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An Aquarium of Nameless Things

Chapter Text

Jason had it on very good authority—namely, his own—that Dick Grayson ruined everything.

 

“No, no, and no,” Jason said, dropping his paper plate down on the coffee table and gesturing furiously out the window. “You? Leave. Now.”

 

Dick paused in the open window—it was an old apartment, so it was one of those windows that opened on a hinge and swung outward—dribbling disgusting rainwater and city grit over Jason’s carpet. Jason had just run the vacuum cleaner. A week ago, he’d even rented a shampooer, because he’d startled and dropped spaghetti on the carpet and he liked a nice, clean, crisp carpet beneath his socks. His apartment had stunk to high heaven and it had taken an hour and a half for Jason to be happy with it, and even then he still thought he could see just the ghost of a stain. And now Dick’s boot was pressing oil and grime and mud back into it, like some sort of heathen.

 

“I have something to say,” Dick said, and there was a distinct annoyed lilt to his voice. Dick was hard to read and harder with the mask on, so Jason couldn’t quite decide if Dick was annoyed with Jason’s words or just his existence.

 

Jason crossed his arms. “You can say it to my voicemail.”

 

Dick slid through the window the rest of the way, dripping rain everywhere like a slobbering dog, and returned Jason’s cross look at him with, “What, Jay? You just don’t look intimidating in polar bear jammies.”

 

Jason had almost bit back a sharp Bruce got these for me in retort, until he realized that, too, was probably not the most impressive thing to say.

 

Dick settled cross-legged on Jason’s floor. Water leached into the carpet around him, forming a dark ring that reminded Jason inexplicably of police tape. To make matters worse, Dick—again, like a slobbering dog—shook his head, flinging water from his hair everywhere in a fine spray.

 

Jason jerked his head at the window. “Close it, you animal!”

 

Dick grinned. “Don’t you love the smell of the rain? Smells like gym socks and car exhaust.”

 

“No, you—why are you like this.”

 

Dick flopped on his back and stretched out a leg to pull the window shut. “There, did it. Okay. I gotta talk to you, but can I have a towel first?”

 

Jason huffed, snatched his plate of pasta, and sat back down in his chair. A wriggling, insidious part of him wanted to scream, to shout, to throw himself at Dick and wrap his hands around his neck—but that was damage from the Pit he’d been working hard to undo. Damage, Bruce had said, does not define you. “Find the bathroom yourself, asshole,” he mumbled, aggressively stabbing his fork. It screeched against the plate.

 

Dick pushed himself off the ground and did a cartwheel out of the room. Personally, Jason thought that Dick refused to walk the way humans were intended to because he was a contrary, showboating asshole, but Dick never really asked Jason’s opinion.

 

While Dick was gone Jason breathed in deep and prodded carefully at the roiling green anger behind his eyes. He wrote himself a mental list in descending order of importance; Dick was his brother, Dick was a person who had done nothing warranting violence, Bruce would be angry, Bruce would look at him in that devastated way that Jason hated, Jason had been out of practice for months now and he would lose a fight with Dick even at his peak ability. Jason had spent weeks on end mastering meditation with Bruce, learning the absolutely ruthless self-control Batman held close to his chest, and it had started to pay off. But it wouldn’t keep paying off if he didn’t practice, and as much as he wanted to kick Dick out and set the curtains on fire, he couldn’t. Stop framing things in can or can’t. There’s only will or won’t, Jason remembered Bruce saying. The sage Bruce-isms floating through his brain at odd hours had gotten tiring.

 

“Hey, is this ravioli? Damn, that smells amazing. Can I have some? I’m taking some.”

 

“If you touch my ravioli I’ll break your hands!” Jason bellowed. It was an empty threat. They both knew Jason would rather break his own.

 

A minute and a half later, Dick poked his head into the living room. He’d taken his mask off, a towel was draped over his shoulders, and he was holding a plate of ravioli. “This mmf really fuckinf good,” Dick said, around a mouthful.

 

Jason allowed himself a small, secret joy, the joy of the kid who’d had stars in his eyes when Nightwing gave him his number. who had always, always wanted that approval. And then he swallowed it down, doused it in bitter hot oil. "So what are you here for," Jason asked.

 

Dick swallowed, licking his lips. "Damn, this is good. I need a favor."

 

"For you?"

 

Dick rolled his eyes. "I know where we stand, Jay. It's not for me. Well, indirectly, but mostly it's for Bruce."

 

Jason sat up. He knew Dick was protective—hell, a blind squirrel knew that—but Dick generally preferred to handle his concerns himself. "And what do you mean, for Bruce?"

 

"He's going undercover," Dick said.

 

Jason stretched his arms so his hands were behind his head, in a conscious effort to look more casual, and hide the fact that he’d jolted forward the second Bruce had been mentioned. "No sweat. He goes undercover all the time."

 

"Not like this. There's been seven deaths all tracked to the same man. Bruce is going in."

 

Jason stared at Dick openly. He felt his face pinch in what must’ve been a damn wild expression. "Have you hit your head or something? I said, he does this all the time."

 

Dick's face made an expression then that Jason would never forget; something behind his eyes shifted, something around his mouth twisted. His face was sharp and sad—infinitely, infinitely sad. There was something hooded there, secretive, resting there beneath an open gaze that would take Jason a decade and a half to understand. "I know, Jay. But it's different. He's investigating a heroin distributor for lacing his dope with carfentanil, a—"

 

"I fucking know what carfentanil is," Jason snarled. He stood up, pointing towards the window. "You came here tonight knowing whose fucking house you were stepping in, and that's what you were asking. You came here asking me to—to —fuck you, Dick, from the bottom of my dead fucking heart."

 

Dick stood, squared his shoulders. He looked more determined than ever, maybe more intimidating than ever. He looked lethal, in a way Bruce never did; blue eyes sharp, a lithe but powerful frame. A human butterfly knife. "For Bruce. You proved something to me, these last couple of months. You proved that you love him. You love him a lot. And I do, too, but Bruce isn't letting me near this with a ten foot pole. I tried asking Tim. I tried asking Steph. He turned them both down. I wouldn't ask you if I wasn't really fucking worried, Jay, and you know damn well you have him wrapped around your finger. He’ll let you, if you ask.”

 

Jason's hand fell to his side. He stood there for a minute, blinking back tears, staring hard at the ground like it held the answers he was looking for—like why he was crying, suddenly, for starters. Possibly it had something to do with wrapped around your finger.

 

"What's the plan," he said, hoarsely, wiping his eyes with his shirt collar.

 

Dick grinned. "I knew you'd see things my way."

 

"Don't get cocky, asshole. I still don't like you. What's the damn plan."

 

Dick moved around Jason's coffee table, sitting cross-legged on the side away from Jason like a kid at kindergarten. "Ambush him on day two of the job, show up as his personal bodyguard. You're big enough still to look the part. We can brush up on your skills."

 

Brush up on your skills. Dick must have caught the sour look on Jason's face, because the corners of his eyes softened. "Aw, Jay, you can't hurt me," he said. "You'd never beat me in a fight."

 

Jason shook his head, but he sat back down on the edge of his chair anyway. "You’re such a fucking dick, Dick.”

 

Dick only winked at him.

 

Jason cracked his knuckles. "So what are you so worried about, anyway? Bruce can handle himself."

 

Bruce can more than handle himself, Jason thought, remembering some of the things he'd seen Bruce do—he'd seen Bruce wrestle a giant robot squid made from alien tech, he'd seen Bruce brush off hand-to-hand combat with ten people like it was as natural to him as breathing air, he’d heard the story of Bruce wrestling two mind-controlled polar bears and breaking one’s jaw about a hundred times at Manor dinners.

 

The dimples around Dick's mouth tightened. Suddenly, they looked more like worry lines. "Just watch over him, okay? Make sure he doesn't do anything... reckless. You know how he is."

 

Jason frowned. Reckless. He thought about being a kid, and Bruce being a total grouch—an argument he’d overheard, Alfred’s voice raised and shouting reckless. He’d had kind of a slump, when Jason was fifteen, and it wasn’t until years later that Jason had realized what that was. "Has he been... uh, depressed, lately?"

 

It was odd, to say the word itself out loud, after so many years.

 

Dick shook his head. "No, no, he's okay. Really. He… you're good for him, I think."

 

Jason looked back down at the ground, because he honestly thought he might start crying again, at that, and that was just the thing he needed. What Jason wanted to say was really? and what Jason said was, “Funny, you didn’t seem to fucking think that in December.”

 

Dick flinched. Actually, physically flinched, like he’d been slapped. “I’m trying to—you’re—fine. Okay. Fine, great, uh, good talk. Good talk. I’ll just head on out.”

 

“You do that.”

 

Dick left his half-finished plate of ravioli on the windowsill, and he didn’t shut the window behind him. Jason didn’t stand to shut the window or gather the plate, either—just sat, hands folded over his mouth, thinking.

