sleep. His body was growing slack and his thoughts getting more and more sluggish by the minute.

                “Kal’s dead.”

                Bruce nodded, feeling that soothing hand stop a moment on his back at his next words, “I killed him.”

                “Self-defense.”

                “I still feel his blood on my hands,” Bruce whispered, and it sounded strangled with tears, “I still feel it on my face. I wake up sometimes and everything feels wet with it. Kal’s blood pressed into me, owning me.”

                Jason exhaled softly, the sound strained in the broken quiet. “B, he will never touch you again. He doesn’t own you.”

                “He did.”

                There was a low rumble in Jason’s chest and Bruce recognized it for a growl.

                “Not anymore.”

                They fell silent again. Bruce didn’t move away, and Jason didn’t let go and that was alright because it was dark outside and in this witching hour, there were no rules. There was no line that Bruce needed to be careful in crossing and there was no history that should have prevented Jason from doing this for Bruce. There was simply—nothing. No past, no present, no future. Just darkness, warm and emotionless. Arms; disembodied and comforting. A chest; muscled and solid. A heart, beating steadily, winding down the minutes, reminding Bruce that time was still going. That life, had kept going even when he felt frozen on that night, still paralyzed beneath Kal, or dripping with Kal’s blood.

                “You’re safe Bruce.”

                Jason’s voice sounded thick with sleep. It sounded weary. Bruce didn’t bother to answer. They both knew that he understood the words. But he didn’t feel them. He wondered if he ever would again.

 

                “We’re going outside today.”

                Bruce squinted across the kitchen at Jason, who was standing at the stove looking utterly domestic with an apron around his hips and a spatula in his hand. “Why?”

                “You’ve not set foot outdoors in nearly two weeks.”

                Bruce lifted a brow, as if to say ‘And’? But didn’t say anything. His goal was the coffee pot and Jason, bless him, had already brewed a full pot for the two of them. They’d settled into a routine since Jason’s arrival on the island and Bruce found the ritual comforting. He’d always been a creature of habit and having a schedule, gave him a strange sense of security and control. Bruce needed both.

                Jason finished at the stovetop, amidst a cloud of steam and the smell of bacon then turned and offered Bruce a plate piled high with pancakes and meat.

                “Eat.”

                “I—” Bruce opened his mouth to argue, because good God, he didn’t think he could eat all of that, but Jason shoved the plate hard at him.

                “Eat. All of it.”

                Bruce took a seat at the bar and started in on the pancakes in silence. Jason polished off his own breakfast within ten minutes and sat quietly sipping on his coffee beside Bruce who was moving considerably slower. When his stomach ached, and he’d eaten everything but a slice of bacon and half a pancake, Bruce risked Jason’s wrath with a questioning look.

                Jason studied the plate, gave a half-shrug, then sighed, “Fine. You still look skinny as hell, but you’re putting weight on steadily.”

                “Gee, thanks.”

                “I never said I’d be nice to you, old man.”

                But they both knew he’d been more than nice. He’d been what Bruce needed and then some. A kick in the ass. A pair of warm comforting arms and broad shoulders to cry on. A laugh when the world felt too dark.

                “Get your suit on, we can swim a little.”

                Bruce didn’t argue. Because the idea of swimming actually sounded nice. Sitting in the sun, sounded even better and he didn’t want to waste this feeling of eagerness with overthinking. They pulled trunks on, grabbed water bottles and slathered up in sunscreen then poured out the sliding door onto the hot white sand like a pair of drunken teenagers. Jason hooted long and loud, darting into the surf with no preamble and Bruce felt his mouth tugging into a grin at the sight.

                A kid at heart. Jason was a kid beneath all the layers of brusque anger and sarcasm.

                And it was good to see. Healing even.

                How long had it been since the last time he’d actually smiled genuinely? Too long.

                Bruce walked more sedately to the water, testing the warmth of it with his toes first, before walking deeper. When he reached neck-deep, Bruce pushed off the bottom and started to swim.                  

                He was slicing through the nonexistent waves with the clean lines of the breaststroke when Jason caught up to him and started splashing him. Sputtering out mouthfuls of seawater, Bruce quickly retaliated and kicked both feet to make huge waves back.

                And the game was on. All the problems in the world suspended for the chance to play like children beneath the gleam of the island’s sun.

