Chapter 1: Marks on Men
Dick turned off the phone with a click. “We fucked up,” he said, turning to Jason. “We, uh, we definitely did not think this through.”
Jason, who was sitting beside the motel room door, on the ground with his head between his knees, said, "Hell no, we didn't."
Dick crossed over to stand in front of him. The orange streetlight behind him cast his shadow harshly over Jason, throwing him into inky black relief. "Alfred read me the fucking riot act, man. You should've heard it. I don't think I've ever heard him swear that much."
"Alfred doesn't swear."
Dick laughed—sharp, bitter, tasted metallic in his mouth, a sort of bloody tang. "He does now."
The first time Dick had ever heard Alfred swear, it had been Alfred swearing at him after a fight he’d had with Bruce, one not long after Jason had died; and it was a hellish thing, to be reamed out by Bruce only to get reamed out by Alfred for daring to pick a fight with Bruce. Later, Alfred had apologized for what he’d called his misconduct, and that had been the first time Dick had ever seen Alfred cry.
(Alfred cried like a gentleman. I’m awfully sorry, he’d said, dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. This is most improper of me, my boy. You’ll—you’ll have to excuse me. And Dick had, because he’d been unable to speak for the frog in his throat.)
Jason looked up, blue eyes—kind of a sea green, actually, and Dick thought of the brilliant green eyes of the al Ghuls and wondered if somehow the pit leached into the iris during the act of restoration, like an infection—slanted at the corners, mouth pressed to his kneecaps like he was twelve. Maybe, in an odd way, he was; Dick could never tell with Jason. The kid had been through so much, and trauma tended to stop and restart development the way a broken record player stopped and restarted songs. "Weird," Jason murmured, for lack of a better response.
Their trip hadn't exactly gone well. They'd been forced to stop just a few hours into the drive because Bruce had gotten to the stage of withdrawal that most closely resembled taking a dose of ipecac, and that led Dick to the realization of how bad it truly, truly was, which had led to Dick getting frazzled and taking the wrong exit and getting them hopelessly lost. So Dick decided it was high time they pulled off somewhere and got a room for the night, found a shitty Red Roof Inn, and then Bruce promptly kicked them out of his room by shattering a ceramic lamp on the ground and swearing a blue streak several miles long. Dick had done the last thing he could think of doing, and that was calling Alfred—and once he explained, he immediately received a Master Richard, I adore you, but you are a bloody fucking idiot, blind-as-a-bat bloody tosser that devolved into formless, deeply British swearing.
Alfred had promised to take care of Damian and Tim and Cass and Steph in their absence, though, and that was enough. It had to be. Alfred's only advice had been for good Christ's sake, leave that man alone, or you will only make it infinitely worse by intruding. Dick knew Alfred was speaking from experience, so he obeyed, albeit reluctantly, for the moment. But only for the moment.
"Shit, I have to feed both of you," Dick said. "Fuck. Do you want pizza?"
"I'm not fucking ten, you don’t have to feed me," Jason grumbled.
"Do you want pizza?" Dick repeated, evenly. He was, he approximated, seven more seconds of Jason’s stubbornness from losing his temper in a way he’d regret tomorrow.
"I'll feed my own damn self, Dickwad," Jason said. He kicked at a stray piece of gravel with his boot. He sure did look ten, with his sullen scowl, the half-circle slope of his shoulders, save for the almost-bruised skin beneath his eyes—that was the mark of a man.
Dick rubbed at his temples. There was a headache boxing his ears, slaughtering its way from the base of his skull to fleshy, soft area behind his eyes, a jackhammer jacking away. "Listen, asshole, I'm just asking if you want me to call for fucking dinner, it's not a dick-measuring contest, or which kid is the most responsible. The answer to that one is probably Tim, unless you’re asking him to clean his room.”
"You would know all about those, the dick-measuring contests."
Despite himself, Dick cracked a grin. The tension between them, rotten and thick, seemed to ease slightly. "Yeah, s'pose I would. I'm going to order pizza, ‘kay?"
Dick Googled the number for Pizza Hut and tapped it, pressing the green call button. As it was ringing, he bit his lip, remembering he hadn't asked Jason what he liked on his pizza—and what an odd thing to not know, about a brother. I buried him, he thought, I buried him, I grieved him, and I don't even know if he likes pineapple on pizza.
"Is pineapple and ham okay with you?" Dick whisper-hissed, after the second ring.
Jason shrugged. "I'll eat anything. I'm a human garbage disposal."
"Okay," Dick said. "Okay."
Cass was, too. Cass could eat anything. One time, Cass had eaten old leftovers that Alfred had missed on the fridge cleanout day because they’d been shoved behind the milk, and Dick had held her when she’d been violently sick later. Bruce had rushed home from work and Dick would maybe never forget the desperate way Cass had gasped out Dad and the even more desperate way she’d flung her arms around him. As Dick was backing away, Cass had mumbled, used to poison me, and Dick stalked off and beat a bag bare-knuckled until blood was running between his fingers.
He ordered two pizzas—normally, he would've ordered three, because who could've guessed that vigilantes could really pack it away, right? But he doubted Bruce would be eating, as pale and worn as he'd looked when he'd stumbled from the car to the room, when he'd been howling get the hell out of my way like a wolf. He hadn't seen Bruce eat much in general, lately, and it worried him; but tonight Dick was picking his battles, for once. Later he’d needle Bruce about it. Even later than that, probably the night after Bruce would have a bitchfit about it, Dick would think about how he’d never had to talk Bruce into eating before Jason died.
"It'll be here in ten," Dick said, sliding his phone back into his pocket.
Jason's face was hidden again between his knees. Dick didn't know what drove him to it, what spur-of-the-moment thought grabbed him by his hindbrain and twisted, but he leaned down and ruffled Jason's curly hair. It was soft, like the fur beneath the oily overcoat on a dog, the down next to the skin.
Jason stiffened. "Don't touch me," he said.
Dick turned away. “Alright,” he said.
It was hard to look at Jason, in moments like this; it was hard to look at him because it was a macabre mess and Dick was the one holding the knife, gripped hard in his right hand and the blade gleaming with fresh blood. His brother, his baby brother, and they were only connected by the thinnest of threads, and maybe—maybe, maybe, Jason wouldn't have died if there'd been someone else running after him to Ethiopia. Maybe, maybe. Maybes were a real bitch, and they were the mark of a man, and Dick would swear on that.
The pizza arrived and Dick and Jason sat outside Bruce's room, listening, eating in silence. It was tense, uncomfortable silence, because everything with Jason was tense and uncomfortable and infected and crawling with hateful maggots.
