Jason squinted, looking at the high peaks in the distance. In the dying light of the sun, they were bathed in a deep pinkish hue. He sighed, hiking his rucksack up his back by a few inches.
“We're too far off. We’ll have to set up camp for the night,” he said.
Damian scowled. “I told you we would have made faster progress if you had let me pick the route.”
Jason turned to look at Damian, an incredulous expression on his face. “You wanted to scale a cliff face. If I'd let you do that, your Dad would never let me hear the end of it.”
Damian shook his head. He was in one of those bright orange puffer down jackets, which combined with his height (or lack thereof,) made him look approximately like he had the proportions of a beach ball. An angry, orange beach ball. But, you know, still deadly.
“I've been trained in rock climbing since the age of three,” Damian said. “I would never do something as stupid as fall.”
“Hey, I believe you,” Jason said, “and I'd never pass up the opportunity to throw you down a cliff face, believe me. But your Dad might not feel the same way.”
Damian scowled again. “Father would never have to know.”
“Kid, Bruce knows everything. He's probably got a tracker on that stupid jacket of yours.”
Damian looked at his jacket, narrowing his eyes. “He wouldn't.”
“He absolutely would,” Jason grinned. “C’mon, you like cliffs, right? I think we can find a cool place to pitch the tent.”
Bruce was the one who’d sent them on the mission, was the thing.
He'd called Jason into the cave after Patrol one night, and handed him a file.
“The oxy Batgirl found in Burnside. I traced it back to a distributor working out of Mexico and Florida, and then further back to the original lab in West Colombia. It's in the mountains. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.”
“You want me to go check it out,” Jason said.
“I want you to take Damian with you,” Bruce said.
Jason raised an eyebrow at that. “Damian? I barely know him.”
Bruce was looking down at the file, like he was thinking of what to say. “He's a good kid,” he said, finally. “He's hard to get used to, initially,and a little. . . volatile, but he's a good kid. Good fighter.”
“Pretty sure that's what you tell everyone about me,” Jason joked, and Bruce's face took on a pained expression.
Things between him and Bruce were still. . . delicate. They hadn't had any fights in a while, and he'd even come over for Christmas two months back. Things were going okay. They moved around each other carefully, like they were walking on thin sheets of ice and waiting to hear it crack.
What Jason had said just now had definitely been a misstep. A crack in the ice.
Jason bit his lip. Shit.
“He just wants to belong,” Bruce said, quietly. “He only gets along with me and Dick. Tim is– well. They don't gel together. I was hoping you could. . . spend some time with him. He'd like you.”
“I don't know, Bruce,” Jason said, slowly, “maybe I'm not the right kind of influence for him.”
Bruce was still studying the file keenly. Actually, he was pretty much looking anywhere except for at Jason.
“He wants to be part of the family. He just doesn't let people in on it,” Bruce said.
Jason had a feeling that he wasn't just talking about Damian.
So he took Damian with him. And now they were camping right next to a cliff face.
Jason rolled out their sleeping bags. Damian was sitting almost at the very edge of the cliff. His back was to Jason, so he couldn't see his face.
“I hope you don't roll around in your sleep,” Jason joked. They weren't actually camped that close to the cliff, but Damian visibly stiffened anyway.
“I'm not an idiot,” he snapped.
Jason frowned. “I didn't even say that.”
“Whatever,” Damian said, getting up and dusting himself off. “I'm going to go look for wood for the fire.”
He stalked off.
Jason sighed, and went back to setting up camp. “Talking to you is fucking work,” he muttered.
They ate dinner sitting in the thin grass, while watching the sunset. At least, Jason watched it. Damian frowned at some dirt, while stabbing idly at his stew.
“The view’s nice, huh? I heard that the mountains meet the ocean here. Imagine that. Mountains on a beach.” Jason said. The sun had painted the sky in brilliant streaks of pink and crimson, and the snowy peaks in the distance seemed to almost glow.
“I don't care,” Damian said.
Jason raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Bruce had not been kidding when he'd said that. Damian was hard to get used to.
They ate in silence for a while.
Damian poked at his stew some more, frowning.
“This is terrible,” he said.
“Yeah, well maybe you should've let me grill you some sausages instead. Stew is the best vegetarian thing I could do,” Jason said, stuffing some sausage in his mouth.
“I hate it,” Damian declared. “I don't want any of it.”
“Fine,” Jason said, getting up. “Okay, fine. You don't have to fucking eat it.” he said, snatching up Damian's bowl of stew. He emptied its contents into the fire, which roared up for a brief second. “You don't have to eat dinner at all.”
