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Therapy

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Bruce shouldn’t have hit him that hard.

He’d been so angry and disappointed and he let those emotions get the better of him.

Jason won’t ever let him forget it and he deserves that. But Jason deserves this.

He waits patiently for Jason to wake up, occupying the minutes with research on his wrist computer. When the man stirs on the edges of Bruce’s vision he closes the screen, folds his arms across his armored chest, and squares up.

Jason blinks slowly as he sits up on the cot with a groan. He looks around, eyes sliding over Bruce with just a twitch of his lip toward a scowl.

“What the fuck is this?” He asks when he realizes where he is.

“You think I’d risk putting you in Blackgate or Arkham?” Bruce’s says calmly, “Just so you can escape?”

The look of incensed disbelief Jason levels at him twists the otherwise handsome face into something ugly and animal.

“Are you fucking serious?”

Bruce doesn’t answer, just glares at the boy from the safety of his lenses. He’s so disappointed with him.

“Just so I’m clear on this,” Jason growls with incredulity, “The Joker’s body count is literally, no hyperbole, hundreds of innocent civilians. But you keep putting him through the system, just to end up back in a cell at Arkham that is LITERALLY reserved for him because he keeps escaping. I’ve killed a handful of drug dealers, killers, and rapists, served time for it, admittedly not the whole sentence but as much as anyone else in this corrupt hellhole, and one mob-boss with his own list of bodies as long as my arm and a history of bribing his way out of justice, is enough for you to lock me away in a private prison with no trial?”

Bruce resists shifting uncomfortably. It’s different. But it’s different for personal reasons. Reasons Jason won’t understand.

“I put the Joker in here after the event with the family,” he hasn’t even finished the thought before he realizes what he’s saying but it’s too late to stop the words.

Hurt and shock flash across Jason’s face quickly before the rage returns.

Jason scowls at him.

“Great,” he says quieter than Bruce had expected, “Good to know where I stand. Of all the assholes in the world the two people you’ll break your whole justice code for is the Joker,” he pauses and gulps, “and me.”

Then he lets out a sharp, humorless, laugh, “Guess that saying’s true, huh? Be careful what you wish for.”

It takes every ounce of training and experience to not flinch at those words.

“Well, I guess since I’m not sharing this dank cell with the lunatic who tortured and murdered me that he managed to escape,” Jason’s looking around where the thick, clear, polycarbonate meets the cave wall so he misses the way Bruce does cringe this time, “I’m sure you’ve fixed that flaw but—”

Jason has turned back to him and he must not have composed himself as well as he should have because Jason’s eyes go wide and the anger drains away, replaced by sadness and… betrayal.

“You’re kidding?” Jason says. His eyes look a little glassy but he grits his teeth and purses his lips.

“It was the end of the universe, Jason,” Bruce sighs, not really wanting to go into it, “He was the only one who could help.”

Even he thinks the scoff that earns is well-deserved.

Jason suddenly looks older, tired, weary. He flops onto the cot which creaks under his weight.

Bruce wants to say something; something that can make this better, or easier anyway; something that can take back all the hypocrisy and horrible implications of what’s been said, something that will make Jason understand.

“Jason---” and he’s almost grateful the other man interrupts him because he doesn’t really have anything else to say.

“Fuck off, Bruce.”

 

*             *             *

 

“It’s still attempted murder, Jason,” Bruce can hear Dick roll his eyes even though he can’t see it on the screen. It’s been two weeks since Jason broke his deal with Bruce. Cobblepot’s condition is stable but he’s still in a coma.

Bruce does see Jason scowl.

“You and I have different definitions of murder.”

“Yeah, and mine’s the right one,” Dick says, too brightly for the nature of the conversation.

“Right, wrong. Morality’s subjective. Mine is the legal definition,” Jason smirks at Dick. “Do you have any 9’s?”

Dick frowns and passes a 9 of diamonds through the slot as Jason continues, “Attempted manslaughter, at best. Murder is premeditated. Either way,” Jason shuffles a couple cards around and sets down his new pair, then waves his hand around indicating the cell, “this is bullshit.”

Dick doesn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“What do you mean, ‘at best’?”

Jason smiles, “Oh I’m pretty sure, a good attorney could make a decent case for ‘justifiable homicide,’” he shrugs, “And if that didn’t fly then, hey, all I have to do is bribe the judge and/or the jury and according to Bruce, I’m innocent.”

Dick snorts.

“You know he doesn’t think that.”

Jason gives him a meaningful look, “Yeah, I know.”

“I didn’t mean about you specifically,” Dick sighs, “I meant that just because someone’s ‘found innocent’ in Gotham doesn’t mean Bruce believes that.”

“Is that supposed to be better, Dickie?” Jason says, their game of Go Fish completely forgotten, “Bruce knows the system in Gotham is corrupt from the top down, broken and no one’s even pretending to try to fix it. But he still sends every single costumed psycho through it. Except me,” his expression goes dark, “and the fucking Joker.”

“Bats aren’t killers, Jay, we can’t condone that” Dick says softly.

Even through the screen, Jason’s eyes are like fire.

“Hey, Dickie, that guy who helped us fight Mother… your friend with the magic doors?”

Bruce can see Dick freeze.

“Midnighter, right?” Jason sounds perfectly casual, “Doesn’t he kick steak bones through guys’ skulls and rip people apart with his bare hands?”

Unlike Bruce, Dick has the decency to look guilty.

“And Demon-spawn,” Jason continues, eyes never leaving Dick’s face, “He killed Nobody not too long ago. I don’t remember him getting locked up either.”

“He was raised by assassins,” Dick responds, finally defensive, “That’s gonna take some time to get over.”

Jason nods knowingly, “League training. Sure, that’s tough to overcome.”

Bruce is sharing in Dick’s growing discomfort as Jason calmly points out the hypocrisy in every statement.

“He was indoctrinated from birth, Jason, it’s not the same.”

“I’m not arguing, Dick. I get it, having your mind fucked with, taken from you without you knowing… yeah, man, that’s hard to come back from. It’s good that Damian has you and Bruce to help him.”

Dick’s gulp is audible over the coms. It had taken a while, figuring out how to deal with Jason when he’d returned. They’d stumbled, said some things, they hadn’t fully understood, even Jason hadn’t fully understood. In some ways, Bruce has always suspected that all those missteps had made it harder for Jason to come back to himself, made it take longer, made the current peace more tenuous than it could have been. He would do a lot of things differently if he could go back; had done a lot of things differently with Damian, all because of the lessons learned with Jason. But Bruce has never told Jason that.

“He didn’t lock Kate up in here for Clayface.”

Dick moves to stand, Bruce can see how tense he is.

“Jason, I—”

“Last one, promise, big bird,” Jason says, still calm and composed in a way that’s much more unnerving than his usual anger and bluster.

Dick looks back down to him, follows his movements as Jason stands too.

“Did Bruce beat the shit out of you and lock you up down here when you beat the Joker to death?”

Bruce can see Dick’s mouth opening and closing; he likely wants to say that obviously the Joker isn’t dead but swallows those words back when he remembers that Penguin is also not dead; when he realizes, once again, that the only things he has to say will just make Jason’s point clearer.

Dick turns to leave, pauses, then squares his shoulders and faces Jason, looking confident.

“All the things you’re mentioning, there are reasons—not excuses, but explanations, for why. You don’t have one for this, you just went off half-cocked, like usual, and shot Cobblepot on live TV.”

Dick doesn’t wait for a response, just turns and walks out of the room. Bruce knows that Dick’s reasoning isn’t enough to justify this. Especially since—

Please tell me you at least asked him why?” Dick snaps from behind him.

Bruce doesn’t turn around and doesn’t respond.

“Jesus Christ, Bruce, what’s wrong with you?” he hears Dick mutter as he leaves.

Bruce has no answer for that either.

He watches as Jason looks up at the camera and flips it off.

Chapter Text

“Fuck off, Bruce.”

Bruce sighs in exasperation. It’s the only thing Jason’s said to him for weeks. When Bruce first put him in here, Jason had waited four days until Tim had visited before he’d asked for books, just to avoid speaking to Bruce.

“I’m just trying to understand what you said to Damian,” Bruce tries again.

Jason continues to ignore him; keeps pretending to read even though his eyes aren’t moving.

Damian had come to the cell several days ago. Bruce had initially thought it was to mock Jason but the idea that Damian would make the trip from San Francisco to the cave, while he and Bruce weren’t getting along, just to tease was unlikely.

Bruce had watched his son march up to the glass, stare at Jason a moment, then sit on the floor just like Dick had, from the main computer in the Batcave.

Damian had launched into a speech about how he supported Jason’s methods, how the only reason he restrained himself was out of respect for Bruce and the suspicion that he himself may not be the right type of person to make life and death decisions like that, and, most importantly, that he thought Jason was.

Jason had blinked at the teen in shock for a few seconds before joining him on the floor, back against the glass. Damian had turned to lean against the glass too and they sat in silence for a few moments.

“He killed my dad,” Jason had finally said.

“I would kill the man who killed my father,” Damian had responded, tone straightforward, like it was a well-known fact.

“Your dad’s a good guy. Mine was… well, he wasn’t.”

“Regardless,” Damian had said, then made a face “Family can be… complicated.”

Another short silence.

“Do you think he’s watching?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, since you’re here. But it’s not like he can watch me 24/7.”

Bruce was out of his chair and running out of the main cave, down the access corridor, to the cell at the far end before he heard the end of the sentence.

It took him maybe thirty seconds to get there and he was still almost too late. Damian was only about ten seconds away from hacking the locking mechanism and freeing Jason.

Damian’s access to the corridor was revoked and Bruce started keeping the door closed.

Alfred wasn’t allowed down here, either. The first night Jason spent in the cell, Alfred had looked scathingly at Bruce and given him a piece of his mind.

“I’m sorry he broke your deal, sir, but it’s not as though any of you are very good at keeping the promises you make.”

“He tried to kill a person, Alfred.”

“Yes, Master Bruce, but then, I’ve killed before. And on the occasion your night life spills into the manor I take up a gun with every intention of using lethal force to protect myself and our home.”

“You were a government agent and, no offence, to them but you don’t have the training Jason does. And you don’t go out hunting criminals,” Bruce had rubbed his hands over his face.

“No, sir, I’m merely willing to kill in self-defense. But I also haven’t pledged to spend my evenings endangering my life to protect the innocent.”

Bruce had scowled.

“Maybe you shouldn’t go down there, Alfred. I don’t want to confuse the issue for him any more than it has been already.”

“Of course, sir. Showing Master Jason support could be detrimental to his understanding of the situation.”

“You’re very droll, Alfred,” Bruce had responded dryly.

Bruce shakes his head. Pushing the memory to the back of his mind and pulling himself back to the present. Back to the angry young man on the other side of the glass.

“Jason please,” Bruce almost pleads, “What did you find out about your father?”

Jason sighs and sits up.

“So, now you care about why?”

“You could have just said something.”

“You coulda asked.”

They glare at each other.

Finally Jason rolls his eyes and sighs again.

“Look, I found out Penguin murdered my dad,” he crosses his arms, “There’s nothing to talk about, nothing to understand, not about that.”

He pauses and shifts uncomfortably, “Neither of us are very good at communicating but locking me up like this is kinda my last straw, ya know,” he rubs his neck awkwardly, “So it’s time we have a real talk.”

It’s Bruce’s turn to fidget. This isn’t what he meant.

“I’m tired, B. I’m tired of rolling over for you. I’m tired giving in every time you tell me I’m wrong just because if I don’t we’ll fight forever. I’ve told you before, this family means a lot to me. It’s the only reason I’ve ever tried to live by your rules, because I know if I don’t you’ll kick me out. But I can’t keep this up. You’re wrong about this. Or at least, you’re not the only one who’s right.”

“We’ve been over this before. Killing makes you as bad as the criminals we fight. There is no room for gray here,” Bruce says, straightening his spine, lips in a firm line. He’s not bending on this. He’s right. Period.

Jason blinks at him, unfolds his arms, drags his tongue over his teeth, and takes a breath, steeling himself.

“Saying ‘killing makes you like them’ is a cop out,” he starts. He’s never been one to beat around the bush, “And I don’t think you really believe that. I think you know there’s a difference, a distinction between murder and killing, and I think even you realize that making something like that so black and white is getting into some really dangerous territory. That kinda uncompromising, moral absolutism is what leads to the Justice Lords and a society where jaywalking carries the same sentence as mass murder. But I also think you double down on that mantra because it’s your way of absolving yourself from taking that step.”

Jason pauses. Bruce glares daggers at him.

“You don’t want that kind of power, to be responsible for ending another person’s life. Maybe deep down you really do feel like you don’t have the right to make that decision, but you also feel that people like the Joker are your responsibility anyway. So you say ‘killing makes us like them,’ trying to absolve yourself of something a part of you feels is an obligation.”

Jason lets that sit for a moment. When it becomes clear Bruce either can’t or won’t comment, he continues.

“And you’re right, Bruce. The Joker is your responsibility. The justice system in this country hasn’t caught up with how crime works now. It doesn’t account for supervillains and mass murdering clowns. Since you’ve been fighting Ra’s, has he spent a single moment in any prison? You’ve made these creeps your responsibility, you want justice for their victims’ families, you want fair and appropriate… just… sentences for their crimes.”

Jason gives him a hard look.

“Justice for the Joker means death. Justice for Penguin means death. Justice for most of these indiscriminately murdering assholes, means death. Another brief stint in Arkham isn’t justice.”

His expression softens a little.

“You don’t want to go there. You’re worried about who that’ll make you. And that’s fine, B.”

Bruce’s eyes narrow in confusion. Jason gives him a small smile.

“You don’t need absolution for your reluctance to go that far. Especially if what you told me once is true. That killing would be too easy, that it’s hard for you to not give into the urge.”

Jason steps away from the glass and crosses his arms again.

“Killing shouldn’t be easy. It should hurt, it should come with nightmares and self-doubt because those are the things that make you pause, make you ask yourself, ‘is this necessary?’ And that’s the difference between psychos like Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, etc. who think people are disposable toys in their sick games, people who feel no hesitation, no remorse, and a person who accidentally kills someone with their car, someone overcome with pain or rage who momentarily loses his shit. That’s why even the current legal system, inadequate as it is, has the act of taking life split into degrees of severity.”

Jason juts out his chin, standing his ground.

“And maybe killing is easier for me than it should be. My nightmares aren’t about the people I’ve killed, they’re about the ones I haven’t. But the difference between me and Joker isn’t that I hesitate to kill an innocent bystander. It’s that the idea would never even cross my mind. The people I’ve killed were all guilty. All proud, repeat offenders who took advantage of the weakest people. I’ve never killed anyone without proving their guilt. But you know as well as I do that our illegal wiretaps and trespassing aren’t admissible in any court. The eye witness account of the Red Hood or Batman doesn’t mean shit. The guilty walk too often in this town.”

“You didn’t shoot the Penguin for justice,” Bruce finally snarls at him, losing his own cool, just a little, “You shot him for vengeance. Those are never the same thing,”. He wants to say more. But Jason’s hitting all his classic points and he doesn’t really know how to rationalize them in the face of this calm deconstruction.

It’s obvious Jason’s been thinking about this for a long time.

“You’re right,” Jason replies, infuriatingly calm. Bruce blinks at him in surprise. “They’re not the same thing. Vengeance is only born from a failure to deliver justice. Your crusade against crime was motivated by vengeance, not justice, because the person who killed your parents was never found.”

Jason steps back up to the glass, as close to Bruce as he can get, and Bruce hates that they’re pretty much eye level; that he can’t use his bulk to intimidate Jason just by towering over him anymore.

“If I ever kill the Joker, it will absolutely be motivated by vengeance. But it will also be justice. Because he’s never paid a fair and appropriate price for killing me. Because it’s what he deserves for the hundreds of people he’s murdered. Because we know, without a doubt, that he will continue to kill if he’s left alive. At some point, all his future victims’ lives become our fault.”

Bruce opens his mouth but Jason isn’t finished.

We, each Bat, only exists because of the corruption and failures of Gotham’s justice and legal systems. We shouldn’t have to kill the Joker. The state should have done that long ago. The fact that it hasn’t is testament to how jacked up things are around here. And the fact is, everything we do, the fact that we exist at all, is because we do what the broken system can’t or won’t to protect the people in this city. That’s the whole point of us.”

He holds up a hand to stop Bruce from interrupting.

“It’s fine that you can’t do it. I’m not saying you should, not anymore. That’s a personal decision; a really difficult one for a good person, regardless of the choice made. But you guys like to say I’m a cold-blooded murderer, mostly when you’re mad at me or disappointed with something I’ve done. But ‘cold-blooded’ is dispassionate, indiscriminate, and unreasonable. None of that’s me. And I’m tired of being treated like trash just because I don’t agree with you on this.”

“This isn’t like disagreeing about tax rates, Jason, we’re disagreeing on lives,” Bruce growls, finally having enough of this.

“Yeah B, but ultimately? We’re disagreeing on whose lives matter more,” Jason goes back to the cot and lies down, “And I’m never going to care more about a supervillain than his future victims. And I refuse to feel guilty, or be guilted, for that,” Jason gives him a weirdly regretful look and swallows hard, “Not even for you.”

Chapter Text

“What does ‘justice’ mean to you, Jim?”

Gordon blows out a puff of smoke and narrows his eyes at him. They’re standing on the roof of the GCPD. A crisp breeze stirs up the commissioner’s coat while Batman’s cape barely jostles. It’s creeping closer to winter.

“What kind of question is that?” Gordon responds.

He hesitates. He always appreciates the way the old cop doesn’t pull his punches. The same trait he’s finding so problematic with Jason.

“I’m just… trying to work something out.”

“Riddler case?”

Bruce snorts internally but makes no outward indication of humor.

“Something personal.”

Jim chews on the end of his pipe, regarding him suspiciously. Evidently, he decides it’s not a trap.

“Justice is a fair price paid for hurting others for your own gain.”

“What if you accidently hurt someone?”

“Accidents happen but there’s still a price to pay to clean up the mess. The cost goes up with the level of malicious intent.”

“Hm.”

A long pause.

“How many of Gotham’s criminals, the truly malicious ones, would you say we’ve brought to justice in our years doing this, Jim?”

He’s looking right at the Commissioner but even if he hadn’t been, he would’ve still seen the way the man stiffens.

A tense silence expands between them. Bruce is content to wait for Jim to work through his thoughts. But as the silence grows the answer becomes clear.

Gordon sighs before saying quietly, “None. Not of the ones that matter.”

Bruce knows they’re both thinking the same thing.

“Do you think I should kill the Joker?”

Jim gives him a hard look, “I would never tell someone, anyone, that they should kill someone. It’s not your responsibility.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Look, we work well together, Batman and the GCPD, because you don’t step out of line. You’re not judge, jury, and executioner. If you killed someone, we’d have to bring you in,” Gordon pauses and looks at him out of the corner of his eyes, “We’d have to try. And then you’d have to stand trial.”

Gordon puffs on his pipe for a minute, “Killing the Joker… no one is ever gonna go to prison for that. Hell, the city would throw the person a parade,” he smirks, “I’d even shake the guy’s hand myself.”

Batman frowns.

“I know how you feel about guns. But I carry one. Every cop carries one. Regrettably, I’ve had to use mine too many times,” he pauses again, shifts, seems to age in front of Bruce’s eyes, “I’m not squeamish about killing if I have to, Batman. But I’d rather not. Every time is a new nightmare. The difference between me and you though, is that the badge I carry is supposed to mean that I’ve been trained to know when that’s my only option. It says, ‘the nature of the work you do is dangerous, and you may have to protect yourself and others from those with ill-will.’ You don’t have that. And while people, myself included trust you know the line, even better than me, you’re not a part of the process and no public agency can condone an anonymous private agent who has no real oversight.”

He glances quickly at the Bat-signal and tries to shrug off the motion as stretching.

“What is it?” Batman presses.

“Can’t get anything past you,” Jim mumbles, then more firmly, “It’s just, lately there’s been some talk about whether the GCPD having the that,” he nods at the light, “formally deputizes the Batman in some way.”

“Hm,” Bruce nods.

Truthfully, he’s surprised that it has taken this long for someone to come to that conclusion. It wouldn’t be good for the police or the Batman for people to start saying that Batman was an official part of the process, sanctioned by the city’s government. The city wouldn’t be able to handle the waves of ‘excessive force’ suits that would be brought forth, let along all the other illegal means Batman has at his disposal because he operates outside the process.

“How hard are you looking for the Red Hood?”

Jim rolls his shoulders, “I’m not looking for him at all, honestly. Cobblepot isn’t dead.”

“And if he were?”

“Officially? I’d have a task force on it.”

“In reality?”

“In reality they wouldn’t exactly be breaking their backs trying to dig him up.”

Batman looks at him expectantly, waiting for an explanation. Gordon shifts uncomfortably.

“Look, the only cops down there who dislike the Red Hood just happen to be the ones we suspect of being dirty,” he sighs, shrugs and continues, “It’s hard enough to convince these guys to be a little subtle about their support of him, let alone to get them to put any effort into finding him. Sure, they’ll give it a half-assed shot if they run into him. But they know he’s good enough to get away even if they gave it their all… besides, they know he doesn’t kill cops,” Jim gives him another furtive look, “or innocents.”

Bruce crosses his arms and frowns deeper. This is unsurprising news… but for some reason it stills surprises him.

“Since we’re talking about it,” Jim offers, a mischievous smile poking out of his mustache, “You may be interested to know that, since the business with the Black Mask when he first showed up, when violent crime rates dropped, the city’s cops have been collecting like a ‘legal defense fund’ for the guy… for when he kills the Joker.”

Not for the first time, Bruce is grateful for the lenses that block his eyes because he’s unable to stop them from widening in surprise.

Jim shrugs again, “Like I said, this town will throw a parade for whoever kills the Joker. They’ll call it a civil service and they wouldn’t be wrong.”

He leans over to relight his pipe, blocking it from the wind, saying, “I don’t think you need to start killing. But I don’t think the situation is black and white enough to say that yours is the only right way.”

Batman hears that, the sensors in his cowl picking it up easily as he melts into the shadows.

 

*          *          *

 

“I’ll release you,” Bruce says, stoically, “But you’re never coming back to Gotham.”