 

When Jason was nine, his mother had walked him home from school. This was unusual. Usually Jason walked home on his own, and sometimes he was picked on by strangers but in Gotham City, that was harmless. There was worse that could be done. But this day was different, and Catherine walked Jason home, and everything about her was fragile—her eyes were fragile, her smile and her teeth and her brittle-spun hair. Most of all, though, her words.

 

“How was school?” she’d asked, absently. She picked her way over the brick sidewalk—here, the tree roots grew beneath the bricks and cracked the grout, leading to thick ripples and empty spaces in the walk. Jason knew this too well. He had a habit of running to school and tripping over those empty spaces. He’d even bloodied his nose, once. He used his homework for math class to staunch the bleeding without realizing it, and tried to turn it in anyway. His math teacher had almost cried.

 

“Good,” Jason replied, scuffing the ground with a shoe. He wanted to talk about his English class—they were reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Jason was particularly fascinated by the word abalone— but he didn’t, because his mom rarely had a mind to listen.

 

“That’s great,” she said, and fell silent. When they were almost home, she spoke again. “Jason, honey, we’re gonna try something tonight, okay? Tonight I want you to stand on the corner outside. You’re gonna be completely safe. We’re just gonna trick some people.” She’d had this look on her face, this thin look. Her eyes were just slightly too wide and her brows were just slightly pinched and the corners of her lips were tightly drawn. My words are glass, her teeth seemed to say.

 

A man had approached Jason on the corner that night, flashing a watch, a thick wallet. His mother had pulled a gun—and by God’s name, Jason had no clue where she had gotten it from—and taken every fistful of cash. Two hundred dollars. Jason stared at the money with wide eyes and asked for new shoes that weren’t duct taped. His mother had burst into tears, and he held her small frame as she sobbed and sobbed, but he didn’t get new shoes until he stole them himself a month later from a kid in another class.

 

He’d only ever told Bruce that story. Bruce had held him, tightly, securely, and Jason remembered thinking, Superman’s got nothing on this . When Jason asked why Bruce was wiping his eyes, Bruce had said, “Your mother loved you, but she didn’t care for you.”

 

Catherine Todd had two loves in life; her son, and heroin. Jason didn’t know how it started. He’d bet every cent he was worth and then some that it had started the same way most heroin sob stories go, with a quiet, “I was working and I took a fall…” and that line would spiral to its bitter end. The bitter end in the case of Catherine Todd was a two bedroom in Gotham’s inner city, the carpet stained with beer and vodka and tequila, stinking of roaches and dead in her chair, her only son staring blankly at her. Jason remembered a bug, crawling over his foot, and still he hadn’t flinched.

 

She had loved him. His mother had loved him dearly, there was no question of it in Jason’s mind—she’d told him, every day, even as she got thinner, her hair brittle and stringy and her eyes big and glassy. Every day as Jason had to do more and more to take care of her. She’d told him, in a hundred different ways, ways that Willis Todd would never, ways that Willis Todd would punish her for. And Jason lived with that guilt, of knowing that he had caused his mother’s suffering, but what was worse than was the guilt that he couldn’t be more worth more than the heroin—Catherine Todd had two loves in life. Her son, and heroin, and the heroin won.

 

-

 

“Your elbow’s too far tucked in,” Bruce said.

 

Jason cursed under his breath. “Whatever,” he said, adjusting his arm, but he was smiling still.

 

“The breathing, Jason.”

 

“‘The breathing, Jason’ he says. ‘Untuck your elbow’ he says.”

 

“I believe what I said was, ‘your elbow’s too far tucked in’, which was and is still a correct statement. Now adjust your elbow.”

 

Jason groaned. He moved his elbow an inch to the right.

 

“Perfect,” Bruce said, stalking into Jason’s view. Even when Jason was training as Robin, Bruce had this awful habit of circling a student like a vulture circling a kill—if he’d been in the full armor, it would’ve been intimidating. As it were, Bruce was only in an old Superman hoodie, sweatpants, and his bare feet, which was far less threatening than the pointed devil’s ears and bat-cape. “Now close your eyes, and breathe in. Focus on the feeling of—”

 

“Dick wants me to ambush you,” Jason blurted in a rush. It hadn’t occurred to him until he said it that it had been weighing on his mind, lurking in the dark corners of his skull.

 

It was a long minute before he finally got the courage to open one eye and peer at Bruce. Bruce looked indomitable, arms crossed and frown carved from white granite. It was a baleful looking face but Jason knew that just happened to be the way Bruce’s face worked. “Sorry, Bruce. I fucked it up.”

 

“Hn. That’s alright. Something was bothering you.” Bruce knelt down and slid easily into a cross-legged position in front of Jason, and it was startling, how similar it was to the way Dick had settled on the floor of Jason’s apartment. “Tell me about this ambush.”

 

“He told me you’re dusting some creep who’s lacing his shit with carfentanil,” Jason said, wringing his hands. “And he told me to tag along with you.”

 

“Dick wanted me followed?” Bruce asked, in a voice that made Jason very, very glad he was not currently Dick Grayson.

 

“Uh, kinda,” Jason rubbed the back of his head, the spikiness of it against his palms helping him focus. “He wanted me to stay with you. Pretend to be your bodyguard.”

 

Bruce was silent, but he was still staring intently at Jason’s face.

 

“What? I mean, I know you’re bad at the words deal, but holy shit can you choke out a one word sentence, maybe? Say ‘mad’ like a caveman or something.”

 

“I,” Bruce said, slowly, “think Dick made a mistake coming to you.”

 

The blood roared in Jason’s ears. Crazy, really, how fast that fucking turned—crazy, crazy, crazy. “I’m a fucking mistake, is that it? He made a mistake because I’m just a worthless waste of fucking—”

 

“No, that’s not—damn it, Jay, breathe. That’s an order.”

 

There was something about a Robin’s training that could overcome almost even the wildest storms in his head; his spine locked and then Jason was breathing, slowly arching down from shallow, short breaths to deep, long ones.

 

“That’s it,” Bruce said, after a while of the rhythmic breathing. “You did good.”

 

“You called me a mistake,” Jason hissed. In his memories he remembered the smell of beer and a bottle shaken threateningly at him, the slurred useless runt doesn’t pick up good-for-nothing MISTAKE.

 

“I didn’t,” Bruce said. “I said Dick coming to you was a mistake, for this reason. You’re uneasy. You need to be —”

 

“—good for something,” Jason finished.

 

Bruce’s eyes softened. “I didn’t say that, either.”

 

Jason glared down at his hands, twiddling his thumbs. Repetitive motion forces you to focus, Bruce had said. “This isn’t getting any better.”

 

“A setback does not mean you aren’t doing well.”

 

“But how well?” Jason snarled, rising to his feet. He gestured at himself. “How well is still constantly wanting to snap at people, how well is feeling wrong and half-crazy all the time—and—and—Jesus, Bruce. I killed people. Did you really think you were going to fix me with some tai fucking chi?”

 

Bruce looked placid. Jason wanted to punch him. “No, Jay. I didn’t. I’m trying to help you, not—”

 

“Try harder!” Jason shouted, aiming a punch at the wall. Faster than he could make contact, his legs were swept from beneath him, and Bruce crouched by, looking concerned-alarmed-concerned . Thanks to him, Jason hadn’t broken his hand.

 

Jason covered his face with his hands, feeling like he could cry for a year. He didn’t bother sitting up. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

 

“You came to me,” Bruce said. “You came to my doorstep, asking for my help. That is what my doorstep is for. Do not apologize.”

 

“I don’t deserve your help,” Jason mumbled.

 

“Everyone deserves my help.”

 

Jason’s hands dropped from his face, and he looked Bruce in the eyes, and found there something older than imaginable, something beyond argument. So he nodded mutely.

 

Bruce reached out slowly and squeezed Jason’s knee. “You are doing better. I see less of the Pit in you every day.”

 

“Whatever Dick’s worried about,” Jason said, “will you be careful about it? Please?”

 

For a moment, Bruce looked like he was pushing seventy instead of fifty. “I will,” he said, softly.

 

And damn that man, Jason had believed every word he said. He’d believed that I will with everything in him, so he called Dick after Bruce had gone upstairs.

 

“Hey, you’ve got Dick Grayson! I’m a little busy right now, y’know how it is, so just leave —”

 

“You’re an annoying prick who didn’t even eat all of my ravioli, which you stole,” Jason said into the phone. “And I’m not doing it. I’m trusting Bruce on this one. Also my carpet smells like mildew, so if you want to come shampoo my carpet in apology for your whole everything, that’d be great.”

 

Damn that man, Jason had trusted him.