When Dick was feeling particularly bored, he’d watched a World War I movie, and he’d never forget the sight of the mass graves for the dead horses. It had revolted him, because in the circus, he’d made friends with a number of sweet horses, horses he used to alternate vaulting off of and riding bareback in the open fields that surrounded the tent. One of them, a Lippizanner gelding named Salvatore, Dick used to gallop to the beach and trot him into the water, back during the summer they’d stayed in Murrells Inlet for a month and a half. Dick, and a kid he made friends with named John, used to use Salvatore’s back as a diving board. He’d been Dick’s best friend from the time the old woman who trained the horses purchased him, and up ‘til the time Dick left after his parents had died.
But those mass graves, piled high with the twisted, muddy bodies of horses, and the sick and desperate feeling in his gut when he’d seen that picture, the way he’d had to slam his finger on the power button just to get rid of that image—it looked like the distance between him and Jason now.
"Bruce is a monster, you know," Dick said.
"Shut the fuck up," Jason snarled. His teeth, even, were bared, like a feral dog. Dogs like that, they’re hungry all the time.
"Let me finish, asshole, I was talking about the way he eats pizza," Dick said. Personally he thought such a desperate defense rich, coming from the Robin who’d stabbed Batman in the gut. "You're spoiling for it, jeeze louise. I was just going to say, Bruce folds his like a taco and scrapes all the toppings to the middle, like a monster.”
Jason glared at him. "You act like you're the only one who knows that. I know that. I’m sure your precious brothers know that. You’re not special.”
Dick's mouth twisted sourly, and he dropped his pizza-less crust into the box. Dick never ate the crusts. Usually, Bruce ate them for him, or Ace, back in the day. "Why the fuck," he said, "did you come if you hate me so much, huh? I could've done this without you. I don't need you.” And then, after a moment, Dick added, “And you forgot Cass. She does it, too, she picked it up from him."
Jason recoiled, and then jabbed his thumb at the door; he dropped his pizza back into the box, and wrapped his arms over his knees, burying his head. Always with the hiding, like an overgrown goddamn hermit crab. "Fine," he said in a small voice that gutted Dick, end-to-end.
Christ. Talking to Jason was walking through a minefield with snowshoes on, talking to Jason was swimming through shark territory with your arm ripped off, talking to Jason was playing poker with see-through cards.
"I'm sorry," Dick said. "I didn't mean it that way. I just meant, I could've done this alone. You didn't have to come."
"Why don't you just go the hell away, huh," Jason said.
There were two options, for what he could say next, and the option Dick truly wanted to go with was the latter —he wanted to snarl back, you’re angry because you’re violent and I don’t fucking trust you, not after you stabbed Bruce in the gut, not after you let him down. I don’t fucking need you because I don’t fucking need the stress of handling a feral dog and an injured wolf that are just going to rip each other to shreds all the time. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s the Pit. That’s not enough of an excuse for me.
But he couldn’t say that. So he went with the first option: "Jay," Dick pleaded.
"I'd say no one needs you, either, but everyone fucking does," Jason mumbled. "Even Superman needs you. Superman. That’s what’s so great about being you, y’know, everyone’s up your ass. M’just the gutter trash, don’t mind me.”
He didn't respond, but he wanted to say, yeah, everyone needs me. The big guy in there needs me, the big guy in the sky needs me, Gotham needs me, 'Haven needs me, this whole fucking family needs me, all the time. I sleep six hours on a good night and my good nights are once in a blue moon because everyone fucking needs me, all the time. Everyone needs me, except for you, and thank fuck for that, because if one more person needed me I might just crack like an egg on pavement.
He didn't say anything, though. Jason was not the person to say it to—the only person he could say it to, the only person in the world who could do a thing about it, was vomiting into a trashcan in that motel room.
After half an hour, Dick rose. "C'mon, get some sleep. I'll keep watch over him, don’t worry. He’ll be fine. He always is.”
Dick had visited Alfred, once, after Bane, just to make sure the old man was alright. Alfred had said one thing on the subject, one whispered thing; he begged to be left alone in the dark. Then Alfred had turned the conversation back on Dick, and Dick was left holding a skeleton from a closet he didn’t want to know existed.
Jason's eyes were hard as flint when they fixed on Dick, but he stood—and it was then that Dick realized with something like a jolt of electricity running through him that Jason had been crying, completely silently.
"Jay," Dick said, before he could stop himself. "I really didn't mean it like that. C'mon, man."
"Don't call me that," Jason said. "No one fuckin’ calls me that anymore."
And he stood. A broad-shouldered shadow slanted down beneath him. He disappeared into the motel room beside Bruce's, the one he and Dick were supposed to share, with a slam of the door.
Dick wrapped his hands in his hair and pulled until there was satisfying pressure against his scalp, and then released, hands slapping against his thighs. "Christ on a fucking pogo stick," he muttered to himself. He kicked idly at the bottom of a column propping up the overhead, leaving a scuff mark from the bottom of his sneakers.
He focused on breathing straight and even for five minutes, until the knot of nauseous tension in his gut had lessened some. Some. Not all, never all. Then he knocked on Bruce's door.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
There was no answer, so Dick waited for a moment and knocked again. "Bruce, I know you can hear me. I know you were listening through the door.”
For good Christ's sake, leave that man alone, or you will only make it infinitely worse by intruding.
Shuffling. The knob turned. Bruce swung open the door, squinting so hard against the streetlight outside that his eyes were almost closed. The shadows beneath his eyes were deep as ravines, he was sweating bullets, and his hair was mussed and sticking upright in the back. His mouth was shiny with spit, from where he'd thrown up and hadn’t wiped his mouth off yet.
“How,” he said, snappishly. “I was perfectly quiet.”
“Because you wouldn’t leave the two of us alone if you can help it,” Dick replied. “Not after Christmas. You look like shit, you should be in bed.”
Instead of responding, Bruce's brow arched in the middle, and then he was dragging Dick into a sweaty, gross hug.
"Oof," Dick said. He was unable to keep the ridiculous grin off his face. "You're ripe, B-man."
Bruce rasped out a wordless noise. The rasp turned into a chuckle, like a bullfrog with a sandpaper throat, at the end. A laugh, for today. At some point in the hug Bruce's knees gave out beneath him, and Dick half-dragged half-carried him to the nearest bed.
“You’re gonna have to help me here, B, I can’t pick you up,” Dick said. “You’re the size of friggin’ Texas.”
Bruce arms were tight as a vice around him, but they were shuddering, like a horse’s flank when a fly lands on its skin; a bone-deep, all-consuming shaking. He’d been shaking since that morning, when he’d elbowed Dick awake from where they’d fallen asleep on the roof of his treehouse in the Manor’s forest.
“I’ve got you,” Dick said, softly.