Jason blinks at him for a moment. Bruce doesn’t know how he expected Jason to react, but it wasn’t to burst out laughing; loud and clear. Only the tiniest hint of pain, barely there; so little Bruce can pretend he doesn’t notice.

“Christ, Bruce,” Jason laughs, wiping at a tear, “That’s fucking hilarious.”

Bruce frowns, “I’m serious.”

“I know, that’s why it’s so funny.”

“Gotham is my city and I won’t have you—”

“Gotham is my city, Bruce,” Jason growls at him, losing his longstanding façade of calm pragmatism for the first time since getting locked away, “It’s mine in a way it can never be yours. It took your parents in a random act of senseless violence. It took mine too; not so random, not so senseless. You grew up upstairs; first with parents who loved you, doted on you; then with Alfred who loved you and cared for you and supported you. If you’d gotten the help you so obviously needed then, you would have gone on in that world, no knowledge of the real Gotham below your skyscraper, in the heart of the city, so far from a mansion safe on the outskirts.”

Jason looks mean and furious.

“I was born on the streets of Gotham. I fought for survival in her gutters. Even without you, I was always going to be some version of this,” he steps back and spreads his arms for Bruce to take him in, “You and me, we are to Gotham what Dick and Damian are to you. You might be Gotham’s favorite son, but I’m her blood,” he steps back to the glass, ice in his eyes, mouth set in a hard, determined line, “You can send me to Arkham. You can send me to Blackgate. You can keep me locked in your basement. But you don’t get to tell me when to leave Gotham. You don’t get to tell me if I can return. You don’t get to kick me out of my home.”

“That’s enough.”

They glare at each other, again. Sometimes it seems like they’ve spent half their relationship glaring at each other.

“You told me once that if I left it would be my choice, that you would never make me leave. We both knew, even then, that was a goddamned lie.”

Jason’s eyes are glassy and suddenly Bruce thinks he looks so young; not the boy he was before he died, but not the man who returned either.

Jason’s missing youth.

“I don’t have much, Bruce, and sometimes it feels like every time I find something, find somewhere, find someone, who feels like—” Jason stops himself, swallows hard and blinks back what Bruce thinks might be tears, “I’ve lost a lot,” he says, quiet again, “I’m not letting you take what’s left.”

Bruce doesn’t move for a minute. He doesn’t really want to have a heart to heart. Talking about this kind of stuff… it’s not… he’s not very good at it. He never knows just how to phrase things, how to put his thoughts and feelings into words… even in the best-case scenario, it can very easily make things worse.

Jason runs his hand through his hair and lets out a shaky breath. Bruce wonders how long the white roots have been visible. He hadn’t noticed until now.

Bruce sighs tiredly and tugs off his cowl. Jason eyes him suspiciously.

“Dick isn’t my favorite, Jason. He’s just the easiest. I understood him. I knew what he needed, how to help him,” he rubs a hand over his face, “Tim helped me, after you… after you. And even Damian, he’s… he’s difficult but he’s difficult in a more familiar way. I know the League and Ra’s and Talia, I know how to talk to him.”

Jason is looking at him like he doesn’t know who he is and Bruce thinks that’s fair.

“You’ve always been different. Harder. Not through any fault of your own, it’s just… you’re right… your childhood was… we, none of us, can really understand. My parents loved me. Dick’s parents loved him. Tim’s parents loved him. I guess maybe Damian can come closest,” he hesitates and Jason flinches, almost imperceptibly, and Bruce knows better than to elaborate; than to specify that they both know what it’s like to be killed by their mothers, “And I know that I played a role in that, too. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was arrogant. I thought that, because I’d helped Dick, I could help you too. I didn’t understand the differences, I just wanted to keep you safe, take you off the streets. Especially after finding out about—”

“Stop,” Jason almost whispers, “Don’t, please…”

The sudden vulnerability is off-putting. His face is flushed red and he won’t meet Bruce’s eyes now. All his strength and determination and confidence swept away by terrible memories of pain, of the horrors all too prevalent in the years before he stole tires from Batman.

“We’ve never talked about it, Jason. Maybe—”

“And we’re never going to,” Jason looks up, focusing somewhere by Bruce’s lips instead of his eyes, “You promised.”

Bruce frowns. He did. He promised he’d never mention it the first time. Then he had mentioned it, in his will. And the damage that did, after he ‘died’ and his hologram invited Jason back to the cave—after Jason had helped save the universe, had made friends, had even had some encouraging, semi-civil interactions with Tim—Bruce’s inability to articulate, his lack of awareness over how he phrased things, had sent Jason’s slowly recovering but still fragile psyche crashing down around him. And he’d promised himself he would be more careful; that he would keep Jason’s secret, even against his better judgement.

Bruce would never forgive himself for that mess, even if he had never admitted any fault.

“I did,” Bruce says, instead of all the things he knows he should say.

The silence is deafening.

Jason stares at the floor, arms crossed, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

Bruce stares at him. All at once he’s struck by how very similar Jason is to himself. Perhaps more than any of the others.

“I know you love me, Bruce,” Jason murmurs, interrupting Bruce’s musings, “Or at least, I’m sure enough of it that whenever I find myself thinking you don’t, I have to tell myself it’s just my insecurities talking. Maybe it really is just me, maybe it’s just another indicator of how messed up my perspective is on this, but sometimes… the way you are with Dick and Tim and Damian… and it’s so different with us… sometimes it really is hard for me to believe that… that you think… that you still consider me… well, your son.”

And that’s it, really. That’s the biggest hurtle right there. The thing that’s getting impossible to hide. The weight on his soul that threatens to suffocate him.

Because Jason was his son. A headstrong little punk with so much potential. Then his son died. And that boy never came back. He mourned Jason, lived with the agony of his death for years, and finally found a way to accept it, to come to terms with it, to find peace.

Then Jason was back. And he wasn’t the punk kid Bruce had last seen, but an angry man; smart, passionate, stubborn…

The problem is… he doesn’t see Jason as his son anymore.

Chapter Text

Bruce’s subconscious is unusually active these last nights. The things he sees behind his eyelids when he sleeps are less dream, or nightmare, and more memory; his mind trying to work through the things he’s purposefully avoiding.

 

He sees Jason. 13 years old, too skinny, grimy, obstinate and hardened by a hard life. He sees the Batmobile, front tires missing. The one crime that happened in Crime Alley that night perpetrated by a scrawny punk who had the stones to steal from Batman, the nerve to hit Batman with a tire iron when any other kid would have fawned or frozen.

He hears himself laugh. In Crime Alley. The place he watched his parents get gunned down. On the anniversary of their death, a gutsy delinquent brings him a moment of joy.

He follows the kid. Finds him smoking in a room in a condemned building. The mattress on the floor that acts as a bed is carefully made, the kid’s meager ‘possessions’ neatly stacked and sorted. He takes pride in what little he has because he got it himself, because it’s proof he’s beating the odds, surviving the streets. He stubbornly defends his independence because admitting he needs someone makes his parents’ failures more painful.

“It’s a kindergarten for crime… I don’t wanna learn to be no crook.”

When Ma Gunn turns out to be the worst kind of criminal, the kind that recruits and manipulates poor and disenfranchised kids into crime and masks it with faux philanthropy, he stops her. When Jason shows up, motivated only by the desire to do the right thing, he sees the potential. He sees an opportunity to protect this kid from following a too common, too easy, path.

------------------

He sees Jason. Nearly 14 and soaking up what Bruce has to teach him like a sponge. Jason hasn’t been to school in three years, but you’d never guess it. He has such a passion for learning, for new experiences, for training. He’s either a natural with guns or he’s familiar with them already. Bruce hopes it’s the former but, knowing what he does about the kid’s past, about his father, he suspects it’s the later. He hasn’t told Jason about his father, about how Two-Face allegedly killed him. He’s made Jason comb through the files regarding all his rogues except for Dent. Jason’s smart. He notices. So Bruce tells him everything, the tragedy of Harvey Dent, the coin, the acid, that Bruce has trouble seeing the pattern but Robin always could, everything except that Harvey killed Willis. Then he gives Jason the Robin suit.

“If I might be frank, sir, you’re making rather too frequent mention of the other Robin—don’t you think? Placing the lad’s predecessor in the way of that path?”

Bruce doesn’t respond to Alfred’s inquiry. He isn’t trying to compare them. He just misses Dick. It’s hard not to talk about him. Then Jason offers himself to Two-Face as a hostage to protect an innocent bystander and Bruce is struck by how noble that is, how it’s the exact same thing Dick would have done. Dick is one of the best people he knows, so much more like Clark than Bruce, it can’t possibly hurt to compliment Jason by comparing him to the first Robin.

------------------

Jason is quiet, sullen… almost like he’s pouting. But angrier. When they run into Two-Face again Robin loses control, beats him when he’s already down, threatens to kill him. He confronts Jason about his behavior. Jason confronts him about his father’s death. This is the first, but hardly the last, time Jason calls him out on taking a kid into combat with psychos but trying to protect that kid from hard emotional truths by keeping secrets. Bruce thinks the difference is obvious, that emotions are harder to deal with than fighting. It never occurs to him that he’s projecting.

Jason sets his personal feelings aside, doesn’t hesitate to save Dent’s life when Bruce makes a mistake. The boy is an exemplary pupil, he thinks.

--------------------

Jason is 14. He’s been at this just over a year. Six months of training before Bruce let him go out as Robin. Jason’s started going out on his own, disobeying Bruce’s wishes, just like Dick used to.

That’s how Nightwing ends up in the cave, calling Batman out on the hypocrisy of firing him, an adult well trained by Bruce for six years, with the excuse that he was a child and replacing him shortly after with an actual child. Bruce tries all the reasons he’d used to convince himself, that he was saving Jason’s life, giving him self-esteem, helping him channel his violence and anger toward good instead of crime, that Batman needs Robin, needs help. Dick sees through it all, wrings the truth from him. He’s lonely. That’s the real reason he introduced Jason into this world. Selfishness. Weakness.

Dick reaches out to Jason, offers what Bruce can’t give. A friendship looks promising and Bruce is grateful. Jason doesn’t have many friends.

---------------------

It’s autumn and the power goes out during a party. Bruce and Jim and the others go to the kitchen leaving Barbara and Jason alone.

After a few minutes Bruce heads toward his study to retrieve a book he was telling Jim about. He passes the living room and pauses out of sight when he hears Jason’s voice.

“What’s wrong Red?”

Bruce can hear the disappointment and betrayal in Barbara’s voice when she replies, “You’ll never be Dick Grayson.”

Bruce wants to say something; defend Jason, comfort Barbara. But he retreats. Convinces himself it’s best to let the kids work things out between themselves. Or he tries to anyway.

----------------------

He sees Jason. Standing in the snow making a joke about Diana’s costume. Bruce tells him to think clean thoughts but thinks it’s funny that pretty much the only difference between Diana’s suit and Jason’s is the cape. He’s never given it much thought, Dick was a circus performer and that’s where the shorts had come from, but he thinks it might be time to put pants on the Robin uniform.

Fashion faux pas aside, Jason’s quick thinking and cleverness saves not just Bruce, but Diana and Clark as well, from the first step of Mongul’s attempt to take over the planet.

----------------------

Wanna talk about it?”

“Action is what’s called for. Talking is for the birds.”

“What if the Penguin’s really reformed? Shouldn’t we give him the benefit—”

“Robin, lesson for the day: leopards don’t change their spots. And penguins don’t change their plumage.”

Jason is 15 and he’s right. Penguin had been trying to do good then. Batman had even defended him with the parole board in an attempt to make up for his prejudice. But then, Cobblepot had gone back to crime, graduated from thief to mob boss. Jason was a spectacular student. He learned the lesson. Leopards don’t change their spots.

--------------------

“She said ‘It may not have been legal, but it was right.’”

“I’ll buy that.”

“People can’t set themselves above the law, Jason. That way leads to anarchy. Even though you and I skirt along the edges of it, we still operate within the legal system. That’s the way it has to be. Even though more than a small part of me sometimes wishes it could be otherwise.”

A serial killer is trying to teach women their place. Jason finds it difficult to sympathize when the murderer winds up murdered by the sister of one of his victims. Bruce does too. Secretly he’s not too worried about the fact that a jury won’t convict the woman for defending herself, even if the police try to spin it like she provoked him when all she did was glare.

But he is worried about Jason. He beat a pimp to a bloody pulp and Bruce doesn’t know how much farther the boy would have gone if he hadn’t stopped him. He’s trying to set an example, even if he has to soften his own position to do what’s best for Jason.

--------------------

“I want this guy, Batman.”

Bruce can hear the hard determination in his tone; thinks it’s just because of the especially disheartening situation. A serial rapist and abuser with diplomatic immunity. It makes a lot more sense later—when he finds out—why Jason’s rage flares around pimps and rapists.

“You’ve apparently become too emotionally involved with this case, Jason.”

Jason doesn’t understand, it’s better to wait, take down the creep’s father too. Send them packing. It’s not a fitting punishment. It’s not justice. But it’s all they have, it’s all they can do. Jason does not like the idea of waiting. He doesn’t care about the drug lord. He just cares about the rapist.

They catch him and this time when he’s released, they all know he’s getting sent home. In a power play, the scumbag calls the poor girl he assaulted, tells her he’ll be over later.

Robin calls her immediately after. She doesn’t answer so Batman and Robin go to check on her.

She’s hung herself. It’s the only out she saw.

Robin takes it hard, collapses onto the sofa, face in his hands.

Bruce should have seen. There were signs. But the thought never crossed his mind. Not about the girl. About Jason. About his life before.

“Robin, did Felipe fall, or was he pushed?”

--------------------

He sees Jason. 16 and standing in putrid water surrounded by the obscene horror of mountains of rotting corpses. Batman can’t focus, doesn’t know if what he’s seeing is real. The hallucinations have been so vivid, so intense. He’s drugged and ill… but Jason saves him. Jason may be rough, may enjoy the violence a too much, but he always has Bruce’s back; is always there to save him.

---------------------

It’s the beginning of the end.

Jason is 16. It’s a child pornography ring. Lowest kind of scum in the world. Bruce has noticed Jason acting odd, lashing out. He’s moody. Resentful. Bruce chalks it up to his youth. After all, Jason is just a kid.

There were so many signs.

He sees Jason jump the gun. Sees one of the creeps take aim. Jason’s recklessness almost gets him killed.

Alfred thinks the strain of being on the streets, fighting, seeing the things Jason has seen, has brought out the fact that Jason has never coped with his parents and their demise. Bruce benches him. He does not take it well.

Bruce had always assumed that Jason’s parents had loved him. Jason hadn’t spoken about them and Bruce just assumed that it was love for his family that drove Willis Todd to a life of crime and weakness that took Catherine. Jason hadn’t corrected that notion. It was much too late when Bruce found out about Willis’s temper and that Catherine had used the drugs as an escape leaving Jason alone. Things may have been good at one time, but by the time they’d died, their home life had deteriorated.

The Joker has escaped. Batman is busy tracking him down, making sure he spends the rest of his life locked up for crippling Barbara. The current strain in their relationship makes Jason secretive. Bruce doesn’t know Jason has discovered that Catherine isn’t his biological mother or that he has a lead on who his birth mother may be; that he’s left to track her down. Not until it’s too late. Not until he makes an impossible choice.

In the years since he’s come to the conclusion that he made the wrong choice. He should have called the Justice League or the Titans, told them about the Joker and his nuke. He could have even told the Titans that Jason had run off and they’d have gone looking for him. He’d helped them before. They loved him like a little brother.

But he doesn’t do any of that. He chases the Joker to Lebanon without a word. Jason can survive in Gotham for a few days.

But Jason wasn’t in Gotham.

Their paths cross in Beirut and Bruce is beyond relieved that Jason is alright. Jason tells him about his mother, thinks Bruce is there to help. He thinks Bruce came looking for him. With a growing pit in his stomach, Bruce tells Jason about the Joker. Jason’s hurt by the truth. It’s so easy to forget that he’s still just a kid. A kid in pain. A kid with hope that maybe, just one parental figure in his life might care.

Bruce catches a break. The first woman Jason is investigating is a spy and happens to be with the man Bruce is looking for. It feels good to have Jason back at his side.

They stop the Joker, but the spy is not the right woman. Neither is Shiva. Bruce never thought about it… too many years between looking for Jason’s mother and meeting Cassandra… but his subconscious helpfully supplies that Shiva managed to lie to him about not having had any children, even with the truth serum in her veins.

He had asked Jason then if Shiva was the type of mother he’d have wanted. He’d said no. His answer is probably different now.

Because it’s a small world they live in and the final option, Sheila Haywood has history with the Joker. It’s so promising at the start. The circumstances surrounding her leaving Jason are understandable, she seems to have genuinely cared about him and determined that leaving him with his father was for the best.

Jason sees them head to the warehouse. He does everything right. He follows at a safe distance, stays hidden, listens to the monstrous plan, then goes and gets Bruce. But as they return to the warehouse a transport is leaving, loaded with Joker toxin and Bruce has to stop it. He begs Jason to wait, not to face the Joker alone, to hold on until he gets back.

And Jason doesn’t face the Joker. It’s so much worse than a disobeyed order. Sheila leaves the warehouse, Jason tells her he can help, that Batman and Robin can help, shows her his suit to prove it.

Then Jason’s mother, the woman who gave birth to him, who claimed hours ago to have cared for him, a woman who claims to regret having had to leave him behind, Jason’s last hope for a parent who cares enough about him not to kill herself, not to turn to a life of crime, not to train a kid for combat and take him into war… she hands Jason, a kid, a child, her child, over to the greatest monster in the world, knowing that Joker would kill him.

Even though he wasn’t there, Bruce sees Jason, 16 years old, lying on the dirty floor of the warehouse. He sees each blow of hard, cold metal strike his son’s body. Sees the sharp ends of the crowbar tear at Jason’s flesh. Hears the sickening crunch of bones shattering as each merciless blow connects.

Even though he wasn’t there, he sees Sheila, watching coldly from the sidelines as the life she brought into this world is snuffed out right in front of her eyes. He sees the chilling apathy in the doctor’s eyes as a child bleeds out on the floor.

He sees Jason. Or rather the boy’s broken and charred body draped lifelessly over the debris. He’d died, fighting through intense agony, trying to save the life of the woman who’d so callously sacrificed his.

A montage of images assault him before he reaches Jason’s side. Punching Superman. More fucking diplomatic immunity. The moment he decides he doesn’t care, that the Joker’s finally going to pay. Clark going on about international incidents and respecting the diplomatic immunity.

“That’s the law, not justice.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, Bruce. You can’t put your thirst for vengeance before your country’s best interests.”

“Spare me your boy scout sentimentalities, Kent.”

The moment he decides it’s enough. The moment he thinks “one of us is going to die.” The Joker taunts him with Jason’s death. His resolve solidifies. “I should have terminated his vile existence years ago. But I didn’t. His insanity gained him a stay of execution. But no longer.”

He sees Jason. No pulse. The warmth of life leaving him quickly. Blood dripping from his many, many wounds. He pulls his dead son into his arms and weeps into his dark curls.

 

*          *          *

 

Bruce jolts awake with a shout. His body and sheets are wet with quickly cooling sweat and the likeness to the memory of Jason’s warm skin going cold has him diving over the side of the bed for the wastebasket and vomiting.

It’s 3am. Bruce has only been asleep for an hour but the dreams—memories were so intense he feels the weight of those years crushing in on him. He’s having trouble catching his breath. His throat is dry and he’s not entirely sure he won’t be sick again.

This is an uncharacteristically visceral reaction to his dreams—nightmares. It’s not the first time Jason’s death has haunted while he sleeps. But it is the first time their entire relationship before that horrible moment in time has played like a movie, providing context where he had avoided applying it in the past.

He swallows hard, wipes his mouth with the back of one hand and runs the other through his hair.

He’s tired but he knows there’s no getting back to sleep tonight.

The ice water from the kitchen helps him feel a little more like himself as he wanders around the manor with no particular destination in mind.

He thinks of all the times he’s said Jason is broken.

He recalls all the times he’s referred to Jason, his life and his death, his greatest failure.

He’s not sure he ever meant it, certainly not the way he’d said it. So why did he keep saying it? Was it a way to protect himself? A way to distance himself from the pain?

Jason’s death, the fact of it, is his greatest failure. Joined now by Damian’s death and Dick’s and Tim’s close calls. But Jason’s life? Bruce knows he wouldn’t have done things differently. The way Jason came into his life, his time on the streets, Jason was always coming home with him. Even if someone had told him how things would turn out, he’d still have taken in Jason, convinced he could change destiny.

Bruce stops walking.

And ‘broken’? Maybe. But they’re all broken. Bruce, Dick, Jason, Tim, Damian… that’s the thing they have in common, the thing that brought them together, what made them family.

He hadn’t been paying attention to where he was going, so he looks around to get his bearings. He’s not surprised that he’s only a dozen steps from the clock that leads to the cave. But it’s the portrait that captures his attention.

The family portrait he had done not too long ago.

The family portrait with him and Alfred. And Dick. And Tim. And Damian.

The family portrait that shows no sign of Jason.

It’s only been four years since Jason died. He could have justified putting him in there as a memorial. Damian is the one who finished the painting, he could have asked Damian to put a robin on the chair or a red mask on the shelf in the background, something subtle that the average person would dismiss as set decoration but that they’d recognize. That Jason would see and know he was thought of… know that he was family.

But he had never even thought about it. Justifying Jason’s inclusion as a memorial would have required him to have thought of Jason as his kid.

When Bruce had called them to set up the sitting, he’d called his sons.

Jason had completely slipped his mind.

Bruce scowls. He suddenly hates that portrait.

Chapter Text

Bruce wakes to the faint, lingering scent of coffee. He blinks the bleariness from his eyes and scrubs his hands across his face before lacing his fingers together behind his head, arching back, cracking his stiff spine. His eyes slide up and he straightens in his chair, frowning at the batcomputer.

The main screen is opened to their most recent case file. But he’s positive he passed out watching Jason sleep.

He keys in a command and the image of the cell fills his vision. Tim sits, opposite Jason, on the other side of the glass as they both sip on steaming cups.

Explains the smell of coffee. But did Tim change the monitor to protect Bruce from being found out should anyone else enter the cave? Or in the hopes that his conversation with Jason would be more private?