                There was some choking, a bit of coughing, then Jason’s green eyes sparked with challenge. And Bruce knew he was about to lose. Out of everyone in the family, Jason was the best swimmer. He was fast, could out-pace almost anyone, and for all his smoking had the ability to hold his breath for the longest out of any of the Robins. Even longer than Bruce.

                Bruce cut for the beach, kicking hard and strong, digging his hands in the water like he was digging in hard packed dirt. He’d gotten further than he realized from the beach. His ill-used muscles burned as he pushed up the pace and he could hear Jason close by. He got within a hundred feet of the shoreline when Jason jerked him under the surface by his ankles.

                Water swallowed over his head, cutting off his air abruptly and for one panicked second, Bruce forgot where he was.

                He only remembered those big broad hands wrapped around his neck, cutting off his air. Crystalline eyes, so blue and pure, smiling down at him, enjoying the feel of his squirming body as it struggled to stay conscious.

                Then he kicked hard to the surface and the burn of the sun shoved the images abruptly away.

                He was on the beach with Jason. He was on his island. A safe haven. A stronghold.

                “Bruce?”

                “I-I’m fine,” Bruce answered, scrubbing his face to clear the seawater, bobbing along in the surf, “I’m fine Jason.”

                And he was. The flashback had been brief. And he felt—alright. He didn’t feel terror still clinging to him. He didn’t feel like he was going to spiral into a panic attack as he might have two weeks ago. He was getting better.

                It was getting a little better.

                Wordlessly, they both paddled to the sand and Jason flopped onto his towel. Bruce did the same, using an arm to block his eyes from the blistering sun. Within a handful of minutes, they were both drunk on the sunlight and dozing as their skin dried. Bruce hadn’t felt this relaxed in months. Years even. He never wanted to move.

                “We should go home soon B.”

                Bruce lifted his elbow to look at Jason, found those clear green eyes assessing him quietly and then covered his face again. “I know.”

                “The boys miss you.”

                “I miss them.”

                A pause, a couple of breaths and a shifting of sand as Jason pushed up to a sit. “You can’t hide here forever.”

                “I—” Bruce swallowed thickly, feeling the hazy warmth of the afternoon rapidly disappearing. Going home meant facing reality. It meant seeing the manor, with all of its memories. It meant facing his bedroom where he’d killed his best friend after being used like a cheap hooker. It meant facing the world and everything that was different now. Facing the new league. “I’m not ready.”

                “You’ll never fully be ready, B. It doesn’t work like that. You have to push through.”

                “Jason, you don’t—you can’t understand—”

                “I understand. I’ve been there B. You know I have. Which is why you called me. And I’m telling you, you need to go home soon. Don’t get me wrong,” Jason gestured at the beach, “this place has been good for you. I can see that. You needed a moment to escape. But you also need to go home and face what’s there. And you need more help than even I can give you.”

                Bruce’s mouth had gone desert dry and he felt sick again. “Jason, I know you’ve given a lot up by being here with me. And I’m thankful. I really am.”

                “But?”

                “I don’t know if—” Bruce fell silent, unsure of how to voice the sudden clogging of fears in his veins. What if he got home and everything was so much worse? What if he couldn’t handle being there and he broke like a twig under the pressure? What if after everything on the island, he relapsed and wanted to kill himself again?

                “You need meds Bruce. You need to see a shrink. I’m a good ear but I don’t think I can be it for you.”

                Bruce’s eyes jerked to Jason and a cold finger of dread curled painfully in his middle. “Are you leaving?”

                Jason frowned, “No old man. That isn’t—” he sighed, “that isn’t what I meant. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be there, right by your side. I’m probably going to get fucking annoying with how by your side I’m going to stay, but I can’t help you on my own. You need a doctor to get through some of this shit.”

                Traitorous tears had gathered in Bruce’s eyes and he quickly blinked them away, looking down at the sand that was sticking to his now dry skin. “Thank you.”

                “Shit B,” Jason made an angry sound, “you really think I’d cut bait and run after all this?”

                “No, I—” Bruce swallowed, fisting his hands, “I just don’t know anything anymore. And these past two weeks, I know I’ve been leaning so heavily on you—I didn’t know if it had been too much. I still feel like it might be.”
                “You were there for me. It’s time for me to return the favor. Simple as that.”

