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As he slowly, desperately claws himself back to consciousness, Bruce instantly knows this ride is going to be one of utter horror and unspeakable dread.

He knows by the smell, the only one of his senses that remains somewhat focused, that he’s still in the cave. His mouth and esophagus feel so dry it actually hurts. His limbs weight tons. Despite that, he still tries as much as he can to move them, only to end up to the vague realization that they’re restrained in heavy chains.

Old fashioned, but always effective.

The battle he’s giving, first to lift his eyelids, and then to blink the haze away, is, at the time, one of the hardest he’s been through. The blasting pain at the back of his skull, compliments of the blow he’d received, makes it even worse.

He eventually manages to clear his vision, only to realize that he’s actually right. He is currently still in the cave, seated with his back against the wall behind him. Chained over it. His mask, cape, gloves, belt and boots removed.

He draws one breath inside, but before he can go for a second, wild, aggressive noises abruptly register to him; the system, signifying someone’s entrance. Strong, decisive footsteps approaching. Metallic sounds. Violent thrusting. Loud, muffled grunts of protest. Rapid, heavy breathing.

Soon enough, the man that calls himself his brother enters his field of vision, carrying a wildly squirming figure over his shoulder. A figure Bruce finds he knows only too well.

“No,” he immediately rasps, voice rough and raw, like he hasn’t used it in a long, long time. “No..."

Thomas dumps Jason on the floor, uncaring to the angry, pained snarl he receives from the younger man. Jason instantly shifts and rises to his knees, wincing at some kind of pain the move obviously causes. Even so, he still glares at his kidnapper. Bruce, despite still being too damn dizzy, immediately gets his eyes to frantically scan him for any visible signs of injury. There’s are nasty, long cuts on his left arm, and his jaw is evidently bruised, but he can’t detect anything else. Jason’s stripped of all parts of armor, and his guns. His wrists and elbows are tightly zip-tied behind his back, in a way that must be causing him actual pain. More zip-ties secure his ankles and knees. There’s a cloth stuffed in his mouth, gagging him, and another piece of fabric (apparently ripped from Jason’s own jacket, as he can tell) tied over it, keeping it inside.

Despite Jason's current state, Bruce can’t remember when was the last time he’d seen such fury and defiance in his gaze. He feels kind of proud, and his satisfaction only grows at the sight of the now dry river of blood that had clearly gushed through Owlman’s nose, staining the lower half of his face and the upper part of his suit, and the obvious anger writen on his features.

None of his kids ever went down easy.

The look on Jason’s face changes as soon as he crosses eyes with him. He stops moving, going completely still for a few moments, as if to process the image of him being this defeated, and from there, all that’s printed to his expression is confusion and shock -maybe even some fear, which was nowhere to be found before.

“Don’t," Bruce manages to gasp, watching Thomas reaching out a hand and grasping Jason’s jaw, pulling him close.

Jason flinches violently, trying to jerk away, but the man seems to have firm hold of him. He forces his face to turn upwards, his eyes to look at him. “I’m taking this out,” he growls down at Jason, tapping one finger over the cloth covering his mouth. “Try anything, rat, and I’m going to muzzle you like the animal you’re trying to be.”

Jason’s eyes narrow, his cheeks painting slightly pink at the threat, but thankfully, he does stay still while both cloths are removed. Wets his lips once they’re gone. Inhales deeply before, quite unexpectedly, straightening his back. “Fuck you!” he barks at their captor, and then his gaze turns to Bruce. “Bruce. Bruce, are you…”

“Don’t worry, Jason,” he murmurs, looking not at the boy, but right at his -not-brother. “He has nothing to do with this. I sent him away some time ago. He is of no use to you. There’s no reason for him to be here."

“Yeah, and neither for you,” Jason growls, also talking to Thomas.

Owlman hums, rubbing at his jaw, before that very same hand descends over Jason’s hair, carding fingers through those black strands. When Jason instantly tries to pull away, he tugs harshly, holding him back.

“Jason,” Bruce hurries to interfere, hoping that Jason can read the affectionate note behind his steady, commanding tone. Hoping that, at least in such severe occasion, he can be as reasonable as to recognize that he’ll only get himself hurt if he doesn’t comply. “Don’t fight.”

Jason huffs out, almost shaking in anger, but then, to Bruce’s relief, goes limp under his brother’s hand.

“That’s it, boy. Excellent,” Thomas smirks. “What a good, obedient dog you’ve trained, little brother. Answering only to his master’s voice…”

“Screw you, you fucking—”

Thomas backhands him in the face, quick as a lighting, throwing him on the ground. The small sound escaping Jason is more surprise than pain, but still, there is pain in there.

“Enough!” Bruce roars, stunned that he can still raise his voice that high, even if he feels like his throat is being torn apart.

As if he hasn’t heard him, Thomas simply shrugs, crouching beside Jason’s form. “Could have worked more on his manners, though,” he observes, retracting a knife from his belt.

“Don’t--!”

The rapid beating of his heart eases down a little, once he realizes all he’s doing is cutting off the restraints around Jason’s ankles and knees. Thomas then brings his hand at the back of his boy’s neck and, apparently, judging to the sudden hitch on Jason’s breathing, squeezes uncomfortably hard. Bruce can’t see either of their faces from his angle, which only intensifies his worries, as Thomas now speaks down to Jason in such a low rumble that he can’t make out a word he’s saying.

A moment of silence, before Owlman gets up, hauling Jason on his feet as well, and starts striding the few feet separating them from the closest chair, using his grip at Jason’s scruff to drag him along with him. Once he’s seated, he’s swiftly pulling Jason into his lap, with such speed that it leaves the boy no time to react. Odd thing is that, as much as his cheeks are painted red in shame, and as much as he’s trembling with rage… this time, Jason doesn’t try to fight it.

Clearly, whatever Thomas told him, had been effective.

“Good,” Thomas says sternly, idly raising a hand back to Jason’s hair in a possessive manner. “Stay still now. And hold your tongue to yourself.”

A wild desperation along with an even wilder fear claim him. The chains feel like they’re growing tighter around his limbs at the dreadful thought that there is nothing he can do to prevent anything Thomas -or, even worse, Bane- has in store for Jason.

“Why?” Bruce sharply interferes, through gritted teeth. Fearing that he doesn’t want to hear the answer. “What do you want with him?”