“We’ve talked about this before, Jason,” Tim is saying, “This family doesn’t process their emotions, any of their emotions, in particularly healthy ways.”

“For fuck’s sake, Tim. I slit your damn throat.”

Tim gives Jason a piercing, serious look that could burn through steel as easily as any heat vision.

“And Bruce slit yours,” he replies gently.

Jason flinches and his hand rises instinctively to rub at the thin white scar on the left side of his neck where Bruce’s batarang had opened his artery.

Bruce flinches too. Swallows hard at the reminder that he’d almost killed Jason a second time, for the goddamned Joker. That the mark Jason is touching gingerly with his fingertips may not be the first one carved into his skin after the Pit washed his body clean of the old ones, but it is likely the one that hurts the most, the one with the memories that sting and burn.

Jason looks far away, lost in those memories. Bruce wants to pull him close, tell him he’s sorry. Explain that it was just instinct, that he didn’t mean it, that, despite appearances to the contrary, Bruce would never choose the Joker over Jason. Never.

“Look Jay,” Tim starts, interrupting the downward spiral of regret and pain in both his listeners, “No one’s pretending you didn’t go a little insane there for a bit*. We know the Pit’s driven Ra’s mad with frequent and consistent use. We know Talia dumped you in it while he was regenerating. We don’t know if or how that affected you. We’ll never know if that was a cause or if you were just dealing with feelings of pain and betrayal with excessive force,” Tim pauses and gives Jason a knowing, mean little smirk, “Which is very similar to how Bruce deals with those emotions.”

Jason’s eyes narrow, “Watch it, asshole.”

When Tim just smiles and takes a gulp of coffee, Jason huffs, leans back against the wall, and takes another sip of his own.

Bruce’s first instinct is to argue that. To point out that he’s never once killed someone, even someone who might deserve it, because he was in pain and trying to deal with it.

Then he remembers that he did try to kill the Joker while he was grieving Jason. He did get more violent after Jason’s death.

He fully intended to throw the Joker over the edge of the cliff in the cave after he attacked the family, before the Joker panicked and fell.

He thinks about dissecting Frankenstein after Damian died and pushing Barbara and Tim away when they tried to talk to him about how out of control he was getting.

About taking Jason back to the rubble where Bruce had found his lifeless body. Asking him to relive his torture, his murder, his messy resurrection. Telling Jason that if he loved Bruce, he’d want to.

There’s a chance you can help me erase one of the worst days of MY life, Jason! You can give me the greatest gift of all and help me figure out how to bring my son back!

And all Bruce had asked for was everything. For Jason to relive the worst day of his life; to remember the worst of a lifetime of traumas to help Bruce bring back the son he cared about. He knew, even then, that that’s how Jason would hear it, that Damian was worth saving, worth sacrificing Jason to save.

All he’d asked for was what little peace of mind Jason had left.

It was one thing when Jason, Tim, and Barbara offered to put their lives on the line for Damian. And it spoke worlds of the man Jason is that he returned and did just that. But… Bruce’s actions? Trying to trigger one child’s trauma to save another? That’s not something a father would do. Not a father who loved his sons equally.

He recalls more recent events. Thinks about wrongfully accusing Freeze and beating him mercilessly after Selina left.

His fight with Jason. The brutality with which he attacked the younger man. The way Jason shooting Cobblepot felt like the exact same kind of betrayal as Selina’s. Broken promises between—

Bruce closes his eyes and takes a steadying breath. It might be time to go over, to analyze and reevaluate his relationship with Jason and how it’s changed. It’s affecting things, has been affecting things for far too long. If he can finally sort through it all he can acknowledge and counter the damaging actions and reactions.

“My point is,” Tim is saying when Bruce is able to pull his attention back to the monitor, “You were still killing people when I helped you, when we fought the Joker together, when we fought Mother together. I told you once that you could be better. When you made your deal with Bruce, I… well, I just have a lot of respect for that, Jason. We all know you didn’t have a change of heart, that you were trying to fall in line because,” Tim pauses and looks Jason in the eye, still so serious, “because you love us.”

It doesn’t look like Jason’s even breathing, he’s sitting so still. He stares at Tim, nostrils flared, not in anger but like he’s been caught.

“The rest of us, we’re not going to cross that line,” Tim looks away for a moment and Bruce knows he’s thinking of the Tim from the future they recently had the displeasure of meeting, but his resolve is firm when he looks back to Jason, “But we’ve all worked with killers before and I think we’re all mature enough to admit that people like Kate, Jim, even you and Midnighter aren’t evil. Bruce may not want you to wear a bat and, frankly, that’s his decision to make, but soon enough he’ll remember that you’re not a bad guy, you’re not a villain.”

Tim pauses again and this time Bruce can’t—or doesn’t want to—identify what settles in the young man’s eyes, but it makes both him and Jason fidget.

“Soon enough,” Tim says, each word chosen with precision, spoken carefully, with intent, “He’ll realize how much he loves you too.”

Bruce is on his feet, heart thudding so rapidly in his chest that it feels like a single, drawn out beat, and freezes with his hands braced on the console, trying to catch the breath that’s been punched out of him.

Tim could mean that the way Bruce wishes it was, the way he thinks it should be. He could mean it the way Jason meant it when he’d said that he knew Bruce loved him. But that thing in Tim’s gaze that Bruce was avoiding acknowledging? It’s this. It’s the truth, spoken aloud for the first time.

It’s like a damn breaking in Bruce’s mind. He’d known, of course, but he’s very proficient at compartmentalizing and he’d kept that in a barely contained compartment buried deep. He’s felt it leaking but pushed off. It’s something too hard to think about, too difficult to give it the consideration it needed so he tried to bury it deeper, hoping the darkness would swallow it up and hide it.

But Tim’s pulled it, kicking and screaming, into the light, and Bruce can’t put it back, can’t ignore it as it cries for his attention.

Jason blinks, mouth parting as his jaw works to find the words. He looks like he’s going to argue. Instead he sighs and his shoulders sag.

“Yeah, well,” he finally says, voice quiet but stiff, “He’ll never say it.”

Tim shrugs as he stands, then stretches.

“We’ll see,” he says as he moves to the corridor, “I’ll come for a longer visit in a couple of days. Maybe we can play a game or something.”

Jason’s posture changes back to normal immediately and he scowls, “I’m not playing chess with you ever again, you cheating bastard. So you better bring cards for poker or fucking Candyland or something.”

“Knowing the rules isn’t cheating, Jason. But you’re right,” Tim grins back at him wickedly, “Candyland is more your speed.”

“Fuck you,” Jason growls at Tim’s back as he disappears.

Bruce still hasn’t managed to move. He’s still leaning over the console, staring at nothing, when Tim reenters the main cave.

Tim stops in his peripheral and just looks at him until Bruce manages to turn his head just enough to give him the focus he’s waiting for, not daring to meet the young man’s eyes.

“Figure it out, Bruce,” Tim says, firmly but kindly, “Once again, your knack for self-deception is hurting the people you love.”

Tim’s hand finds his shoulder.

“You’re not the only one who has problems expressing your feelings,” he says, “But your secrets do tend to hit harder than ours.”

Bruce doesn’t think for a moment that those words weren’t chosen very specifically. Tim making a final point before he’s on his bike and Bruce is alone with thoughts he’s unprepared to face.

He doesn’t know how long he stands there, still in his pajamas, gazing unseeingly into space, grappling with a revelation that shouldn’t be this shocking.

Alfred comes in with a breakfast tray for Jason and Bruce insists it’s fine that Alfred delivers it himself this time.

Alfred casts a worried look in his direction before descending to the cell.

Bruce had known this, hadn’t he? He’s known for a long time that he didn’t think of Jason as his son. That the boy who was his son, curious and sweet, died in desert, far away from home. That the man who returned was different, almost a stranger—

His fist slams into the console before he can control himself. He needs to get out of here. He needs… he needs air. He needs somewhere to think, somewhere not here, not where Jason is, not where his family congregates. Somewhere quiet and neutral.

He throws on the Batsuit, the mask a safe haven he can easily hide behind, as quickly as he ever has and flees in the Batplane.

Chapter Text

“Seriously though, how the heck do you get in here?”

Bruce still has his cowl up as he fiddles with the crystals of the Kryptonian computer in the Fortress of Solitude. As usual, Clark sounds slightly awed at Bruce’s ability to get into the structure, despite the only entrance being locked by a key too heavy for him to lift. One would think he’d eventually get used to it but Clark never seems anything less than astonished.

“You can get into the cave without my permission. It’s only fair that I can get in here without yours,” Bruce manages a sly smirk, “So, like every other time you’ve asked, I think I’ll keep this secret to myself.”

“Mmhmm. As opposed to all the other secrets that you see fit to share?”

Bruce frowns at him, even though he knows the sarcasm is fair.

“Like maybe the fact that you’ve got Jason locked up in the private cell you built for the Joker?”

Unlike Clark, Bruce is past being surprised when the other man knows something he doesn’t think he should. Even though there’s no judgment in Clark’s tone, he feels his heart thud at how harsh those words sound to his soul.

“That’s why you’re here, right?” Clark’s voice is gentle, open and understanding, “You need to talk about it. Have for awhile but you’ve finally worked up the nerve, or hit some kind of breaking point.”

It’s become increasingly clear to Bruce over the years that Clark knows him too well.

“Did you ever tell him? About our fight? After his death.”

“Of course not.”

“What do you mean, ‘of course not’? Like it’s obvious you shouldn’t,” Clark sounds exasperated, “When the opposite is so clear.”

“The opposite isn’t clear. Telling him is unnecessarily self-serving. It’ll just come across as appeasing. Like I’m trying to justify myself.”

“Uh… That’s exactly what you’d be doing. That’s what you need to do, Bruce. His anger and frustration come from feeling like you didn’t care enough to do something. But you did! You tried to kill the Joker. I even let you after all the stuff at the UN.”

Bruce scowls at the phrasing. He’s knows it’s accurate. But it doesn’t make the idea of Clark allowing him to do something any easier to process.

“A lot has happened since then. I—I’ve made so many… it won’t be that easy.”

“Because you treat him so differently than the others?”

Bruce’s head snaps up to glare at Clark. He’s never been around Jason enough to make that kind of judgment.

Clark smiles softly and takes a couple steps closer.

“We’ve been friends for a very long time. I think I’ve told you this before, but I can pick your heartbeat out of the billions on the planet. But maybe I’ve never told you the extent of it,” Clark looks directly into Bruce’s lenses and the seriousness there makes Bruce deeply uncomfortable. He’s grateful that he had the foresight to leave the cowl on. “I can tell, from the other side of the planet, when you’re with Selena or Jason. But I can never tell which one it is.”

Bruce scowls but reigns in the denial that springs to mind before it can pass his lips. This is the reason he’s here. He already knows this, his… feelings. He’s here because Clark can help him figure out how to manage them so that he doesn’t hurt anyone.

“So that just leaves the big question,” Clark continues, “What do you need from me to figure out how to tell him?”

Bruce chokes on the breath he was taking. “Tell him? Clark, I need you to help me get rid of these… this. I’m not telling him anything. He thinks of me as a father, and the fact that I can’t see my son when I look at him…”

“Bruce,” this time Clark’s tone is firm and commanding, “You feel guilty so you’re overcompensating too far in the other direction. Offering little to no affection because you’re worried he’ll see the true motivations behind it. And you honestly think you’re protecting him, hiding it from him, because you’re a good person and you don’t want to hurt him. But you are. Hurting him, that is.”

There’s a small silence. Bruce knows he’s right about this too. And he hates himself for it. He needs to get a handle on himself. If he can’t free himself from these feelings, he at least needs to learn how to control them. To accept them as just another of his horrible failings and keep them in check.

“I’m going to ask you a question,” Clark says quietly, “And I don’t want you to get defensive and answer with what you think you should. Think about it for moment and then be honest with me.”

Bruce cocks his head, not liking where this is going at all. He reminds himself that Clark’s sincerity, lack of bias or judgement, and honesty is why he’s here. He gives stiff nod.

Clark takes a deep breath, “With the exception of Damian, who came to you younger and with no previous family unit to vie for your paternal role… do you really think of any of the boys as your actual sons?”

“They’re my family,” he says immediately. Clark rolls his eyes but Bruce is adamant about this, the boys are his family. Period.

“That’s not what I asked,” Clark says patiently, “Families are complex structures. Who we consider family often includes, not just children and parents and cousins, etc., but friends, lovers, mentors, etc. Lois, Jon, Kara… they’re my family. But so are you and Conner and Krypto and Steel,” he pauses again and gives a indulgent smile, “Lana and Diana are still my family too. I love you all. Just in very different but equally important ways.”

“They think of me as their father and that’s what’s important,” but even as he says it he’s questioning whether that’s true or just how he’s been interpreting the situation.

Now that he thinks about it, Dick always seemed to consider Bruce somewhere between guardian and older brother. Bruce was so young himself when Dick came into his life that he wouldn’t describe his instincts as paternal so much as protective and sympathetic. Dick had loving, adoring parents, who he remembered very clearly and missed very dearly. Bruce was always careful to avoid anything that would make Dick think he was trying to replace them.

Tim’s parents were still alive. They traveled a lot for work but they obviously loved Tim and cared about him. And he’d very clearly never considered Bruce a father because his own father was already filling that role. Bruce has always felt protective of Tim because he suffered so much loss in such a short time and struggled with his self esteem. But he was very much Bruce’s protégé, his partner, his peer in a way none of the others were.*

And Jason… Bruce flinches because Jason is the closest he came to feeling like an actual father before Damian. That’s what Jason had needed, his own parents being too abusive and selfish… this time Bruce had tried to replace them. But they had never really gotten there. Their time had been cut short, Jason had gone looking for a parent and he’d been killed for it. But even before that, Jason had seemed a little hesitant to fully embrace the dynamic. He’d obviously looked up to Bruce, saw him as an authority figure, but he’d called him ‘boss’ and ‘old man’ intentionally keeping that kind of relationship at arm’s length. Bruce had been content to let him, to be less ‘parent’ more ‘teacher,’ because it had always seemed like Jason was still working out how he felt about his own terrible parents.

Bruce reaches up and pulls the cowl down before looking up at Clark, who has been watching him patiently, somehow knowing that Bruce was reconsidering his last statement. There is no doubt in his mind that the boys and Barbara (who is decidedly not his daughter in anyway but whom he loves and would die to protect) are absolutely a family. But maybe, in his trademark self-sacrificial way, he’s been putting too much pressure on himself. Trying to squeeze them all into traditional family structures and roles when their family is hardly traditional. They’re not bound by blood, but by choice. Not born to each other, but found.

Bruce sighs, exhausted. “Fine. What’s your point?”

“My point, Bruce, is that you have nothing to feel guilty about. Yet. But if you keep trying to deny this you’re just going to keep hurting someone you care about. And it’s going to affect the rest of your family.”

Clark’s hand rests on his shoulder and the weight is surprisingly soothing. When Clark speaks again it’s gently but unyielding, unwilling to let Bruce talk or grunt his way out this.

“We both know why you locked him up in the cave. And we both know the real reason you don’t want to tell him.”

Bruce narrows his eyes. He has no idea where Clark is going with this. “Do we?”

“I’ve been doing all the talking. You need to say it, Bruce. You need to voice it out loud. It’ll help. I promise. I’m the only one here. And you’re here because you trust me.”

Bruce crosses his arms over the bat on his chest and stands still, staring at Clark. Content to wait until the other man gives up and says what he means.

Clark mirrors him, folds his own arms over the shield on his own chest, and stares back. He stays stubbornly silent.

Uncharacteristically, Bruce folds. The strain of all this, of the last months with Selena leaving, the falling out with Damian, Tim seemingly moving on, and… Jason, he’s emotionally exhausted. Something has to give. His pride is better than the other options.

“Right now, he’ll still forgive me when I let him out and blame it on my anger. No matter what I do, how I’ve hurt him, he’s always forgiven me. Always come back. Even though… I don’t think I’ve ever apologized… for anything. If I tell him… if he runs… he may not—I can’t— There’s so many ways to lose him… I can’t do it again.”

Clark’s hand squeezes his shoulder reassuringly, “You’re right. There are many ways to lose him. And eventually, if you’re not careful, if you keep pushing him away, if you don’t tell him the truth and can’t stop treating him differently… he’s going walk out one day and you’ll never see him again.”

Bruce actually wants to believe that. But he has a sickening feeling that, no matter how badly he hurts Jason, he’ll always come when needed. Pain and that soul deep feeling of inadequacy that Bruce somehow manages to constantly unintentionally reinforce isn’t going to drive Jason away. The boy is no stranger to pain.

No, it’s lo— it’s the other stuff. If he tells Jason how he feels about him, Jason will leave. He is a stranger to that sort of thing. He’s never had it, has always been mistrustful of it. Every time he thinks he finds it, he gets hurt.

Besides, what Bruce wants with Jason can never work. Not only is Jason uninterested, but they’re too different. Bruce is too controlling and Jason is too obstinate. Bruce will never take a life and, even though he’s come to see that perhaps the matter isn’t as black and white as he personally believes it to be, he can’t allow Jason to do so… not in Gotham anyway. It would undermine Batman’s effectiveness.

“Bruce,” Clark’s voice cuts through his musings, “I can’t pick Jason’s heartbeat out like I can yours. But every time the three of us have been in the same place, from the time we fought Mongul here on my birthday, to… well the time we fought Mongul's son on War World… yours isn’t the only pulse that speeds up when you’re together.”

 


 

When he returns to the cave, Bruce strips out of the batsuit and takes a very long, very hot shower. He stares at the tiles on the wall in a daze, not really thinking about anything, as his hands move to wash himself on autopilot.

After he’s dried himself off and dressed in soft black sweatpants and a black undershirt, he calls Cassandra and Barbara to tell them he won’t be on patrol tonight. Neither girl sounds too disappointed.

Then he sits at he monitor and watches Jason read until he falls asleep, book slowly falling to his bare chest.

Bruce swallows hard and stands. It feels like he’s moving so slowly, like he’s wading through something heavy and viscous, as he makes his way down to the cell.

He watches for another long moment. Examines the rise and fall of Jason’s chest and the way his eyes dart back and forth beneath his lids as he dreams.

Bruce is considering going in there to mark Jason’s spot in the book and set it aside. Maybe even tuck the blanket around him as it’s likely to get colder later.

He’s already reaching for scanner to unlock the door when Jason makes the smallest noise.

Bruce’s back stiffens and his eyes snap back to Jason’s face. He sounded distressed.

His brows are knit together and his face is scrunched up in pain. A violent shudder runs down his body and Bruce doesn’t wait until the thrashing starts to get the door unlocked.

By the time he’s at Jason’s side, the younger man is already covered in sweat, tossing around and shaking so badly Bruce is worried he’s having seizure. His eyes are squeezed tightly shut, tears streaming out from them.

And he’s muttering ‘no, no, no, please—don’t…’ over and over again.

Bruce’s heart splits because he doesn’t know which specific horror from Jason’s past is tormenting him now. The words apply to so many… including so many of Bruce’s own actions.

The thought that he could be in Jason’s dreams, torturing his subconscious, makes Bruce sick.

He grips Jason's shoulders, managing to force down his own tears, and pulls him into his arms, holding him close. Holding him tight.

It takes Jason a moment to wake completely, to shake off the nightmare enough to remember where he is. Bruce feels hims tense when he realizes that he’s there too.

But after only a few seconds, Jason sags into him, buries his face in Bruce’s chest. His hands twist into the fabric at the sides of Bruce’s shirt.

Jason clings to him.

Bruce can’t hear him crying but he feels the shake of Jason’s shoulders, the deep, trembling breaths to try to get it back under control. 

Bruce holds him until he stops shuddering, until his breathing is even again. When Jason makes no move to extract himself from Bruce’s arms, Bruce tightens his embrace.

“I—I was… it was—“

“Ssh, relax, Jay. You’re alright. How often does this happen?” Bruce has only been watching him sleep for the last couple of nights. He’s never seen so violent a reaction to a nightmare before.

“E—enough.”

The broken pieces of his heart shatter further. He doesn’t doubt it. He tightens his hold even more, leaning back against the wall. Jason lets himself be tugged back, reluctant to let go.

“You’re safe here, Jason. I promise. Whatever else happens, I’ll always protect you,” he hums into Jason’s hair, thumbs rubbing soothing patterns into the hard muscles of Jason’s back. Then, quieter, barely a whisper, he adds, “I won’t lose you again.”

Jason shivers against him but it feels different than the previous, frightened quivering.

Without thinking, he presses a kiss to the white patch of hair above Jason’s forehead.

And Jason melts into him, softly crying himself back to sleep in Bruce’s arms.

Chapter Text

When Bruce finally drags his eyes open, the first thing he notices is that Jason is already awake. He has shifted in the night, now facing away from him, but he’s still lying in Bruce’s lap, still wrapped in Bruce’s arms. The relaxed muscles and deep breathing of sleep have given way to the slight rigidity of an alert body, but Jason has made no move to leave his embrace.

Which is particularly unexpected given that the second thing Bruce notices is, in his haste to get to Jason the night before, he had left the door hanging wide open.

They stay like that, silent and still, for several long minutes. Bruce knows that Jason is aware he’s woken. He will have felt the same subtle shift of muscle tension.

“You left the door open,” Jason finally mutters without turning to look at him, without so much as flinching toward the exit from his prison.

His freedom stares him in the eye, only a few feet away. Jason could have easily slipped from his grasp while he slept and had the door securely closed again before Bruce could have done anything to stop him. And yet he’s made no effort to escape.

Bruce doesn’t move, is afraid to even breath. He doesn’t want to break whatever spell this is. Doesn’t want Jason to get up, to lose the warm weight against him. Another long moment stretches, almost comfortably, before Bruce manages to summon the strength to risk an answer.

“You’re still here.”

He hears the younger man swallow.

“Yeah…”

Jason’s chest rises and falls under the arm Bruce has thrown over him as he sighs. It almost sounds… content.

Bruce takes another risk. Frees his other arm from beneath Jason’s body and gently runs his hand through the younger man’s curls, smiling at the way the strands twist around his fingers.

Jason shivers and burrows incrementally closer.

Bruce’s brows knit together and he purses his lips, considering.