Bruce sucked in a breath. Another one. Then he stood on shaky, coltish legs, and crawled onto the bed, lying down face-first.
“Wasn’t so bad, huh, Brucester.”
Bruce nuzzled his face deeper into the pillows. “You don’t call me that anymore,” he said, and he said it casually, as if he had no idea how that one sentence hammered a train spike into Dick’s sternum and through his heart, nice and slow. He could feel the blood gushing out of him, almost, if he closed his eyes and focused—a swath of it, an ocean of it, all down his front.
“I don’t, do I,” he said, absently. Absently, because he was still thinking of the blood.
Bruce grunted in response. Dick swallowed hard and slid on the bed beside him, running one hand through Bruce’s oily hair. “How’s it feel,” he asked, and it was part concern, and part genuine curiosity.
“Venom,” Bruce rumbled. He flinched, briefly, and said more loudly: “Like coming off Joker venom.”
Dick winced. “That bad, huh, that bad. Can you sleep at all?”
Bruce was silent. Dick took that as a no the fuck I can’t, why are you even asking.
Dick snuggled against him and laid his cheek on Bruce’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Bruce twisted his head so he could stare groggily at Dick. His neck was at an angle that couldn’t possibly be comfortable, but Dick didn’t want to lift his head just yet. “For what,” he said.
“Just that it’s rough.”
“I did it,” Bruce said. His expression was blank. His mouth was perfectly straight, if a little thin-lipped, his eyes were half-lidded with exhaustion but his eyes were gray and only gray and nothing else. “To myself.”
Dick closed his eyes. “That you did,” he said, voice throaty and hoarse.
Bruce rolled over, upending Dick—who felt rather grumpy about it, because he was comfortable—and laid flat on his back. He wriggled an arm beneath Dick’s shoulders and then tugged him closer, tucking Dick beneath his chin. Dick’s eyes slid closed again.
Home had once been the taste of sea salt and his feet on the warm, solid back of a horse—white fur speckled with darker gray flecks, a dark muzzle nibbling at his hair. Home had once been sequins and the sound of his mom’s sewing machine as she made their costumes—always red, green, and yellow, always glittering; the taste of chalky foundation that his father rubbed into his face, the heavy feeling of stage makeup, the swirl of a bird’s wing painted on in glitter down his cheek. Home was the air. Home looked different now—moments like these, pressed close to family he’d loved and lost, family he’d die for in a heartbeat, in a fraction of a heartbeat. Home was between the air, now.
“I’ll get us to the cabin by tomorrow night,” Dick said. “Promise.”
A hand ruffled his hair. “You’ll need more sleep for that.”
“I am the king of sleep. I get all the sleep, I have reserves of sleep. I’ll be fine.”
“Then stop talking,” Bruce said, “and go to sleep.”
Dick moved so his ear was above Bruce’s heart, listening to the tha-thud-tha-thud, and he didn’t sleep a wink.
At around six in the morning, four hours later, he pulled himself out of Bruce’s arms, and Bruce’s eyes flicked open immediately. His response time, as ever, was impeccable.
“Rise and shine, big guy,” Dick said, thumping his shoulder. “How do you feel?”
Bruce rolled over, tugged a trashcan nestled between the nightstand and the bed closer, and vomited into it.
“Duly noted,” Dick said, dryly. “I’ll go wake up Jason, and let you, uh, get it out of your system.”
Dick left Bruce behind. The morning was gray, the clouds low and hanging in the sky like a blanket, and it was chilly enough in these early hours that Dick shivered. He knocked on the other door, calling out, “Good morning, sleeping beauty.”
The door opened. Jason studied him cautiously from the other side. “You never went to sleep.”
Dick shrugged. “Made sure Bruce didn’t choke on his own vomit, buddy. Gross job, but I’m the designated man for it. S’what I do.”
Jason looked at the ground. The joke, clearly, had not landed with him, because he looked vaguely sick to his stomach himself.
“Sorry, by the way,” Dick said.
Jason’s eyes jumped to meet his. Sharp like dog’s teeth, they were. “‘By the way?’” Jason repeated.
“You’re an asshole,” Jason said roughly. He brushed past Dick, knocking into Dick’s shoulder, and his duffle bag was already in his hand. “Give me the damn keys!” he shouted, from the car. One elbow was braced on the hood of the SUV.
“What, gonna leave us stranded?” Dick asked. “No fucking way, man.”
Somehow, Jason looked like he was roasting on a spit. Somehow that statement had cut him, and cut him deeply, and Dick shook his head and thought, why’d I even open my idiot mouth, and pushed open the door to Bruce’s room.
Bruce was up, and changing shirts. Dick averted his eyes. Seeing the scars made him sick to his stomach. But it was good that Bruce was up and getting ready—Dick had anticipated needing to drag him out of the bed.
He had to go back out to the car to get his bag because he’d forgotten it last night. Jason spat near his shoe, and Dick stopped for a moment, considering how angry Bruce would be if Dick just punched him, but decided he didn’t have the energy to muster up for a fight. He’d win, he could win against Jason even now and it’d be easy, but Dick didn’t have the will to see that heartbroken look on Bruce’s face again. So he just said, “Gross,” and took out his bag, brushed his teeth, took a quick shower and changed, and by the time he was out Bruce was leaning against the car hood, staring at Jason. He wasn’t speaking, just staring, and he was dressed like he was going to a funeral, and Dick didn’t blame Jason one bit for not staring back. Bruce had these fits, sometimes, where his brain would break and he’d forget that you couldn’t communicate with intense eye contact with anyone who wasn’t Cass.
“Ready?” Dick asked, raising his bag. “I’m driving.”
“You didn’t sleep,” Bruce said.
“You only know that because you didn’t, either, and I’m not letting you drive right now,” Dick said, opening the driver’s door so he could open the trunk. “And Jason doesn’t have a legal driver’s license, and no one wants all that hassle, so I’ll drive. No biggie.”
Bruce looked wounded. He looked wounded most days, if someone knew how to look for it—it was in the tilt of the mouth, not the eyes. Bruce’s eyes were as unreadable as metal sheets. But his mouth had degrees of scowl, and today the approximate degree of scowl was heartbreak, and dammit, Dick had ignored Jason’s bullshit to avoid that expression, but he was getting it anyway. The mark of a man, Dick supposed, was to duck and get hit anyway.
Silently, Bruce climbed into the backseat, and Dick thanked every deity he could think of that at least Bruce was being reasonable. It was odd, how reasonable he was being, but back when Bruce had overdosed on Oxy after his spine had been broken, he’d acted much the same way. Similar circumstances.
Dick jerked his head to the front. “C’mon, Jason. You get to pick the music.”
Jason nodded. He opened the car door and then stopped. “Sorry, by the way,” he said.