Damian’s eyes went wide for a second, almost as though he was scared. Which made Jason realise that he was almost twice as big as the kid, and he was looming over him with a fire roaring in the back, and he probably looked—
Jason frowned. He thought for a second about his own father, and what he'd done to Jason. It had been shit exactly like this.
So he drew back, ready to apologize, when Damian began to scowl again. He got to his feet quickly. “I hate you,” he said, darkly, and stalked off, towards the tent.
Jason sat back down, and sighed. He started eating his sausages again.
Okay. So maybe he'd lost his shit a little bit then. But could you blame him, really? The kid had been an asshole to him ever since they'd started the hike. He'd tried to play nice. It wasn't his fault that the kid was being insufferable.
Jason frowned to himself. That sounded a lot like a justification, even to himself.
He watch the last of the sunset and then put out the fire. He went into the tent after a while, and Damian was already out, curled up his sleeping bag. Jason switched off the electric lantern, took off his jacket and sweater, and climbed into his own sleeping bag.
He stared at the roof of the tent. Maybe it was him, and not Damian. Maybe he was the one that wasn't good at family stuff.
He was the one that just couldn't belong.
He heard the crying in the middle of the night, and it woke him up slowly at first, and then quickly all at once.
“What's wrong?” he said, blinking hard, trying to see Damian in the dark.
A sniffle. No answer.
“Damian,” Jason said. He was freaking out. This was Damian. Damian didn't cry.
A silence, and a muffled sound of cloth being brushed against skin, and suddenly there was a blast of cold air. Damian had zipped open the door of the tent.
“Hey, where are you–” The tent was zipped back up. Damian had left.
Jason blinked a few more times, trying to process things. Then he climbed out of his own sleeping bag, and went after Damian.
Damian was sitting where he'd been sitting earlier, at the very edge of the cliff. It was pitch dark.
“Damian, I can't see a thing. You need to stay away from that edge,” Jason said, very carefully. He tried to remember what Bruce would say to him when he’d had nightmares. He couldn't remember.
“I want you to throw me down this cliff,” Damian said.
Jason hesitated. “What?” he said.
“I want you to throw me off this cliff,” Damian said again, very matter of factly. “It's not very high, and I could take the hit without getting injured too badly.”
Jason scrubbed at his face. He came and sat down next to Damian. There was a little sliver of moonlight illuminating his face. Damian’s face was serene. He wasn't crying anymore, though there were still tear tracks on his cheeks.
“Okay. Is there anything I need to know about here?” Jason said.
Damian was looking at the bottom of the cliff. “My mother,” he said slowly, “she had these training exercises. They'd throw you off a cliff and you'd have to scale it back up. You must be familiar with them.”
Jason looked down to the bottom of the cliff. And then all of a sudden, it hit him.
He looked at Damian, who was staring at his hands.
“You're scared of the mountains.” Jason said quietly. “Does Bruce know?”
“I'm not scared,” Damian snapped. “I'm not scared of anything.”
“Yeah? Then how come you want me to push you off a goddamn mountain?” Jason said. He wasn't gentle or warm, like Dick. If someone snapped at him, he was going to snap right back. Damian glared at him. “I'm not scared. I'm just. . . uncomfortable. It's a problem I need to get over. Something I have to conquer. Like Father did, with the bats. If you push me off and I tuck and roll, I can get off with maybe just a sprained ankle. A bruised rib, at most.”
Jason looked down at the sheer drop. Looked like six hundred feet, minimum. Maybe more. He couldn't see too well in the dark. “You're going to break every fucking bone in your body.”
“Are you doubting my ability to–”
“Jesus Christ, kid, why does everything I say have to be a personal insult against your abilities as a fighter? Batman could get pushed off this cliff and he'd break every bone in his goddamn body. If you do this the only thing you're going to conquer is a six square foot area at the bottom of that ravine, full of smashed Damian bits. There’s a fine line between brave and stupid. Even I know that. Now let's get away from the edge before we break our necks, okay? I'm going back into the tent, and you should probably come too. It's cold as balls out here.”
Damian looked stunned into silence.
“Are you coming or what?” Jason said, getting up.
After a brief hesitation, Damian stood up too, and followed him into the tent.
Jason zipped up the flap.
“Get into your sleeping bag,” he said.
Damian got into his bag, and Jason zipped it up halfway, so he could at least get a little warm. Jason sat next to it.
“I'm going to tell you something. You're going to listen to me, okay? And you’re not going tell Bruce about it.” Jason said.