Thomas scrapes his nails along Jason’s scalp. “I needed one of those so called ‘sons’ of yours. Grayson doesn’t serve the purpose in his current state, and Drake… he is far too smart. Your world will need someone of sorts. This,” he lightly tugs at Jason’s hair, “is the expendable one, after all. Always has been. Right?”

Bruce tries not to let himself get devastated over the flash of pain that momentarily crosses Jason’s eyes. It may be quick, but he doesn’t miss it.

Not now. Focus. Not now.

“What purpose?” he growls.

The way Thomas looks at him is annoyingly unreadable, but he prefers that to the faint smile that follows. It is by no means an evil or dangerous smile, but merely a truthful one, and this is what scares him the most.

“He will be the one to set you free,” he says softly. “Once and for all.”

The confusion he sees sprawling over Jason’s expression perfectly mirrors Bruce’s own.

“Us three,” Thomas continues, “will be taking a little trip together—"

“Jason,” Bruce raises his voice, cutting him off, “is not going anywhere with you.”

He lifts an eyebrow. “You want me to leave him here, then? With Bane?”

“I want you to let him go.”

Thomas sighs. He releases his grip on Jason’s hair and, very slowly, slides his hand at the frond, cupping first his jaw and then his throat, in a thankfully loose grip, holding him pinned up against him, back to his chest and head back against one of his shoulders. Bruce jerks uselessly, the chains holding him prisoner rattling.

No. He isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

“You will understand, in time,” he tells him. “There is no other way.”

“No other way than you kidnapping and threatening my family?”

The red eyes seem to glow darker. Thomas, very abruptly, yanks Jason off of his lap up and releases him, shoving him down on the floor. He stands in front of him within a second. Above him. Tall and intimidating and powerful. “He is not your family,” he spells out, dangerously. “I am your family.”

Bruce laughs. Jason, still on the floor, squirming in his bonds, picks up his eyes, shocked at the sound.

“Why, thank you, then,” he weakly raises his arms, showcasing the chains holding them down. “Thank you for everything. Family.”

Thomas snorts. He reaches out one hand, placing it with care over his hair, quite affectionately. Much unlike he’d done earlier, with Jason. “You’ll understand,” he says again. “Everything I’m doing, I’m doing it for our family.”

“Where is Alfred, you bastard?” Jason shouts from his current spot.

A cold chill runs down Bruce’s spine at the realization. From the very second he’d opened his eyes up until now, he wasn’t given a single moment to think about it.

“I would never harm Alfred Pennyworth,” he retorts, not paying a single glance at Jason. “He is alive and well.”

Bruce bitterly thinks about the state he’d found Alfred into once he’d returned to the Cave that wretched night. He doesn’t speak it out loud, though -no need to put on further worries over Jason. After all, for some reason, he trusts the man’s claim, regarding this particular matter.

Thomas turns his back on him and shoves a hand into one of his pockets. Bruce fixes his gaze at Jason, whose eyes follow every single one of their kidnapper’s moves cautiously, and tries to figure out something, anything, through his reactions. He knows that nothing good comes along once he sees his eyes widen, his body moving like he wants to put on more distance between them.

“Don’t you dare hurt—”

Thomas spins around within an instant, so fast that his still dizzy mind doesn’t get the necessary space to process it.

“Bruce!” Jason cries out, but it’s too late.

Yes. Too late. But, in any case, it’s not that Bruce could have done anything about it. He feels the pierce of a needle sinking into his neck, right over the collar of his suit. Whatever this is, he doesn’t know, but the world around him turns blurry within seconds. Numbness spreads over his limbs, his face, his eyelids, and…

“… fucker!” he hears Jason’s voice from somewhere far, far away, partly furious and partly panicked. “Bruce! Bruce!”

Before he sinks even further, his head hangs over his chest, and he can only see Thomas’ boots as they move away, heading with heavy footsteps towards Jason.

“No,” escapes his lips, while he’s still stubbornly trying to regain control of his body. “Jason… not… let him… leave him…"

Bruce isn’t sure the words are coming out at all, or if the sound is anything comprehensible.

He sinks into the darkness.

 

 


 

 

 

He’s burning. That’s what it feels like. Burning. Like he’s been dipped into a river of freshly erupted lava.

He has a sense of moving.

Such heat…

He blinks his eyes open. Everything is insufferably bright, to the point that it hurts. The sun is harsh above, unforgiving. Bruce’s head faces the ground.

The ground… Sand.

His senses start clearing up a bit. He’s bent in half, strapped over the back of a horse. His hands tied up with rope. The saddle in front of him occupied by none other than Owlman.

There’s a shuffling sound from behind, something apparently big and heavy continuously scrapping along the sand. He turns his head, and sees a coffin.

A… coffin?

His heart sinks, terror washing all over him.

Jason

“… Bruce?”

He jerks at the sound of that voice (feels as if they’re underwater), desperately trying to raise his gaze as much as he can, look towards it.

Jason walks at the left and slightly behind the horse, dragging his footsteps with huge effort, it seems -the only one being on foot. The new spark in his eyes once their gazes cross almost prevails over his exhaustion. Sweat bathes his hair, glistering over his face and neck. His wrists are tied with one of Bruce’s own ropes in front of him. A long tether connected to the restraints runs from there to the reins of the horse. Despite all that, once he sees he’s awake, he briefly speeds up, as much as he can, to catch up.

“Bruce,” he says once he’s beside him, voice light and soft. “Can you talk to me?”

He actually can’t, despite how much he wants it. His mouth weakly opens, then falls closed once again. He feels he might pass out.

Thomas pays a look at them over his shoulder. Jason returns the glance, murder in his eyes. Bruce doesn’t bother. Thomas shakes his head with a scoffing sound, before he turns once more to gaze at the golden horizon sprawling in front of them.

His eyes are only for Jason. Only now that he’s closer, the strange shadows gone, Bruce realizes that half his face -the right side of it- is bruised.

“Hang in there, Bruce. Please, hang in there.”

It’s the last thing he actually hears.

 

 


 

 

 

It’s close to sunset when he comes to once again.

Everything is lighter now. Cooler. Darker. They’re not moving anymore. He feels he’s lying down at the sand.

Water, delightfully cold, touches his torturously dry lips.