Dick looked at him. He sighed, loudly. “Jesus Christ, Jason, I’m sorry I worded it that way, okay?”
Jason pulled himself into the car. “Okay,” he mumbled. He had a look of self-reproach on his face, and viciously Dick thought he damn well ought to.
“Off we go,” Dick muttered, slamming his door shut. He plugged the aux cord and the charging cord into his phone and tossed it Jason. “Password’s nineteen forty. Go to Spotify, pick what you want.”
Jason started at it. “Uh. Spotify?”
“You miss out a lot, huh, holed up like you are. App with a black background, green circle.”
It took tedious instruction but eventually Jason got Elton John playing and Google Maps routed to the cabin. Every so often Dick reached up and tilted the rearview mirror to check on Bruce—Bruce knocked out about a half an hour into the drive.
“Mute it, mute it,” Dick whispered, about two hours in.
Jason fumbled with the phone and paused the music. From the back, they heard a soft snore.
Jason covered his mouth and giggled. Dick grinned at him, and for a moment, just one, he felt like a brother to this weird, hurting man in his front seat—they weren’t Nightwing and the Red Hood, and the man in the backseat wasn’t Batman. They were just two brothers making fun of their dad. Just two brothers on a roadtrip with their dad, and maybe it could even be a normal roadtrip, and maybe their dad could be a dad that didn’t look wounded if only you knew where to look.
The trip was a little less tense, after that. But it was still quiet.
“Did I ever tell you about Salvatore,” Dick said, once he was sure Bruce was knocked out hard enough that even the talking wouldn’t wake him.
“No,” Jason said. “You, uh, you haven’t told me much about anything.”
“Well, we’ll fix that. Salvatore was a horse, I grew up with him. We had vaulting horses, a team of gorgeous white horses. All geldings. Salvatore was my favorite, he was my best friend—I used to bring him vanilla ice cream after the good shows, y’know. Bad ones, not enough money, and I was like, six. My parents handled my money, so it’s not like I could pay for it.”
“You were paid,” Jason said.
“What? ‘Course I was paid, I was a performer. And I was a damn good one. Salvatore was a weird one, because he wasn’t just a vaulting horse, he was trained to ride. We had no saddles, so I rode him bareback with his halter and lead, and one summer when we were stuck in town for a while, I kept taking him to the beach. I’d ride him there, and he was a patient, good horse, y’know. I rode him straight into the water, used to jump in right off his back and climb back up and God knows what, I was eight and I did what eight year olds do, and that was be buckwild.”
Dick looked to Jason for some understanding, but he didn’t see it—only mild confusion.
“He died,” Dick continued. “The year after I left, they put him down. An’ sometimes, sometimes I think he might not have died if I’d gotten the courage to talk to Bruce about buying him, but I never did. I could talk to him about everything but that.”
“Oh,” Jason said.
“I think,” Dick said, haltingly, “you remind me of Salvatore.”
“Because you can’t talk to Bruce about me.”
“No,” Dick said.
The ride was, predictably, silent until they stopped. Even when they stopped, they exchanged the bare minimum of words. Jason ducked into the Sheetz to use the bathroom, and Dick shook Bruce’s shoulder and asked him if he needed to go in, and Bruce growled and rolled over. It was so typical Bruce that Dick couldn’t help but laugh. So Jason hopped back in the car, and the silence resumed.
That left Dick’s mind to wander, and the wandering was unpleasant; Dick hated any mindless, thoughtless, menial task. It was not something he had hated for his entire life. It was not something he had beloved in childhood and scorned in adulthood, either—it was a schism at a specific break in his life, a fault line called Darkseid killed my dad. Dick had screamed at Bruce’s grave, he had wailed at Bruce’s grave, he had craned his head and sobbed into the dirt before Bruce’s grave, but he had never walked away from it. When it came to incessant, all-consuming grief—the kind that a young child can’t feel for their parents, because a young child doesn’t know their parents the way they will when they’re older, the kind of grief that comes from knowing every piece of someone and not comprehending life without them—Dick took all of his plays out of Bruce’s playbook. He worked hard, harder than he ever had before, as he poured himself into Bruce’s crusade and Bruce’s son. He learned how to move on by forgetting how to stop—but Bruce was alive, Bruce was with him in flesh and bone, and Dick couldn’t remember how to hit the break.
Once, desperately, Dick tried to start up another conversation with Jason.
“So,” he said. “New phone.”
“I know shit about it,” Jason said, flipping it over, glancing at both the front and back of the thing. “I got a passcode, that’s about it.”
“You need a case. A strong one, phones these days break like spiderwebs.”
Jason looked at him. “That’s a good thing. Spiderwebs are strong, relative to their size.”
“I mean, to spiders, but at our size they’re just—okay, you don’t have to look at me like that, I know I’m an idiot.”
Jason grinned. “Damn straight,” he said.
There, the conversation died off. Dick didn’t try to start a new one. Speaking with Jason didn’t come naturally to him, and he was tired, bone tired. At six o’clock in the evening Dick almost suggested stopping for the night, but there was daylight still. Dick had promised, and Bruce still didn’t look great.
They pulled in, finally, around ten thirty—they stopped twice more, and Bruce finally shook himself awake and snaked a hand over the headrest of the seat to run his fingers through Jason’s hair. Dick had to grip the steering wheel tighter to hide how his hands shook. He kept his eyes carefully on the road, and did not look over, and he repeated to himself, I am not jealous, I am not jealous, I am not jealous.
“Thank fuck,” Dick said, twisting the knob to turn off the headlights. He leaned over and poked Jason in the shoulder and Jason jolted awake. “Whoa, tiger. Just waking you up, we’re here. You can sleep in a bed.”
Jason grumbled something beneath his breath. He swung the car door outwards and half-fell out of the car, groggily stumbling towards the door.
Bruce squeezed Dick’s shoulder. Dick’s hand came up to cover his. “I’m beat,” Dick said.
“Thank you,” Bruce said.
Dick turned around and flashed him a grin he knew must look awful. “I’m pretty amazing, huh. Got us all here in one piece.”
“Yes,” Bruce said. Bruce’s eyebrows pushed together and folded the skin between them. “You are. I am lucky, Dick, that I met you. You save me.”
The words looked like they hurt to say, so Dick shut his open mouth so fast his teeth clicked together, and pressed a kiss to the top of Bruce’s wrist. “I think,” he said, “it’s the other way around, Brucester.”
Bruce turned away, but Dick didn’t—he watched the corner of Bruce’s eye grow shiny and wet. “I missed—I missed that.”
“That name. I missed that.”