Keeping the slow, tender movements at Jason’s scalp, Bruce chances speaking again.

“Why?” He all but whispers, his voice cracking with the emotion he’s still desperately trying to keep from flooding over and ruining everything.

There is no reason for Jason to still be here. No reason for him to find real comfort or solace or peace in Bruce’s touch or words or presence. There’s no reason for Jason not to hate him, nothing to stop the younger man from walking out and never speaking to him again. From where Jason lies, Bruce threw him in a cell built for the Joker, held him there like the worst of the world’s criminal element when he is, even in the most unforgiving of interpretations, easily the best of the world’s criminals. From Jason’s perspective, Bruce is treating him the same way he does the monster who murdered him when he was 16.

Yet Jason stays, seemingly willingly. Seemingly because Bruce is sitting in the cell with him. Seemingly because, despite having every reason to desire the opposite, to want to be as far away as possible, Jason likes having him close. In his space.

Bruce isn’t a fool. He knows if he weren’t here, if the door had opened under any other circumstances, Jason would have left without a glance back.

What he can’t believe, can’t wrap his mind around, is that Jason values this more than his freedom.

Because Jason isn’t a fool. He isn’t assuming that Bruce will let him leave after this.

It takes the boy in his arms even longer to answer than it had taken him. He notes the way Jason’s breathing gets shallower, the way the muscles beneath the pale, bare, skin of his back and arms tighten even more.

Bruce blinks and quickly glances away from the scared flesh that makes his heart race. He has no right to want this. No right to ask for it. Despite Clark’s reassurances, it would be cruel, selfish, to ask Jason for anything.

“My… nightmares…” Jason finally responds, so quiet and timid Bruce’s throat tightens, hating the thing that made this strong, capable man afraid. Even if that thing is him. Especially if it’s him.

Jason swallows before continuing, “They… they’re always there. Every time I close my eyes. Some nights are… worse than others but… I can’t… I’ve never found a way to make them go away.”

Silence falls again while Bruce waits for him to collect his thoughts.

“Last night… the worst one is… is when I died. You know—you know how your mind takes things and makes them a hundred times worse?”

“Yes,” Bruce answers, this time without hesitation. He understands that. Intimately.

Jason leans into the hand Bruce has in his hair, where blunt nails scratch lightly against his scalp. Bruce isn’t sure if Jason even realizes he does it.

“This is a thousand. A million. It isn’t just the Joker. Sheila… she stands there and laughs and he offers he the crowbar and she… she… she hits me too. Then they leave me there and the bomb… it’s counting down and D—“ he chokes a little, sniffs wetly, and a tear falls onto Bruce’s hand, “—and Dick is standing there… I ask him to help me and he… he just sneers and says it’s my own fault… “You’re too angry, Jason, too reckless” …says I was never fit to fill his shoes…”

“Jason—“ Bruce tries before he can think better of it, wanting to comfort him, tell it’s not true, it’s just a dream, even if he knows, on some level that it might help to get this out in the open. Because Bruce is certain Jason has never voiced these things aloud before. For better or worse, headless of the interruption, Jason doesn’t stop, doesn’t seem like he could if he wanted to.

“Then he leaves me too. And Tim shows up… drags me back deeper into the warehouse, next to the bomb. Tells me to just accept my fate… Batman’s better off now… has a—a partner, a real one… not some punk kid he found on the street and mistakenly thought was worth saving…”

Bruce squeezes his own eyes closed and pulls Jason closer. Jason’s tears are soaking through the sweats where his face is pressed to Bruce’s thigh.

“U-usually… after that… I’m back. The four of us are on a rooftop… me, Dick, Tim, and Damian… and they’re glaring at me. They ask why—why I… why I couldn’t… just stay… stay dead. Everything was good and then… then I ruined it all… and I shouldn’t have come back… should—should have saved everyone th-the heartache and let myself… suf-suffocate again in-in my… my co-coffin.”

Bruce is frozen in horror. It’s so much worse than he had imagined. These are all the thoughts and insecurities he’s suspected have plagued Jason since his return. Things he’s suspected his mishandling of the situations, the ill-chosen words, the lack of effort on his part to make Jason feel like a part of the family, have exacerbated.

But this… that Jason is tormented nightly by things like this…

Before he died, Bruce had compared him, constantly, to Dick. Alfred had warned him, and he hadn’t listened. After Jason died, Bruce had told Tim over and over again that it was because the boy had been angry and reckless… he’d done it to scare Tim, to make him less likely than his predecessors, less likely than Jason and Dick, to run off on his own. Jason had been gone… Bruce had thought that if his death could serve to keep Tim alive, that at least it would have some meaning… that perhaps some infinitesimally small good could come from it.

But then Jason had returned and, well, Bruce doesn’t know exactly what was said between them in the early days, when he wasn’t around, especially during his own brief ‘death’, but it’s easy for him to image Tim mentioned, on multiple occasions, that Jason had gotten himself killed. He knows Damian has used it against Jason.

It had seemed like an innocent, even a beneficial, lie at the time.

Now, it will join an ever expanding list of ways he’s failed Jason. Ways he’s made it even harder for Jason to feel valued, to feel like anyone ever cared at all.

Jason sniffles again and takes a deep, steadying breath, then sits up.

Resting his weight on one hip, supporting his upper body with his arm braced on the opposite side of Bruce’s lap, Jason turns to face him. His eyes are red and puffy from crying, making his irises a brightly burning, vivid teal, his cheeks pink and wet, lips parted to breath.

He’s breathtaking. His beauty strikes Bruce like lightning and he’s unable to control the way the air rushes out of his lungs at the sight, the way his heart skips before pounding in his chest so strongly and rapidly that he’s certain Jason can hear it clamoring for his attention.

It takes every shred of training to pull his focus back to the present when Jason’s smooth voice starts speaking again. Sounding slightly less hurt, less heartbroken.

“But this time,” he says quietly, looking Bruce in the eyes, “When everyone left, and the bomb was counting down, and I knew I was going to die… This time you… saved me.”

Water pools in his lower lids but his voice stays firm. Bruce is suddenly very aware of how close their faces are, of the heat radiating out from where Jason’s hand lies innocently against his lap.

“I heard your voice, felt you grab me and pull me out. I didn’t wake up in coffin or on a roof like all the times before. I just woke up. And you were there.”

The tears fall and finally Jason pulls his intense eyes away from where they held Bruce’s hostage and he stares down at the hand he has resting on Bruce’s thigh, picks at the damp tear stain he left, as if in apology.

“You were there,” he mumbles again, even softer, “Your arms around me… holding tight like… like you’d miss me if I was gone. Like I was… like I’m…”

Bruce watches his lids flutter closed, watches as he takes a couple shaky breaths, allows himself an internal smile when the last breath is huffed in determination.

He doesn’t make the conscious decision to move and fear flashes through him, brief but painful. Bruce has control of tiny muscles most people don’t know they have, of functions usually defined as being unconscious. But the last time his body moved based on the whims of that small part of him subject to his emotions, he almost killed the man sitting before him.

This time, however, it isn’t anger and pain that’s overwhelming him as he takes that man’s face in his hands, thumbing away the new tears.

Jason blinks up at him in surprise and… cautious anticipation.

“You are precious, Jason,” Bruce rumbles, watching the other’s face closely, noting the way Jason’s pupils dilate further, the way the pink blush in his cheeks gets brighter, the way his breathing increases in pace.

Clark wasn’t wrong. But Bruce had known that. Reciprocation wasn’t the issue. The issue was making yet another mistake. Doing something to cause further damage.

For the first time, it occurs to him that maybe not giving this might be the greater harm. He’s been so caught up in not giving into this desire, so convinced that doing the thing he wanted was the selfish path, that he never considered it might be more self-serving to reject this. It’s his default, anything he wants for himself is inherently selfish and therefore dangerous to the family. Like the last time he did something for selfish reasons and it resulted in a murdered child.

But Jason wants this too. He can see it in that patient, terrified gaze. Terrified, Bruce realizes, because he thinks the thing he wants, the thing he must have never for moment believed he might have, is dangling cruelly in front of him and he’s certain it’ll be taken away. Probably worried that Bruce will pretend it never happened, that he’ll go back to treating Jason like the pariah he feels like, reinforced, over time, by holding him at arms length, until Jason starts to believe it himself. Until Jason convinces himself, with Bruce’s constant subconscious aide, once again, that he is unworthy of love.

Maybe, the only person he’s protecting by withholding this is himself.

He shakes his head at those impossibly bright eyes, firms his grip on the younger man’s face, just enough to make his resolve apparent.

“So very precious.”

With that, he closes the small space between them, pulling Jason to him as he leans in, and presses their lips together.

Bruce tastes the salt of previously shed tears on his lips before Jason gives a stuttering sob and melts into him, twisting his fists back into Bruce’s shirt and opening his mouth to allow Bruce’s tongue access.

He takes it greedily. Shoves his tongue into that beautiful, wonderful, mouth, letting the kiss deepen and turn desperate.

Bruce wraps his arms around him, one hand tangling in those thick curls again and the other pushing on the warm, naked skin of his broad back as though he could press the boy even closer. 

By the time Jason shifts and throws a leg over to straddle Bruce’s hips, there are new, wet tears working their way beyond the needy movements of their lips.

He knows the tears are Jason’s. Suspects that they’re not just tears of happiness, suspects that Jason is taking what he can get. That he expects Bruce to push him away afterwards. That Jason is willing to accept future pain and rejection to experience this one moment of acceptance and affection.

Bruce clings to him tighter, kisses him harder.

He’ll just have to prove that fear wrong.

Chapter Text

Kissing Jason feels so natural, so easy. They way they move as one, their lips, their bodies. They are perfectly in sync.

It occurs to Bruce that the ebb and flow here is the smoothest the two of them have ever done anything together. They are, for once, in equilibrium, neither pushing nor demanding, just… letting themselves feel. And all without speaking a single word.

It’s intuitive. Bruce slides the hand not twisted in Jason’s hair down his back to dip beneath the band of his pajama pants at the same moment Jason’s slide down his chest to grasp the hem of his tank. They only part the inch needed for Jason to pull the black fabric over Bruce’s head and then they’re attached again, Jason’s arms flung round his neck, one hand scratching at his back, the other buried in his hair.

It’s comfortable. Jason fits perfectly against him, the weight in his lap somehow familiar. A sense of serenity settles over him, it feels like a weight is lifting. His always active, calculating, mind is quieted, present in this moment in a way that it hasn’t been since his parent died. Now Bruce can feel Jason’s warm skin on his own. He tugs gently on the black curls, just enough to tilt the younger man’s face enough that he can kiss his way across the line of that strong jaw, the one Bruce has hit too many times, and down his neck to suck on his pulse.

It’s intoxicating. Bruce has not allowed himself to get lost in his desire like this before. Not even with Selina. He’s drunk on the taste of Jason’s mouth, his tears, the harsh dig of his fingers into the muscles of his back as Jason clings to him. And Bruce clings too. He mouths lower, to Jason’s shoulder so that when he presses his ear to Jason’s pulse, it doesn’t raise suspicion. But he latches on to the rapid, hammering thrum of his boy’s heart, the static of blood rushing through his veins—the proof of life—and tries to hold back tears of his own.

It’s right. So right. The happy hum that vibrates from the throat against his face is what finally pulls Bruce’s eyes open. Jason’s are still squeezed tightly shut, the last teardrops sneaking past thick dark lashes as his attention shifts to the small, soft movements that neither of them are used to from the other.

Beyond the very lovely man in his lap, Bruce catches sight of the glass cage in which he’s been kept.

Breaking away again is one of the most difficult things Bruce has done in recent memory. Partly because of the way Jason stiffens, the way his fingers tighten against Bruce’s scalp, the way he presses against him more insistently. Partly because it is the absolute last thing he wants to do.

But mostly because he knows exactly how Jason will take it and that, when he tries to explain, he’ll somehow make a mess of it.

There is no choice. They cannot do this now. Here. Like this.

“Jason.”

The younger man ignores him. Bruce loses his breath when Jason rolls his hips down and starts nibbling at his ear.

“J-Jason… wait.” He doesn’t want to have to lean on Batman, to bring that part of himself out right now, to dip into those reserves of strength. Getting to this point, to this place where he can be open and honest, took long, slow months. It’s too difficult anymore to remove himself from the Bat completely. And if he lets that back in now, he’ll lose all the progress he’s made. And whatever this might be with Jason will end horribly. Perhaps finally.

But now that the Bat is silent, now that he has even an inch of distance, he knows that there is more than one way to lose here and he needs to find the strength to wait. Without drawing on the dark knight.

“Please,” Jason whispers, begging, pressing down again, “Don’t. Don’t stop now. I nee—I can’t…”

Bruce puts both hands on his hips and holds him down, pulling his body away from Jason’s with a surge of willpower that won’t last.

“Jason…”

“I’m clean,” Jason says quietly, abruptly, all in a rush, and the fact the he has to at all kills Bruce, “The stuff from before… the Pit took care—"

“I know,” he responds delicately. This is another thing they’ll need address someday. But not now. It’s not the most pressing topic and it’s the thing Jason keeps buried deepest. It will require more trust than they have right now, finesse that Bruce is incapable of until he can learn more. “I’ve run the tests many times since you came back. It’s not that.”

The younger man gives a quiet, choked sob, sags against him in defeat for barely a moment, then jerks back, swiftly getting to his feet and positioning himself halfway between the cot and the door.

“Fine,” he snips, shoulders back, spine straight, chin out, the image of strength if not for the tremor in his jaw and the way his clenched fists, knuckles white, shake at his sides. “You’re right. Bad idea. But if you think I’m staying in this shithole cave for one more moment… I think you’ll find this fight goes very differently than the last, old man.”

For once, Bruce’s brain doesn’t immediately start over analyzing the situation. Doesn’t start accounting for all possibilities and begin searching for a way to cleverly circumvent them. When he tries to find the contingencies for the outcomes here, he comes up blank.

For once, Bruce, guards down and the Bat unreachable, must allow his feelings to guide him.

He doesn’t get up. There’s no faster way to spook Jason into fighting or fleeing than to move suddenly. Slowly, carefully, keeping his arms low by his thighs, he holds out his hands, palms outward, in conciliation.

“It’s not a bad idea. Or, if it is, we can deal with that when and if it comes,” Bruce swallows down his discomfort as Jason turns his head and narrows his eyes. “I… I don’t want to stop. And… I really don’t want to fight…”

Now he slowly gets to his feet, keeping his hands up. Jason takes a tentative step back, toward the door, and doesn’t take his eyes off Bruce’s. His expression is clouded, confused. Wary.

“…But more than anything… I don’t want you to leave.”

Bruce waits as Jason works through his response. Watches his mouth part, his lower lip quiver, his eyes blink back more threating tears.

He bites his lip before finally speaking. “Then why—”

“For one, this is a prison,” Bruce nods at the walls, then points up to one of the cameras, “It’s monitored and it’s… I held you here, against your will, without trial. If this is something you want, I don’t want it to be here. Don’t want it to be… tainted.”

Jason’s jaw is clenched tight, nostrils flared, eyes wide and staring. Waiting.

“But the biggest reason is… there are things—things that need to be said. Things you need to know—”

“Bruce—”

“Things I need to apologize for…”

“Bruce,” his voice is unsteady but demanding. “We don’t… we shouldn’t do any of that. We’re not good at that. If we talk, we’ll fight. When we fight, then we’ll really fight. When we really fight, one or both of us will… get hurt. And then it’s over. Opportunity missed. Everything goes back to the way it was. I don’t… I want this… I don’t want to ruin it. Why is now the moment you choose to have a heart-to-heart?”

Jason lets him approach, close the distance. When Bruce cups a hand to his neck, softly strokes his cheek with his thumb, Jason flinches before closing his eyes and leaning into the gentle touch.

It’s like ice water thrown into his face, how starved for affection and kindness and understanding Jason is… why he’s been collecting other strays, misfits, and outsiders. People rejected by their loved ones; told they have no place. Roy’s issues with Olliver. Koriand’r exiled from her home by her sister. Artemis the lost Amazon. Bizarro, created as a weapon and considered nothing more than that by everyone. Everyone except Jason and his people.

That is what Jason meant months ago when he had said that every time he finds someone, he loses them. Every time he finds someone who feels like family, he loses them.

His parents were terrible, but Jason was a child when he lost them, they were the only family he knew then. His birth mother’s death was too easy. She should have suffered the way she made Jason suffer. But he still, after knowing her less than a day, after her betrayal, loved her enough to sacrifice himself to save her. When he rose from the dead, he was alone. Snatched up by his enemies who manipulated his emotions and leveraged his instability… insuring that he’d lose his found family upon his return to his home.

Everyone he’s ever cared about, gone in some way. And Bruce knows, because in many ways, they are so similar, that Jason blames himself for every single one.

He wants to lock him up again. But this time, to keep him safe. To keep him close. Until he knows he’s loved and wanted and needed. That his devotion is reciprocated.

“I’m not going to talk, Jason,” Bruce says, leaning forward and placing a careful kiss at the white fringe at the smaller man’s hairline, before stepping away again and moving toward the cell’s exit, “And you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to either.”


 

“What is this?” Jason asks, glaring at the box like he thinks it’s going to bite him.

Bruce hesitates. Inside the wooden box, with intricate, stylized carvings of bats and robins, is him. What makes him who he is, stripped of who he has to be. No Batman. No Bruce Wayne. Just Bruce, distilled down to fundamental elements. His heart. His soul. His truth.

He stares at the box too, unable to look at other’s face.

They stand in his bedroom. Not the master bedroom where Bruce lives now. His childhood room, the one he has seemingly had closed up since he came home from his global training tour. It’s the only room no one would ever touch. It’s the only room his secrets are safe.

It is grounding, standing there, with Jason, sharing something he’s never shared with anyone before. It puts him a bit more at ease, even if he can feel the Bat, deep inside him, objecting.

“Your death changed everything, Jason,” he says quietly, still not raising his gaze, “A part of me died with you. I became a completely different person. Even after Tim came along, even after Dick and I came to an understanding, it… I was never the same.

“I didn’t know how to cope with the loss; with the guilt. It was eating me from the inside. I couldn’t talk to anyone—didn’t know how to. So, I… talked to you.”

He looks up in time to see Jason’s eyes snap to up to his face in surprise.

Holding the box out, he waits patiently for the other man to accept it or decide the burden of Bruce’s soul is too much to carry.

Jason’s expression softens. He takes the box.

“I’ll wait in my room. Take your time.” Bruce swallows, a little tendril of fear and anxiety creeping up his spine.


 

The box is full of letters.

Dozens of letters that seem to begin only a couple months after he died.

They’re full of secrets. Of confessions. Of feelings. Of things Bruce has never said aloud.

Certainly not to Jason.

For once, Jason feels like this is special. That this is something Bruce is sharing with him.

And only him.

It feels sacred and intimate.

 

Jason-

You’re gone.

Dead.

Murdered by that fucking psychopath and, I suspect, your own mother.

I tried to kill him. Clark looked everywhere but no body…

I hope he’s gone for good. Bloated and rotting on the ocean floor. I hope you can rest in peace. Avenged.

But I doubt it.

I’ve been clinging to a lie. There is no justice to be had in this world.

God… I’m so sorry, Jason. I’m so very sorry.

Bruce tried to kill the Joker? Even thought maybe he had managed it?

Why didn’t the bastard tell him that? Why did he care so much when Jason tried it late?

Why did Bruce choose to attack him when he had the Joker at the end of his gun?

The ink is smudged in places where tears had fallen.

 

Jason-

A kid showed up to convince Dick to come home, to be Robin again. Said Batman needed Robin.

I fought the truth of that for as long as I could. I don’t need Robin. I need you. I need to not have a dead child on my conscious. I need to not have my kid’s corpse buried next to my parents. I need you dragging me to museums and saving the day with your that insatiable mind.

But I have been more violent, cruel, cool, and unhinged. Uncaring. I can’t be Batman and this. Batman should care about people.

So, do I quit? Or do I risk this kid’s life too?

… he reminds me a little of you. Smart, bold, brave… eager to please. Looking to fill a hole inside him left by people he loves.

I miss you. And I’m weak.

 

 

 

Jason-

Tim went out on his own tonight, without permission. It’s the first time he’s done that and I…

…I was terrified. My heart was in my throat all night. I tore apart Gotham looking for him and when I couldn’t find him… I had to sit in the Batmobile until it passed… the memories… I kept seeing you. Your body broken and burned. I kept thinking of you gasping for breath you’d never catch.

When he came home… I lied to him. I told him you were angry, arrogant, and reckless, that you didn’t listen to me and wouldn’t follow orders… I told him—I told him you got yourself killed.

It made me sick, when I realized what I said. That’s not how you were. You were kind, understanding, reasonable, dedicated… no more cocky or disobedient than any child. Less so than Dick.

But I can’t tell him the truth. Maybe this will scare him enough that… that I won’t have to bury him too.

I’m so sorry.

I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you. I’m sorry I promised you a better life and gave you nothing but war and pain. I’m sorry I wasn’t the father you needed, the mentor you deserved. I’m sorry I’m disparaging your memory to keep your successor alive.

I’m so sorry I failed you.

I’m so sorry I keep failing you.  

 

 

 

Jason-

Bruce Wayne is accused of murder. The set-up is meticulous. But Bruce Wayne is no longer necessary. If he’s going to be a liability, it’s best to just let him go.

The others don’t understand. So, I told them the truth, that Bruce Wayne is a mask.

I also told them a lie.

That it’s a mask I’ve worn since my parents died.

Dick called me on it, asked who raised him if not Bruce Wayne. And I did what I do best.

I walked out.

Bruce Wayne died in a desert half a world away.

I wear his face and say his words to make the others comfortable but…

Batman is all there has been since you died.  

 

 

 

Jason-

I finally feel a sense of acceptance with your fate.

It took a few years, a few crises, and a handful of new faces to even begin to heal.

I still look for you. I still turn to tell you something you’d appreciate. I still sometimes call Dick or Tim your name. Probably always will.

I’m sorry you’re not here to meet the others. I’m sorry I never got to see the man you’d become.

I wish you were here, safe, with all of us. Your family.

I will always feel guilty. I’ll always miss you, and you’ll always be with me.

But I’ve finally come to terms with everything.

 

 

 

Jason-

You’re back.