“Come on,” he hears Jason’s voice, encouraging and gentle, yet painted in agony. “Come on, big guy. Just one sip. I know you can do this. Just one…”

He still hasn’t opened his eyes, but he finds the strength to do as he’s asked. He swallows the water, one big sip, then another, then a third. It tastes like nectar of the gods.

“That’s good, so good. Slowly. Just one more…”

He does take up until the fifth one, but then grunts. The remaining water runs in small streams down his jaw, at the sides of his neck. He manages to summon the will and pop his eyes open. Jason’s face stands above him, still bruised, but with still bright, brave eyes, unyielding gaze. He uses a wet cloth to wipe away the rogue streams, then pat it over Bruce’s evidently burning face, to end up placing it over his forehead. He has a difficulty doing it, since his hands are also still tied in front of him, but he manages pretty well, considering this discomfort.

It’s a pleasant, relieving sense. Jason seems to notice how his features pacify, and manages to offer a faint smile.

Bruce wants to hold him. Tell him that it’ll be okay. That he’ll get him out of this. But his hands are tired, and tied, and he can’t say that, because he knows it’s not true, and right now… right now, he can’t remember how to lie.

He slightly moves his head, looking for the one he absolutely doesn’t want there, hoping that somehow, he’d been gone. Which, of course, isn’t the case. He’s right there, about twenty feet away, securing the horse over a rock.

“Where?” he rasps, eyes on Jason once more.

“Desert. Don’t know which one,” he frowns.

Bruce thinks he himself might know, but isn’t entirely sure yet.

“Bruce, can’t you take one more?” Jason insists once again, bringing one hand behind his neck, to slightly support his head. “Come on, I know you can.”

Once he leans down to feed him some more water, Bruce brushes his lips against his forehead. Jason’s cheeks blush immediately, expression turning boyishly baffled. For the first time in years, at that very moment, he looks like the little boy he once was. Not like the hurtful, bitter vigilante who, because of Bruce’s own incompetence, grew up so much faster than he was supposed to.

He just sees his kid.

He brings up one hand, softly brushing his knuckles over the bruised side of his face. “So sorry, Jay.” His voice is barely there. No more than a rough wheeze.

He’s not sure what he’s apologizing for. For many things, actually. For letting Jason get hurt. For not being able to protect him. For having brought him into whatever this is. For his own incapability to get him out. For having allowed this stranger, this pathetic maniac he’d let himself turn into over those past few months roam free over the world. Over all of them.

For hurting Jason, himself.

For everything. Everything.

Jason swallows. “This isn’t your fault,” he says firmly.

Bruce takes more water with huge effort, just for Jason’s sake. Jason, who now looks lost, like he doesn’t know how to process this, what else to say. “Why don’t you close your eyes, huh? Get some rest.”

He’d do that either way, since he already feels exhausted at the small movements he’s managed.

He lets his eyelids fall, last thing he sees being his son’s face.

 

 


 

 

 

It must be hours later when he comes back into the world. It’s late night, but the sky isn’t pitch-black. Not like Gotham’s sky. The stars, the moon, the fire that burns close to where he’s laid, allow his eyes to adapt, and, in his haze and dizziness, he’s able to make out two figures, far away from his spot, almost consumed by darkness.

“S—stop—”

He can see the struggle. He can hear it.

“No!”

He’s vaguely aware of rough thrusting, sounds off physical fight. Like the sound of fabric getting ripped.

“No!”

He sees the person at the bottom managing to kick. There’s a rough grunt of pain. “Goddamn brat!” comes the furious growl right after.

The sound of the slap that follows, dry and raw, breaks through the peace of the night. Things quiet down for a few seconds. There are sounds of zippers. More whispers of fabrics getting ripped or removed.

This is another dream. It’s most definitely a dream. A nightmare. This can’t be real…

More struggles, weaker this time. He can’t tell one body from the other.

A strangled, desperate ‘please’.

Bruce tries to pick himself up. Roll over, at the very least.

“Please, don’t—” comes another broken plea, and this is impossible, this is just wrong, because Jason doesn’t do that, Jason never pleads…

Jason’s voice gets choked in a line of muffled moans, in sloppy, wet sounds. Once this stops as well, a few moments later, someone’s gasping for air, and he just knows it’s Jason.

“Still now, boy.”

The struggling becomes instantly frantic. “N—no, no, n—"

And then, Jason out right screams in pain.

Bruce jerks violently, agony giving him the strength to finally roll over. His vision darkens, as he tries to crawl. He doesn’t get further than maybe a few inches.

Jason’s sharp, consecutive cries of pain end up turning into loud, desperate sobs, mixed along with those vicious, animalistic grunts.

This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening, because Jason, his boy, doesn’t cry. He’s only witnessed that three times in his life. Those pained, defeated sobs of agony, cannot be Jason’s.

A groan. A growl.

Bruce blacks out.

Chapter Text

 

 

***

 

 

“Sir? You need to see something.”

He follows Alfred down the hall, and everything seems… darker. Much darker than they should have been, considering there’s still daylight outside (he can’t see it, but he just knows it).

Every object, every form around him looks like floating liquid… just like his mind feels. He’s dizzy beyond words, but he can’t let Alfred know. He doesn’t want to worry him. And so, he simply stumbles behind him, at the corridor, down the stairs, to the hall…

“Look at this.”

Titus -at least three times bigger than Bruce ever remembered him- lies there, right in front of the door, in a state of advanced decay, flies and all kinds of vermin all over the enormous, disgusting carcass.

Bruce approaches, leaving Alfred a few feet behind.

“Poor, poor thing,” the butler then sighs. “Master Damian will be very upset when he finds out. You should talk to him.”

Bruce is fairly and justifiably shocked at Alfred’s complete and total lack of surprise at the morbid view. He’s so confused, and yet, the concern for Damian’s feelings surpasses the shock of the inexplicable sight.

“I will…” he starts saying, but as soon as he turns…

Alfred is gone. No sign of him. Nothing suggesting that he had ever actually been there.

An irrational fear claims him, and he knows, he just knows there’s someone out there, right outside the house, right behind the door. Someone, an enemy, just waiting… lurking.

He shouts for Alfred, but no answer comes.