Chapter Text

Jason’s favorite bagel shop was on the corner of Adams and Breyfogle, a tiny little place with a doorway so small Jason had to scrunch up to get through it. The door was painted a vibrant yellow and the inside was red, and the decor clashed horribly —one corner was packed with old baseball jerseys from the Gotham Buzzards, another had a taxidermy deer head, and towards the back there was a wall of records from the 1950s and they always seemed to be playing loud rap music. It felt like walking into the brain of six different people. He loved it anyway, because they made an excellent little blueberry lemon cheesecake bagel sandwich, and also a dill and avocado one he got for lunch, and—everything there was good. Even the raspberry lemonade, which Jason didn’t ordinarily like, but sometimes he bought whole jugs of it from here.

 

The other reason he liked it was because it was close, and everyone had already memorized his name and greeted him kindly, which was more than could be said for the rest of the city. Gotham had something of an attitude problem. But being shut in all the time wasn’t an option, and tensions ran too high between him and his (vastly extended) family for him to live at the Manor despite all of Bruce’s urging, so on his good days he walked to the bagel shop and sat folded into the corner, people-watching. Or when people-watching got too irritating, and he felt his hands start to shake, reading. Today he’d brought a copy of Oryx and Crake he’d snagged from the Manor library, a copy he was about a third of the way through. The line was short and in no time he had a tray with a bagel and a plastic cup of lemonade and he settled into his preferred corner. On the way he nearly tripped over a woman’s outstretched foot, and turned to apologize so profusely he almost tripped again because he wasn’t looking where he was going.

 

It was odd, and curious, how life seemed to happen at him at the times he was most comfortable—the discovery of his mother not being his mother, his own death (the crack of his bones as the crowbar came down with an almighty thwack thwack thwack god please stop please stop please) , his own reform. He’d been comfortable with it, the violence, had delighted in it—it had been a whirlwind of heat and sound, of the insatiable urge to destroy. The dogs were biting at his ankles and hungry for more. The world was as green as the Joker’s hair, and the color alone was enough to send Jason into a frenzy, like a dog with a bone. He’d slit the Joker’s throat in front of Bruce’s face, taken the knife and driven it back into Bruce’s stomach, disappeared out of the window and only resurfaced to himself a week later. He’d woken up hidden behind a dumpster, a roach crawling over his boot, and he’d cried, and cried, and cried. For a year he’d tried to live on his own, stay under the radar—if he didn’t push Batman, Batman wouldn’t push back. Jason had watched Bruce pardon the man who killed his own parents, as Robin. All he needed to do was stay in line.

 

He didn’t. He spotted a man passing off drugs to middle schoolers, and that night he’d donned his hood and cut the man’s head off with a piece of barbed wire and an unending emerald rage, and then he’d dropped the ragged and bloodsoaked stump on the Batmobile’s hood. I kill the kind of person that needs to be killed, Jason had been thinking. Later he’d confessed that thought to Bruce over tea, when he’d stumbled to the Manor and did the monumental task of asking for help, and Bruce had said you do not decide who lives and who dies. He said it firm but quietly, just like he’d said it all of the hundred thousand times he had before.

 

And he was comfortable now, at his table, with his book in hand. He was getting to be comfortable with his life, again, that slow process of tearing open wounds that had healed wrong and then having them patched up properly. He was slowly rebuilding what he’d had with Bruce, before he’d died, before he’d gone off the rails, and also Alfred, and a couple times Damian even had curiously approached him following a training session. A weird kid, that one. Bruce was right. He was getting better.

 

Then Jason’s phone vibrated, and it vibrated so rarely he picked it up without even checking the caller ID. “Bruce,” he said. “It’s been like, what, two months? I’ve—”

 

“Guess again,” came a snarled voice.

 

Jason leaned back in his booth. “Uh,” he said. He remembered December—Bruce had tried to have Jason over for Christmas, and Dick had thrown a plate at his head and growled get the fuck out of my house like he’d been possessed. Jason’s brain had gone screeching back to the kid he’d been years ago, the kid who said nothing when Willis threw ceramic plates at the wall just to make him flinch. You’re never going to fucking change. Bruce shadowed from behind by yellow light as he stood in the doorway, that solemn, broken look on his face. The concrete scraping as Jason pushed up the kickstand.

 

“I’ve got just one question,” Dick said, perfectly deadly, “do you love watching just Bruce suffer, or are you a sadist in general? Honest question, my money’s on the latter.”

 

“I don’t,” Jason said. Ungrateful, Willis had called him—they’d had a flea infestation so bad Jason couldn’t sleep, and after three days he’d been so exhausted he’d just sat on the floor and bawled his eyes out. Ungrateful, Willis had called him, and he’d grabbed Jason by the hair and thrown him into the wall. His dad just got a little rough sometimes. That was all.

 

“This is your fault, you know that, right? You—” there was a break, a shuddery exhalation, and Dick said, “I’m blaming you for this. You should’ve just gone with him. Christ, Jason, why didn’t you just go?”

 

Jason’s throat went dry. He wanted to tear Dick’s face off, but he considered something—something he hadn’t considered before. “My mom died from a heroin overdose,” he said, slowly. “Did you know that?”

 

“Bruce told me.”

 

“She died in front of me,” Jason said, savagely. “Did you know that part?”

 

There was a moment of silence, then a burst of static. “No,” Dick admitted. “But it’s my turn. Bruce almost died of an oxycontin overdose in front of me. Did you know that?”

 

Jason’s face turned red and hot and got tight—liar, liar, liar, pants on fire, the fire licking at his legs in just the millennium he lay there dying, sucking air through bloody lungs. A lie. A sham. He’d been tricked, Bruce had tricked him, Bruce had made him think he cared but this was a lie, these were all lies. He would die, he would pass in a storm before him, and Jason would be left to root through the garbage, he’d be—the dogs were barking loud and they tore his heels bloody.

 

“No,” Jason choked out. “I didn’t.”

 

A liar. They were all liars, lying to him. The dogs were barking louder and they tore his heels bloodier.

 

“I’m sorry,” Dick mumbled. There was a thud and a honk, like he’d punched a steering wheel. “Fuck —fuck!”

 

"I gotta go," Jason said, quietly. His fingers more than itched—they thrummed, they thrummed like music lived in them.

 

"Don't go," Dick said, quickly. He must've heard something in Jason's voice, because he said, "Don't go, Jay, please don't do it."

 

"Do what?"

 

"Whatever it is you're thinking of. Listen, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—Jay, please—"

 

Jason turned the phone off with a click. He left his bagel and his lemonade untouched, and he dropped his book on the counter. He got up, stalked down the aisle. Then he pulled a man out of his chair and broke his fucking nose, and he didn’t fucking stop there.

 

-

 

It was Bruce that picked him up, because of course it was. He showed up in a gray turtleneck and black trenchcoat over that, even though it was March and getting too warm for it. He looked grave, and bleakly Jason wondered if he'd looked like that at Jason's own funeral, at his parents' funeral.

 

"Here he is, Mr. Wayne," the cop said, pushing Jason over to Bruce by the arm.

 

"Thank you," Bruce said, thinly. Jason imagined he’d pulled strings with Gordon. Jason wondered if the disdain in his voice was for the cop, or for him, or maybe both. When Jason stepped beside him to walk out the big, bolted doors, Jason’s brain unhooked itself. The dogs were let off their leash with a clink, and his logic, his reasoning, it seemed to pour out through his sleeves.

 

Bruce led him out of the GCPD building, to a gleaming black beauty of a car lined against the street. "You did quite a number on him," Bruce said conversationally. He would've said oh look a lamppost in the same tone of voice.

 

"Did I," Jason growled through gritted teeth.

 

Bruce stopped there on the street, and turned back to face Jason. "I should think you'd sound a little more guilty and a little less cavalier, Jay."

 

"Don't call me that. You don't get to call me that." Jason backed up a step, heart hammering. His breathing was picking up speed. A dog settling into a run. "No one gets to call me that."

 

Bruce blinked. He looked startled, as startled as Bruce could even look. "Jason," he said, sounding helpless.

 

And in that moment, Jason did something phenomenally idiotic, something so fundamentally stupid he'd only tried it once; he punched Batman. Or, he tried, but Bruce anticipated the move and caught the punch, because Jason’s reflexes were slower now that he wasn’t practicing every day.

 

"What the hell, Jason," Bruce growled. Jason wrenched his hand out of Bruce’s grip. "I need you to breathe. Remember what we've been working on."

 

Bruce was so intent on speaking that Jason worked in an uppercut, one that slammed Bruce's teeth together with a crack. There were dogs baying at his feet, and they were hungry, and they would feed. Rather, they would feast, and they would feast all night long. I kill the kind of person that needstobekilled.

 

"Jason!" Bruce spat, blood spattering Jason's face. "Stop!"