                Bruce looked up and held Jason’s gaze. “It’s not simple.”

                Jason laughed, shaking his head, “You and overcomplicating everything. Can’t a kid just love his dad and that be it?”

                Bruce’s chest tightened, and he smothered the urge to fling himself at Jason to hold him tightly in a hug. Who knew the street rat who tried to steal his tires so many years ago would have stolen such a huge piece of his heart? God, Bruce could never repay this sort of love.

                “I love you too Jason.”

                Jason’s brows lifted, but the tops of his ears had gone pink, “I think the heats getting to you. Could be heatstroke.”

                Bruce rolled his eyes, “I’m hungry.”

                “Really?” Jason looked pleased, “Good. Because I had a mind to make grilled cheese.”

                “I can make it.”

                Jason really laughed then, the sound lighter and amused, “B, I don’t want to die anytime soon. Let’s leave the cooking to me.”

 

                “Really, you’re coming home?”

                Damian nearly vibrated on the screen, his brows pinched, hands fluttering in a way Bruce had never seen before. Guilt for not getting his act together sooner made a needle beneath his breastbone and Bruce offered Damian a wry smile.

                “Yes, we leave for the mainland tomorrow. Should be home within a couple days.”

                “Father, I have so much to show you. I’ve been training with Drake and we’ve done some rearranging in the cave,” Damian hesitated, frown marring his face, “You can of course change that if you don’t like. I suppose we should have asked but Alfred didn’t seem to mind.”

                “I’m sure it’s fine. I look forward to seeing it. I look forward to seeing you.”

                Damian smiled before he could stop himself and it made Bruce grin. Video chats and phone calls had not been enough. Jason was right. He needed to go home and see his family again. He needed to be around his boys. All of them.

                “Hey B,” Tim had walked in and was grinning at the screen, shoving at Damian to scoot over, “You look real good. Jason must be force feeding you.”

                Bruce laughed, because it wasn’t far from the truth, “He’s been very persuasive.”

                Jason looked over the edge of the book he was reading and smirked at Bruce from across the room.

                “How are you, Tim?”

                “Good,” the teen shrugged his shoulders, eyes casting down a moment, “It’s been hard without you. It’s weird not having you at home. And with everything that’s been going on, the reformation of the League and the re-instating of the Presidency, it’s been sort of like living in a twilight zone.”

                “I can imagine.”

                “Not that we want you to rush back if you’re not ready, B. We care more about you being Ok.”

                “Timothy,” Bruce stopped him and wished for not the first time that he could reach through the screen and wipe away that serious expression. That he could wrap his son in his arms and make their world a little less. Just less. “I’m ready to come home. I miss you and Damian, even Alfred.”

                “I heard that Master Bruce.”

                Bruce snorted, “Good. I’m glad you did. I’m ready to come home.”

                “Well, if we’re all being honest, we’re ready too.”

                Bruce smiled, reaching out to trace a thumb over the screen, “Forty-eight hours and I’ll be standing right next to you.”

                The boys grinned, Alfred offered a polite smile, though his eyes shone with something close to tears and they ended their video chat on a good note. Bruce settled back into the sofa with the laptop still propped on his lap and Jason remained quietly reading. In the evenings, they’d been spending their time digging into a book, sharing the same space without needing to fill the silence. Bruce had come to look forward to the peace of it and the steady companionship.

                When Jason started snoring on the other sofa, Bruce picked himself off the other couch and stretched.

                “Jay,” he offered in a half-whisper, giving his son’s shoulder a hard shake. Sleep-drenched eyes sluggishly found his and frowned. “It’s late. Let’s go to bed.”

                “M’kay.”

                Bruce helped haul Jason to his feet and they silently filed into the bedroom. When Jason immediately wrapped himself around Bruce like a cocooning shield, Bruce didn’t think twice about sighing into it. He’d gotten accustomed to the safety of Jason’s arms. He wondered briefly before sleep took him under if he’d ever be able to sleep comfortably on his own again, or if he’d be begging Jason to fill in for years to come.

                He hoped to God he could manage on his own eventually.  

 

                 They got in to Gotham by four in the afternoon but because of the time change, Bruce and Jason said brief hellos and then dropped off to nap in the study. Napping was different then full-blown sleeping, so Bruce took his station on the sofa and Jason draped his long frame over the love seat, legs hanging off the end. Neither Damian nor Tim interrupted.