The house is now filled with shadows. They’re creeping through every single corner, and he has no idea which one of those shadows are actually people, ready to attack, because… because, yes, some of them certainly are exactly that…

Damian. Where is Damian? His little boy. What if he’s in danger? He has to help him, to protect him, to make up a plan with him, to tell him about Titus… God, he’ll be crushed over that.

Is he down in the Cave? He has to be down in the Cave.

He makes his way to his study room as fast as he can, constantly looking over his shoulder, driven by the eerie, spine-chilling noises coming to his ears from downstairs, and… and one of those noises is most definitely Selina’s laughter, that sneaky giggle, only… somewhat different now. More vulgar, and sick, something he’s never heard before, something that reminds him of the Joker, and he wants to throw up.

“Bruce…”

He paces up. No. He won’t fall for that. No. Not even if it’s really her.

Damian, his little boy. He has to get to him, make sure he’s fine, try and tell him about Titus…

He makes it to his study room. Goes straight to the clock…

“Bruce?”

He spins around.

Dick. Dick is at the door, and his head is opened. Half his brain is gone. Shot out.

“Hey, B,” he grins at him.

“My God, Dick…” he rushes towards him. “Stay still, stay perfectly still, we’re going to get some help, we need to call an ambulance…”

Dick looks confused. “Help?” he laughs. “What for?”

It’s absurd. All of this is perfectly, irrationally absurd, but… but Dick is just fine. Well, other than the hole in his head, the brains and the blood that’s still spilling out…

It makes no sense. This makes no sense.

“Damian,” he rasps, his throat so impossible dry (desert? Why does he think about a damn desert?) “Something is happening, I have to secure him…”

Dick laughs again -it’s a strange sound. “B, Damian is away, you don’t remember? You sent him away. You sent everyone away. You had to be with Selina, and he was in the way.”

Bruce wants to scream that he’d never, NEVER do such a thing, but then there’s barking coming from outside the room, then a growl, but… but how can it be, since Titus is dead, he saw him dead, and he’s got to be dead at least for a few days now.

He imagines the rotten carcass parading down the corridor, stumbling up the stairs, towards the room…

“I want them all to get here, immediately, Damian, Tim…”

“Tim joined Ra’s. You forgot?”

“What are you talking about, Tim would never—!”

“He prefers him over you now.”

This isn’t true. This isn’t real.

“Jason…”

Dick chuckles. “Jason is dead.”

His breath catches, eyes going wide open. “Don’t you dare say that again!” he roars.

Dick laughs again, and Bruce swears to anything he’s ever held sacred, if he does this one more time, he’ll punch the rest of his brains out.

“What’d you even care? You don’t love him.”

“Who says that?” Bruce screams his lungs out.

Dick shrugs. “You proved that.”

Bruce desperately fights against the need to hit him. This… this isn’t actually Dick. Dick would never talk like that, with that much carelessness, that much insensibility about such a thing. He wouldn’t joke about it. He’d never get this heartless, mocking, cold-hearted smirk on his face. Dick’s smile is warm, genuine playful and sweet. Not this.

He takes a step back, gazing at him, and gasps. Loses the world at the sight of that Talon’s suit he just realizes he’s in.

This grin was never wider.

“Don’t worry, Bruce,” he says, the voice coming out of his mouth sweet and soft, painfully familiar, and yet, in some sick way… somehow… somehow not Dick’s. “It’s going to be all right. I have Blüdhaven. I’ll get Gotham too. I’ll get it from Bane. You’ll see… you’ll see.”

He hears them. More Talons. They’re just outside the window. Down the cave. In the house. Lurking in the shadows. The vague threat he’d detected. Not so vague anymore.

He takes a step back, and stumbles.

He falls…

 

***

 

… and lands.

Bruce jumps up, breathless and soaked in sweat, shook up to the bone.

For one second, his vision is clearer than ever. Then there’s a heavy pressure on his brain, and massive black spots appear everywhere around. He grunts and presses thumbs over his eyes; last thing he wants is to pass out again.

There’s a strong hand against his back. “Easy, Bruce. Easy. It’s just a nightmare, you’re alright. Take a breath.”

It might have helped, under different circumstances. Right now, though, within a single moment, his mind overflows with screams and pained cries.

He violently jerks away from Thomas, his eyes darting around until he locates Jason.

He’s seated with his back against the rock formation a few feet away from the fire… away from them. Curled up, hunched over there, looking so small, so fragile, with his arms wrapped around his legs (his hands are still tied, which causes Bruce to realize that his own hands are now free), hair a mess, and his chin resting upon his knees.

Bruce uses any strength he’s got left to get up and stagger his way towards him. He kneels right in front of him over the sand, and, reaching forward, he gently puts his hands at each side of the boy’s face, trying to get him to look at him.

Jason lets him pick his face up, like he’s some kind of rag doll, having no control over his own body, and Bruce loses his world.

There are new, fresh bruises all over his face. His lips are split, and… bitten. Clear evidences of dried blood still there. His eyes are small, exhausted, red from crying. Bruce’s gaze inevitably, painfully moves downwards, to those horrifying hickeys and bites (some of them almost bloody) marring his child’s neck and collarbone. His shirt is ripped open, hanging in pathetic shreds over him. At least three sets of deep, red scratches lay at the middle of his torso, disappearing towards his sides, and… and further down. As if he’d been attacked by an animal.

“Jason,” he whispers, shaking, brushing his thumbs over his cheeks. “Jason, my… my boy…”

Jason still doesn’t look at him. His eyes are empty, lost to the void. When he manages to draw a breath inside, he shuts his eyelids, trying to face away from him.

If, up until this point, after those few recent, horrifying months and all the dreadful things that had happened to him during that time (and the ones he did himself)… If, after all of that, there was still something left standing inside him… there isn’t anymore.

Everything feels broken. Shattered into a billion pieces.

He was there. Right there, while it was happening. Unable to focus, unable to move. Unable to do anything, while Jason, already exhausted from a day's walking under a feverish sun, fought and begged and… and cried. And lost.

There is nothing left now. Nothing.

He wants to pass out again. He wants to throw up. He wants this to be another nightmare. Oh, how he wishes for this, how he begs for it, to any god that’s listening. Right at that moment, he’d give anything for it to be the case. A nightmare, yes. The worst of them all.

He bites the inside of his cheek until he tastes blood, copper filling his mouth -it’s better than the bile threatening to rush through his throat.