You’re back and I… I’ve never been angrier in my life.

I feel an intense, burning fury unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.

You’re so different. Angry. Cruel. You’ve abandoned everything I taught you, everything we believed in…

That’s… That’s what came over me tonight when I… when I almost killed you. Again. I felt white-hot rage that my sweet, considerate boy, the boy who saved Dent after finding out that he killed your father, the boy who had sympathy for the Penguin, believed in his reformation, has returned a cold, calculating, killer.

And in that moment of madness, I threw that fucking batarang right at your throat, aimed for your artery. In the split second, the half a heartbeat, it happened… I hated you. I hated that you were here, that you were so… changed, that you were… tainting the memory of my Jason. My son. In that single blink, I hated you more than the beast that killed you, because you destroyed the child in my memory.

I can never apologize enough. Words will never be enough. Nothing will ever capture how so very sorry I am; how much I despise myself.

Because the truth is, it doesn’t matter. None of that matters. It doesn’t change a thing.

I just want you to come home.

Jason has to take a break. There are so many letters, and they all say something that keeps him on the edge of tears or just sends them falling.

But this one… the night Bruce is talking about, the night they stood in that dilapidated, condemned building and Bruce chose the Joker over him…

He’s known, academically, that it wasn’t that simple. And he knows the feeling of all-consuming rage. Of pain so overpowering you can’t help but lash out.

He hates himself for making Bruce feel that way.

 

Jason-

You’ve been back a while now and I’m… confused. You’re not the boy you were before you died. I’ve come to terms with it. That child is gone, he never came back. But you’re not the person who returned to Gotham, either. 

This thing we’re doing? This thing where you run, and I chase… You don’t seem as angry anymore. You’re not cruel. It’s almost like you’re teasing me.

Are you playing with me? Is this a game?

I don’t know.

Maybe I’m overthinking it. I do that. But… things feel very… different. From when you first returned.  

He wasn’t. Overthinking it.

Jason had been toying with him. After he realized that he still had… feelings for Bruce. He was young and ridiculous. It was absolutely about fucking with Batman, messing with his shit and trying to prove a point.

But it had also may have been a way to flirt.

 

Jason –

I haven’t been back long. But the boys have already told me how you reacted to my will. A lot has happened since then, to me, to you… I didn’t remember the specifics, so I watched it again.

I feel like I’m always saying this in theses letters that you’ll never read but… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t seem to find the right way to say the things I want to say to you until after the damage is done, until more words will only mean more devastation.

What I meant to say was... ‘Of all my many losses and regrets, your death was—is—the thing that haunts my dreams. There isn’t a single day, even now that you’re back, that I don’t think about that day, that I don’t miss that boy, that I don’t wish our places were reversed. It's my fault you were in that desert. It's my fault you were alone. Everything that's happened to you since that night I caught you stealing my tires is, at least partially, my fault. Your death of couse but also your resurrection, your time alone, the deadly training you underwent, the reunion.

I understand now, with everything that happened to you before you even came to me, that I should have never thought I was more qualified than a professional. That it was selfish of me to not take you to a therapist. Because I was afraid of being a hypocrite. Afraid someone would see past my facade, see the cracks I tried to glue together with kevlar and tech.

You needed a father. And all I gave you was a... commander. And for that, I am so sorry. We both need repair. We both need help. We've never dealt with the traumas in our lives. We've clung to them. Let them define us. I... I keep meaning to make the time. Take that first step toward healing. But if you're watching this, it's too late for me. I've waited too long.

But it's not too late for you. Please. Don't make the same mistakes I have. We haven't had many opportunities to speak, we spend so much of our shared time fighting and yelling, so I haven't had the chance to tell you... Who you've become... it doesn't change anything. You're still my Robin. Still my so—my family.

I made provisions for you. In Bruce Wayne's will. It's time for you to come home. Speak to Alfred. Please, Jason. Don't let my failures as your guardian and mentor define your future.’

I’ve never wanted anything more than I want you to come home. My frustration at my inability to communicate this is… crushing. I can only hope that my continued attempts don’t push you far enough away that you’re gone forever.

Jason wipes the tears away from his eyes. That was not anything close to what Bruce’s will had actually said, there was no possibility that he could have taken it that way. If Bruce can mess that up so badly, butcher his own intentions somewhere between his mind and his mouth… It calls into question every conversation they’ve had since his return.

 

Jason-

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I didn’t after the Joker invaded the cave, when he tried to make you believe he created you, when he poisoned your helmet. I didn’t write then because I felt you understood. When you woke and I was there and I held you… I know that you knew. That you felt it. How much I… care about you.

But today, after I crashed a plane into Bane, you joked about hanging your current uniform next to your Robin one. When I brushed you off, you though it was because I was tired and I am. All I want to do right now is sleep. But I can’t. Because it’s not funny. I was terrified. Scared out of my mind that I wouldn’t get there in time and later that Barbara wouldn’t get to you in time; that I’d have to pull your body from another pile of rubble. Again.

I know humor helps you cope. And it certainly isn’t my way. But I can’t stand it when you speak about your death with such a cavalier attitude. It makes me feel ill.

I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you again.

There are many more. Every major event, everything that happened with the family, every time Bruce had an emotion he felt he couldn’t talk about, he wrote to Jason. Some are long, detailed accounts of battles. Some are brief, no more than a few words. But they say things like “I miss you” and “Today was hard” and “I see you everywhere.”

Jason reads them all. Every single one of Bruce’s inner thoughts, fears, and hopes. All the things the older man has never been able to say.

And he cries.

He’s told himself for years that Bruce must care. There have been flashes, moments where Jason has seen a hint of the affection peek through. But too often it’s disappointment, anger. Too often they fight. Too often Bruce treats him like he’s different, separate from the others, from Dick and Tim and Damian.

Too often Bruce has pushed him away.

He reverently puts the notes back in the box. Chronologically. Giving the same care and respect to putting them away that was put into making them; keeping them.

Holding the box tightly, like a lifeline, he closes the door to Bruce’s childhood room.

The crisp, clear light of dawn washes the hall in a cool, grayish-orange light. He can turn left and leave the manor. Leave the box on the hall table and pretend this never happened. Bruce beat the shit out of him and locked him up for months. He’s still stiff and a little sore. Regardless of all that has happened in the last day… now that he’s cooled off, it doesn’t change any of that.

Or he can turn right.

Chapter Text

Jason turns left but he has no intention of leaving the manor.

So he ends up in the kitchen.

He just needs a minute to catch his breath.

A minute to think.

An hour ago he was sitting in Bruce’s lap, making out with his one-time mentor, begging for more.

Now he’s clinging to a truth he could have never have imagined, his knuckles white with how tight his grip on the little wooden box containing the only thing he has needed from Bruce since Jason came back from the dead.

He sits in the breakfast nook, resting his forehead against the glass of the large window, chilled by the cool early morning

Alfred walks in and pauses at the sight of him.

“It would appear your wrongful imprisonment has been corrected,” the butler snarks affectionately.

Jason smiles. He knew Alfred had never approved of Bruce locking him up. Even if Penguin had died, the ex-spy had never really shared Bruce’s hard line.

“Looks that way.”

The clink and clank of dishes as he watches Alfred moves around the kitchen makes him warm and nostalgic. He tries to ignore the little curly-haired ghost bouncing along beside the older man as he slices open a couple left over croissants from breakfast yesterday, adds a thick slice of ham and plenty of Gouda (just the way Jason likes), and warms them in the oven while he makes tea.

Being Robin had been important to him when he was younger. If Bruce had ever tried to stop him… well, he would have run off to find his birth mother and gotten himself killed by a maniac clown. But that had never been the most important thing. Even though he knows that Robin is the reason Bruce brought him into his life, into this house and this family, that he was a ‘new hire’ after Dick got fired… the best part, the most important part, the part that meant more to him than anything in the world, had been the home.

The others… they’ll never know the relief of something as simple as four walls and a roof that aren’t molding or crumbling or leaking or filled with insects. Hot water has never been a luxury for them the way it was for him. They’ve never slept on a mattress with suspicious rust-colored stains that someone dumped in an alley. They’ve never curled up in a greasy cardboard box, trying to escape the rain. They’ve never eaten someone else’s discarded fast food from a dumpster. The nature of the vigilante job (or the League of Assassins, in Damian’s case) may give them a point of reference for how life could be without shelter and sustenance, but they’ll never understand the everyday fear of living on the street, of not knowing whether you’ll survive another night. They’ll never know the terror of finding security, compassion, and living in dread of having it all disappear. They’ve never been looked at like they weren’t worth the air they breathe by an entire city. They’ve been treated terribly in the past, it’s true, but they’ve never had their humanity stripped away and dragged through the gutter.

Jason knows about Mirage and Tarantula. He knows about the girl Ra’s sent after Tim. And he knows, intimately, that nothing can take those memories away. That even the ‘gentle’ way it happened or the way it ‘only’ almost happened is still a special kind of hell.

But he can’t help but feel more than a little grateful (and the slightest hint of jealousy) that they don’t know what it’s like to run away from a group of men four times their size; to get cornered with nowhere to go. That they don’t know what it’s like to be eleven years old, crying and bleeding with their ill-fitting jeans around their ankles, lying in the garbage like the trash they’ve been told they were because it hurts to move.

And they’ll never know, if Jason has a say. If anyone ever tried to show them, he’ll put those bastards in the same hole he tossed those three women into.

They’ll never know what it’s like to be sold by their own father.

Maybe that’s why Jason was never quite able to think of Bruce as his dad. He’d tried. He knew Bruce was trying to give him a good parent. But Willis was such scum and Bruce was so very different. The man he’d called his father his whole life was the worst of humanity and Bruce, even with all his flaws, had been the best. If Willis was Jason’s father, Bruce could never be.

It probably didn’t help that Jason was 12 and ‘worldly’ and Bruce was tall and strong and beautiful and good.

The soft scrape of the tray Alfred sets in front of him snaps him back to the moment and he smiles gratefully. He hates getting lost in the shitty past.

Their sandwiches are there, along with bowls of fruit, two steaming cups of Jason’s favorite Oolong and a pot for more, cream, brown sugar, honey, and a bottle of hot sauce.

Jason picks up the bottle with a soft puff of laughter. “You remembered.”

“Of course, I do, young man. One always remembers the important things.”

“The tea, I get. You’re British, tea is a big deal to you. But wanting hot sauce on my breakfast sandwiches?”

The amused smirk slides off his face when he notices the very serious way Alfred is looking at him. Considering. For such a long moment that Jason almost starts fidgeting.

“When you first arrived in this home it was immediately clear that you had an immense distrust of anything I considered acceptable food. You used to pick at what was on your plate, leaving all but a nibble or two. You would cut it up and move it around, trying to make it look like you ate it and master Bruce, bless his heart, was fooled. I was not. Oh, you were stealing the snacks and ‘junk food’ from the pantry, finding very clever hiding places. But you were also training and needed more substantial meals than the pile of granola bars and crackers you were living off. I disposed of all the snacks and spent a great deal of time trying to find ways to get you to eat. I soon learned that you had your weaknesses and that by adding a bit of fruit or chocolate, cheese or hot sauce, you would power through whatever it was that made you wary and clear your plate.”

Jason is openly staring at him. Of course, he had been that transparent as a child. Of course, Alfred knew. Jason had been a street rat in a grand home sitting across from the wealthiest man in the world and his butler. He hadn’t known Bruce yet, or Alfred, not really. And he’d been convinced that, since he hadn’t officially started as Robin, he hadn’t earned the, what he considered at the time, special treatment. And he didn’t want to get used to something in case he was ‘fired’ like Dick had been.

Alfred just meets his gaze. “Of course, once I realized how insatiable your desire to learn was and invited you into the kitchen for the preparation process it was even easier. But I remember every single thing about you, master Jason. Because you are important.”

Half the sandwich disappears in a single bite as he tries not to get choked up. He’s already cried in front of Bruce, which was breaking his cardinal rule, he’s not allowed to break down in front of anyone else for at least a couple years.

“Why did you not run off the moment he opened the door?” Alfred asks gently after a long stretch of silence.

Warmth seeps into Jason’s skin as he cups both hands around the heated china cup filled with tea. The phantom feel of Bruce’s strong arms wrapped around him, pulling him out of his nightmares, holding him… those dreams are always so vivid, so real, he wakes with headaches from crying, throat scratchy from screaming, feeling wrung and raw. Bruce saving him from his nightmares is comparable to Bruce actually saving him back then. It feels just as real as his death. There is a deep emotional high that soaked his brain in endorphins with what amounts to a realized wish fulfillment. Bruce saved him.

The words, the touches, those gentle fingers tightening in his hair, hot desperate lips on his own… everything that’s passed between them, said and unsaid…

He grasps the wooden box tighter, like it’s the only thing keeping him tethered. Because it may well be.

His voice is small and timid when he finally answers. “He told me once if I ever left it’d be my choice,” Jason looks up from his food, falls just short of Alfred’s eyes and forces his gaze up the rest of the way, “It—that… I would never choose to leave. Never.”

The last word is tiny, all but whispered. He sniffs and straightens, setting his jaw. He needs to rally. He can’t be this broken when he heads back upstairs.

Alfred’s expression is unreadable, but his eyes are full of wisdom and sympathy, so knowing when he nods and says evenly, “That is why you always answer when they call. Regardless of what has transpired.”

A soft crack breaks the loaded silence that follows, and Jason has to force his fingers to unclench from around the box before he shatters it and lowers his gaze to stare at it.

“I love him,” he whispers, half hoping Alfred doesn’t hear him. “More than anything,” he adds before huffing a pitiful, self-deprecating laugh. “More than my pride or my sanity.”

But the old butler definitely heard him and Jason curls in on himself a little under the scrutinizing gaze. It’s Alfred, not Bruce, who first had him rethinking everything he knew about what parents were and what they should be. He’s never told Alfred this and never will, but the thought that maybe Sheila was better than Catherine in the same way Alfred had been better than Willis… well, he may have been more hesitant to fly off to the middle east for another shitty parent if he hadn’t started to feel like maybe not all parents were shitty people.

“You two are very similar you know,” Alfred finally states, “Both willing to sacrifice your own happiness for others. Not that this is an uncommon trait to be found under this roof. But you have always been more honest to yourself about your feelings, while master Bruce almost has himself convinced he doesn’t have any.”

Jason traces the outlines of the carved robin on the box in his lap. Bruce’s lack of emotional intelligence is… well documented.

With a great, put-upon sigh, Alfred stands. “All the capes and terrorism and alien invasions and magical mishaps the lot of you go through… I’m quite certain that what will finally do me in is watching you poor dears navigate your love lives.”

 


 

 

Bruce wanders down to the kitchen first, grabs a pitcher and fills it ice water, piles a tray with an assortment of muffins, scones, and fruit, adds a couple glasses, and heads back up to his room to wait, ignoring Alfred’s pointedly crooked eyebrow.

He spends a few minutes anxiously moving around the room under the guise of tidying up. But there’s nothing to tidy. Never is. Alfred keeps the place spotless.

A long, cold shower does wonders for clearing Bruce’s head and settling the heat in his belly down to a much more manageable simmer. He has the time. There are dozens of letters in the box, written over years. It will take Jason some time to read through them.

Bruce remembers the most important ones but he’s sure there are some things he doesn’t recall. He hopes it will help. That they can tell Jason, with the words Bruce has always tried to speak but never managed to properly articulate, what he feels.

But he forgot how quickly Jason reads.

When he emerges from the bathroom, fresh black sweats low on his hips, clean white t-shirt clinging, skin still damp, drying his hair with a towel, he freezes just over the threshold.

Jason is standing rigidly before the mantle above the large fireplace. He’s still shirtless, in just his own sweats. He is angled away from the en-suite, but Bruce knows he’s staring at the family photos.

Bruce curses to himself and hopes Jason will understand.

“I’ve been back a while now,” the younger man starts, speaking softly but steadily, without turning.

“Yes, you have.”

“We’ve been… mostly getting along for while now…”

“We have.”

Jason turns to face him, throat bobbing as he swallows hard. Bruce can see how tightly he’s holding onto the box, knuckles white with the effort.

Then he sighs. A big, exhausted breath whooshing out of him.

“I’m so tired, B. I don’t want to ask. Don’t want to feel like I’m overreacting. I really don’t want to feel stupid for needing to ask.”

His shoulders are slumped in defeat. It must feel like the hits just keep coming.

“You’re not stupid, you’re not overreacting,” Bruce assures him.

He makes his way toward the desk in the far corner, takes the key for the locked drawer from the little case sitting on top, and retrieves the only thing within.

Feeling that Jason has followed him over, he sets the book down and opens it, revealing all the hidden photographic proof that Jason had once been a part of Bruce Wayne’s life.

Jason hesitantly thumbs through a couple pages of a laughing happy child and a grinning billionaire at galas and ballgames and museums. Bruce hears him swallow thickly before slamming it shut and turning away.

“I couldn’t stand seeing you,” Bruce hedges, “Every time I did, it just reminded me that I never would again. I turned over every frame I came across. Always intended to flip them back when I was able but… after a while, I think Alfred realized that wasn’t going to happen. So, he went around and collected them all here.”

“And now?”

Bruce frowns. Maybe Jason didn’t make it all the way through the box. “After you came back I… well… It was in the letters. Did you get—”

“I read them,” Jason interrupts, facing him again, expression clouded, hand flexing on the box, “I want to hear you say something real, Bruce. Tell me. The truth. Your feelings. When I came back.”

This is what he was hoping to avoid. He’s not good at this. They’ve established that, repeatedly, over the last months. This is what the letters are for, this is why he gave them to Jason. It was always easier to write the words down, quietly and privately, than speak them aloud.

It hits him then, that this is the point. Nothing about this… relationship, if that’s what it ends up being, will ever be easy. And a love letter is a sweet gesture but it’s not the same as respect and understanding. Jason needs to se that he’s willing to try.

It’s Bruce’s turn to swallow hard, and it takes all his considerable strength of will to square up and meet Jason’s eyes.

“I was… hurt. Angry.” He pauses. Because that’s not right. Not nearly descriptive enough. “I’ve never been as… furious in my life as I was when we stood in that building.”

The teal eyes are steady and sure as they hold his gaze. Bruce hates that sliver of green that never existed in the child’s eyes. Just the man who always seemed to have to grow up too fast.

“I wanted you dead again. It was better than who you had become. A murd—a killer.” Bruce mutters, shame pulling his attention to the floor, even as he’s happy he managed to correct for the nuanced difference between a murderer and a killer.

Only to snap back up, confused, at the melodic sound of Jason’s laugh.

“Jesus, Bruce,” he gasps through his mirth, “You are really bad at this.”

He wipes at a tear that doesn’t seem entirely born from amusement.

Bruce scowls. “This is serious, Jason.”

“Yeah, it is.” The younger man takes a step toward him and raises the box, tucking it tightly against his heart.

Gulping at how close they are, still about three feet away but close, Bruce just shakes his head.

“What’s in this box… it’s priceless,” Jason breathes, tone suddenly soft and serious, “It’s everything I needed to know, to hear, from you after I came back and the Joker was free and there was a new kid and all you had to say about me after I died was that I had been ‘a good soldier’. Like that’s all it meant to you. Like the the only thing that mattered was Robin and all the stuff with Bruce Wayne and Jason Todd was just a means to an end. Just necessary responsibility of having a child as a soldier for your war. It’s what I desperately needed when that was all I could think about and the more I dwelled on it the more it made sense. Why else would you take in some punk who jacked your tires? And then it just cascaded. Why else would you take in some circus kid? But I knew you liked Dick because you were hurt when he left and you kept telling me I could be more like him if I tried, praised me when I did something you thought he would do. But the new one, the kid who replaced me, he was special. It was obvious. He was so much like you in lot of ways and—“

“Jason,” Bruce interrupts as delicately as possible, voice strangled and cracked. Jason’s words are coming in a rush, veering towards rambling, and the younger man doesn’t seem to even notice the tears that are streaming down his cheeks.

He watches Jason sniff and swipe at the moisture.

“My point is, you didn’t want me dead.” Jason forces himself to continue shakily as Bruce just watches him, unable to look anywhere else. “You were definitely madder than I’d ever seen you before. And you definitely undermined your own point by aiming for my throat.”

He takes another step closer. Two feet away. Bruce’s breath catches.

“I know what it feels like to be so angry and hurt that it overwhelms everything that makes you you. That it seeps into your soul so fast, so sudden, that you can’t stop it and it just boils over until you lash out.”

One step away. He can feel the heat from Jason’s bared torso across the scant inches that remain between them. His heart thuds irregularly in his chest, so loud in his ears that he once again thinks that Jason must be able to hear it.

“The first time we came face to face after I came back, you were so positive it wasn’t me. But I knew. It wasn’t part of the plan, hurting Tim. I was just going to knock him out. But all those thoughts, all that pain and hopelessness that I stewed in for years, the concern on your face, the tightness in your voice… when it was clear you were worried about him… too many things flashed so quickly, that you obviously loved him, loved Dick, that you’d put another kid in harms way, that it would be a mercy, saving him from the future pain, talking to you again, finally after all those years, those words ‘A Good Soldier’, the absolute certainty that that’s not what you’d say about Dick… and it all just burst. Do you know how lucky I am, how lucky Tim is, that my final thought in that moment was that he was innocent? I came a hairsbreadth from gutting him there.”

Fingers play at the hem of Bruce’s shirt and he realizes that Jason’s gaze has dropped to idly watch the nervous twisting.

But Bruce is looking at the flow of soft dark curls, thinking about how much he’s missed them since Jason started doing something to make his hair straighter. Follows the length of white that has grown out in his captivity with no access to dye, down to long, thick, dark lashes seemingly perpetually wet with tears, along the strong line of his nose to parted lips.

Desperation lights his nerves on fire. The desire to touch, the need to hold, the deep, dark, shameful urge to possess and keep

“You didn’t want to kill me any more than I wanted to kill Tim. Like he says, we’re all emotionally repressed vigilantes who lead hyper-violent lives and wouldn’t know a healthy coping mechanism if one bumped into us and introduced itself.”

The corner of Jason’s mouth quirks up in a small smirk that Bruce finds contagious. Then both expressions fall back as teal eyes peel their way up to meet his own once more. And before Jason can speak again—before he can say the words that Bruce knows are coming, words he’ll never believe he deserves, no matter what the boy says—Bruce has to tell him.