 

"You liar!" Jason shouted, jabbing a finger at him. His brain felt like metal grinding against metal, screeching together—something was wrong, something was wrong, something was wrong. "You lied to me. You're tricking me. You act like you care and then you're going to—" overdose, Jason's brain supplied. But his voice stopped just an inch before he could say it.

 

"Jay," Bruce said, urgently. "What happened?"

 

"You smell wrong," Jason blurted. Why the urge to fight was so strong, why he wanted nothing more than blood on his knuckles, to hurt—it made sense, it had to be, but what? "This is all fucking wrong. What the fuck is wrong with me, what..."

 

Bruce pulled him close, wrapping him up in strong, safe arms. "You're alright," he said.

 

"But you're not," Jason mumbled, and it was the smell, it was the smell, he could tell by the smell. The smell. Bruce went very, very still in his arms.

 

"What makes you think that," Bruce said, carefully.

 

"Don't talk to me for a while. Just... don't. Stay away. I don't want you around," Jason hissed. "I can get myself home, just go. Just go."

 

Bruce let him go. The look on his face was the look of a man who had just been murdered. Jason thought of the solemn, broken look he’d had when Jason had tore away from the Manor on his bike. Bruce leaned forward and wiped a tear off of Jason's face with a thumb, and then he backed away, sliding into his car and easing out of the parking space.

 

Jason looked down at his shaking, bloody hands, and started off towards his apartment. It was a miracle of sheer force of will that no one else was hurt on the way home. The dogs only got hungrier the more they were fed.

 

-

 

He didn't see Bruce for another four months. He didn't see anyone, actually. He was too terrified of hurting someone to go outside, so he ordered his groceries to be delivered and watched every season of New Girl before eventually starting on The Office. Bruce didn't try to contact him—Bruce took a don't talk to me very seriously, Jason could remember that much. It had been a problem, when he'd been arguing with Dick; they’d have these nightmare shouting matches where Dick would snarl, “Don’t ever speak to me again!” and then later they’d fight because Bruce had taken the words at face value.

 

They were four miserable months of pacing and working out feverishly for hours before collapsing in exhaustion, nightmares of the rev of a chainsaw as he took off the heads of four prominent drug lords, nightmares of purples and greens, nightmares of Bruce’s blood pouring hot over his hands. Those were the ones he woke up from and had to crawl on the ground to the bathroom, and sometimes he missed and vomited on the floor. Four miserable months of nearly punching every delivery boy he met just so he could feel skin-to-skin contact again, and Dick Grayson shows up on his goddamn doorstep.

 

"What the hell," Jason said, by way of greeting.

 

"You didn't appreciate the window, so I chose the door," Dick said. He raised a black bag. "I brought lemon vodka. About four bottles of it, actually."

 

Jason frowned. "What the fuck do you need four bottles of vodka. And you don’t drink. You’re too… you.”

 

"As of today, I do," Dick said, brushing past him, dragging a finger along Jason’s counter top as he passed. "Jesus, this place is clean as a whistle. That what you do all day?"

 

"Shut up," Jason snarled, following him.

 

Dick settled on the floor in front of the coffee table. He pulled a clear bottle out of his bag and thunked it on the table. "Testy, testy. C'mon, relax with me. I'm conducting an experiment."

 

With the bottle came two shot glasses—one plain, another with Miami Beach and sea turtle printed on it. "Try it," Dick said, pouring him a shot.

 

Jason picked the glass up, tilting it side to side. "I don't drink," he said, again, less sure this time. Truth be told, he was curious. This was the thing that Willis had given so much of his life up to—this was the very thing that had been more important to him than Jason had ever been, ever would be. The drinking had turned him from a man to a mere dog.

 

"Do it for the experiment."

 

"What fucking experiment," Jason huffed.

 

"The one where I see if getting drunk actually does let off steam," Dick said, and he knocked back his shot.

 

Jason watched him gag and snickered to himself.

 

"Shut up, asshole," Dick said, dropping his shot glass back on the table. "That was totally disgusting."

 

Jason threw his head back and swallowed the mouthful. It was bitter, acrid, and had only the faintest—that was what had been wrong. That had been the thing that had snapped him in half so cleanly, the thing that had made him feel fear so heavy he could taste it, the way it hung from the roof of his mouth.

 

"Jesus fucking Christ," Jason said. "Jesus fucking Christ, that was what was wrong. He smelled like vodka."

 

Dick stared at him sharply. "Who?"

 

Jason cupped his face with his hands. "My dad," he mumbled.

 

"Willis," Dick said. “Bruce said he was a real bastard.”

 

"No. And yes. Bruce, when he picked me up from jail—he smelled like vodka."

 

Dick looked thoughtful, and also like he might kill someone. It was a unique expression. "When he picked you up from jail?"

 

His voice was so cold Jason flinched. "Yeah. Yeah. But Willis. Willis, once, he got drunk off—vodka—and he—"

 

Jason dropped the shot glass to the table. "Pour me another," he said.

 

Dick did so without question. This round, he knocked their shot glasses together. To all the things we need to forget, Jason thought, as he swallowed.

 

And that was the story of how he and Dick Grayson ended up laid out on the floor together, three shots in each, staring somber at the wall like it had personally killed both of their parents—it was a mostly silent moment, until Jason said, "He... hit Catherine with a frying pan."

 

Dick whistled. "Oof. An' how'd that go?"

 

"I... had t'bandage it. The cut. Kiss it to make it better."

 

"Kiss it to make it better," Dick said, quietly. "I do that to Bruce, y’know. If I try maybe I'll just force the fuckin' sad outta him."

 

"Pretty sure he does that to me," Jason said. That solemn, broken look on Bruce’s face.

 

Dick's head lolled towards him, black curls pressed against the carpet. "He believes in you. Sometimes I don't. An' then I feel like shit."

 

Jason snorted. "I cut people's heads off with a chainsaw. I fuckin' don't, either."

 

"Now that's just sad," Dick said, and he rolled over until he was closer and could squeeze Jason's hand with his own. Jason shuddered at the contact. "Better?"

 

"All fixed."

 

"Good experimen'," Dick said. "You're bigger than Bruce. Wan'ed to see how much it would take to get you hammered. My guess s'six."

 

"Why in th'hell would you want that," Jason said. He rubbed Dick's knuckles absently with his hand.

 

"I watched 'im drink a bottle wi'hout battin' an eye at a gala two weeks ago. An' m'fuckin' terrified."

 

Jason swallowed. Maybe if he'd been sober, that would've gotten a reaction. Now he just felt numbed, like someone had depressed a plunger of novocaine into his heart.

 

"I barely know you," Jason said. "Why am I gettin' drunk with you, when I don' know you."

 

Dick laughed. It was a bitter, hateful sound. "Because we're both idiots."

 

Jason fell asleep there, on the floor, and when he woke up there was a doggy bag sitting on his coffee table.

Thought you might like a hangover remedy, was scrawled on the bag in blue sharpie. I found this nifty little bagel place down the street. You should try it sometime.

 

-

 

Believe it or not, Jason had genuinely considered other options. He’d considered the soft approach; he’d call Bruce, say something about meeting up, they’d go out to lunch. Jason would bring Bruce back to his apartment, and he’d say so you’re gonna tell me what the hell Dick is on about. And Bruce would be all okay well this is where it started and then Jason would be all okay well this it where it ends. Except Bruce would never make a thing so easy, and that conversation would likely end in punches thrown. Then he’d considered the soft approach over the phone, but then he remembered his conversation with Dick and shuddered. A conversation being over the phone didn’t make it a nice one.

So Jason considered the hard approach. He considered meeting Bruce at the Manor, dropping one of the vodka bottles Dick had left on the table with an almighty thunk and demanding drink me under the table. He’d gotten that idea f rom Dick, actually—if Jason and Bruce were roughly the same size, and if Bruce drank as much as he said he did, their tolerances should be similar. But if Dick was right and Bruce matched him shot for shot, Jason would pass out before Bruce would even begin to feel it. Maybe an experiment like that would force Bruce to recalculate—except this was Bruce, and Bruce had never been one for self-awareness. There is no can or can’t. Only will or won’t.

 

Eventually Jason threw all the hard and soft options out the window, and went with the Jason option; he snuck a grenade into the Manor, pulled the pin with his teeth, and tossed it into the wine cellar. Then he returned to his apartment, sat at his kitchen table, turned to the door, a bottle of lemon vodka held on his thigh. And waited.

 

Well after ten at night, the window behind him clicked. Jason cursed, and turned around, watching Bruce slide in through the window. Bruce had that same grave look on his face, and Jason was beginning to think he had only the two expressions—solemn-broken and grave. The thought made his heart squeeze unexpectedly.

 

“You and Dick and my goddamn window,” Jason muttered.

 

Bruce raised a brow, and then settled on the carpet, cross-legged.

 

Jason stared at him. “Are you two the same person.”