It doesn’t wake him up.

“If he’d just calmly spread his legs the way he was supposed to, it wouldn’t have to go down like this.”

Bruce remains perfectly still, but Jason shudders violently at the sound of that voice. His breath’s catching, shoulders drawing inwards as he jerks further back, pressing his back at the rock, as if he wants it to somehow open and swallow him alive.

He lets his hands fall from Jason’s face and slowly pulls himself up, ignoring how his legs barely hold him. He looks directly at the deranged maniac whose still unknown, paranoid plan is the only thing keeping them alive. Thomas is just sitting there casually, by the fire, his expression one of perfect calmness, like everything is completely normal.

He hasn’t even finished the one step he’s started to take when he feels a grip on his wrist. Weak, but steady. Just like Jason’s gaze, when Bruce looks down to finally meet his eyes.

Jason wants him to stop. To stay right there. Whether it’s out of fear of what might happen to him if he confronts Thomas, or out of need for someone to simply be close to him at this moment, he cannot tell. In any case, it gets him to think that if he does that, if he attacks Owlman and ends up unconscious again… Jason will be left alone with him again. Alone and defenseless. And it’s not that in his current state Bruce can pretend to be much of a defense, but he will stand as barrier, to the best of his ability, as long as his body holds him.

It’s the one thought that manages to hold him back. That gets him to collapse against the rock, alongside Jason, who then returns to his previous pose, sinking into himself once more.

Bruce can’t tell how long they stay like that, in that torturous silence, the only sounds around being the howling of the wind and the cackling of the fire. Eventually, he does gather up the courage to raise a hand and run his fingers through Jason’s hair. He doesn’t react anyhow, doesn’t seem to acknowledge it at all, but… at least he doesn’t flinch away from him.

To his eyes, at this moment, Jason looks so much like he’s fifteen again. Which makes everything so, so much more disturbing.

“Jaylad,” he tries softly, pleading. The use of the nickname he had for the boy, back when he was little, intentional as it is, in order to try and calm him down a bit, sends a sharp pang on his own chest. It blocks his throat too, for a moment, masterfully trapping a sob inside. “Chum, please, look at me.”

He doesn’t.

Bruce closes his eyes. Takes a breath and tries to shake away the image of a fifteen-year-old little Robin of his mind, before he guides his hands to the rope that still keeps Jason’s wrists trapped. As soon as he starts undoing the knot, he gets a reaction. Jason pulls his hands away from his reach, as if his touch has burned him.

“Jason, I’ll just untie…”

“No, you won’t,” Owlman’s voice comes, dull, but commanding.

Bruce glares at him, and just then realizes that, if Jason wanted, he could have released himself long ago. He doubts that lack of will is the real reason, so… what holds him back must be something else. Some kind of threat, he guesses, and recalls how Jason went rigid and disturbingly pliant back in the cave, when Thomas bent down to him and said to him… whatever it was that Bruce was unable to hear.

“What have you told him?” he asks, trembling in rage.

Once again, Thomas doesn’t do him the courtesy of offering an answer. Bruce clenches his teeth, trying to choke away the roar climbing up his throat, the despair of having to witness the clear evidence of this atrocity. Of being unable to even remotely handle any of it.

Two times in his life he’s felt more useless and helpless. Both of those included the people he loved the most in the world lying dead, lifeless on the ground, or in his arms. One of those just so happened to be the very same boy beside him.

His son. His little bird.

He reaches out one arm around Jason’s shoulders. He does this slowly, cautiously, in case Jason signals in some way that he doesn’t want this. Apart from the stiffness of his form, Bruce meets no resistance when he pulls him close, until he’s sideways against his chest. He's holding the boy’s head just under his shoulder and presses a light kiss on his forehead, his other hand stroking his battered face.

This lack of emotion (lack of reaction, even) that currently worries him the most, cracks the very moment Thomas stands and starts heading towards them. The way Jason suddenly clings to him then (not with vigor, but still, strongly enough for him to detect the desperation of the move) has him immediately, protectively tightening his grip around him as well, holding him even closer. He even adjusts the corner of one arm so that Jason’s face is turned more to the side, not allowing any glimpse of the man. He, on the other hand, embraces the eye contact, knowing just how threatening his gaze must be at the moment. Owlman might be a monster, but he’s certainly not an idiot. He must be aware that, if he dares to as much as lay a hand towards Jason right now, within his reach, Bruce will tear it with his bare teeth, if he has to. Despite his current state, that much he’ll find the strength to successfully proceed with.

Thomas does nothing of sort, eventually. He’s simply starring at them for a few seconds, an idle, unreadable expression carved upon his face. He then crouches and places one canteen flask down on the ground, before he turns his back and moves away.

Bruce debates with himself on whether to take this or not. He’s been given no reason to trust anything this person does. The water in there might just as well be drugged, but even so, his concerns fade away in the face of sheer need. He himself doesn’t intend to take a single sip and risk it, but Jason needs this, and if it’s indeed drugged… maybe it’s for the best. Maybe this is the best option right now; for the boy to drift off. Escape the nightmare he’d been so viciously forced in.

Jason, who had gone completely still and had even stopped breathing for as long as Owlman stood above them, now can’t stop slightly shivering. Bruce pours some water on a stripe of fabric ripped off his own sleeve and starts gently removing the red, now dry leftovers of blood off Jason’s face and neck. He knows that it won’t make much difference, but at least the water will soothe the injuries, ever so slightly. He doesn’t manage to get him to take a drink, however, no matter how much coaxing he offers.

Eventually, he puts the flask away and returns to holding him. He looks up in the sky and takes a breath. “Jason, it…”

It…? A voice mocks him in his head, and for some reason it’s Selina’s voice. It’s Selina’s crystal, sneaky, annoyingly graceful tut. It, what, my Knight, my love? It’ll be alright, is that it? Can you tell him that, Bat? Would you really dare to just blurt out something as scandalous as this lie?

He chases her voice away and tries to think. Fast.

Jason is in a state in shock, maybe in panic, even, and as long as those feelings prevail, the certain exhaustion trapped underneath will not be able to claim the best of him, despite how much he needs some form of even rudimentary rest.

“Just close your eyes,” he says quietly, brushing the back of his fingers over one of his eyelids. “Close your eyes. That’s all you have to do.”