“I’m so ashamed, Jay,” he admits so low he’s not actually sure sound came out, “The things I’ve done and said, to you, about you, regardless of whatever rationalization I made at the time to validate it… they were wrong. Holding you at arms length all this time, never really allowing you to come home, just because I couldn’t face the… the truth about… about… about how I…”

And because Jason is Jason, the kicked puppy who still comes when called even though it knows it’ll just end in more pain, he takes pity on him. Doesn’t make him finish.

“Everyone has forgiven me,” he mutters, “It’d be pretty fucked up if I couldn’t forgive you.”

Those are definitely not comparable situations, Bruce thinks to himself. As far has he’s concerned, he a great deal more to atone for than Jason. If only because he feels like the majority of the blame for most of Jason’s transgressions can be lain directly in his lap. But mostly because Bruce knows that Jason has forgiven him already, for everything, very soon after it happens. It doesn’t mean there isn’t pain or resentment. Jason wouldn’t keep coming back at the barest whiff of a chance if he didn’t forgive Bruce.

“You deserve it. I don’t.”

Jason snorts softly and Bruce leans into the warm palm that suddenly cups his face.

“First of all, that’s not true and we’re going to have to work on that penchant for self-flagellation.”

That’s pretty rich, coming from any of them, but especially Jason, Bruce thinks as he meets the other’s eyes.

Just in time to see everything suddenly go soft. All of Jason’s features relax into something breathtakingly… loving and Bruce finds himself holding his breath.

“But most importantly, that’s not how forgiveness works. It’s not about merit, it doesn’t need to be justified or rationalized. It doesn’t magically erase the guilt or change what happened in the past, it just opens a path for a possible future. Forgiveness is about moving on.”

Bruce can’t help but gape at him for a moment. He’s never thought about it much at all, forgiveness, but he has always considered it something that must be earned. A fresh wave of guilt and shame washes through him and he feels is own tears sting his eyes before dropping to the fingers on his cheek. This is the difference, this seemingly small difference in perspective. Bruce has always tried to make Jason earn his forgiveness before being welcomed home, unconsciously moving or resetting the bar when the younger man does something to gain his disapproval. While Jason has always freely given forgiveness when Bruce hurts him. It’s why Bruce has never let him back in and why Jason always comes when called.

“What do you want from me, Bruce?” Jason murmurs, drawing his attention to how he’s moved one hand to grip the wrist of the hand on his face and the other to rest on the boy’s hip, “From this?”

It takes him a moment to answer, a moment to catch his breath from the way his heart skips a beat and swoops into his stomach. He almost laughs—actually almost laughs—at the abrupt thought that Clark must have noticed all of this with smug satisfaction.

He does smile as he leans in, drinking up the sound of Jason’s shortened breath and the way he swallows hard, Adam’s apple bobbing.

Jason’s pulse is pounding when Bruce’s lips brush over that point on his throat as he hums, “I want you. In whatever way, for however long, you’ll allow.”

Chapter Text

No more hesitation. No more second guessing or explanation. There are probably whole libraries worth of things they still need to discuss. Still plenty of air that needs clearing.

But for right now, this is good.

They’re good.

Bruce feels lightheaded when they close the little space between them; when Jason’s lips meet his in the middle, mouths clashing together in fervent, unrelenting need.

Trembling, warm hands slip under his shirt. The light, slow touch slides up the rippled plane of Bruce’s abdominals until they have to separate so Jason can pull the fabric over Bruce’s head.

He ignores the part of his brain that still resists, that is still trying to tell him this will just end in more tears. That he’ll just end up hurting Jason. More. Again.

They both want this. Need this maybe. Something, anything that can help redefine whatever relationship they had. Have. Will have.

Something solid in their memories, a place where the past was left in the past. Something that allows them to move forward.

It’s so easy in the end, that Bruce can’t help but marvel that he didn’t—couldn’t—do it sooner. Forgiving Jason. Forgiving the boy for all slights real and perceived, lifts a huge weight off him. He feels physically lighter, almost giddy.

Forgiving himself will be harder and he doubts Jason will be as much help in that respect. But… maybe… maybe together they can figure it out.

Stepping forward forces Jason to step back. All that warm skin pressed against his own… Bruce feels desperate. Like a thirsty man stranded in a desert. His lips travel across Jason’s cheek, peppering sweet little kisses along his jaw, down his neck, over his collar bone, to mouth at the boy’s shoulder as he’s backs Jason up until his knees knock against the bed.

His boy makes a soft, barely audible but needy sound in his throat and Bruce can’t wait any longer.

Gently he tips Jason into his bed, catching their weight with one outstretched arm so that he can keep that solid, heated body wrapped up in the other.

Do they cling to each other for the same reasons? The impossible fear that if they’re not touching they’ll wake up and all this will have been a dream?

The warmth spreads from his belly, up through his chest and settles over his overactive mind. It slows things down; narrows the world to the way Jason’s blunt nails dig into the muscles on his back, they open expanse of his throat, bared in a trust Bruce doesn’t feel he deserves when the whisper thin white scar from Bruce’s batarang constricts Bruce’s focus even further. To just those three inches of ruined flesh.

Jason shudders. His whole-body spasms and he inhales sharply, exhales shakily, as Bruce worries at the skin, gently sucking little purple marks over the line. He wants to replace the evidence of his misplaced rage with the evidence of his fervent love; of his devotion.

When he’s finished there, he makes his way down. He moves his hands all over Jason’s body, pausing at his left breast, just to feel the rapid thudding of the heart beneath his palm.

How did he ever take that for granted?

That heartbeat is a miracle. He’s seen Jason bleed—made Jason bleed—and every drop of red is a miracle.

Bruce,” Jason sighs, fidgeting a bit at the sudden lack of movement.

Every breath is a miracle.

Especially when it carries Bruce’s name with such reverence.

He makes his way to Jason’s hips, hooks his fingers in the elastic band of his sweats, kissing skin at the edge of the fabric as he slowly pulls them lower.

Looking up, he finds Jason watching him, eyes burning like green embers under hooded lids. Usually Bruce wishes he could make the green in Jason’s eyes go away. It’s a too painful reminder of all he’s been through. But right now he just sees the beauty. The miracle.

He smiles up at the younger man.

Jason hums—a happy little sound—and squirms. “Please don’t tease. Not now.”

“We have all day,” Bruce says, turning his face to burry his nose in the narrow trail of fine hair leading to Bruce’s ultimate goal so that Jason can feel his lips move against his overheated flesh. “I want to take my time. I want to watch you come undone, drown you in pleasure. You’re so beautiful, Jason. How exquisite will you look when you’re writhing in ecstasy?”

Jason’s face flushes crimson and he turns away with a soft whine.

The band of the sweats slips around the swell of Jason’s ass. Bruce holds his breath as he starts to tug the top part over the erection tenting the fabric.

Three sharp raps knock against the door to the master bedroom.

A loud, clearly frustrated, groan tears itself past Bruce’s lips and he drops his forehead to Jason’s navel.

 “Apologies for interrupting,” Alfred’s voice calls from the other side of the wood, “but I’m afraid it’s quite urgent. The commissioner has reached out to Batman. There seems to be a major disturbance in the Bowery involving Scarecrow and Mad Hatter.”

Jason threads his fingers through Bruce’s hair as he huffs out a weak, shaky little laugh.

“You had to go and jinx it with that ‘we have all day’ shit,” he says. But it’s breathless and playful.

 


 

Jason looks uneasy when Bruce hands him his gear. Says he’s still wanted by the police for Penguin and maybe Batman shouldn’t be seen with Red Hood.

He shifts his weight as he says it but there’s a determined set to his jaw and a righteous glint in his eyes.

There’s something he isn’t saying. Something about Penguin. Bruce briefly wonders if that look has always been there when Cobblepot was mentioned or if he’d been blinded by his own… concerns.

He makes a mental note to revisit it later—when an entire city district isn’t on fire—and tells Jason that the police aren’t bothering to look for the Red Hood.

With a smug smirk, Jason suits up.

When he steps toward his bike, Bruce stops him with a gauntleted hand on his shoulder, smiles, and nods at the passenger side of the Batmobile.

Jason’s only been in it a couple times since his resurrection. None of them happy. Most recently when Bruce manipulated him into revisiting the place he was murdered.

The memory sends an icy wave down his spine and makes him sick.

But then Jason’s eyes light up, lips split into a wide, crooked smile and he leaps over the hood and climbs in.

The Bowery is in chaos.

There are literal fires everywhere. Civilians controlled by the Mad Hatter attack them and they do their best to incapacitate their assailants as gently as possible.

It’s the waves of terrified people, high on Scarecrow’s fear toxin that separates them fairly early on.

Bruce calls the Batplane so he can distribute the aerosolized antitoxin.

Which leaves Jason to find and detain the villains.

He tries to stamp on the rope of worry that coils it’s way around his heart. What if Jason kills them? Should he care? How will it affect their tenuous relationship? Will it ruin things?

Is Bruce really capable of accepting this about Jason?

He doesn’t get to linger on the thoughts for long. The chaos beckons.

He has to trust Jason.

The sun has long since set when things finally start to abate. When people start slumping over only to straighten and blink as they try to gage where they are and what happened.

Relief and pride washes over him when he hears on the scanner that Scarecrow and Mad Hatter have been delivered into police custody. The officer calling it in sounds very confused when he reports that it was Red Hood who brought them.

It’s going to come up again. Eventually, Jason will kill someone. It will undoubtedly be an indisputably evil someone, and Bruce will have to figure out how to deal with that when it happens. But he’s glad it’s not now. Not tonight. Not after how far they’ve come.

It’s way too soon—everything is too fresh, too raw—to be tested like that now.

Still, something gnaws at him.

This kind of senseless, purposeless, chaos isn’t really Crane’s or Tetch’s style—

A shrill, manic, all too familiar laugh splits through the settling calm.

The hair on Bruce’s body stands on end as he turns to look down the alley.

Joker stands at the dead end, hands on his hips, laughing.

“Been a while since I’ve seen you, Batsy. Was starting to think you’d forgotten about me. Thought it was time too—”

Bruce doesn’t let him finish.

He sees literal red.

The whole world is tinted the color of Jason’s blood.

The months of intense introspection and emotional honesty have left him flayed open, caught up in instinct and passion.

He’s never moved faster or hit harder. He’s not thinking just acting. There’s nothing he can do, everything is happening to fast for him to process. His body is doing this without input from his brain.

Not that he’d be in any place to stop himself anyway.

He can’t swim above the blood. It’s everywhere. All over Jason’s broken body. It colors the flashes of memory that accompany the sickening sound of bones crunching with each feral strike.

The corpse of a 15 year old boy.

The grin of a madman as he spews cruel taunts about a murdered child.

The fists of Nightwing as he beats the clown to death for similar taunts and a trick to make him think Tim had died.

The gauntlets of his own suit as he restarted the beast’s heart.

The table that separates him from his bound family as they’re served a gory facsimile of their own faces.

The red hood filled with Joker Toxin that almost killed Jason. Again.

There’s nothing in the world but this alley, this moment, this… creature. This demon who kills for the fun of it. Who thinks nothing of depriving hundreds of their one precious life. Who lives only because of Gotham’s deep-seated corruption. Who lives by the mercy he has never, will never… is incapable of ever showing to anyone else.

Jason is right. The Joker needs to end. Bruce should have done it years ago. Sucked it up and done what was necessary to protect the innocent. He sold his soul for Gotham long ago. He should be able to carry this too.

An iron grip wraps around his arm, halting his assault and he’s so lost in this rage that he spins to hit his new attacker.

Only Jason’s voice shouting “B, stop!” pierces through the haze of wrath and all at once the world is black and gray and golden. Night, and the lights of his city, settle around him.

The concern in Jason’s face irritates him. The younger man’s eyes are wide and alert, his hold on Bruce’s arm is firm and unrelenting.

Bruce is suddenly aware that he’s shaking in uncontained fury. His breath is ragged and fast.

“It’s ok, B,” Jason says gently.

“It’s not,” Bruce growls and jerks his arm out of Jason’s hold, “You were right. I should have done it before.”

“That’s not what I said. I said you were right. You shouldn’t. It’s not who you are.”

“I took it for granted.”

Jason’s brows come together. “What?”

“You. That you came back. It’s such a… such a… death is final. The people he kills,” he gestures vaguely down at the Joker who manages to continue a wheezing laugh through his broken face, “they don’t come back. They had one life and he took it from them—hundreds of them—without a thought. He took yours. For fun. People don’t just come back. But you did.”

The expression on Jason’s face softens and he takes Bruce’s hand again. So Bruce scowls. He’s not being clear enough if Jason can look at him like that right now. Just another mark in the “Bruce Wayne can’t accurately articulate his feelings” column.

“Lots of people come back, B. Just not… you know, civilians.”

Bruce feels his scowl go deeper. Isn’t that worse? Those are 99% of the Jokers victims.

“Most of those who do ‘come back’ weren’t really dead. And of the ones who were, they didn’t spend their final hours tortured, blown up, and suffocating.”

Jason flinches. Just a small, almost imperceptible twitch. But Bruce feels guilt and disgust wash through him. Why did he say that? Why can’t he seem to resist digging the knife in deeper?

“Look,” Jason says, rubbing little circles into the armor on Bruce’s wrist. He can’t feel it, but watching it helps calm him. Helps him come back to himself. “We talked about this. You shouldn’t. You can’t. You would never be able to live with yourself. I’m stopping you for the same reason you brought him back that one time. Taking someone’s life, even someone like him, it’ll weigh too heavily on you. It’ll kill Batman as much as the Joker. He knows that. That’s why he’s trying to make you do it.”

Bruce takes a deep slow breath. Then another. Until finally he comes back in control. Immediately he feels sick. He just lost it and nearly killed someone.

“Thank you,” he says, voice hoarse and cracking, as he looks up to meet Jason’s gaze.

Joker chokes out a slightly stronger laugh, drawing their attention back down to him.

In his peripheral, Jason moves around to the other side of the madman, putting the prone clown between them.

It feels like slow motion as Bruce’s eyes crawl up from the pallid, bloodied face to watch Jason’s fingers unlatch the holster on his right thigh, then land back on his determined face.

“I said you were right,” Jason explains, “But I didn’t say I was wrong. The Joker, his person and everything he means to the world, needs to end. He’s a monster. A very real, extremely deadly, threat to public safety. Corruption has kept him alive long past any sane justifications.”

“I don’t want you to have it on your—”

“I’m not you, B. I can carry it. It won’t destroy me. It won’t end the Red Hood—”

Jason pauses and cocks his head. Then he smiles. “Or maybe it will. But it won’t ruin Jason Todd. I can live with this.”

Now that he’s back, now that he’s not lost to his anger, this whole thing makes him deeply uncomfortable.

Can he really stand back and let someone be killed? Is that effectively any different from killing someone himself?

Realistically he knows Jason can put a bullet in the Joker’s head before Bruce can get to him, even if he did try.

Realistically he knows he won’t. Try.

He won’t choose the Joker over Jason ever again.

Time to start learning from his mistakes.

“I love you, B,” Jason says. It feels abrupt and out of place. But the way Jason’s voice trembles a little when he says it, the sadness that is there just under the surface, tells Bruce there’s a reason they come out of nowhere. “Nothing can or will ever change that. No matter what. I wanted to see where this could go. More than I’ve wanted anything for a long time.” He huffs an insincere laugh and runs his free hand through his hair. “But I’ve always had shit luck.”

There is no sign, no warning. Bruce doesn’t have the time to even twitch his hand toward Jason before a loud pop rings through the alley.

It’s almost deafening, the way it lingers in his mind long after the echoes have run their course.

Bruce stares down at the Joker’s corpse. At the surprise frozen for eternity on his face. At the bullet hole in his head. At the red that leaks from it.

It doesn’t feel real.

The Joker is dead.

Bruce barely registers it as Jason passes him and pats his shoulder. Is only vaguely aware of another voice in the alley at his back.

The Joker is dead.

When the reality of it hits it feels more like a gentle wave than a brick to the face.

The Joker is dead.

And Bruce is relieved.

It feels like decades of guilt over not being able to end him, over not being able to do anything real to stop him from hurting others… it feels like the weight of an entire planet has been lifted off his shoulders.

The Joker is dead.

He can’t hurt anyone ever again.

And, miraculously, he doesn’t feel like Jason has betrayed him. He doesn’t feel… he doesn’t feel anything negative about the situation at all. Jason isn’t any different than he’s been. This hasn’t… won’t taint his soul the way it would Bruce’s. He’s not suddenly a cold-blooded murderer.

Cold-blooded murders kill because they enjoy it. That’s not who Jason is. That’s not who Jason has ever been.

And he knows that is not who Jason will ever be.

The recognition of the second voice behind him does slam into him like a brick to the face.

Jim.

Jim is talking to Jason.

Bruce spins on his heel and marches up to them, Jason’s words ringing in his ears. The way he’d talked about their… relationship? In the past tense. Like he knew it couldn’t happen anymore. Like he knew Bruce would reject him for this. Again.

He has no intention of doing that. Jason needs to know.

“You mean it?” Jim is saying as he approaches, sounding slightly stunned, “The Joker is dead?”

“Put the bullet in his brain myself, commish. Finally,” Jason says, sounding a lot cockier than he had a couple minutes ago.

Then he holds out his hands, wrists together and Bruce’s heart plummets into his stomach.

“Hood—” he starts. Jason can’t go to prison. Not for the Joker. Not… not after all the progress they’ve finally made.

“It’s ok, Bats. You forget, I’ve been to prison before. Piece of cake.”

Bruce does not forget. And he knows Jason spent most of his time fending off attacks.

Gordan chews on his pipe, watching them intently. His eyes dart down to Bruce’s bloody fists, up to Batman’s semi-permanent scowl. Then to Jason’s unhooded, unmasked face.

“Thought I saw the Red Hood come this way,” Jim says after a long minute of silence split only by the distant sound of sirens.

Jason blinks and glances back at his discarded helmet, tossed carelessly off to the side of the alley, lying next to the Joker’s body.

“Killed him tonight too,” he quips. It’s honest, but stilted. Like he’s still coming to terms with it.

Bruce narrows his eyes at him. So does Gordan.

“Uh huh. Look,” Jim puffs, tapping the pipe against his hip to empty the tobacco, “I’ve never mentioned this before because admitting it out loud is a confirmation and it’s better to just… not. While I may not be the ‘world’s greatest detective’ I like to think I’m bit above average.”

The two vigilantes exchange frowns and Jason finally lets his arms drop to his sides. The commissioner sighs.

“I know who you are, kid. Who all of you are.”

Bruce had always kind of figured Jim knew. Partly because he is a good cop. Partly because Dick and Barbara weren’t as subtle about things when they were younger as they are now.

But Jason snorts. “No offense, commissioner. But I very seriously doubt you know me. And it doesn’t have anything to do with you being a good or bad detective.”

Gordon just raises his brows. “You think so? I know normal shmucks don’t come back from the dead, but we do occasionally notice when others do.”

When Jason starts in surprise, Bruce just smirks. It’s a good habit to get into, not underestimating James Gordan.

“Answer one question for me, kid. Why’d you shoot Cobblepot with a blank?”

It’s Bruce’s turn to jerk in surprise. He turns his whole body to Jason, giving him his complete attention.

The younger man stiffens, turquoise irises flicker up to Bruce’s face out the corner of his eyes before falling back to Gordan.

“Didn’t need to kill him to take him down. Just needed him out of the way for a while so I could get access and set the ball rolling. He’d have handed you the evidence you needed within two months of coming back. Not on purpose, but still.”

 Outwardly Bruce isn’t reacting but…

He thinks about the mayor and the techno-organic virus. The urge to beat the hell out of himself for not bothering to check again is overwhelming.

Bruce opens his mouth to say something. Is grateful when Jim and Jason keep talking because what he has to say doesn’t need to be said in front of Gordon.

“You still did a lot of damage.”

“Yeah, well, he’s still killed a lot of innocent people.”

A tense silence extends between the three men.

“I’m gonna have to call this in,” Jim says, turning toward his car and notably not reaching for the handcuffs clipped to his belt. “I suggest you two not be here.”

Good enough for Bruce. He’s already got his grapple gun out when he sees Jason take a step forward.

“You’re not going to arrest me?”

He sounds stunned. Like he can’t believe it.

Jim looks back at him, finger poised of the com button on the handheld.

“I distinctly saw Red Hood kill the Joker and disappear,” he says evenly. “You confirmed he’s gone. Don’t see any reason to arrest you. So long as that’s all true.”

“Come on, Jason,” Bruce mutters into his ear, tugging on his arm when Jason just blinks at the police commissioner.

 


 

They’re both silent as they grapple across the rooftops back to the car.

As soon as their feet hit the pavement, Jason starts to make his way toward the alley exit instead of the Batmobile without a word.

“You didn’t tell me,” Bruce says before he can get more than a few feet away. “I locked you away for months. Why didn’t you just tell me?”

Jason turns and gives him a mostly venomless glare and Bruce realizes that those are the exact same words he used with the mayor.

The response this time is a little more fair though.

“You never asked me,” he says, tone flat. “Never gave me the chance to say anything.”

Bruce flinches. He beat Jason bloody—broke bones—for an assumption. An assumption he made without considering the precedent.

“Jason, I’m so—”

“Sorry. I know.”

The boy runs his finger through his hair. He looks tired. Drained.

“Right, well. See you around, old man.”

“Where are you going?”

“Don’t know yet. Figure I’ll—”

“No,” Bruce corrects, shaking his head. “I mean… why are you leaving?”

Jason squints at him and shifts his weight. “I… killed the Joker,” he answers slowly. “Just ‘cause Gordon’s letting me off the hook doesn’t mean… well, I figured you wouldn’t want me around.”

His voice cracks. Just a little on the last few words.

The thought that Bruce is going to reject him—push him away again—or worse, lock him up, is etched into every line of his face.

But they’ve come too far for that. Bruce has come too far for that.

“Come here, Jason.”

“So you can lock me up again?” He asks, humor not quite managing to drown out the concern. Still, he takes a single tentative step forward.

Two feet away.

“So that we can go home,” Bruce rumbles, “And pick up where we left off.”