 

“He wouldn’t… appreciate the comparison,” Bruce said, slowly, hands folded placidly in his lap.

 

Jason studied him, and studied him seriously. It was the first time he’d seen Bruce in a while, and the difference seemed monumental. Practically day and night. Bruce looked tired, exhausted, really, and his eyes were bloodshot—he even seemed to Jason to be thinner. He was slouching in a way that Jason didn’t think was intentional.

 

“So,” Jason said.

 

Bruce rubbed his face with a hand. It was a fundamentally tired gesture. “Why in God’s name, Jason. Just why.”

 

Jason cracked open the bottle, and pulled the shot glass on the table over to him, filling it to the rim. He gestured Bruce over. “C’mon, have a drink.”

 

Bruce was getting angry. Jason could see that much—his hackles were lifting, his glare was sharpening. Usually, an angry Bruce was a dangerous Bruce, not physically but mentally; it reminded Jason too much of Willis at his most belligerent. But tonight, Jason was the most dangerous one in the room.

 

“Why would I,” Bruce said, words clipped. He pushed himself to a stand anyway, dropped himself heavily in the chair opposite Jason.

 

Jason slid the shot across the table. Bruce caught it, tapped it against the wood, and knocked it back like he was swallowing water. He slid the glass back.

 

“I played your game,” Bruce grunted. “Now play mine. What is happening with you, Jason?”

Jason filled the shot glass and dumped it down his throat. It burned like smoke. “Call it an experiment,” Jason sneered.

 

Bruce’s eyes were watching him with some alarm, now. “What is this.”

 

Jason filled the shot glass again and slid it across. “I said, an experiment.”

 

Bruce caught the glass but didn’t tip it into his mouth.

 

“Drink it, you fucking alcoholic,” Jason snarled.

 

Bruce flinched. Vodka sloshed out over his fingers. Bruce stared at him, dead in the eyes, and tilted his head back to swallow the shot. Then he slammed the glass on the table and gestured to Jason’s hand.

 

“What?” Jason snapped.

 

“Give me the goddamn bottle,” Bruce snarled, and Jason froze in his chair. He’d gone maybe a bit over the line. Maybe this was something he didn’t want to see.

 

“Bruce, I—”

 

“The bottle,” Bruce bellowed. Jason screwed the cap on and slid it across the table.

 

He watched in sick, sick fascination, mingling with oily horror that swirled in his gut, as Bruce poured himself three more shots and then leaned back in his chair. “Five drinks in under an hour. The definition of binge drinking. Consider your experiment over.”

It would have been cruel, if Bruce had tried to spar with Jason. It would have been cruel to dangle that violence in front of him now, when he could fall so easily prey to it, when the beasts were behind him. Maybe this was cruel in a similar way, maybe this, too, was eminently cruel in the way that was.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jason blurted. “That wasn’t…”

 

“What,” Bruce growled. “Fun to watch? Pleasant? Enjoyable? A worthwhile experiment?”

 

Useless bitch. Get off my mom, you creep! Useless bitch and her useless runt! A slap to the face. The ringing in his skin.

 

Bruce closed his eyes, took a long, deep drink from the bottle, and pushed himself out of the chair. “I… apologize,” he said, stiffly, turning back towards the window.

 

“Don’t go,” stumbled out of Jason’s mouth. “Please, don’t, you just…”

 

Bruce snorted. “Jason. This is not a lot for me.”

Jason remembered the way Bruce had been slouching. “But you were drunk when you got here.”

 

Bruce froze. Then he looked at the bottle in his hands, studied the label. He dropped it on the coffee table and sat down, hands folded, on the couch. There was a new expression, in the catalogue of Bruce expressions: shame.

 

“Uh, we can watch TV,” Jason said, awkwardly. “I’ll, uh, make dinner?”

 

At the mention of dinner Bruce gestured feverishly to the trash can sitting at the end of Jason’s island, and Jason dragged it over as fast as he could. Bruce heaved bile into it. Jason sat beside him and rubbed his back in broad circles. Bruce’s sweater was slightly damp, from the rain. Bruce only vomited a couple times, before he laid back with his eyes closed.

 

“Do you… want a blanket? I could, uh, get you one,” Jason asked.

 

Bruce didn’t open his eyes. “Where,” he said, flatly.

 

“Down the hall.”

 

Bruce pulled himself off the couch and stumbled off down the hall. A minute later, there was a loud crash, and Jason jumped over the couch and scrambled through the hallway to find Bruce on his knees, cradling a black-and-yellow knitted tarp in his arms.

 

“Oh fuck me,” Jason said. Fear crawled up his throat. “Bruce? Bruce!”

 

But Bruce didn’t answer.

Chapter Text

The insult was that by the time he found Jason’s body, it was still warm—the sun and the nearby fire had settled into the absence where Jason’s body heat should have been, warm and skin-deep with nonliving—abiotic. Sterile. Algor mortis. Bruce had rubbed Jason’s hands and arms desperately trying to work feeling into them, because Jason was alive, he just needed to be warmed up but he was fine, he was alive and he was fine and tomorrow, tomorrow, they’d be at the Manor and Jason would squeal when Bruce told him that he was going to drive them both to Washington, to the Smithsonian. Air and Space. Natural History—abiotic. He was fine. Tomorrow. Everything started to blur like one of his mother’s oil paintings, unfinished, left in the rain—he was speaking and he couldn’t hear a sound of it, but the way his lips moved was so familiar that he knew exactly what he was saying: Jay, Jay, Jay. Over and over, his tongue forever broken on that one word. And then the part of him who thought Jason would open his eyes if Bruce willed it with everything he had snapped, and Bruce sat for hours cradling Jason like a baby, their heads craned together and meeting at the hairline. He remembered kissing Jason’s nose because he never forgot the clammy feeling of it, and sometimes he looked at the lump in Jason’s nose now where it’d been broken and never properly set and had the irrational thought that his kiss of grief had done it.

 

He must’ve screamed without realizing it, because lifetimes later Alfred would point out there was blood on his lips, and Bruce’s would listen to his own voice and find it sounded like a whittled dark husk, but he didn’t remember screaming; only the cradling, the kiss to the bridge of Jason’s nose, and the rocking, because he remembered noticing a ragged tear of Jason’s uniform draw a pattern in the ash as they swayed back and forth—back and forth, back and—tomorrow Jason would wake up, he had to, he had to, he had to and would and he had to, and his heart would beat, and—

 

The world chugged onward. Somewhere, he even heard the flutter of a bird, and somewhere far more distant he was angry about it, but he was too numb to reach out and hold that anger and it fizzled out. The sun dipped down and the cold nipped at him, but the body in his arms was long limp, stiff, frozen in a cradle in Bruce’s arms. Depletion of adenosine triphosphate. Rigor mortis. Jason may have died before he could remember Bruce holding him for the last time, but at least in death Jason’s body would hold the memory. At least until the next stage of decomposition. At least was a bitter dime to be left with.

 

For the first time in several hours, he moved, propping Jason’s back up with one arm and pulling his cape off with the other. He laid Jason out on the ash, Jason’s body still curled up as if invisible arms were holding him, and Bruce liked to think that maybe those empty spaces around Jason weren’t that insidious stage of death but the mother Jason loved, cradling him in death. He felt a strange kinship to the woman who had mothered his son, a woman he didn’t know, and most certainly didn’t love—but she had brought him Jason, his miracle child, and for that, he would always thank her. Bruce took his cape and spread it out, and then he took a tactical knife from his belt and ripped slits into it. He gently pried off what remained of Jason’s cape and shredded it into strips, and then he set about weaving the bloodstained yellow into the ashy black.

 

Bruce draped the death shroud over Jason’s corpse, and he slid his arms beneath his son. Somehow the ground forced him up, because his knees didn’t give out when he stood, and somehow the wind pushed him forward because he didn’t turn back. His body started to move without his command, oiling down like a machine. He was far away, underwater. He wasn’t carrying his dead son home. Just a nameless weight. This was not his body. He was an aquarium of nameless things, and the body in his arms was not his son.

 

He made it to the jet by sundown and had to turn sideways to carry Jason inside. There was a cot, at the back of the jet, for the injured, and also now the dead; there was a mildly stocked medical kit, but the misfortune of it was that there was no running water and he’d drained the last water jug filling his and Jason’s flasks. How foolish, he thought, dimly. What if Jason had been injured.

 

Bruce pulled the cot out, and laid Jason down, pulled a jumpsuit over his costume, tucked his cowl away. Before he left, he turned the heat in the compartment as high as it would go, and marched back into the night. After the long day the solar batteries would be at a full charge.