He doesn’t really expect him to do it. And yet, a glance downwards affirms it.

Still holding him in gentle strength, he starts softly brushing a hand through his hair. When he speaks again, after a while, he’s trying to maintain the low rumble, that calm, hopefully somewhat soothing tone in his voice. “Remember that car show we went to in your fourteenth birthday?” he says softly. “The one downtown? I came to get you after school, we had lunch at Burger Town, and then we went there. It was sunny that day. It was always sunny in your birthday. You remember that?”

He feels Jason swallowing, and he thinks a very soft approving sound registers to him a few seconds later, though it might just be his wishful thinking. Nevertheless, he keeps this going. He has to.

“You skipped my attention for a minute, while I was talking to an associate I happened to come across. When I found you, you were chatting with the exhibitor in front of a stunning 1985 Buick. Shiny red,” he recalls. “You… always loved cars. You had such knowledge, such an eye for the best ones, such a mind for it. I knew that already, but when that guy with that ridiculously fancy suit praised you to me for it… God, I felt so… unspeakably proud. Just like when, one year and a half before that, you, a twelve-year-old back then, brought me a full, detailed, six-page essay on Oliver Twist… graded A and a thousand pluses by your teacher. And just like when I watched you scoring in that baseball match in the school championship, against children much more experienced than you. Or when, out of your own free will, you spared Two-Face…”

He stops. He must gather up his equanimity. He can’t lose himself over emotion now. As his little, awkward, unprepared speech unravels, he becomes aware that, gradually, the impossible stiffness in Jason’s shoulders is slowly dissipating. As if the words sink inside him. Wrapping around him as steady and caring as Bruce’s arms.

“You see… since I myself also loved cars, and literature, and baseball, and doing the right thing… watching you loving and engaging into all those things as well… it always got me so excited about the things we had in common.”

Another pause. He lowers his voice even more. “When we got home, Barbara was there, with Alfred. They had your birthday cake waiting.”

He feels Jason taking a slightly deeper breath against his collarbone, and then his voice comes for the first time, barely more audible than a whisper. “Red velvet.”

Bruce closes his eyes and exhales. He can almost feel the taste in his mouth. “Yes,” he says, pressing lips at the top of his head. “Your face was so bright… you were so happy.”

He allows the moment -the memory- to linger there, in silence. For just a little while, he even manages to fool himself into the illusion that they’re somewhere else. Somewhere nice and safe, where he’s able to hold his boy simply because he’s his father, and he loves him.

As he slowly moves his hand between Jason’s shoulder blades, he’s relieved to find out that the tight coil has almost completely disappeared from his muscles. Bruce lightly rubs him there, and receives a quiet, soft sound.

“Sleep, Jason,” he whispers against the top of his head. “Sleep.”

It’s not a minute later when he detects, through the soft pattern of the boy’s breathing, that he has finally succumbed to exhaustion.

He stays right there, still and quiet, maintaining the comforting touch until he’s certain that Jason is too deeply settled into the realms of sleep for anything but something truly loud or violent to wake him up, and only then does he pick up his eyes.

A few feet away, Thomas sternly returns the gaze over the fire. The pitch-black darkness of those eyes reflects the bright, vivid orange of the flames in their macabre, neverending dance.

It’s time to face the monster.

Chapter Text

“How could you,” he rasps, voice tired and weak. He’s uncertain that the words are actually audible. “How… could you…”

Thomas’ eyes, perfect beads of glass, stare at him soullessly from afar. “I wanted to,” he responds, as if it’s something completely normal, utterly logical. “He’s a handsome, young thing. He’s got strength. Stamina. Just the thing to get a few heavy rocks off. Kid’s like a feral cat… until you get him under you.”

The urge to lean aside and throw up becomes intimate once again, despite the fact that, other than the water Jason had managed to feed him, his stomach’s been empty for at least thirty-six hours.

“I do realize he’s always been much more of a problem to you than anything else,” the horrid speech goes on, “but, thankfully, there are… other uses for his kind, as well.”

The cold, detached way in which he refers to Jason, as if he’s nothing but an object, merely a vessel to be used for his own, sick pleasure, sends terrifying shivers down his spine.

In his whole life, and especially throughout those past twenty years of Batman, he’d encountered more monsters in this world -and beyond- that any average human could have ever conceived in their heads. All kinds of violence. Of madness, and insanity. Of genuine sickness and rot, in both mind and soul. And despite all that, despite the terror and obscenity, and all the ways and systems he’d developed to deal with those things without risking losing his mind in the process… every time evil of such kind managed to break through his defenses and the protective barriers, and so evidently touch one of his kids… his mind went numb. Numb with horror. With despair. With blind rage.

Thomas is expecting a backtalk, he can tell. He offers none, and after a few more minutes of dead silence between them, the man gets up and heads to the horse. He’s reaching through the saddle bag, retracts something small, circular, and approaches them. Once he’s close, he throws the item toward him and Bruce reflexively catches it in the air. He realizes it’s a can of tuna, beans and corn. There’s also a plastic fork attached to it.

“Whatever you’re planning on trying,” Thomas remarks idly, returning to his original spot, “you’re going to need strength. Even the boy had one, once we stopped for the night.”

Bruce doesn’t plan a thing. He can barely contain the streams of incoherent, dreadful and furious thoughts rushing through his mind. But, in any case… the prick is right. If any chance of escape from this was suddenly presented, they had to absolutely take it. Sure, a can is by no means a full, proper meal, but still, it’s better than nothing.

He places it on the ground beside him and uses the fork with one hand, refusing to completely let Jason go for even a second. As soon as he’s done, he drinks some water and then cradles the boy closer to him, in a position more comfortable for both of them. It’s rather easy. Jason doesn’t even flinch, his breathing pattern not changing one bit. Bruce doesn’t believe he’s ever witnessed him sleeping this deep before, apart from that time when he was twelve and sick with the flu, and some other times, when he’d happened to be injured and on recovery.

Quietly, without thinking about it too much, he gently takes Jason’s hands and starts undoing the rope again.

“Don’t…” comes a low growl.

“Fuck you,” he plainly blurts out, without paying a single look at him. “Come here and stop me, if you dare.”