Damian looked up. Jason could see that he'd caught his interest.
“After I– you know. After. I was in the League, training with Talia. And Talia, she had a network of spies. She'd make me work with them, sometimes. Most of them were these incredible assassins, capable of any sort of disguise. They could blend in anywhere, talk any language, adapt to anything. I watched them work for a long time, and I watched them slit people's throats, and interrogate people, and torture them, and mutilate the friends and families of their targets.”
Damian was watching him, his eyes intent.
Jason leaned a little closer. “And then I came back to Gotham. And Gotham, it's a big city right? We've got what, seven million people living here? There's people everywhere. The roads and pavements and parks are crawling with them. Like insects. So I started to think that those spies were following me around. Everywhere I went, someone was watching me. Following me. Their eyes on my back. It was– I don't even know. It was insane. My heart was pounding all the time, and this one time I yelled at a stranger on the road to leave me the fuck alone, for once. Almost beat him up. I started carrying my gun everywhere. I carried a grenade with me once, on the bus, with my finger on the pin the whole time. I told myself it was just in case of an emergency. I stopped going to crowded places. Then after a while, I stopped going out at all. I just sat at home, staring at the door, waiting for someone to come in and murder me.”
“And then what?” Damian whispered.
Jason smoothed a small section of the sleeping bag with an idle hand. He could feel Damian’s thin shoulders under it. The kid was still so small. “And then one day Dick barged into my apartment. I'd missed the last three dinners Alfred had invited me to, in the manor. Dick thought it was because I'd been fighting with Bruce again, so he wanted to come over and yell at me, I guess. Then he saw me. He left and came back forty five minutes later, with Leslie.”
They were still in the dark. Both he and Damian had forgotten to switch the electric lantern back on, Jason realised.
“It was hard, Damian. It was really hard. She put me on medication, and then I had to do some counselling, which was maybe the most uncomfortable thing ever, and there was a whole support group thing, but look at me now, huh? I'm in a mountain range in Colombia. And I'm not even sweating.” Jason grinned.
“That's because it's so cold,” Damian said, and Jason laughed.
“Well. Yeah. But I feel fine, is the thing. I feel good. I just needed some help. And that was okay.”
Damian was silent for a while.
“I'm hungry,” he said, finally. “You threw my dinner into the fire.”
Jason shook his head. “I thought we were having a moment, here.”
“We can have a moment after I've eaten,” Damian said, and Jason smiled a little.
“I'll look for some trail mix, demonspawn,” he said, ruffling Damian’s hair. Damian batted the hand away, but only half-heartedly.
By early morning the next day, they'd made it halfway up to the lab. They were on a winding dirt trail, with a few inches of snow on each side, when they stopped.
“Hey, Damian,” Jason said, looking at the map, “wanna see something cool?”
“What for?” Damian said. He was wearing the bright orange jacket again.
Jason shook his head. “There's just no pleasing you, is there,” he said. “Come on, keep walking. You're gonna see it in a sec.”
Damian shrugged, and they kept walking. Fifteen minutes later, he stopped.
“That's the ocean,” he said. Far off, several peaks beyond them, near the horizon, there was an unmistakable glisten of water. A line of silver before the sky started.
“Yeah,” Jason said.
Damian just kept looking. “The mountains meet the ocean.” He said.
“Isn't it beautiful?” Jason said. The sun was just beginning to come up, and the clouds looked like they were on fire. The whole sky was beginning to lighten into dawn.
They stood there for a long moment, looking at where the mountains met the ocean, and Damian leaned closer, towards Jason.
Jason put an arm around him.
“You've gotta tell your Dad,” he said quietly. “He worries about you a lot, you know.”
“I know,” Damian said.
A silence. The sun was rising, inch by inch.
“You always call him my father,” Damian said, suddenly, “but he's yours too.”
Jason looked at him. “What?”
Damian blushed. “Father. He's your dad too.”
Jason tilted his head, thinking. “Yeah. You're right, I guess. It's just that he hadn't been, for a long while.”
“He can't just stop being your dad.” Damian said, stubborn.
“No,” Jason said, feeling the wind ruffle through his hair. “I guess not.”
“Yeah. Alright. He's my dad too.”
Damian nodded, like he'd won an argument or something. It made Jason smile, a little. Maybe they were the volatile ones. The hard to like ones. The ones that had trouble belonging. But they could still look out for each other.
They could still at least do that.
He hiked his rucksack up his back by a few inches. "Come on, squirt. Let's go. At this rate, we won't reach the labs till next year.”
Damian grinned at that.