 

The first door he knocked on didn’t appreciate the intrusion, but at the second door he was able to explain enough before nearly getting hit with a wooden ladle that a kind mother offered him a bucket of hot water she’d boiled over a fire and he marched it on the long funeral march back to the jet. It was noticeably warmer inside, inside with Jason’s unmoving corpse, settled beneath a death shroud. Bruce was hit with a sudden wonder if Catherine had kept Jason’s baby blanket, if it’d been truly lost over the years or thrown away or simply forgotten, and—but there was work to be done. Bruce set the pail down, took a rag from the drawer, and set to work.

 

First he cut off the remains of Jason’s uniform, folded it up slowly, reverently, set it aside with the shroud like he was making an offering to a king. Jason’s body was a minefield of snapped bones, and his ribs were twisted in a way that made Bruce’s own ache, but there was nothing he could do about it at the moment—nothing he could—

 

He began with the gashes on Jason’s left arm, twisting his body to follow the curve of where Jason’s muscles had locked into place. With forceps he pulled out shard after shard of glass—one piece was about six inches, lodged in deep at the shoulder. It made a weak sound when it crashed to the floor. The forceps kept clicking together because his hands were shaking, and they wouldn’t stop shaking. Bruce leaned his head against the rail of the cot and breathed in harsh pants, because if he wasn’t careful he’d throw up. Too slow. He’d been too slow. He could’ve—he didn’t—but there was work to be done, so he stopped thinking. An aquarium of nameless things. He stitched up each and every one of Jason’s wounds, bandaging the ones that didn’t require stitches, and something in the back of his head snarled do you really think a corpse needs gauze and then, again, he had to stop thinking. So he began humming, singing under his breath, because his mother used to. His mother used to when she was painting, while he helped her clean up the paint and wash the brushes, and if he focused he could almost feel the comfortable coolness of the Manor. Sweat wasn’t rolling down his shoulders. What was in front of him wasn’t his dead son. Oil painting in the rain.

 

He took the rag and swept it first over Jason’s legs and then his chest and over his arms, and then he turned Jason over and swept a rag over the black-and-blue bruising where the blood had pooled. Livor mortis, the postmortem stain. He scrubbed weeping blood from every wound and worked the ash and dirt away. He cradled rigid hands and rubbed the warm water over them, and again, he worked them to see if he could coax feeling into them, coax hidden life, as if Jason was just hidden and his fingers were just about to twitch. Any moment now, baby. Please.

 

Next was Jason’s face, and Bruce was gentle with it, like he was holding a baby bird; he started with the hair, rubbing out the dirt and oil and blood and ash and remembering the way it curled up as it dried. Jason never ran a towel through his hair. Bruce found him often enough with dripping hair, hunched over a book, because he’d been frustrated when Bruce made him take a shower —it’s just getting to the good part, B! And he’d rush back from his shower to finish. Dry your hair, Jay, you’re getting water everywhere. The indignant chirp in return: Bruce! I’m almost finished! Jason would sit with his book long after his hair was dry, and it was always a mess Bruce struggled to comb down. Hold still, Jay. Hold still. Too still. Bruce absently traced a circle into Jason’s scalp. The body was warmer now, because Bruce had raised the temperature, but there was no mistaking death when death came.

 

He tucked a rag into each corner of Jason’s eyes, running against the grain of Jason’s eyebrow and then smoothing each one back over. Light as a feather over Jason’s eyelid. He swabbed a q-tip beneath the eye and swiped off the stray cotton. Then a smooth line down the bridge of the nose, easy circles to lift off the dirt. Then cheeks dusted with barely-there freckles and blood, and he stopped at the lips because his son, his baby, would never smile again—and Jason’s smile had been so hard-earned. There was precious little Jason had to smile about for so many years, and his smiles even now-then-now were small, and genuine, and tenuous. With his hands on either of Jason’s shoulders, he dropped his head into the wet hair that would never smell of anything other than smoke and sobbed until he couldn’t breathe and if he’d tried to stand, he would’ve collapsed, and he would have stayed there until algor mortis set in for himself.

 

The real insult, the deepest lash and the salt rubbed into it, was that the world didn’t end in time with Jason; that he was expected to live minutes from now, days from now, even years from now, was an insult. Putting six feet of earth between himself and the rest of himself was an insult—it was impossible, it was nonsensical, and when they’d bury Jason he’d hide himself in the goddamn casket and choke and he’d rot there —restinfuckingpeace.

 

His mother had held him like he held Jason now, when he was little. He remembered the view from her lap, and the warmth. he could feel her chest vibrating with the tenor of her voice—his parents had been joyful people, and they sang for everyone to hear. “Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child who’s got his own,” she’d sing, and she had the brightest red lipstick. God Bless the Child. That had been the song he had been singing—the words clicked into place like a puzzle piece. Hell of a thing to be singing to his lifeless baby.

 

“Baby mine, don’t you cry,” Bruce tried again, and something in his chest cracked open, and it never closed again. Later he’d be explaining himself to Gotham police and he’d stare them in the face, hollow-faced and listlessly explaining how he couldn’t leave Jason’s body in such a state. Later he’d be tucking his poor shroud into the bottom of a casket and later they’d be lowering Jason into the ground, but just then, in the baleful heat, his chest had been open and bleeding for everyone to see. “Baby mine, dry your eyes…”

 

“Bruce! Bruce!”

 

Bruce jolted. He was on his knees. The air smelled like pumpkin candles, and the world was all a blur except for the black-and-yellow death shroud in his arms. The air smelled like—like—ash. There was ash in him, in his bones, and it would live there forever. They’ve got pills for that, his brain supplied, unhelpfully. His mouth was dry. He wanted to chew an Excedrin, he wanted—something much stronger. He couldn’t move and he couldn’t stop looking, couldn’t stop thinking, lost forever in—down to his knees in ash and not a drop of warmth to be found—

 

“You need to take it from me,” Bruce rasped.

 

It was out of his sight in an instant. Jason was kneeling beside him, and something in Bruce’s chest relaxed at that, unlatched. “What the hell was that?”

“Nothing,” Bruce said, roughly, scrubbing at his eyes with his cuff. He was not nearly drunk enough. There was not enough drink in the world, for how drunk he needed to be to forget the weight of his son’s stiff corpse in his arms.

 

“B, you were… you were singing.”

 

Baby mine, don’t you cry… baby mine, dry your eyes…

 

Bruce looked at Jason, at Jason’s open, earnest, kind face, and then he was clumsily pulling Jason into his chest, a whine rushing up from deep in his throat from the effort of swallowing back his sobbing. He was shaking and it was a full-body shake and if it was grief, or love, or thirst, Bruce couldn’t know for sure—but there was no stronger craving than to hold his son in his arms and never, ever let go.

 

“Just sleep here for the night,” Jason whispered, sounding like he had a bad cold. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

 

“Sh,” Bruce murmured, pressing his cheek to Jason’s hair. “Sh, baby.”

There was a choked sob between his arms. Bruce stroked Jason’s hair until the sobs subsided, until Jason gasped out, “I didn’t know you drank that much.”

 

And Bruce’s words dried up. He waited until Jason was asleep, extricated himself from Jason’s grasp, and shut the door quietly behind him.

 

-

 

When Dick was a kid, around eleven, he’d gotten the inkling in his brain that he wanted a treehouse, and he wanted one badly. He argued all through April, and Bruce staunchly refused, because for one thing he didn’t want to spend the time to build or design it, or to shop for one, or to have builders come onto the property, because that was a hassle he didn’t want to put his mind to. Dick had plenty of places in the Manor to wreak havoc, he didn’t need one outside as well. Dick dejectedly started giving up a week into May, and then the week after that he was his laughing daredevil self again, because there was a school field trip to the nation’s capital and he would leave bright and early Monday morning. Bruce and Alfred waved him off and Alfred made some wisecrack about empty nest syndrome, and Bruce had scoffed, because he wouldn’t have time for any of that. The Riddler was planning mayhem, the Batcomputer needed a system update, there was an upgraded Batmobile design he was drawing up, and he had actually had to go into Wayne Enterprises for a few office days.

 

But by day two Bruce had found himself lingering around Dick’s empty room instead of sleeping, instead of working, and he picked up the laundry off the floor and made the bed and organized the closet, and then ordering Dick’s drawers because Christ, that kid had a sense for chaos and something about his dresser made it increase tenfold—and then when there was nothing to do, and Dick’s room was pristine, he sat on the floor (so as not to ruin his perfect hospital corners) and read The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. The nights were quiet without Robin cackling alongside him, trilling like a bird, and his days were quiet because Dick wasn’t constantly running down the hall, or chattering at the television, or Bruce, or his homework, or Bruce.