                By eight, Alfred meandered in, told them supper was ready and that the boys were waiting. And the two joined everyone in the kitchen.

                Bruce stopped in his tracks when he saw Dick sitting at the table, wearing one of Bruce’s old t-shirts and a pair of sweats. Then he was rushing across the kitchen and wrapping his eldest in a tight embrace, soaking in all the things that made Dick, Dick.

                Shorter than Jason with a gymnast build, always smelling like bubble gum and sandalwood aftershave. He was a welcome sight.

                “God B, I haven’t seen you in too long,” Dick pulled Bruce out to arms’ length and smiled widely, “you look a hell of a lot better than the last time. The island looks good on you.”

                “Jason,” Bruce managed past a lump in his throat, “Jason helped me.”

                Jason snorted at his back, “I didn’t do much, old man.”

                “Yes, you did.”

                The kitchen went soft and fuzzy as Bruce released Dick and then hugged Tim and Damian in equally suffocating holds, despite the awkwardness of never having been one for touching before. He needed to hold them. To touch and to know that everyone was fine. That everything could go back to what it was before Kal. Before the world went crazy and everything fell apart.

                “Master Bruce,” Alfred spoke warmly around his cheek as Bruce latched onto the older man, “I’ve made lobster linguini.”

                Bruce sighed into Alfred’s neck, wiling himself to not cry. Again. He’d cried more in the last months than he’d probably ever done in his entire life. He wasn’t fond of it. “Sounds good.”

                He drew back, assessed the room with all of his kids staring at him then cleared his throat, “It’s good to be home.”

                “Yes, Father,” Damian smiled, patting a seat at the table, “I’ve saved you a seat.”

                Code for, sit next to me.

                Bruce wanted to cry again. He’d missed the competitive streak. The push and pull and the squabbles. He’d missed the simplicity of being with his boys for a meal and then heading out on patrol. Those days felt so far away, even now. They felt as though they were buried beneath layers of sludge.

                “Bruce?” Jason was at his side, one hand on the small of his back, “Breathe.”

                Bruce gripped the edge of the table, “Yeah, I got it.”

                “Yes, you do.”

                Bruce nodded again, forcing a smile as he took a seat beside Damian who’d gone stiff with worry. “I’ve got it.”

                And he would. He’d get there. He would.

Chapter Text

Six Months Later

 

                Wayne Manor was silent this time of night.

                The wind whistled off the bay and battered at the tightly closed windows, signaling an incoming storm in time for Christmas morning. Huge flakes of white brushed delicate fingers along the panes of glass, beckoning for solemn thoughts and dour hearts.

                Bruce watched the snow come in, studying the flakes with a cup of piping hot tea wrapped in his hands and a blanket draped over his lap. He’d only slept a few hours and then given up before coming down the long creaking staircase to find his usual perch in the study. He no longer had a bed-mate to wake with his nighttime wanderings. It was long nights like these where he did his best not to feel self-pity or the dark edge of desolation when he thought too long about that.

                It was for the best. He couldn’t have expected Jason to stay in the manor, in his bed for the foreseeable future. And in all honesty, he’d not have wanted that as a permanent arrangement either. Jason needed his own space. Bruce needed to find his again. Because somewhere along the way, he’d lost it. But he was getting there. The edges of what was his and who he was now, were hazy but growing stronger by the day.

                Jason had gone home to his own apartment two weeks ago and even though they spoke on the phone daily, particularly before bed, Bruce felt the ache bone deep.

                It had been a solid month since Bruce’s last panic attack and a good three weeks since his last nightmare. He was taking the meds. The prescription bottle of buspirone on his bathroom counter helped with the anxiety and the Effexor helped with the depression. The Xanax, he’d only needed a couple of times, but it was still nice to have on hand. To know he could fetch the bottle and have relief if the need came too strong too quickly.

                He saw a therapist twice a week. Made himself go on errands. Worked out in his home gym just as the schedule told him to every day at eight am sharp. He even ate everything Alfred put in front of him and had gained nearly all of the twenty pounds he’d lost back.