Dick squeezed Bruce’s hand. “Not as much as I missed saying it. Oh my God, you used to get so annoyed. Remember that?” Dick tried on an impression of Bruce’s voice; “‘Why are you making my name rhyme with rooster, Dick?’”
Bruce chuckled. That was Dick’s laugh of the day. With his other hand, he wiped at his eyes. “Yes. Yes, I do. I would never forget.”
The conversation paused. Dick leaned his cheek against Bruce’s wrist, and said, “You’re gonna be okay. You will be. It’s gonna suck ass, it really is—I mean, I have no idea how it feels, but I can guess that it’ll suck ass because nothing that’s worth getting to is easy. I think that’s the mark of man, doing things that are hard because they’re worth it. You’ve done hard things. You can do another one. I believe in you.”
Bruce bowed his head. “Five days after my son died,” he said, “I went to sleep for the first time, after. Strong sedatives. Getting out of that bed the next morning is the hardest thing I have ever done. It will be the hardest thing I ever do.”
Dick swallowed. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be,” Bruce said. “You have done more than anyone could’ve asked of you. Thank you, Dick. I mean it.”
Dick glanced at the front door Jason had left open for them. Bruce couldn’t always be right, he supposed.
Bruce opened his door and was halfway out before he said, “Dick.”
“I believe in you. To do the same,” he said, and he rose stiffly, and shut the front door behind him.
Dick stayed in the car so long he fell asleep there, and he dreamt of white horses with gray flecks and seafoam and soft, velvety lips nibbling at his hair.
Chapter 2: Push and Pull
Hey guys. Here's 'nother one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Jason was Robin, Nightwing had given him his card. Now that Jason thought about it, the whole thing was a little ridiculous, because where would Dick even keep a stack of cards with his phone number scribbled on them? Were there really that many situations Nightwing could resolve over the phone? Had Dick just walked into a print shop and bought blank cards, was that even a thing that people could do? It was ridiculous the second Jason had thought about it, but all he could think when he’d been handed that card was Robin likes me. Of course, that night Dick and Bruce had a colossal fight that Jason had tried to listen to at the top of the Cave stairs, but he couldn’t make out anything other than vague yelling and even that turned his stomach, so he snuck around Alfred so Alfred wouldn’t know he’d been sneaking around and scampered off to his room. But Robin liked him, the Robin liked him, and Jason was over the moon.
He carried that card everywhere. He slid it carefully into the X-Men wallet that Bruce got him and took it to school, and he carefully copied down the number (after a long debate on whether one number was an incomplete eight or a six with an abnormally long pen stroke) and tucked it into the utility belt of his suit. There wasn’t a moment he was without it, and all those months he carried it, he worked on screwing up the courage to pick up the phone and finally, finally call—eventually it stretched out long enough that Jason was sure Dick hardly remembered him, but he didn’t lose hope. Robins didn’t lose hope, even about the smallest things; Robins didn’t lose hope for anything, ever.
One day at breakfast, though, Bruce told Jason he was taking Jason’s school night bedtime from ten thirty down to nine thirty, because he knew Jason was staying up late to nab books from the library and read them under the sheet with a flashlight. Jason had felt betrayed, and that night he’d slunk out of his room after bedtime and went down to the big phone in the kitchen and held the card from his wallet in his shaking hand. He dialed the number, and twisted the phone cord around his fingers while he waited, and thought about opening lines; B is being totally unreasonable, which Dick could maybe relate to, was what he’d settled on. B is being totally unreasonable, he would start with, and when Dick said something along the lines of how can I help (because that’s what Robins did, of course, that was the golden rule of being a Robin) Jason would ask Dick to sneak him out for ice cream. They’d talk, they’d bond, and maybe, just maybe Jason would be worth his time. Having a brother didn’t sound bad at all. Having a brother sounded like the thing he wanted most in the world, when he was thirteen and his world was small.
All that hope was for nothing, because Dick never answered the phone.
Feeling betrayed by Bruce was quickly replaced by feeling crushed by Dick, but maybe, just maybe, he was busy. Maybe he would call back. Jason went as far as sleeping by the phone the Thursday after (and being carried back upstairs to his bed by Bruce) before he knew that Dick wasn’t going to call him back. As stupid as it felt now when Jason looked back on it, it had hurt, at thirteen, that implicit rejection. He had shaken with excitement when he’d taken that card from Nightwing’s glove. It was the chance he’d been waiting for, the one he needed to make a good impression, to prove that he was Robin and a good Robin, and could have the same qualities as a brother. He’d moped the week after and finally Bruce had confronted him and Jason broke down on him, mumbling things like m’nothing and nobody and nobody wants me, and Bruce had responded to all of it with a simple, you are Robin. You are something good to everyone in this city. And I will always want you, and I will always love you.
It impressed him to this day that Bruce had said both. For a man who was so deeply blunt, he could be perceptive, and the difference between wanting someone and loving someone was a vast one, to Jason; he had been one or the other, at times, he had been neither, but he had never been both so consistently.
“You,” Bruce grumbled, shifting beside Jason, “are thinking too loudly.”
Jason opened his eyes. He pressed his cheek to Bruce’s shoulder, feeling through the thin cotton longsleeve a ragged, raised scar. It must have bled enormously. “Sorry.”
Bruce’s eyes still weren’t open. Jason suspected he wasn’t willing to give up sleep just yet. “Think quieter.”
“I’m really quietly thinking that you need a shower. Your hair looks gross.”
Bruce opened one eye. The corner of his mouth quirked upwards. “Oh, is that so.”
“Yeah, it’s very so,” Jason said. “Go shower. I’ll make breakfast.”
Bruce’s other eye opened and he frowned. “You don’t have to do that, Jay.”
Nobody calls me that anymore.
Jason kissed Bruce’s shoulder. “I like cooking, dumbass. I came on this trip to make sure you idiots got fed somehow.”
Then Jason pulled himself out of the bed, stretched his arms out over his head and curled his spine until it popped. Bruce had rolled into the warm space Jason had left behind, lazing in it like a cat in spilled sunlight, so he bent over, picked up a pillow, and hit Bruce in the face with it.
Bruce whuffed. “I’m going,” he said sourly.
“I’ll make whatever we have,” Jason said. He got up and left through the bedroom door, closing it softly behind him. He’d picked this room last night because it was the first one he’d stumbled across when he’d taken the key from the SUV’s center console and left Dick and Bruce to whatever it was they did, and Bruce had found him a couple minutes later and murmured, can I talk to you. He never got to talking, though—he climbed onto the bed beside Jason and was out like a light. Jason had pulled off his shoes and lined them up by the door and found a blanket in a closet somewhere in the house and draped it over him.