 

Bruce snapped. He’d ordered supplies, and in a sleepless four day rush he’d built and painted a whole new treehouse (and wrestled the Riddler and fell off a giant blimp, but that was of lesser importance) for Dick to come back to. He’d been quite proud of it, for something on such short order, and as much as Alfred had needled him about sleeping it had all been worth it when Dick came home and Bruce brought him to the woods to see it. He’d thrown himself against Bruce like the little monkey he was, screeching, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” And he’d pressed a kiss to Bruce’s cheek and scampered inside it immediately. Dick loved to read there, and he loved to scamper the tree and play like any normal boy should. It warmed Bruce’s heart, when Dick would talk to him all through dinner about the half a bee’s nest and the snakeskin and the weird rock he’d found that he was keeping in a chest in his treehouse. Bruce thought for a minute, about the bee’s nest, and the snakeskin, and the weird rock, and wondered if they were all still there in that chest waiting for a boy who had grown up and grown away.

 

The thing Bruce loved most about the treehouse, outside of the joy it had given Dick, were the nights spent on the roof. It had started when Dick had kicked open Bruce’s bedroom door and started pulling Bruce out of bed with all of his tiny might, because he wanted a sleepover, and before they Dick had grabbed a checkers board. It’s not a sleepover until someone loses at checkers, B! Dick had them both sit on the roof, eating chocolates out of the bag, and Dick beat Bruce at checkers every time. After that they brought out more board games, to keep in a plastic tub in the treehouse, and they spent a lot more nights out there, beneath all phases of the moon—laughing and carrying on as if the world didn’t exist outside of their candy and their board game and the fact that Dick always won, no matter what.

 

Those nights would fade away, because Dick would outgrow his fascination with it as he outgrew being a child. So too, then, would the treehouse; its paint would flake and the wood would rot and vines would grow over it. Dick would leave, and after Dick left Bruce would sneak away sometimes on those sleepless nights and he’d go down to the treehouse and he’d clip away the vines and he’d sweep the inside and he’d keep the paint primed and fresh. His body still seemed to expect Dick to wake him up to spend all night in the trees, because he couldn’t fall asleep and he couldn’t think of anything except the hole in his chest Dick had walked through when he’d left. Maybe if he kept everything ready, Dick would come back, and they could play checkers under the stars. You lose again, B!

 

The roof of that treehouse was where Bruce found himself now, and if he were honest with himself he should have known he would end up here, because he so often did. There were several points his life seemed to converge around, and this place was one of them. There were some nights he spent obsessively combing over the structure for any flaw, even infinitesimal, and other nights he had spent all his strength on the climb and could only curl up on the roof, hoping.

 

It was night now, a dark, black night with no moon to speak of—his ideal night, beneath the cowl, but now he wished he had the frost of moonlight to see by, because he wanted to stare ahead and imagine a ghost of his boy in front of him, cheering because he beat Bruce at a game of checkers. B, you really mucked it up that time, he’d jeer, and then Bruce would smile, and say, apparently. But I bet you can’t beat me at chess. And then, you’re on, Bruce! Don’t go cryin’ to Alfie when you lose!

 

There had been difficult times, in Dick’s years as Robin—there had been days where Bruce could hardly move under it, but Dick would settle in beside him on the bed and sleep or he’d grab a book off Bruce’s shelf and read it loudly. He’d mimic the voices, too, so Bruce had started keeping novels on his shelf that would be fun for Dick to act out—one day, when he was sixteen, Dick had grabbed a sword from one of the suits of armor and had danced along Bruce’s footboard in a dramatic and inaccurate reenactment of The Three Musketeers. There had been difficult times. But things were different now and things were getting darker all the time; there were new better days, soft and precious, but the days knotted between them were less thunderstorm now and more brimstone. There were starving wolves snapping at his ankles. His whole life, he had been outrunning them, every hour,  but sometimes he just wanted to lie down and let them eat. I didn’t know you drank this much.

 

There was a thud, down below him, and Bruce stiffened because it could be any number of things, an animal or an assassin, and then there was a quiet, “Dammit.”

 

If Bruce was stiff before he was like stone now, because he knew that voice. His mind wrestled with a decision but his hand made it for him—he reached out and knocked on the wood three times, sharply.

 

“Oh,” Dick said. “Um, uh—didn’t know anyone was, y’know this is kind of mine, actually—”

 

“I built it,” Bruce rasped. “I have occupation rights.” The sobbing and ash had long since subsided but that gravel had come into his voice.

 

There was silence, and then some shuffling, and then Dick was trying to wriggle out through one of the windows.

 

“Why’d you make these so small,” Dick whined. He jerked around, pulling his white t-shirt through and then twisting around so he could grab the edge of the roof.

 

“I made them small,” Bruce said, but he stopped here in the middle because his throat wheezed and and sputtered and refused to make sound for a full minute, “because you were small.”

 

“I wasn’t this small!” Dick yelped. He finally pulled his hips through, and swung himself over the roof’s edge with perhaps more flair than necessary, to make up for his graceless floundering with the window. If there was anything Dick hated, it was moving with a lack of grace.

 

For the first time in weeks Bruce felt a spark in him of anything, here now a spark of amusement, watching Dick slide on the roof like a panther out of embarrassment, and that spark of amusement was bubbling up his throat, and he was laughing. Laughing like he hadn’t in years, loud and from the belly.

 

Dick was staring at him with something Bruce couldn’t name, but he blinked, and shook himself from it. He pulled himself up to sit by Bruce, limbs splayed out, where Bruce had locked his arms over his knees and leaned his chin against them.

 

Bruce’s laugh eased into a chuckle, deep and warm. “You’re still small, Dick.”

 

The look was back again, and Bruce finally gave it a name—wonder. But again it disappeared because Dick’s face was split with a grin. “We can’t all be you! Some of us have to come in fun size.”

 

“There are still board games out here,” Dick said, rambling now. He rambled, when he didn’t know what to say, and Bruce had always found it ironic that he covered a dry well of words with as many words as he could. “Funny, too, y’know—I thought this place would be overgrown, but it’s clean as a whistle. Kind of amazing.”

 

“I do it,” Bruce said, quietly. Nearly inaudible.

 

“Oh,” Dick said, because he didn’t seem to have much of a response. It was hard to surprise Dick, because Dick was always ahead of the game, always surprising even Bruce, but Dick was leaning back on his palms now and staring down at the wood beneath him like it had transformed in front of him.

 

Bruce’s chest rattled with the effort to speak. He’d thought it’d get easier, the more he spoke, but it was only getting harder. “The board games. Those nights.”

 

Dick’s voice was wistful. “Yeah, they were pretty good, weren’t they. If I remember right I kicked your ass a lot, old man.”

“They were some of the best nights of my life,” Bruce said, softly. He felt Dick’s eyes on him, but Bruce kept his eyes on the blackness—he could almost see the outline of Dick’s shoulders, the red Superman cape he’d wear to sleep. Rest your head close to my heart, never to part.

 

Dick’s hand tugged at his arm. He’d done that all his life, that quiet, insistent tugging at Bruce’s arm because even when Bruce was busy there was some part of him Dick wanted to himself—it was something kids needed. Bruce had learned to do a lot one-handed, because Dick would tug on his arm and play with Bruce’s fingers, press his palm against Bruce’s and compare their size. Dick had been so little, for so long, and Bruce would be lying if he said he never missed it.

 

Dick toyed with Bruce’s hand, leaning his shoulder against Bruce’s. “What do you mean ‘were,’ Bruce,” he murmured.

 

Bruce was silent. It had slipped out.

 

“I used to count them,” Dick said, squeezing Bruce’s knuckles. “The times I made you laugh, like that. How many times I could do it in a day—the record’s five, and it was at the fair, that time, when we were in disguise and I made you carry me on your shoulders because I couldn’t see for shit. And I kept yelling, ‘onward, steed!’ and it killed you every time. That was one of the best nights of my life.”

 

Bruce’s collarbone started prickling. He felt bare, like someone had peeled back all the layers of flesh and cracked open his sternum, and now his heart was open to the cold, sweet night air. Dick flicked him on the ear.

 

“Don’t shut up on me now, man. You said emotion words. We’re having emotion chat now. I have you in my clutches and you’re not escaping.”

 

Bruce snorted. Dick responded with a low, gentle laugh, and, “I love you. I do. I always have, and—you were there for me, when I had no one else in the world. I always knew, even when we hadn’t talked for months, that if I called and asked you’d come running. If I needed you—if I really did—you’d table everything. And if you’d ever called, I would have, too. Christ, Bruce, I would’ve been there as soon as you could say it—you were the best thing that ever happened to me, and you led to all the other best things that happened to me, and—”

 

Dick stopped, and took a shuddering breath. “Those were some of the best nights of my life, too.”

 

Say it, Bruce snarled to himself. At this point, in this raw, small moment, if he couldn’t give voice to those words, he was something soulless and mechanical after all. Maybe even if he did say it, it wouldn’t be enough to save him from being cold, and empty—he had far too much of a debt to ever be something truly alive.

 

He croaked out the, “I—love you,” anyway.