                The boys said he was looking better than ever. His therapist was proud of the achievements he’d made. The strides towards ‘normal’ again. Bruce felt—a little better. A little more stable. Stronger. But there were still days he felt weak and small. There were still days he locked himself in his bedroom and felt the walls closing in and that there was no way to overcome the dark memories of Kal in his mind. He imagined given time, those days would become less and less. They already had.

                Bruce snuggled deeper beneath the blanket, taking a deep draw off the tea as he watched the windows and wondered how Bludhaven was fairing. Dick probably wouldn’t call before coming over and Jason, he’d promised to come first thing. The family was supposed to be spending Christmas together and there was something childlike in Bruce’s chest when he imagined everyone gathered around the tree shredding open paper and bows.

                Everything was different now.

                The colors were brighter. The feelings stronger. The hope—slowly, slowly returning. The world didn’t feel as dark as it did six months ago and Bruce was grateful.

                He’d not stepped out as the Batman yet, but he hoped to return to the cowl soon. Bruce didn’t know if he could until he was fully out of the woods of any and all major opportunities for panic attacks. He wanted to be sure that he’d not be a hazard if he were to join the boys on patrol. As it was, Dick was working Gotham just fine in his absence. Particularly as he had the help of Damian, Tim, and even on occasion these last months, Jason. It seemed after Kal’s death, they’d all gotten a second lease on life and had taken it with both hands.

                The world was catching up, still picking up broken bits of government and policies, but the limping had become steady walking. Bruce imagined everyone would be running shortly. He couldn’t doubt that. Men were still good, despite what Kal had said. Men were capable of greatness and peace when given the opportunity.

                Bruce sat for another thirty minutes in perfect stillness before he heard the hush of socked feet on carpeting. He closed his eyes, tracing the footsteps over the runner in the hall then the edge of the study till they stopped. His heart picked up only a fraction before stilling altogether.

                “What the hell are you doing up, old man?”

                The corner of Bruce’s mouth rose in a grin and he looked over a shoulder to see Jason’s scowling face in the shadowing darkness.

                “Thinking. It’s quiet.”

                “That’s because smart people are sleeping.”

                Bruce shrugged, going back to his tea, sipping delicately at the edge because it was still absurdly hot in the thermal mug he’d used. Jason made a grumbling noise but trudged the rest of the way into the study to join him. He crammed into Bruce, not giving any space. After the months of sharing a bed, Bruce didn’t care in the least. He draped an arm over Jason’s shoulders and snuggled into Jason’s heat without qualm. Jason’s sighed, resting his head on Bruce’s shoulder in return. The room felt brighter with another soul to share it with.

                “Only time Gotham looks this pretty, is when it snows.”

                “Hmmm,” Bruce murmured, picking at the seam of Jason’s jacket, mind slightly distracted still. Jason’s presence had come to mean absolute safety for Bruce since the beginning of their foray into his recovery. Now, just being near him, made Bruce relax and grow sleepy. Their relationship had grown exponentially closer since Kal's death.

                “Is Dick here?”

                “He’ll be by first thing. Like you were supposed to.”

                “It’s four. That’s early morning.”

                Bruce chuckled, “Only you would argue something like that.”

                They lapsed into silence for a few minutes, the soft pattering of snow as accompaniment and Bruce found himself wondering when Tim and Damian would be up. Before long, there would be grumbling and coffee. Christmas breakfast, which was always French toast and thick cut slices of bacon. There would be the fighting over the table and then shared work over dishes. Alfred would stay in his pajamas till mid-morning, something he only did for Christmas and the boys would beg to stay in with movies and popcorn. To do nothing the whole of the day. Bruce always agreed. Christmas was the only holiday he really enjoyed and before his children, even then, he hadn’t liked to celebrate much of anything.

                “What did you get Alfred this year?”

                “Vacation to Scotland with an old chum. Three weeks away. And a new Dyson.”

                Jason smirked, “How about the Demon?”

                Bruce smiled at the terrible nickname, “Training with a friend in the Himalayas. Three weeks at a monastery. And the new Assassin’s Creed game.”

                “Tim?”

                Bruce lifted a brow, curious as to why Jason wanted to know everyone else’s gifts. But he was Jason. Sometimes Jason wanted to know things just for the sake of knowing them. He was a curious person who liked information as much as any of the Robins, sometimes even more than Tim.