He finishes and throws the rope away. Jason’s wrists feel dry and rough, the skin there evidently red and injured. Bruce lightly rubs at it, holding them to his chest, and feels one of those hands reflexively bunching at his shirt. He kisses at the top of the boy’s head, softly stroking a thumb over his cheek.

It all still feels so… unreal.

A scoffing chuckle registers to him, and his eyes shoot up to belligerently glance at Thomas. “For how long you’re going to keep lying to yourself?” the man asks. “Pretending like he’s something special?”

Bruce stares at him, expressionless. “Pretending?” he repeats the word.

Thomas has a faint smirk on his face when, after a few seconds, he points out, “I know what you did to him, Brucie. Everyone’s heard of the rumors. Rumors of a huge fight in some rooftop of Gotham’s, the night Penguin fell.”

Bruce feels his throat going dry again. This time, it’s not out of thirst.

“There’s a mark on his collarbone… one that’s not mine, I mean,” he needlessly clarifies. “This one’s older. A large, fainting bruise. Judging by how… sensitive to pain that area was, I’d say there’s been a recent bone injury. Yours, I take it? Nasty thing. Must have hurt him like hell while healing.”

He leans his head against the stone behind him and raises his eyes to the starry sky. His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows.

He hasn’t talked about that night to anyone but Alfred. About what happened. What he felt. What in the hell was on his damn head at that very moment. And so, this lunatic is completely delusional if he truly expects him to talk this through with him, of all people.

“Grayson?” the voice pierces through his thoughts. “That I get. Every possible charisma anyone could ever think of, this one possesses it. A bit too single-minded, sure, maybe a bit naive as well, but those are nothing compared to his gifts. Drake has a brilliant mind, and he’s obedient. Pliant. Easy to handle. An extremely useful tool.” He pauses, his eyes roaming over Jason. “But this one? What you ever saw in him, apart from that… fun defiance, I truly can’t tell. How come you took this one in, I’ll never understand.”

If he didn’t hate him this damn much, and if the events of this particular night hadn’t occurred, Bruce might have felt sorry for this man that, in another world and time, would have been his brother. He would talk to him, tell him how pathetically wrong he was… if he didn’t believe it to be a complete and total waste of his time. He shouldn’t spend his saliva and remaining energy in vain. Not over trying to explain to this cruel individual what his sons meant to him.

Thomas believed he took Dick in due to his general charisma. Little did he know that, back then, Robin didn’t even exist as an idea in his head. It was born later, because of Dick. Bruce hadn’t seen a potential pupil in him. All he saw was a little boy, with big, sad, teary eyes. A little boy whose parents were taken away from him in a single, shockingly unexpected moment, right before those eyes. And he recognized bitterly well that shade he saw, already covering his childish, joyous gaze. At that very moment, he swore he’d do everything in his power to stop that shade from claiming another child’s childhood, leaving him so very stern and depressed for possibly his entire life. Eventually, Dick had kept his joy and made a solid job into passing part of it to him (something that no one else would have ever been able to manage).

The man looked at his Tim, and all he was able to detect was his -admittedly- brilliant mind. His kind heart meant nothing to him. Tim’s calm, hardworking nature sustained nothing but a pliant ‘tool’, in his opinion. He believed, like most people, that Bruce took Tim in, while, in more ways than one, it was actually Tim that had taken Bruce in. He had no idea that Tim’s mild, gentle persistence on getting the Batman back to himself and out in the world again, on helping Bruce patch up his wounds and just keep breathing, was probably the only reason why he was still alive. That, ever since, and to this day, even a simple small talk with Tim, a single look at his bright eyes, was enough to give him strength, to keep him going.

And then, this wretched human being claimed he saw nothing in Jason. Nothing but a challenge, apparently. And how could he, after all?

Had this man ever felt fear in his life? Actual, gut-wrenching fear?

Batman walked into Crime Alley one night. He’d left the car there and chased two goons over the roofs. September 19th it was. Exactly twenty-seven years after that night… the night that killed everything inside of him. The night when fear had taken root in his soul, never to really leave him again.

He walked back there, and found a boy. A boy with a four-way tire iron in his hands. The tires of the Batmobile, two out of four, were already gone. He worked on his third tire swiftly, quietly and methodically. A street kid, most certainly. Tall for his age (which Bruce instantly estimated to be around twelve), but, judging by how the old, bright red sweatshirt and tattered pants hung a little loosely around his form, Bruce supposed that he was thinner than he should have been.

The street kid that froze once he laid eyes on him, all remaining color -which, frankly, wasn’t much- instantly disappearing from his face, but even so… he quickly reclaimed himself, and, with astounding nerve and aggression, stood his ground. He swang the tool at him, even.

Anyone else would have turned around and run away like the wind, praying they disappeared from the face of the earth. But not Jason Todd.

When Bruce took a careful, examining look through those deep sea-like blue eyes, he detected no malicious intent. He saw stubbornness, determination, anger, hardness on the surface. But he, of all people, could not be fooled. There was fear underneath. Fear of getting beaten up, or worse, taken to the police, Bruce guesses. And even so, this child, this little kid, does the hardest and bravest thing he’s ever witnesses a kid his age -or anyone else, really- doing; hides it. Overcomes it. He looks danger in the eyes, and just goes for it, despite everything, and…  Bruce can’t help but admire that.

He can’t remember a happier time in his life than the three years that followed this encounter (with the exception of his childhood). He’d never smiled more. Never laughed more. Never had such content and fulfilling relationships. He’d never felt healthier in his soul, never felt more human than when this boy was around.

“You’re right,” he only says. “You could never understand.”

How could this man know how much courage he got by simply seeing Jason, a child tortured in so many ways in such a tender age, still being able to smile and move forward?

The only thing he was afraid of when he had Jason, was the prospect of losing Jason. Which, just because life hates his loved ones so much, apparently, was exactly what had happened. Just like I was happening now, once more. Slowly, and torturously. With him just watching, unable to do anything but just… sit there.

“I’ve never begged for anything in my life,” he speaks quietly, knowing that he can be hears over the cackling of the fire. He wets his heat-tortured lips and takes a breath. “Useless as it seems… I implore you… please, let him go. Just him, not me. Why is he here, anyway? If he really doesn’t mean anything to you, why keep him here?”

Thomas idly picks through the fire with a twig, starring at the flames.