Jason shivers but doesn’t move.

“You mean it? If I get in that car and you throw me in that cell again, we’re done. I’ll never forgive you.”

Bruce smiles at him, a soft sad thing, despite his efforts, and steps towards him. Jason doesn’t back away, clinging to the chance that Bruce isn’t manipulating him.

Despite the precedent.

One foot.

“I wish that was true, Jason. But we both know you would.”

Bruce watches Jason’s Adam’s apple bob as he gulps and nods.

There’s no way they’re going to make it back to the manor.

He makes a token effort as they walk back to the car.

Then Jason says, “Always this alley with you,” and Bruce looks around, registering where they are.

And the thing is, it’s not always this alley. He’s been here since Jason’s death, of course. Still comes every year. But he hasn’t parked the Batmobile here since then.

Not in Crime Alley where a dead boy made him laugh.

Jason yelps as Bruce rounds on him; presses him against the car; grabs him by the collar. He pushes his tongue into Jason’s mouth and the younger man melts with a soft groan.

The clasps of their suits are all undone and bits are falling to the ground. Jason is shoving at Bruce but it’s not until fingers tighten in his hair and jerk his head back that he realizes Jason is trying to say something.

The boy gasps for air, panting heavily as his other hand searches of the door handle.

“Not out-out here,” he breathes. “Want you to my-myself.”

Growling as he reluctantly untangles himself from Jason, Bruce tears the door open and crawls into the spacious back seat.

When Jason doesn’t immediately follow he almost climbs back out. Fortunately he hesitates or he would get smacked in the face by their armor as Jason tosses the pieces into the passenger seat.

Jason’s foot is barely over the thresh before Bruce grabs him by his undershirt and shoves him into the leather of the bench. Jason curses under his breath.

“Black out mode,” Bruce barks at the car.

The door slams shut of it’s own accord and the already darkly tinted windows go opaque black.

He rips Jason’s shirt off in the dim light of the Batmobile’s controls. They cast everything in a warm orange glow. Bruce’s breath catches when he sits back to undo Jason’s pants. The low lights paint inky shadows of each raised scar that marks Jason’s torso. He takes in the bared chest, running his fingers over all the marks he can find, as the younger man works deftly at the Batsuit’s hidden zipper.

As desperately as he wants to feel Jason’s skin against his own, it’d take too long to get out of the whole thing. He can’t keep his hands off Jason that long and it’s clear Jason wouldn’t let him even if he could.

All the desperation and pent up need from the morning comes rushing back with a vengeance.

“No teasing,” Jason mutters into his ear, pausing to pepper kisses along Bruce’s jaw before adding, “Please, Bruce.”

Bruce grunts as Jason’s hand wraps around his already achingly hard cock and starts a tortuously slow stroke.

“No teasing,” he agrees. “No interruptions.”

He means he wants to do this before they get interrupted again. With the way Jason smiles, he thinks the boy understands.

Fishing around for his utility belt without detaching from Jason’s lips is difficult, but he manages.

Jason doesn’t ask why he carries lube around. Which is good, because the answer is highly practical and not sexy at all.

Their current position is a little awkward so Bruce shift’s them around. He puts Jason’s back against the side-panels so that he can hover above him.

This time, he quickly and efficiently removes Jason’s pants, half expecting Alfred’s voice to come across the coms anyway.

Gazing down at the naked expanse of skin—soft and hot and glistening with a thin sheen of sweat—Bruce is positive nothing could pull him away now. Gotham will be fine for an hour or so.

They need this.

Bruce raises one of Jason’s legs, hooking it over his shoulder for better access. The back seat is big, but it’s still a back seat.

Jason’s hips jerk violently when Bruce slips his hand between his cheeks and circles a slick finger around the puckered rim.

When he leans back to watch, Jason groans, drops his head back against the car, and hides his face in an elbow. If the lighting wasn’t so low, Bruce is certain that he’d see Jason blushing.

It’s mesmerizing, the way Jason opens up for him as he pushes his finger in. The way the muscle gives way to accommodate him. How warm and tight he is.  

And Jason is tight. Even with one finger, even considering Bruce’s hands are large and calloused, even when Jason isn’t clenching around him, everything is so snug.

It occurs to Bruce then, that it is possible Jason hasn’t been with a man since his resurrection. That maybe he hasn’t been with anyone. Bruce certainly wouldn’t know.

Moving gently, he works Jason open, adding a second finger only after Jason whines and tries to bare down on him.

The first time Bruce brushes his prostate, Jason arches back and cries out, seemingly oblivious to the way his head smacks against the car.

Bruce leans forward and drinks down the continued noises as he massages that sensitive gland. He sucks on Jason’s tongue when he adds a third finger and presses down on Jason’s perineum firmly with his thumb.

“B—Bruce… ‘m…’m gonna—nngh—I’m gonna…”

“Ssh, it’s okay—”

“N-no… no… pl-ease… want you… you in-in—”

Bruce smiles. Jason is unravelling and it’s breathtaking. “I know. There will be time for that. Right now, you’re very tight. I need you to relax or I can’t… or I… or I won’t be able to… enter you.”

Jason moans loudly and shoves his hips down at Bruce’s words.

“Come for me Jason,” Bruce hums into his ear, tugs on the lobe with his teeth, then moves his lips lightly against the thin skin just below, “Come… so I fuck you.”

“Jesus… fuck—nnngh,” Jason shouts as he climaxes, cock completely untouched.

Bruce watches the slow, steady stream of sticky white liquid make a mess of Jason’s abs, completely captivated, as he continues to rub little circles against his prostate, milking his orgasm out for two full minutes before Jason has given all he has.

Jason pants heavily, trying to catch his breath, chest heaving up and down; little shudders wracking through his body. Then he sags into the seat.

Bruce kisses across his shoulder, up his neck, and latches onto his lips. Jason kisses back lazily, humming happily into Bruce’s mouth.

When he pulls away, it’s just far enough to speak. He doesn’t want his lips to ever completely leave Jason’s again.

“If it’s too much for you, I can wait,” Bruce whispers.

Of course he doesn’t want to. But not only would he ever just assume that he could continue without checking… this is Jason. Bruce needs to be careful with Jason.

With Jason’s past… consent needs to be crystal clear. No room for doubt. He won’t be responsible for compounding that particular trauma.

But Jason is already shaking his head before Bruce even finishes the sentence.

“No,” he gasps, breathing still irregular. His arms around Bruce’s shoulders tighten and he nips at Bruce’s jaw. “Please, B…”

“You don’t need to feel like you have to. I don’t want to do anything you don’t want me to. I’m fine if you want to take a break.”

The limbs around him tighten again.

Bruce,” the word is breathless and reverent and shreds at Bruce’s control. But not half as viscously as when Jason pulls back and the green in his eyes is practically glowing with intent. “Fuck me. Please.”

He surges forward, wraps one hand around the back of Jason’s head to hold him as they make out.

The other drops to grip the thigh of the leg still slung over his shoulder to stead Jason as he sinks into his wet, loosened hole.

Maybe it’s the situation. Maybe it’s the months of build up and tension. Maybe it’s just because they got interrupted earlier.

But Bruce has never felt anything so euphoric, so perfect, as being inside Jason; as watching the brief grimace on his face melt into bliss; as meeting those hooded eyes, biting those kiss-bruised lips.

Jason, lost in pleasure, is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

Bruce doesn’t last long. Every little whimper and moan and gasp threatens to send him over the edge from the very first moment.

He starts slow and languid. Jason is much more relaxed now but he still worries about hurting him; suspects that will never change, all things considered.

It’s only when Jason whines and chases Bruce’s cock as he pulls back that the older man picks up the pace, pulling Jason down to meet each upward thrust.

When Bruce notices that Jason is hard again, he wraps his hand around him and strokes, matching the rhythm of his hips.

Jason comes again. Tangles his fingers in Bruce’s hair and smashes their lips together in a sloppy, desperate kiss.

Bruce,” he breathes, breath cool across Bruce’s damp brow.

That is what sends him over the edge. That word, his name, spoken with such trust and adoration.

He grunts. His pace stutters.

He’s pretty sure he comes so hard his vision whites out.

He‘s pretty sure he shouts Jason’s name.

It takes an extreme effort to not just collapse onto the body beneath him. And it’s difficult to maneuver them both into a comfortable position in such an enclosed space. Especially since he’s not ready to break their connection. He wants to stay in Jason as long as the other man will allow.

He manages to switch their places, so that Jason lies atop him, legs spread to either side of Bruce’s hips, face nuzzling languorously at his throat.

His own hands trace over the raised scars on Jason’s back and he resolves to learn the story of each; memorize every mark and how Jason got it. Learn the story of what he did after the Pit.

Because in this quiet moment, Bruce realizes he’s never asked. They’ve never talked about it.

They stay wrapped up in each other for well over an hour.

When it’s clear that neither of them have any desire to move for the foreseeable future, Bruce orders the Batmobile autopilot to take them home.

Chapter Text

Alfred doesn’t bother them for the next three days except to leave trays of food and, pointedly, fresh sheets, outside the door. And for once, Bruce is content to trust the others to handle what needs handling. Content to trust Alfred to fetch him and Jason if they are really needed.

For once, the world doesn’t go up in flames while he takes a breather and it feels like a karmic sign. Like the universe is finally allowing them both a small bit of relief.

Bruce takes Jason apart time and time again. More importantly, he takes the time to carefully put him back together.

He still can’t really understand why Jason trusts him to do that. To reassemble the pieces. Doesn’t know why Jason puts those pieces in his hands in the first place.

But he is grateful.

Because it feels like all the broken pieces of himself that have been scattered for decades—since the night his parents died and continually stomped on with each new heartbreak until it became a fine glass dust—it feels like those pieces are slowly reforming; slowly stitching themselves back together again with every new barrier he lets Jason break down.

The sex is like nothing Bruce has ever experienced before. There is just so much… so much behind it all. It’s everything he could have wanted and it fills him with such… joy, seeing Jason’s face slack or twisted in pleasure, knowing that he’s making Jason feel good for once, feel wanted and loved instead of bringing him nothing but pain and rejection. Bruce pours all his legendary focus into Jason’s pleasure and it makes everything so intense.

But it’s not the sex that’s healing him.

It’s the quiet moments in between rounds. It’s when they lie in each other’s arms and he can hear Jason’s heart beating wildly in his chest.

It’s when they talk.

About the little things.

About the big things.

It’s the way Jason, even in his sleep, holds onto Bruce like he’s afraid the older man is going to slip away and leave him alone the moment his arms aren’t around him.

It’s the feel of that scar on Jason’s throat and the fact that whenever Bruce touches it, kisses it, rests his head against it in penance, Jason leans into it.

And not away like he should.

Going forward is not going to be easy. They both know it. They still have fundamentally different positions on killing, even if they have both managed to acknowledge and respect the other.

Bruce will still want to control.

Jason will still refuse to be controlled.

Even if Bruce has found that Jason is happy to let Bruce be in control in… other circumstances. There is the idea budding in Bruce’s mind that maybe that can be an outlet for those tendencies; maybe that can be enough.

However, the last months have been… an education. For both of them. Bruce, at least, feels an uneasy excitement at the simple fact that he can feel again at all.

It terrifies him. But it’s worth it.

“We can’t stay locked up in here forever,” he grumbles, still groggy with sleep, early the morning of the fourth day. He would very much like to. But they both have responsibilities. And Jason especially, has some things to figure out. He’s just killed off the Red Hood (except perhaps as an underworld alias).

But Jason is the Red Hood. Has either trained to be or been that person since the moment of his resurrection. Jason, unlike the rest of them, doesn’t have a life outside the mask.

If Bruce killed off Batman… he can’t even begin to imagine how rudderless he would feel.

He leans over and places a gentle kiss on each of Jason’s closed eyelids.

Groaning, Jason shoves at him lightly and rolls away. “Five more minutes.”

Bruce smiles, eying the muscles of Jason’s back and the much nicer marks adorning his flesh now. Still bruises but good bruises. Evidence of their affection instead of their pain.

Then he mouths at the nob at the top of Jason’s spine until he gets a shiver and murmurs, “Alright,” into the warm skin.

Jason joins him in the shower only two minutes later, pushes him against the wall and sinks to his knees.

The spray of the water is warm and the steam comfortable but nothing can match the exquisite velvety, heat of Jason’s mouth around him.

He’s fully hard in moment and finishing down Jason’s throat in minutes, wishing he could have lasted longer, dragged it out a little. Savored it.

A part of him is still worried the younger man is going to leave after all this and not look back.

When he tries to switch their positions, Jason huffs.

“You don’t always have to one-up me,” he says, gentle and breathless.

Bruce looks up at him from his own knees; can’t help but admire how beautiful Jason is damp and sleepy and soft in the swirling steam.

“I’m not trying to one-up you,” Bruce responds, slowly stoking Jason’s already stiff length. “I’m trying to… reciprocate.”

Jason squints down at him. Then gasps when Bruce licks a stripe from the base to the tip along the vein on underside.

“We’re… equals,” Bruce… explains. As best he can anyway. “This needs to be a two way street. I don’t want you sacrificing yourself—in any way—just to please me.”

He sighs and lets his eyes drift closed when Jason runs his fingers through his hair.

“You don’t have anything to prove, Bruce.”

Ignoring his own shiver of pleasure at the sound of his name on Jason’s tongue, he blinks back up at Jason. Waits until the younger man fixes him with a dreamy look.

“Yes, I do.”


Jason walks ahead of him a few steps, almost bouncing with every light, airy step.

He has borrowed a pair of Bruce’s black sweats and one of the few long sleeved t-shirts Bruce had to dig out of the back of his closet (also black). Jason didn’t want to worry Alfred with the way both of them are marked up (even though Alfred obviously knows what they’ve been up to).

The clothes almost fit. But not quite. And Bruce likes the two inches of leg that drag on the floor, the way the shirt is just a little too loose. Jason is nearly as big as him now. It bothered Bruce not long ago, but now he’s admiring it.

That and the line of purple that hides the scar on his throat, too high to be hidden by the collar.

Until Jason comes to a sudden, hard stop, frozen in the threshold to the kitchen, and Bruce almost runs up his back.

“Jason!” Dick’s voice rings from just out of sight and Bruce takes a deep breath.

He was kind of hoping to put this off for a few days.

Although, they must have wasted that window holed up in the master suite for the last several days. Alfred probably called in the boys to handle the city while Bruce and Jason… made up.

“We’ve been worried,” Dick is saying from the table in the breakfast nook. “Reports said Red Hood helped Batman with the chaos the other day but that you died! Al told us you were fine but, still.”

Bruce puts his hand in the small of Jason’s back and applies a gentle but firm pressure, encouraging him to go further into the room.

Jason steps forward, letting Bruce enter behind him, just as Dick says, “Are those… hickies?”

By now, Bruce has stepped around him, being sure to keep his hand on Jason’s back, hoping it’s the reassuring presence he means it to be.

Jason has flushed an alarming shade of crimson

“Didn’t think the whole freaking family would be here,” he mumbles under his breath as Bruce slips his hand up to his shoulder and Alfred approaches, handing them each a cup of coffee with a deeply amused smile.

The whole family is not there. Damian must still be with his team.

Bruce is grateful for small blessings. He’d rather deal with that conversation when he’s a little more prepared.

“You’ve only been out of the cell for three days, Jay,” Dick says, impish grin spreading across his face. “Didn’t really take you for the fast moving type.”

Tim, who had been taking a sip of his own coffee and looks significantly less uninformed, chokes on the liquid. Only a quick hand covering his mouth stops him from spraying it all over Dick.

Dick squints at him. “You ok, Timmy?”

“Yeah,” Tim coughs. “Just laughing at the idea that they moved fast. This took fucking years, a giant fight, and some outside intervention to finally get rolling, Dick.”

Shaking his head as if to clear it, Dick blinks between Tim and Jason, obviously lost. “What did?”

Jason groans and tries to slip back out of the room.

Bruce grasps his wrist to stop him. “There’s no point in delaying,” he mutters but it’s clear that the room heard him anyway.

“Delaying what?” Dick asks again, sounding increasingly frustrated. “What’s going on?”

The idea hasn’t even crossed his mind, Bruce realizes. Dick hasn’t for a second considered the facts that Jason’s marks and them entering together, dressed almost identically, are at all linked.

Abruptly, Bruce feels uncomfortable. Jason may have always wanted Dick to be his big brother but, to Jason’s mind, he never was. Dick, on the other hand, felt so terrible about not being around more after Jason’s death that he retroactively decided that Jason was his little brother. The same way Dick considers Bruce something between an older brother and a father.

He’s been so wrapped up in him and Jason that he never thought about how the others would take things and he’s suddenly very worried that Dick won’t understand or approve.

Their relationship is better than Bruce’s relationships with the others but… it’s still rife with tension.

Bruce opens his mouth to explain. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say, all he knows is that Jason shouldn’t have to handle it, but he’s saved from himself by Alfred.

“Master Bruce and Master Jason have reconciled,” Alfred says, gently resting a hand on Dick’s shoulder. “The nature of their relationship going forward will be… quite different. It may require a period of… adjustment for many of us.”

Jason is pointedly looking anywhere but anyone else’s face. So Bruce gives Dick an embarrassed smile.

“That’s great, Al,” Dick says slowly, still not quite ready to accept what he’s hearing. “But what does that have to do with…”

His eyes go wide as his voice trails off. Then they snap back to Bruce’s face, skip over to Jason and quickly scan him, as if checking for any indication that Bruce has forced or mistreated him. Finally they dart back to Bruce with a harsh expression.

“You can’t be serious.” His eyes are cloudy with concern.

“We are,” Jason says, before Bruce can do the same. Jason throws a nervous glance his way before continuing. “We… haven’t worked everything out yet but… we are. Serious.”

Selfishly, Bruce can’t even really focus on what Dick says next. Relief floods through him, hearing Jason call this—whatever it is—serious.

Because Bruce has already thrown himself into this. Dove head first into the pool not knowing he chose the shallow end or the deep end.

Given everything that has happened, Bruce had been fairly certain that Jason is just as invested as he is but… assuming and knowing are very different.

His heart swells at the words and his brain starts overclocking with ideas. Taking Jason out to dinner, shows, romantic get-away’s to Hawaii. He sees a vivid image of a picnic and a hot-air balloon but quickly dismisses that as too much. But Jason always did love theater and book readings… things Bruce hasn’t done enough of in a long time.

“It’s fine, Dick,” Jason is saying when Bruce finally pulls himself out of a rose-tinted future and back to the present. Jason is sitting by Dick now, across from Tim who watches everything with his brows raised lightly in amusement.

“He had you locked in the basement, Jason. How do you go from his prisoner to his… lover while you’re behind bars?”

They are both speaking in hushed tones, like Bruce isn’t standing five feet away and fully capable of hearing everything. Deciding Dick’s concerns are probably fair, Bruce elects to give them a little space to sort it out without him hovering in a way that Dick may consider vaguely threatening, and goes to fill a glass with water.

On the one hand, he’s a little insulted that Dick would think he’d be that… appalling. On the other, he is miserable with feelings and understanding how everything he does affects those around him.

“First of all,” Jason snaps, voice low, “you didn’t seem to have a problem with him locking me up so I don’t think you get to be indignant about it now. Second, if you’re implying I fucked Bruce so that he’d let me out—”

“No!” Dick practically shouts the word, horror flooding his face. “No, Jay, that’s not what I was asking. Not even close. I was… I just wanted to make sure that… that he, uh…”

“I think Dick is trying to make sure that Bruce didn’t coerce you into anything in exchange for your freedom,” Tim says through a mouthful of scrambled eggs, face lit up like it’s Christmas and this is the best present he could have received.

Dick turns pink and Jason’s eyes go wide.

“What? Why would you think that?”

The scandalized look on Jason’s face soothes some of Bruce’s anxiety about Dick’s line of questioning. Even if he knows that Dick isn’t out of line to be concerned, it still hurts Bruce’s feelings. And even though he’s continually baffled by Jason’s trust, it still warms his heart to see it.

“I don’t think he’d do it on purpose, Jay,” Dick mutters, looking away from Jason to his own plate. “But he doesn’t have a great track record with unintentionally manipulating us.”

Jason looks away now too, watching his fingers pick at the grain on the wooden table.

“Oh…” he says softly after a moment. “I guess… I guess that’s fair. But it’s not like that. I promise. You know me, I’m not gonna put up with Bruce’s bullshit just because I lo—just because of this.”

Dick fixes Jason with a pleading, desperate look. “Please stay that way? Don’t… don’t lose yourself in it, ok?”

Bruce suddenly feels like an interloper. Maybe he should leave the room.

“Ok,” Jason says, leaning in to bump his shoulder against Dick’s. “You have my permission to try to kick my ass if you think I am.”

With a snort, Dick rips off a piece of toast with his teeth and says, “Please. Like you’d listen to me.”

“Good point. I wouldn’t. But you can tell Tim, and if Tim agrees he can tell me. I’ll listen to him.”

Tim snorts this time, but doesn’t argue. It’s odd to think about how close Jason and Tim have gotten in the years since their… tumultuous early interactions. Sometimes Bruce feels like it happened overnight. On the surface they don’t have much in common. But beneath all the superficial stuff, they’re very similar.

That’s why Bruce allowed Tim to join them, after all. The younger man reminded him just enough of Jason that he was willing to throw caution to the wind just to ease some of the pain.

It occurs to him that Jason is not the only one who deserves apologies. He probably owes them all a blanket apology for introducing them to this life as children. There’s probably a mountain of sins unique to each boy, that needs to be addressed.

Maybe Jason can help him navigate that now.

Ahem.”

Bruce practically jumps out of his skin when Alfred pointedly clears his throat right in Bruce’s ear.

How did he even get from Dick’s side to the water dispenser in the refrigerator without Bruce noticing?

 Alfred sighs at his confused expression and gives him a light shove toward the table to rejoin the boys, then follows with additional plates of food for Bruce and Jason.

“Everything alright?”

Dick still looks a little skeptical but Tim appears as unconcerned as ever. Alfred takes up his seat next to Tim and warms up his tea with another pour from the pot on the marble trivet in front of him.

Jason just takes his hand and pulls him down onto the bench next to him. Bruce sits close so that his thigh just touches Jason’s and he can feel the comforting warmth coming off the younger man. But other than letting Jason hold his hand, he tamps down on the desire for more overt displays of affection.