The cabin was a rustic, homey log cabin buried deep in the Appalachian mountains—Jason had been up here once with Bruce when they were hunting a serial killer werewolf, one that, every summer, murdered five young women in East End and dragged them back to his den at the start of fall. Watching Bruce knock out a werewolf had been kind of awesome, all told, and he’d used the forest as a chance to teach Jason some wilderness survival skills, which was even cooler than the whole werewolf business, in Jason’s opinion. He’d been taught how to skin a deer and how to properly cook it over a fire, Bruce had given him the basics of making a bow and arrow from scratch, and—he just had fond memories of the place. Unscarred, un-mutilated memories that shone like gold in the back of his head.
It was huge, six bedrooms and four bathrooms, two living rooms, a room with a gleaming dark wood pool table, and the kitchen. Nowhere near the size of the Manor’s, but a lovely kitchen nonetheless; granite countertops, white cupboards. There were two problems with the kitchen, though; one, the fridge was empty and there were only cans of nonperishable vegetables and meats in those white cupboards, and two, in the pantry, there were several dusty bottles of wine clustered in one corner.
Jason slammed the door shut, as if Bruce were just about to walk by, and sprinted up the stairs. Dick was in none of the bedrooms, and the one occupied bathroom was occupied by Bruce—and Jason could tell it was him, because the humming emanating from the bathroom was a deep baritone sound. Jason searched the other rooms, all of which turned up empty, until he happened to glance out of the window into the driveway, and ran from the second living room on the left side of the house to the foyer and down to the black SUV parked in the middle of the drive.
Jason swung the driver’s side door open. Dick, who’d been curled up against it, fell out and sprawled on the ground, groaning.
“You fell asleep in the fucking car,” Jason said, disbelievingly.
Dick pushed himself up and held himself in a push-up position, hovering above the gravel. “Just do me a favor and run me over, there’s a kink in my neck that feels like Satan is playing the xylophone with my spine. I’m willing to wait but make it snappy.”
“I don’t have a legal license,” Jason sneered. “No driving for me.”
“Oh, are you still on about that?”
“I’m on about something else, and that something else is that you’re a total idiot.”
Dick craned his head and squinted up at Jason. “Yeah, yeah, I get that.”
Jason crossed his arms. “No, you don’t. The pantry’s full of you-know-what.”
“What the fuck is you-know-what?” Dick asked, pulling himself to a standing position. He dusted off his hands on his jeans and hissed. “Fuck.” When he turned over his hand, it was dark with slow-seeping blood and bits of dirt and gravel.
“You’ve been shot before, relax, it’s a skinned hand.”
“What the fuck is you-know-what?” Dick repeated, settling his hands on his hips.
Jason worried his lip. “There’s a bunch of wine bottles in the pantry, Dickwad. And we also don’t have groceries. Bruce is in the shower, so we have time, but I don’t want him to see—”
Dick held out a hand. “I’ll handle it. I’ll pour ‘em out in the woods, and then, uh, fuck. Can you make me a grocery list while I’m gone? I’d ask Bruce, but he’d ask for whole wheat bread and coffee and nothing else, and then go kill a deer and make steaks for dinner, ‘cause he’s a fucking animal.”
Jason glanced pensively at the cabin. “You’re gonna, need, uh, help. There’s… a lot in there, and we need to hurry.”
Dick scrubbed the back of his head. “After this, I am sleeping the rest of the day. Don’t wake me up for anything, I don’t want to hear it.” He stalked off towards the front door of the cabin, which Jason had left open in his haste.
“Asshole,” Jason muttered under his breath.
Together they managed to carry all the bottles to the woods, glass clinking together as they walked. Dick was nearly silent, prowling along beside him like a cat, but Jason felt clumsy and too big for the thick undergrowth of the area—it was a very old forest, and densely packed. The ground beneath his feet felt almost hollow for all of the decomposing leaf litter it was composed of. He tripped every other step, too, because the roots were long and winding and criss-crossed the forest floor like roads on a map.
When they were far enough away, Dick picked up a white zinfandel by the neck and smashed it against a tree like a baseball bat—wine and glass arched through the air, glittering little specks—and then he threw a grin over his shoulder at Jason. “This’ll be fun,” he said. “Good stress relief, smashing things.”
“I don’t like… smashing things,” Jason said, quietly.
Dick shrugged. He picked up another bottle and smashed it against the tree in the same way. “Whew, look at the spin on that one. Can you believe it?”
“Stop,” Jason snapped. His voice was breathless. It felt like his chest was wrapped in the body of a constrictor snake, slowing squeezing the life out of him.
“What, are you upset? Wishing you had a knife on you?” Dick smashed another bottle. “How do you like the fucking sound of that?”
The tension between them, rotten, filled with maggots, boiled over.
Jason grabbed Dick by the shoulder, turned him over and punched him across the jaw, and then punched him again, feeling a satisfying crack against his knuckles. Dick kneed him in the gut and moved faster than Jason could even register; before he knew it Dick was crouched on top of him and raining silverfish-fast blows down, one after the other, fist after fist, like lightning. No one ever said Nightwing couldn’t fight.
“Stop,” Jason croaked. And Dick did. His fist stopped, pulled back behind him, and dropped to his side.
What shocked Jason was that Dick was crying, tiny gleaming tears cutting a path down his cheeks. I didn’t even hit him that hard, Jason thought, wildly.
“The night you killed the Joker,” he said. “The night you killed the Joker, you know what happened after that?”
“Dick,” Jason said, slowly. “I don’t remember the week after that. I lost all of that.”
Dick turned his head to the side, looking out into the forest. A muscle in his jaw worked, and Jason studied the curious way a tear rolled over it as it jumped. “He didn’t contact anyone to come and get him, that he was injured. I had to activate the tracker in his suit. He flatlined.”
Dick grabbed him by the collar and shook him. His expression was savage. “He died, you little weasel. You almost—you don’t get to tell me what to do, when you killed my—”
“I didn’t,” Jason interrupted. Dick’s face twisted into something apoplectic and Jason continued quickly: “I didn’t—I didn’t think—I know, I know this won’t be a good enough answer for you, ‘cause I’m not good enough for you, but I didn’t… I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t think that would happen. I wasn’t thinking, at all, the Pit, it doesn’t let you think. I didn’t—I didn’t ask to die. I didn’t ask to go in the Pit, I didn’t. I don’t want any of this, and I don’t know what I’m doing, and—and fuck, I’m sorry for hitting you, but you can’t… you can’t smash things like that near me. I’m sorry, it just, it just makes it worse.”
Dick’s eyes were sharp. “Why,” he said.
“Why. Why shouldn’t I smash things, what’s the reason. What is your grand rationale. Convince me I should give a singular fuck about what you need, when you’ve shown you’re so damn good at not doing that for other people.”