                “A new microscopy set with all the bells and whistles. And the latest installment to that show he likes he so much.”

                “Stargate?”

                “No, not that one. But it does have space involved.”

                “How about Dick? I bet you got him a lump of coal for all the shit he’s pulled this year.”

                They both knew Dick had worked double time with the League and at WE to help everything run smoothly. The 'golden boy' deserved an award, let alone a good gift.

                “I bought him a new apartment. And cereal.”

                “What?” Jason jerked.

                Bruce slanted a look at Jason and frowned, “His place was a dump. In a bad part of town and quite a ways, from the precinct. He’s worked so many hours of overtime at WE let alone on the streets of Gotham, I figured he deserved it. It’s nothing big. Two bedrooms. A good kitchen. Better part of town and closer to his work. He can move in January 1st.”

                Jason shrugged, but didn’t look as startled now, “Wow. Gonna tell me early what mine is?”

                Bruce rolled his eyes, “Not a chance.”

                Bruce had struggled with what to get his second oldest as a gift. Nothing felt big enough, meaningful enough. Every time he thought he’d come up with the perfect gift, it failed to measure up when he inevitably started to pick it apart. So, he’d settled on the classics. Literally.

                He’d hunted for first editions to several of Jason’s favorite books and had them wrapped in dark red paper. He’d purchased just the day before a couple loaves of artisan French Bread—Jason’s favorite edible item, a few packs of cigarettes, and last but certainly not the least, he’d put a key to a muted black Indian bike that was sitting in the garage with a giant bow on the front. It didn’t feel like enough. But he knew Jason would appreciate the sentiment.

                Though, there was one more thing, Bruce needed to give him.

                Fishing around in his sweats pocket, Bruce tugged out a little scrap of paper Jason had scribbled on six months ago. It was worn down on the edges from use and the words were hardly distinguishable, but they could still be read.

                You are safe now. I love you, B.

                Without looking at Jason, Bruce pushed the scrap of paper into his hands and left it there. Jason said nothing for a moment, just stared. Then he picked up the paper and brought it closer to his face, his fingers gripping it hard enough to whiten his knuckles.

                “You kept it?”

                Bruce nodded, his chin brushing Jason’s hair, “Yeah. It helped me.”

                Six months ago, on a island when everything had been closer and sharper and so painful Bruce didn’t think he’d survive it, Jason had scribbled that note haphazardly onto a sticky pad. He’d not known how much it would mean to Bruce. How often he held that scrap of paper in his pocket as a reminder. But he was ready to give it back now.

                Because he wanted to be strong enough to finally move on and this would signify that happening.

                Jason swiveled in Bruce’s arms, facing him fully now. The persistent city lighting illuminated the high angles of his cheekbones and made him look younger than he was. “Then why give it back to me?”

                “I don’t need it anymore. I mean,” Bruce swallowed thickly, “I know I’m safe now. I can believe it without seeing it on paper. So, you can have that back.”

                Jason shook his head, “Keep it Bruce. You’ve kept it this long because it’s special,” his mouth quirked up into a snotty grin, “Besides, I don’t write love notes to just anyone, so you should feel honored.”

                Despite the weight on his chest, Bruce choked out a laugh, shaking his head. Something like relief pooled in his stomach. “I do Jason. I do feel honored.”

                The scrap of paper went back into his pocket where it could be kept warm and safe. And Bruce didn’t feel the need to give it away anymore. It felt at home in that space. Maybe he wouldn't carry it around anymore. Maybe he'd put it away in a box for safe keeping in his nightstand or in the tie pins and cuff links box on his dresser. But he didn't have to have it on him anymore. And that was freeing. 

                “Alfred will be up soon,” Jason mused, settling back into Bruce with a huff. He shifted around with his head, digging an elbow into Bruce’s ribs as if to fluff Bruce's stomach like a pillow then sprawled a little on the sofa. “Mind if I catch a some shut-eye? You’re softer again. Not soft enough, but better. Alfred must be over the moon.”

                Bruce smiled, carding a hand through Jason’s hair, “Sure.”

                “You gonna sleep?”

                “No. I’m enjoying the snow.”

                A soft breath, a sigh of contentment and Bruce couldn’t tell if it was his own or Jason’s and then, “Merry Christmas B.”

                “Merry Christmas Jay.”