 

“I know. I know you’re just—extremely bad with words, in every possible way. Spectacularly bad with words. But you do things, all the time. Like the thing we’re sitting on. But I’m pissed. I’m really pissed with you, all the time. Out of my mind, pissed, sometimes—and I don’t tell you about it, because maybe if I wait long enough it’s gonna snap and change.”

 

Bruce ducked his head beneath his arm, hairline pressed to the hard muscle there. Dick curled up his index finger, massaged the meat of his thumb.

 

Dick exhaled. His breathing was still shaky, and Bruce wasn’t sure if he was prepared to see his oldest cry without jumping off the treehouse and escaping.

 

“I know you love us,” Dick began, “I know you do, all of us, and everyone in that fucking house loves you, too—I know we make you happy, and that you have good days with us. But—you’ve seen things, alright, and you keep walking straight into shit that’s even worse and you don’t—Jesus Christ, we have to wake you up with a broom—a fucking broom. We’re all light sleepers, sure, but at least we can relax! You don’t, ever! You used to—you could put Batman away.”

 

Bruce belatedly realized at some point in Dick’s speech he’d turned to stare at him despite the fact that his brain had gone blank like television static.

 

Dick scrubbed his face. “And you don’t care. You don’t care at all. You just keep marching forward like a brick wall, like you can take it, and you can. You can do fucking anything, you’re a stubborn fucking bastard, but—dammit, year after year I watch you—you just get more tired. You live because you love us, and you love this city. And you love people, and you want the best for them. But you fight like you’re gonna die in that cowl the second you feel like no one needs you anymore, you don’t care, you just—”

 

Dick broke off, and he let out a quiet, stabbing gasp. “I still count the laughs, you know,” he said. “And I haven’t heard you laugh like that for four years. Four years. And that fucking terrifies me.”

 

Bruce’s heart jerked. “I’m... sorry,” he said, and he balked at the words even as he said them, “it—it can’t be… fixed.”

 

“You—” Dick cut himself off, and sighed. “You are really a dumbass sometimes. You—you really are. You’re, I don’t—Bruce. People aren’t machines. You don’t fix them. You… heal. And no matter how much you drink it’s not going to heal you. You had a hard time, coming off the painkillers, after Bane. I know. And I know when you made that bust you fell off the proverbial wagon. But the drinking’s not gonna heal you.”

 

Bruce snorted again, like a bull, angry and sharp. He thought about snarling some weak defense, some something, but all he could think of was I didn’t know you drank this much.

 

“Just—God,” Dick said, and his voice was utterly devastated in a way that set Bruce on edge. “I—I don’t want to see you suffer anymore. I, I—I can’t fucking watch it. Please, I know you don’t give a shit about you, but—for us. We want to see you better.”

 

Bruce sighed, and he took his arm back and pulled Dick against him, and Dick’s head pressed over his heart. And the words dried up.

 

“Promise me,” Dick said, catching his eye with a steel gaze.

 

I didn’t know you drank this much.

 

“I’ll stop,” Bruce rasped.

 

Dick’s arms wrapped around Bruce’s middle. “Thank you, Bruce.”

 

Never to part, baby of mine…

Chapter Text

Jason slammed the phone down so hard it nearly cracked against the counter. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to walk away, to turn to his cabinets and pull down a cup and fill it with water, and then chugged all of it in a single go. He slammed the cup down and gasped for air and tried not to let his mind race. There were a number of horrific scenarios, filtering through the cobwebs there; Bruce slumped in an alley, bleeding, Bruce in a car accident, bleeding, Bruce dead and gone and—

 

Jason’s head pounded like a jackhammer had been taken to it. His face felt puffy and swollen, and he was sure, should he look in the mirror, that he would see the face of a man who had spent several hours the night before sobbing for his life in his—well—father's arms. It seemed a bit petty, to not say the word, at this point. And his heart felt worn and wrung out, like an old towel. He hurt in ways he'd never understood he could hurt before; he hurt for the man who’d raised him, he hurt because of the man who raised him, and all along creeping beneath there was a scary thirst for oblivion, for a blank, empty mind.

 

After he finished the water, he dialed the phone again. All he got was Dick's voicemail: "You've got—"

 

"Fuck you!" Jason roared, and he brought the phone down hard against his granite countertop. It shattered in his hand. Jason stared at the broken wreckage and thought, I'm a colossal fucking idiot.

 

That was how Jason ended up needing to get a new phone, which took about three hours, which was two longer than it needed to. The line was through the door due to some sale or another, and then when Jason hadn’t known what generation of phone they were on the clerk had flipped and insisted he explain each and every one in great detail. Jason had nearly broken his nose at four separate moments.

 

When he got back, his kitchen table was occupied.

 

Jason swallowed, looking between Bruce and Dick, and he shut the door behind him with his boot. "I, uh," Jason began. "I had to get a new phone."

 

Bruce nodded to the shattered remains Jason had left on the counter. "I… assumed."

 

"Sorry," Dick chirped. He didn't explain further but there were innumerable depths in that word.

 

Bruce was still wearing his clothes from yesterday—his sweater and slacks combination, the style he’d never deviated from even before Jason had died. Dick was wearing a simple hoodie and a pair of jeans. Both of them were rumpled and dewy, with papery, exhausted faces. Jason had no doubt they’d slept in those clothes the night before.

 

"We had a talk," Dick said, gesturing to Bruce. "Me an' him."

 

"No one's nose looks broken," Jason said, pulling a chair out and sliding in it. "You could've called me back before I... er."

 

Dick chuckled. "Blame him. He chucked both our phones out the window."

 

"Too early," Bruce grunted.

 

Jason shook his head. "Yeah, that sounds 'bout right. Sorry for... being."

 

"Worried?" Dick supplied, and there was an odd, urging look on his face. He seemed to be trying to communicate to Jason through the power of his eyes alone.

 

Jason folded his hands on the table, feeling all of twelve. "Yeah. Uh, yeah. So."

 

There was a thunk. Jason immediately knew Dick had kicked Bruce under the table.

 

"I’m… quitting. I… owe you both an apology," Bruce said. "For what I have put you through."

 

Jason scrubbed the back of his neck, thinking, aw, hell. "Well, you can skip it, because you're forgiven—Bruce, what the hell, I'm not… mad at you. Christ, I'm—worried."

 

Scared of you, Jason's brain supplied. Scared for you. A whole lot of fucking scared I don’t even have words for.

 

Bruce stared at him, silent, unreadable. "It was an unforgivable failure of me as a father to put you, and your siblings, through that."

 

"I did damage control," Dick said, and now he was drumming his fingers on the table. "Trust me, they know something was up but they don't know what."

 

Bruce jerked, at that, like he’d been slapped. "Just listen to me," Bruce snarled.

 

Jason flinched. No one missed it. Bruce looked for a moment like someone had sliced his gut into ribbons, and he pulled himself out of his chair, heading for the door. "I am... leaving today," he said, sharply. "I am going to—a place. To be less... what I am."

 

Jason snorted. "That was fucking cryptic.” And then he got up, disappeared into his bathroom closet and pulled down the duffle bag from the top shelf. “Dick, I have extra toothpaste and shit,” he shouted. “Do you want me to pack it or do you want yours from Bludhaven?”

 

“I’ll make him drive by Bludhaven.”

 

Jason dumped a bunch of shirts and pants and boxers into his duffle and returned into the kitchen with a blanket and a pillow tucked under his arm.

 

Bruce stared at them both and said, “What in God’s name.”

 

"We can swing by Bludhaven," Dick said. "It'll be a roadtrip."

 

Bruce’s face was tight, walled-off, but it was the expression Jason had seen last night—the one when he’d been holding the blanket, the one that Talia had found Jason with. Jason’s stomach flipped and he stepped forward before he knew what he was doing. He grabbed both of Bruce’s hands, brushing a thumb over the scarred knuckles. Then he craned his head forward and laid it on Bruce’s chest, breathing with him, and said, “You told me what your doorstep’s for. Maybe I do all that fucking tai chi because I want the same thing for mine.”

 

A cheek pressed into Jason’s hair. “Okay,” came the whispered breath. “Okay.”

 

“If we’re doing a roadtrip I call front seat,” Dick called.

 

Jason pulled away from Bruce and sneered at him. “Not on your fifty dollar hair gel, snoozer.”

 

“It’s actually sixty dollars, excuse you.”

 

“That doesn’t make it better.”

 

Dick tossed his head like an affronted horse. “Shut the hell up, polar bear jammies.”

 

Bruce coughed slightly. “I got those for him.”

 

“Oh, you nerd,” Dick said, grinning.

 

And Jason grinned back. Maybe a moment of lightness didn’t fix the knife that he’d driven into Bruce’s gut, the knife that Dick would always see when he looked at Jason—and it didn’t fix the gray at Bruce’s temples, the lines on his face. But it was a damn good moment.