Jason swallowed. He was uncomfortably aware that the man on top of him was dangerous, despite being several inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter. “Willis, uh, he used to throw glasses, plates when he was angry. At me, I mean, and—that’s the thing I can’t think about, without… losing it.”
Please understand, Jason pleaded, internally. I can’t keep doing this.
Dick closed his eyes and wiped the blood off his mouth. His mouth was turned into a shaky, twitching frown. “Everything I don’t know about you makes me feel like so much more of an asshole, y’know that? I’m sorry, Jason. I should’ve stopped when you told me to. But—you can’t hit people every time they remind you of that bastard. I should’ve stopped, that’s true, and I shouldn’t have hit back. But you just can’t, y’know.”
“S’okay. Shouldn’t have stabbed our dad. Are you gonna consider getting off me or is your ass just comfy there.”
Dick huffed. He smirked a little. “I’ll fucking say. And, what can I say. You make a good ass cushion.”
Dick scrambled upright, and then he offered a hand to Jason—after a moment’s hesitation, Jason took it and stood, shakily. “Thanks,” he said.
Dick didn’t let go of his hand. “Last night, Bruce told me the hardest thing he’s ever done was wake up and get out of bed for the first time after you died.”
“Oh,” Jason said, dumbly. He tried to imagine it, Bruce then, but found he couldn’t—couldn’t somehow imagine a world where he’d been missed.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done was lose him,” Dick said. “I’m not mad at you for killing the Joker. I have tried. Bruce has tried. I’m mad at you for almost taking him from me and my siblings.”
My siblings, he’d said. And you’re not one of them.
Jason nodded, swallowed back hurt. “Fair. That’s fair. But can we—can we strike a deal.”
Dick’s eyes sharpened again. “Jason, the way I see it, you’re not in a position to bargain.”
“You have to stop doing the thing that you do where—where you just ignore me, when I ask you to stop. You… have to listen.”
Dick kept his gaze fixed on Jason’s face. “I don’t know you,” he said.
“I’m asking you a simple thing,” Jason pleaded. Pleading, he always was, with Dick.
“No, I mean, I don’t know what to watch for. Tim, Damian, Cass—I’m good, with them. I know what I can and can’t do. I’m not good with you, Jason. So, uh, a list. Maybe when you write the grocery list. Give me a list, a general list, of things to avoid, and—I’ll listen when you tell me to stop. And… work on not hitting people, when they piss you off.”
Jason was so relieved, his brain checked out for a moment; he threw his arms around Dick and squeezed. “Thank you,” he mumbled, into Dick’s shoulder.
Dick was stiff for a moment before his hand patted Jason’s back. It occurred to Jason how badly that could’ve just gone, and he almost extricated himself from the grip, but—he’d wanted this for a while, now. He wasn’t letting go just yet. “I’m sorry for hitting you back,” Dick said. “You didn’t deserve that.”
Together they poured out the rest of the alcohol and headed back to the cabin in silence, a silence that, this time, was more companionable.
Bruce was so angry he had to leave the room, and then come back fifteen minutes later with a scowl carved deeply into his marble face. “Are you happy with yourselves,” he said, dangerously quiet.
“Extremely,” Dick said, cheekily, at the same time Jason mumbled, “No,” and stared hard at the floor.
“You hit each other again, and we will leave,” Bruce snarled. “Immediately. I’m not asking you to tolerate each other. You don’t even have to stay in the same room, for all I care. I am asking you to not hurt each other.”
“Bruce,” Dick said. “We, we’re trying, alright?”
Bruce’s eyes burned. “And this is trying, to you.”
“It’s close enough!” Dick shouted. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. “Close enough,” he repeated, voice more throaty.
Bruce’s scowl carved itself deeper, if possible. “Excuse me. When did close enough become the standard of this family? When have I ever asked for anything less than your best?”
Jason shrunk in his seat. That was the thing, about being a Robin—Batman asked for your best, constantly. He would patiently work with you to achieve your best, but he would never settle for anything less; there simply was no space to be mediocre.
“I don’t know, since you decided a couple shots was close enough to sober?” Dick snapped.
Jason had to clap a hand over his mouth to keep from gasping—now, he could see how Bruce and Dick could have such extravagant fights, because apparently Dick didn’t know when to quit. Bruce’s mouth flattened. His face went bloodless and his expression looked paper thin and he looked so much like he’d been physically hurt Jason as almost surprised to not see blood soaking his shirt.
Rage coursed through Jason’s veins. Hypocrite, hypocrite, hypocrite. “Oh, so I see how it is, asshole. You get mad at me for one thing, but it’s fine when you do the same?”
“If you think those are nearly the same, I’ll—”
“Shut up!” Bruce roared. “Both of you.”
Jason fixed his eyes on the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Dick at least had the grace to look chastised.
“If you have an issue with me,” Bruce said, staring at Dick, “you take it up with me. You do not beat it out on your brother.”
“I didn’t start it!” Dick shouted. He flung a hand at Jason. “That would be not my fucking brother over here.”
The plastic of the phone cord around his finger—he’d been so excited, so overwhelmingly excited in the way only a small boy could be. He still knew the number. He’d memorized it and carried it with him even through death, even though Dick had probably changed numbers multiple times by now, even though Dick didn’t care.
“A fight takes two,” Bruce said. He turned to Jason. “You understand I’m not pleased with you, either.”
“I know,” Jason mumbled. He worked off his shoes, to keep the couch from getting dirty, and folded his knees in front of him, pressing his mouth to his coarse jeans.
“Maybe he wouldn’t have stabbed you if you actually disciplined him,” Dick muttered.
“Jason beats himself up enough,” Bruce said. “Unlike some people, who like to dig themselves a deeper hole. Dick, take the car. I don’t care where you go. The store, if you want to be useful. When you’re back, we’ll have a calm, productive discussion about this.”
Dick stalked to the door. When he was there, standing with it open, he called down, “You just hate it when I’m honest with you!” and left. A couple seconds later, the SUV rolled out of its spot, gravel crunching beneath its wheels.
Bruce stared at the door for a long moment. “Poor kid,” he sighed.
“‘Poor kid’?” Jason repeated, incredulous. “He just said something awful to you!”
Bruce looked down at him. “He’s stressed and he hasn’t been sleeping. Of course he did.”
Jason folded his arms above his knees. “We had it worked out,” he said, quietly. “I don’t know why he’s still angry. I think he just hates me.”
“That’s not it,” Bruce said. “He doesn’t look at you like he hates you.”
“How does he, then.”
“Like he feels guilty.” Bruce sat down, beside Jason. “Tell me what happened.”
“We went out to the woods. We fought, I started it, he ended it. We kinda worked it out, but now I don’t know.”