“So,” Tim says into the semi-comfortable silence. “You killed off the Joker and the Red Hood? Big night for you.”

Bruce stiffens, along with Dick. But to his surprise, Jason just… relaxes.

“Yeah,” Jason answers, sounding vaguely listless. “It just felt… wrong to keep it. The Red Hood was Joker’s first name. At first was meant to… to hurt.”

He glances up at Bruce out of the corner of his eye.

“Then it was mostly just useful, a name that meant something in the Gotham underworld because of my reputation. And still kind of a dig, a ‘see what you created?’ kind of thing.

“But now Joker is gone. And things are… things are different.” He takes his hand out of Bruce’s so he can wring his fingers. “Red Hood has defined some of the worst times of my life. It’s still me, still very much who I am and always will be but… I just think… maybe going forward, maybe my future doesn’t have to be defined by the pain of my past, you know?”

Everyone is quiet for a long moment.

Finally Alfred breaks the silence. “I think that is a wonderful idea, Master Jason.”

“So you’re in the market for a new name?” Tim asks before taking a big gulp of his coffee.

“Yeah. It’s kind of sudden so it’s not like I’ve thought of anything yet.”

“I’ve been thinking about a name change too, honestly,” Tim adds.

“Good,” Jason says very firmly. “I never did understand why you demoted yourself back to Robin. You’ve moved on, became a hero in your own right, out from Batman’s shadow. Didn’t make any sense to go backwards.”

Tim throws him a little scowl that lacks any real heat. “Yeah well, I have been brainstorming.”

“Anything good?” Dick asks.

“I was thinking ‘Drake’.”

The way he says it is so deadpan that everyone at the table freezes, mid motion to look up at him.

“Tim,” Jason says slowly, delicately. “That is… that’s your real surname.”

“And it’s a duck,” Dick adds, just as carefully.

“Keeps with the bird theme,” Tim says, completely unconcerned. “And drakes are vicious.”

Even Alfred giving him a blank look, blinking in disbelief.

Tim looks up from his food, glances at each one of them in turn like he’s surprised they don’t like it.

Then his face splits into a shit-eating grin. And everyone heaves a huge sigh of relief.

“Can’t believe you bought that for even a second,” he says brightly. “But that does lead me to my next point.”

He fixes Jason with much more critical look.

“Jason Todd is dead,” Tim says with all the seriousness reserved for a funeral.

Jason narrows his eyes. “Yeah,” he responds slowly. “That’s not exactly news, Tim.”

“He’s going to stay that way. Especially now that you and Bruce are… whatever-ing. But it’s time for you to come back.”

As he says it, Tim slides a very real driver license, social security card, and birth certificate across the table.

Jason just stares at it for a moment, looking hesitant.

Bruce can imagine why. He has been dead for years, uses that fact to his advantage to fight crime. He was just a kid when he died. He will never get that time back and he’s been a ghost ever since his return. Unlike the rest of them, he’s never had a civilian identity. Sitting in front of him is a chance at a life outside the costume.

It’s a big step for him.

Under the table, Bruce squeezes his knee.

Finally, Jason takes a shaky breath and drags the documents closer and has a look.

“Jason Peter Perry?” He asks with a crooked eyebrow. “Sounds like a comic book character.”

Tim’s smile is warm but he doesn’t answer, just looks over to Alfred who clears his throat.

“Perry is Julia’s alias,” Alfred explains, sounding uncharacteristically… shy.

And no wonder. Bruce is sure Jason’s wide eyes and dropped jaw are mirrored on his own face.

“When I consulted with her, she said she had always wanted a younger brother. And I’ve always considered you a son—”

Bruce didn’t even see or feel Jason move but suddenly he’s on the other side of the table, at Alfred’s side, arms wrapped around the old man. His shoulders shake a little and Bruce knows that he’s probably trying not to cry and failing.

Alfred pets Jason’s hair and holds him close with his other arm. He smiles at Bruce over Jason’s shoulder.

Dick still looks pretty uncertain but seems to be coming around. Bruce is unsurprised to find his dark blue eyes glassy and quickly edging toward sympathy tears.

If Bruce isn’t careful, this feeling that things are going to be alright is going to become a regular thing.

Hope is not an emotion he’s very familiar with. But he likes the way it warms him from the inside out.

Chapter Text

40 (ish) Years Later

 

The alert pings Bruce’s communicator. He grunts to hide the little jolt of excitement and anticipation the sound makes him feel, even though no one is around to see. It has been… far to long since he heard that sound. He would never admit it out loud but he was starting to worry that he would never hear it again.

A ship has breached the upper-atmosphere.

Not as big of a deal as it used to be, but still not common.

However, Bruce only gets alerts for two kinds of ships. Unknown vessels, and Tamaranean cruisers. The first sounds an emergency alarm. The second gently sends a notification to the Batcomputer and his personal communication device.

Leaning his weight against his cane, Bruce scratches Ace behind the ears and smiles down at him. The dog’s tail is wagging like crazy.

“Soon, boy.”

He’s just contemplating contacting Terry to have him schedule a dinner delivery and then telling him to take the night off when the clock that covers the secret entrance to the cave slides open and the kid comes barreling out of the opening.

“An alien ship just entered the atmosphere?!” he practically shouts, eyes wide, grinning like a fool. “I finally get to fight some aliens!”

Bruce scowls at him. “Afraid not. This is not an invasion. It’s a… visit.”

Terry’s face falls but he doesn’t look any less curious.

“Probably for the best, I guess,” he says. “An invasion sounds stressful and time consuming. Like I’d have to cancel my plans with Dana tonight.”

“Good. I was just going to tell you you have the night off.”

It’s Terry’s turn to frown. “Really? You never preemptively give me a night off. Dana and I aren’t going out until after dinner, just in case something came up. So I’ll still be here to make sure you and the dog don’t starve.”

“I did just fine on my own for years before you got here,” Bruce grumbles.

Sure, he mostly lived off soup since Alfred passed, but still. He resents that no one ever seems to believe that he can take care of himself.

“Uh huh,” Terry mutters, unconvinced. “So who’s visiting?”

“What?”

“You said the ship is visiting. Definitely sounded like you meant visiting you.”

Bruce glares but there isn’t much heat in it. Three years and he still isn’t used to Terry being too smart for his own good.

“Just a friend. I’d like—”

“You don’t have friends.”

Now his glare has a little fire. “Hrn. Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, I’ve sent you an order for dinner. Make sure it’s here by seven,” he says as he walks away.

It’s Terry’s turn to frown as he moves to follow. Three years and he still isn’t used to the day time part of his job as Bruce’s “assistant”. Bruce always gets a kick out of reminding him.

The kid takes out his communicator and looks it over. “Nothing for me?”

With a sigh, Bruce turns back to him. “Add what you want if you’d like to join. But dinner only. You’re not welcome on the property afterward for the rest of the evening.”

Terry makes an amused face. “Booty call?”

Bruce grins. “Something like that.”

Terry disappears again. Probably to try to figure out exactly who Bruce knows from off world.

The list is pretty long. He doesn’t think Terry will get it right.

There are still several hours to kill. These days there is a whole standardized protocol for extraterrestrial visitors. A very in-depth customs they have to go through.

Bruce tries not to be as excited as he is.



He’s late. He should have been here by now and he isn’t so Bruce has to give Terry pointed, disapproving looks to stop him from removing the dome keeping his food warm and digging in.

It also means Terry has nothing to preoccupy him so he asks a billion and one questions which Bruce pretty deftly deflects or dances around.

“Don’t think you’re getting away with these non-answers,” Terry says at one point. “I know what you’re doing, I’m just deciding to let you.”

“Then I’m getting away with it,” Bruce smirks.

Terry narrows his eyes at him. “You’re in a really good mood. It’s weird. This must be a pretty special person.”

Blessedly, Bruce is saved from answering by the tell-tale click-hiss of the clock sliding open. Ace starts barking and runs down the hall to greet the guest.

“They know about the cave?” Terry asks, eyes wide and brows raised in surprise.

Bruce just takes a slow, deliberate sip of his wine.

Laughter joins the barking down the hall and grows ever closer. The sound makes Bruce’s heart feel like it’s beating again after a long dormancy.

“Yeah, yeah, alright. I missed you too, buddy,” the voice says from just outside the dinning room. “Jesus, Ace, you are way too big for this.”

The dog is obviously jumping up and down on him for attention, slowing his progress. Bruce almost calls Ace to him just to speed things up.

Finally, the man enters the dining room. He blinks in surprise at Terry.

Then his eyes find Bruce and the most beautiful, genuine grin splits the younger man’s face, eyes lighting up.

Younger than Bruce, but older than he used to be. His face has more lines. The white strip of his hair is joined by lighter temples.

He’s even more stunning than ever.

Terry probably doesn’t notice that the man moves faster on his way to Bruce’s side than he did to get in the room.

“Hey old man,” Jason says, resting a hand on Bruce’s shoulder and leaning over to kiss his temple. “Sorry I’m late.”

Bruce’s eyes flutter shut for a fraction of the heartbeat that his heart skips, and leans into it. Now that he’s back, it’s painful how long he’s been gone.

“Hm,” Bruce grunts as Jason drops his bag on the floor against the wall and sits at the seat with the other plate set in front of it, to Bruce’s left, across from Terry. “Sorry you’re late for dinner or late in general?”

“Am I late in general?” Jason asks, laying the napkin in his lap and reaching for his own wine glass.

“You said a couple years. At most.”

“How long’s it been? Time is different out there, you know that. Each world has their own cycle, etc.”

“Six. It’s been six years.”

Jason’s hand freezes on it’s was back with the wine. His eyes when he looks at Bruce are full of sympathy and regret.

“Sorry I’m late. For dinner and in general.”

“I could have died while you were gone,” Bruce grumbles, doing his best to make it sound like a joke. Like it wasn’t something he thought about every day.

Jason opens his mouth to make what is sure to be a smart-ass retort.

But Terry beats him to it.

“You’re too stubborn to die,” the youngest quips. Then his eyes go wide and a little blush creeps into his cheeks like he thinks he shouldn’t have spoken.

Sharp, critical teal eyes look the kid over before Jason smiles. “That is exactly what I was going to say. Jason Perry,” he says, indicating himself. “Bruce’s… uh…”

“Partner,” Bruce finishes over the rim of his wine glass. Jason never really got used to labeling what they had.

“Terry McGinnis. You mean the one before me?”

Jason chokes and accidentally inhales his own wine. Bruce just watches him as he coughs and thumps at his chest. Smiles at how easily Jason just slips back into his life. How much brighter the manor feels even just a few minutes after his arrival.

“I’m probably a couple ahead of you that way but, uh, think B meant ‘partner’ a little more, um, personally than that.”

Terry’s eyes dart quickly between Jason and Bruce. “Oh… got it.” Then his eyes fix on Bruce. “I didn’t think you that kind of relationship in you.”

Boisterous, mirthful laughter echoes through the dinning room. Bruce turn an unamused expression to Jason.

“You seem to know Bruce pretty well, kid. Guess that explains the rumors ‘bout Batman running around again.”

The knowing smirk on Jason’s lips and mischievous twinkle in his eyes when he glances over, makes Bruce’s blood pump faster.

“So you haven’t spoken to any of the others yet?” Bruce asks before things can derail into Jason and Terry bonding at his expense.

Shrugging, Jason says, “Figured you and I could make plans with Dick and Tim tomorrow or the next day since you’re stubborn and probably haven’t seen them much since I left. Barbie can join for dinner if she isn’t busy. Maybe visit demon spawn in a week or two. After I’ve rested a little and feel up for another trip.”

He pauses and narrows his eyes at Bruce. “You’re going too. Don’t bother arguing. You’re still a tough bastard but these days, I won’t have any trouble making you.”

“Hrn.”

Bruce isn’t as grumpy about any of that as he seems. Jason is right. He hasn’t seen much of the other since he left. They all live in different cities, even if Dick and Tim live near enough to meet up occasionally. Dick has kids of his own and doesn’t want them anywhere near the vigilante life. So Bruce understood when Dick said he wasn’t going to come around while Terry got started. It was amicable, no fighting, no anger. They both got it.

And Damian…

Damian went back to the League after Ra’s was killed. He’s been trying to keep them out of too much trouble. Slowly mold them into a source of good in the world. Bruce hasn’t seen Damian since before Jason left.

“You met the family yet?” Jason asks Terry as they all dig into their lukewarm food.

“I don’t think so,” Terry answers with his mouthful.

Bruce carefully cuts a small piece of steak. “He’s met Barbara—”

“Is that the ‘Barbie’ you mentioned?”

With a wicked grin Jason says, “Yeah, and you should definitely call her that. She prefers it.”

“Don’t call her that, Terry. He does not prefer it and you’re likely to end up in a holding cell for the night.”

Terry scowls at Jason who takes a huge bite of mashed potatoes and smirks back.

It’s so… normal. It’s so easy and casual it make Bruce wonder what life would have been like if Jason had accepted his marriage proposal.

He surreptitiously glances at Terry out of the corner of his eye while the boys continue chatting.

Can’t help but wonder what life would have been like if they’d gotten to raise their children together.



“Thought you said I was gone 6 years, not 16,” Jason says with raised brows later that evening after Terry leaves, when they’re alone in their room changing into pajamas.

“He’s 19,” Bruce says simply, ignoring the other implication. Knowing Jason won’t let him.

“He’s still yours,” Jason responds like it’s the most obvious thing in the entire universe, as he tugs his shirt off over his head. “You cheat on me, a couple decades ago, B?”

It’s a joke. Bruce knows it’s a joke. Jason is smiling. But it still stings.

Bruce sits heavily on the edge of the bed. “I would never.”

Taking an obvious joke so hard makes Bruce feel stupid and embarrassed. It’s the years he’s spent alone, without Jason, making it hit like a punch from Bane in his prime.

Jason comes over and sits next to him. Close. So close. Bruce is shirtless too, soft black cotton pajama pants stopping him from feeling the skin of Jason’s naked thigh against his. He can feel the warmth though. He’s missed it so much.

And he gets his skin contact when Jason leans in and wraps his arms around Bruce’s waist, places a line of kisses across Bruce’s collar bone before resting his head on Bruce’s shoulder.

“I know you wouldn’t. I’m sorry I was gone for so long. I really didn’t mean to be… I wanted to come home much sooner.”

“I know,” Bruce says into his hair, kissing the top of his head and putting his own arms around Jason’s shoulders. “Did you at least help Koriand’r defeat the coup?”

Jason nods against him. “And an invasion. And some asshole who tried to claim her as his bride. She and Artemis could have probably handled that last one without us but… the guy brought a whole fleet to back him up.”

They untangle for just a moment to turn the lights off and crawl under the covers. Then they’re in each other’s arms again, making out like teenagers.

“I don’t think I can do much more tonight,” Bruce mutters when they come up for air. He wants to but he’s tired and he didn’t realize how emotionally draining Jason’s absence had been on him. And he’s getting older. His body doesn’t cooperate the way it used to.

“I’m too tired anyway, honestly,” Jason says, his lips brushing against Bruce’s. “I’m happy just finally getting to physically hold onto you again.”

Bruce hums in agreement and clings tighter as Jason wriggles closer and tucks himself under Bruce’s chin.

“He is yours though,” Jason mentions again after a couple minutes of quiet. “It’s uncanny how much he looks like you.”

“Yes and no.”

“How?”

Frowning into the darkness Bruce answers, “Waller. I didn’t know until it was too late. Rewrote his father’s… reproductive material… to match mine.”

He feels Jason’s face scrunch up against his chest. “Yuck. Leave it to Waller to go the extra mile in ignoring bodily autonomy.”

When Bruce doesn’t say anything for a long moment, Jason shifts.

“Just tell me.”

“What?” It’s not even convincing to Bruce’s ears.

“Whatever you’re trying to decide if you should tell me or not. Just do it. All these years, you better know I’m not leaving you just because you did something dumb but well-intentioned.”

Bruce chew on his lip. This is… different.

“He has a younger brother,” he starts slowly.

Jason snorts. “Does Damian know he has two little brothers running around?”

“One.”

More shifting. Jason pulls back a little to look up at him in the dark. “Huh?”

“Damian has one brother. Terry and his younger brother have different fathers.”

 Jason doesn’t respond for a moment. Then, “I’m guessing they both think the same man is their father? And that the same man should be their father?”

Always too smart for his own good. All Bruce’s kids and proteges and partners have always been that way.

He just nods. Knows Jason can feel it, even if he can’t see it.

“Out with it, B.”

Sighing, Bruce sits up and flips on the lamp at the beside.

“The last thing the world needs is more of my DNA running around,” Bruce says through the hand he scrubs up his face and into his now fully gray hair. “I told Waller to change McGinnis back.”

“Let me guess, she couldn’t?”

“Correct.”

With his own sigh, Jason sits up too. “But you still made her change it from yours.”

It’s not a question but Bruce answers it anyway. “Yes.”

“You gave her my DNA. Didn’t you?”

He doesn’t bother trying to deny it. “The world needs less of me. And more of you.”

“Uh huh,” Jason hums, not sounding at all convinced. “And that’s why you did it?”

It is not.

That’s not even remotely close to why he did it.

A part of him that won’t allow him to lie to himself anymore knew that Jason wouldn’t buy that at all. Jason has always had the extremely irritating ability to tell the difference between Bruce’s justifications and his motivations.

But this? He can’t say this out loud. This is too personal. Too much. Even after all this time… Jason will bolt. He’ll leave for ten years this time. Or twenty. And Bruce won’t see him again before then end.

“Bruce, come back,” Jason says gently, turning toward him and taking his hand, threading their fingers together. “Don’t spiral. I’m not going anywhere. You didn’t do anything evil for nefarious purposes. Whatever your reason… we’ll talk it out, make out, and go to sleep. Ok?”

A puff of laughter escapes despite everything. When he looks into Jason’s eyes he sees nothing but truth.

Doesn’t make it any easier to force the humiliating words out of his mouth.

“Terry is my biological child,” he starts carefully, as clinically as possible to remove the sting of the overwhelming romanticism. “If his younger siblings couldn’t be McGinnis’ and shouldn’t be mine, I… I wanted…”

He searches Jason’s face for help, mercy, but all he finds is a soft smile, encouraging him to say what Jason has already surmised.

“This way, our children could be brothers,” he mumbles, words pouring out of him in a rush.

To Bruce’s immense relief and confusion, Jason doesn’t look horrified by the extreme disregard for his ‘bodily autonomy’, as he said. He just looks vaguely… amused.

Then he starts giggling and tips forward into Bruce’s arms again.

“That is probably the most sentimental thing you’ve ever done,” Jason says, kind of breathless from his laughter. “God Bruce… how do you manage to stay so on brand, constantly?”

Bruce doesn’t release Jason from his embrace but he pulls back a little so that he can see the younger man’s face.

“What?”

“All your statements of love come with truly horrifying and inappropriate invasions of privacy. You just… you’ve gotten better over the years, I guess, but you still struggle with the concept of boundaries.

Now he’s even more confused.

“And you find it… funny?”

“Not really. Not funny,” Jason says, kissing his shoulder. “Just very you. I never know exactly how you’re going to do it but… I’m always prepared to find out that you’re tracking me or surveilling me or that you have a clone Jason in cold storage somewhere, just in case—”

Bruce huffs at that and does try to pull away. Jason just tightens his hold and kisses up his way up Bruce’s neck.

“I understand why you did it, Bruce,” Jason says between nipping and sucking on Bruce skin. It’s difficult but he stubbornly ignores the way it makes him want to melt into Jason’s arms. “I’m not mad or anything. It sucks for the McGinnis guy. But that wasn’t you, that was Waller. You just did what you thought was right and tried to make the best out of a shitty situation. As usual what you thought was right was a unique combination of romantic and selfish that is all Bruce Wayne.”

Teeth tug at Bruce’s earlobe and he gives in. Closes his eyes and leans into the warmth of the body next to him.

“I love you, idiot,” Jason whispers. “Flaws and all. We have both worked hard to be better. But no one is perfect. Even you. I know what I signed up for.”

“I love you, too,” Bruce grumbles. “Even when you insult me to say it.”

They kiss, slow and deep, tasting each other. Reacquainting.

Jason reaches over, turns the light off again, and they lie back down. Bruce on his back, Jason on his side tucked in close, hugging each other like they haven’t touched in six years.

“I assume you’ve met them,” Jason says. “Terry’s family.”

“I have. Terry is my ‘assistant’.”

Jason’s fingers are tracing little swirls in the hair on Bruce’s chest and Bruce can feel him chewing on his own lip against his pec.

“Then it probably wouldn’t be too weird to have the whole family over for dinner one day, right?”

Smiling into the dark, Bruce says, “Not too weird. We can talk to Terry about it in a couple of days.”

He pauses, hesitating. He really doesn’t want to put this out into the universe. Not yet. Not before he’s in his grave. But once he is, there will be no one to say it to Jason.

“Their mother is… very kind. Intelligent. Lovely. I think you’ll like her. Maybe even, after I d—”

“Shut up, Bruce,” Jason says, sleepiness seeping into his firm tone. “Not interested in trying to replace you. Period.”

Relief washes through him. It is certainly selfish, to not want Jason to find someone else after he’s gone. Bruce wants to want Jason to find love again. And he wouldn’t be upset to find out he had. But he just doesn’t have it in him to hope for it. He knows Jason wouldn’t forget him. But the idea won’t leave his thoughts.

He lies in bed, holding Jason close, for a long, long time.

Only after he’s certain the younger man has fallen asleep, does Bruce squeeze just a little tighter, press a kiss into Jason’s curls, and beg, “Please don’t leave me again.”

“I won’t,” Jason mutters, words muffled by Bruce’s body. “Promise. All yours, old man.”

The response startles Bruce. He is positive Jason’s breathing had slowed and evened out.

He swallows the lump in his throat. “Thank you.”

Six years without him have put some things into perspective. The thought of living out the rest of his life alone and unsure of Jason’s safety isn’t one worth entertaining. Now that he’s back… Bruce knows he can’t live without him again.

Bruce is so happy, feels so satisfied, with Jason’s presence at his side. He lets those emotions sweep over him and wash away all the pain and fear.

He sleeps better than he has in years.