“In my world,” he says, seemingly an eternity later, “my parents -our parents- were two worthless pieces of filth, and they also raised you into being just as simple minded and weak. My family definitely wasn’t a strong attribute. Despite that, I still managed to rise high. As soon as I found out about all those universes, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more I could have accomplice, had I been surrounded by intelligent, bright, strong relatives that would share my talents and vision.”

Bruce only barely holds back from snorting.

“I found your world,” he continues, eyes flying up at him, “and what you’d done here -what you’d managed to become- had me standing in awe. My Bruce was a broken case by the very second he came into the world. But you? This Bruce was definitely worth having by my side, as my brother and partner.”

Bruce has a sense of his own eyes darkening. “I hope you realize your recruitment techniques so far are the exact opposite of convincing.”

Thomas blatantly ignores his remark. “Then, there was the Flashpoint reality. This Thomas Wayne… Who wouldn’t want this remarkable man as their father?”

Bruce can’t choke a low chuckle. “I’d love to see you try him. By all means, dare it.”

“I shall,” he proclaims, “and he won’t refuse. He won’t be able to. Not once he sees I have you by my side.” His gaze travels to the macabre sight of the old coffin they’ve been dragging behind them, and that’s now resting next to the horse. “And his wife.”

The information doesn’t register to him right away. It takes a while for him to fully comprehend the atrocious absurdity of what he’d just heard. To reluctantly register the fact into the and accept it as profound reality.

“My mother,” he rasps, unable to look away anymore.

“Our mother,” Thomas corrects him.

Bruce suddenly snaps. “No, not ‘our’ mother, my mother!” he hisses, and Jason stirs in his embrace. “How dare you, you… you…”

It all comes to him within a moment.

Thomas’ words and careful hints. His alliance with Bane. His persistence to keep him, but not harm him, never harm him. His twisted idea and vision of an ideal family. The desert. This desert. His mother’s coffin… and Jason… his very presence there…

Nain Pit. One life for another.

“He will be the one to set you free. Once and for all.”

His arms tighten around Jason to potentially bruising levels, desperate to keep him as close as humanly possible -as if this can protect him. It causes a low whine to escape the boy, while thankfully still in his sleep.

Bruce looks at Thomas, all remaining color drained from his face. “No,” he gasps, obvious panic filling his voice. “No, you won’t… you can’t…”

Thomas returns his gaze to him. “It’ll be alright,” is the not at all reassuring statement he gets.

“No, it won’t!” Bruce all but shouts through gritted teeth. “Release my kid now, you son of the bitch, or…”

“Now,” Thomas raises an eyebrow. “That’s not a way to talk about our mother, is it? Don’t you want your mother back, Bruce?”

Images flatter through his mind. Images of her. Her smile. Her laughter. Her voice singing, or reading to him, his favourite bedtime stories. Her form seated beside him at the cushions of the library nook, a guitar in her hands, teaching him how to play.

And then, there’s his Jason. His brave Jason in Crime Alley, stealing his tires. His Jason sitting by his side and watching a movie with him, that time he was sick. His Jason as Robin, flying over the rooftops, laughing. Happy… so very happy. His Jason hugging him. Calling him ‘dad’. Once. Just once. And it was enough.

“No,” is the instantaneous, obvious answer. “Never. Not like this! Not if this is the price…”

He raises one hand to rub at his own face. He almost wants to slap himself. He feels his mind slowly, steadily leaping through a terrifying void.

This can’t be real. This can’t be happening.

“You really think she’d live with this?” he says, trying to find his breath again. “You think I would live with this?”

Thomas makes a scoffing sound. “You’ve convinced yourself that you need him,” he growls in disdain. “But you don’t, Bruce. You don’t need anyone but your one real son. The one who’s blood of your blood, and of my blood. The others? They’re nothing but heavy chains, holding you down.”

His breath catches at the mention of Damian. The idea of his youngest also getting dragged and trapped into this nightmare is truly unbearable.

“Come on, Bruce. Let’s be serious here. You can’t convince me you’d consider your real son and heir, your high-born, noble blooded child equal to this street rat.”

Bruce is positive at this point that this person strongly antagonizes Ra’s al Ghul himself over the crown of the most close-minded, monarch-type figure in their world, currently.

He looks down. Nuzzles his face into black strands. “This street rat,” he murmurs, “was my son long before Damian was in the picture. In more ways than even Dick used to be. They are… my kids. My sons. All of them.”

Thomas tuts, in disbelief or irritation. He can’t tell.

“What have you threatened him with?” Bruce suddenly asks. “You told him something. Back in the cave. He’s been holding back ever since. I can tell. What was it?”

He’s asked before, and didn’t get an answer, but he figures he should try once more. Why hide it after all, especially after everything he’s already let him know?

Thomas takes a breath, retracting something from one pocket. It looks like some kind of… small remote control. “This,” he explains, “is connected to your heart rate. I made a few crafts in the cave, while you were out. Long story short, Bruce… despite how I’d really, really like to avoid things getting down to that point… I can give you a heart attack any time I like,” he ends up, his eyes swinging down at Jason. “Basically, he was protecting you.”

The utter devastation those words inflict upon him has his heart sinking into the deepest depths of an abyss from which there seems to be no escape.

“Νow that you know this… I would strongly advise you to take a hold of yourself… and tread very lightly. Because if I’m forced to do this… I’ll still have the boy. Without you watching over him. I’ll make sure to turn his last hours on this earth into a living hell, I assure you. And also… I’ll have two dead bodies. Between Martha and you, I’d choose to bring you back. It should be enough for our father as well.”

Bruce watches, mind empty and numb, his insides turned into a tight comb, as he slips the remote back into his pocket.

“How would you feel, I wonder? Knowing that Jason died to bring you back? I might not have to force him at all. He might volunteer to it,” he chuckles darkly. “He’s like a kicked puppy that keeps coming back, this one. Despite what you’ve done to him, he’d still do anything to protect you.”

He doesn’t listen to him anymore. He refuses to do so. He has to force his mind to start functioning again. He must think of something. He needs to get Jason out of this. Get him to safety.

Think. He needs to think. He needs to… he has to… to find a way. A way out.

“One thing I have to admit,” Thomas breaks his pathetic effort of concentration, “if nothing else… you do know how to build up devotion.”