Bruce hummed. “Good. You’ve got the lie out of your system. Now tell me what actually happened.”
Jason glanced at him nervously. “I found, uh, booze in the cabinet, so we took it away. He smashed a bottle against a tree, an’ I asked him to stop, he didn’t, and I punched him. Twice. Then he kicked my ass.”
“I see that,” Bruce said, dryly. “If it helps, Dick can kick my ass.”
Jason raised his head a bit and smiled at him. “I think you’d hold your own. Maybe.”
Bruce tapped him on the shoulder. “Hop up, son. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Bruce led him to the bathroom by the foyer and gestured for him to sit down on the edge of the tub. Jason did, bouncing one leg up and down, and Bruce ducked under the sink to pull out a basic first aid kit. He tore open an alcohol swab packet with his teeth.
“Ew, cooties,” Jason said with a grin.
“I’m your father, I think you’ll survive some of my DNA,” Bruce said. He crouched down in front of Jason and set a hand on Jason’s knee. “Be still and lean forward.”
“Yes, sir,” Jason said, and he leaned forward and closed his eyes.
Bruce dabbed at his face. “You are going to have quite the shiner. You’re lucky your eye socket isn’t broken.”
Jason frowned. It tugged unpleasantly at his split lip. “Am I?”
“Dick did it to me, accidentally, when he was a kid. He’s always been fast.”
Jason chuckled. “Did he?”
“He kicked me,” Bruce rumbled. “Never saw it coming. A short little thing, he was, and he did a move I hadn’t planned for—he jumped up, kicked off the wall, and got me in the face.”
Jason bellowed a laugh. Bruce laughed, too, but it was quiet and small but lovely all the same.
“I’m sorry for starting it,” Jason said, after a while. “I shouldn’t have.”
“You are correct,” Bruce said. He rubbed underneath Jason’s nose, and then there was the sound of his knee popping as he stood, the rattle of the trash bag as Bruce tossed the soiled swab, the faint ripping of another packet. Bruce settled back in front of Jason with another pop. “We need to get back in the habit of working together. That seemed to help you control those impulses.”
“You just miss me,” Jason said, grinning.
“That I do,” Bruce said warmly, and it was enough for Jason to feel his toes curl in his socks.
Bruce worked swiftly. It stung, but just a bit, and Bruce was exceedingly gentle. “You can open your eyes, now,” he said, finally.
Jason blinked. “I was about to go to sleep,” he said.
“You can sleep, if you want.”
Jason shook his head. “Can we, uh, can we maybe—meditate, or something?”
Bruce nodded. He squeezed Jason on the shoulder. “Of course.”
They moved to the deck to meditate. Bruce brought out a blanket to lay over the dark-stained wood, and got into position—he seemed, for lack of a better word, enthusiastic. Maybe he actually had missed Jason that much.
Jason followed, more tentatively. He was awful at meditation, awful at clearing his mind. He overthought and left the session more stressed out than when he’d gone in. But he didn’t want to talk and he wanted to be near Bruce, and this seemed as good a strategy as any to get both of those things at once.
“Wait,” Jason asked, after a couple of minutes. “How did you know we didn’t have groceries?”
“I have eyes, Jason. I looked.”
“Oh.” Jason squirmed. “Well, uh. I was supposed to write Dick a list.”
“I doubt he’ll go to the store covered in blood.”
I don’t know you, Dick had said.
“There’s something I have to go do,” Jason said. “Do you, er, have notebook paper? A pen?”
“Check the office,” Bruce said. He sounded vaguely disappointed.
Jason stood, staring down at him awkwardly. “I, uh. Yeah. I’ll be back when I’m done.”
“Good,” Bruce said, eyes sliding shut again.
Jason went back through the sliding glass door and headed to the back of the cabin to the office. The office was a big, sunlit room with three windows, a black HP printer, a massive and old-fashioned desk, and a red, patterned rug that felt thick and soft beneath Jason’s socks. He dug some copy paper out of the printer and a pen out of the top drawer, and sat down at the desk, tapping the end of the pen against the wood.
Smashing things, he wrote in, beside a number one and a dot. His handwriting was practically chickenscratch. Then he wrote down yelling, even though he could usually take yelling—some days he couldn’t, and he didn’t know how to pick between the days yet, so he wrote it down to be careful. Extension cords. Wire clothes hangers. Cigarette smoke. The list lengthened, slowly, and when Jason read over it he flinched at the length.
Willis had smoked. Jason had circular scars crawling up his arms from where he’d used Jason as an ashtray—he’d used to grind some in deeper until Jason cried, and then smirk nastily. They’d also had a couple wire hangers left by the last people who’d rented their apartment, and one night Willis had untwisted one, doubled it up, and used it to whip Jason’s backside, which hadn’t been so bad afterwards but the thinness of the hanger had stung a fair amount. But the most memorable of the list was the extension cord. Jason didn’t remember how old he’d been—funny, that was, that he could remember something so clearly but not remember that something’s when—but Willis had taken the plug of the neighbour’s extension cord to Jason’s back. How had that conversation gone? I need to borrow your extension cord. You’ll have it back in an hour and a half, I just need to beat my kid with it. Jason had never even seen what his back looked like, but Catherine looked at him like she’d seen a ghost.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Jason said.
Bruce pushed the door open, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe. His face looked oddly grave. There was an equal chance it was bad news or that was just how his face was structured, stony and grave. “Dick’s not back. I had Alfred activate the tracker in the car, and he’s about two hours away, so we’ll have to order lunch. Come look over the menu.”
“Sorry I didn’t come back out,” Jason said. “I meant to, I really did, I just—”
Bruce raised a hand. “It’s alright, Jay. I’m not angry. A little curious. But not angry.”
“Oh. Oh, it’s, uh.” Jason looked down at the list. It was long. It continued over on the back, and it didn’t even feel like everything. “Dick asked me to write down, uh, things that he shouldn’t do around me, so I don’t go… nuts.”
“Did he?” Bruce asked. “That’s progress.”
“I guess,” Jason said. “You can come in. You—you probably know most of this, already.”
Bruce pocketed his phone and crossed the room. He stood beside Jason, one hand resting on Jason’s shoulder, and then he leaned forward and took the paper and wrote down in looping cursive, wooden hairbrushes.
“Oh,” Jason said.
“I always used plastic combs on you, after that.” Bruce pressed a kiss to Jason’s hair. “Leave this alone for now. You need to eat.” Bruce held his phone under Jason’s nose. “Pick something.”
“You found the fanciest restaurant possible, somehow.”
“You like food,” Bruce answered, simply. Jason looked down and studied his lap and tried not to think about Bruce remembering an offhand comment, maybe matching it with some of Jason’s prior behavior, to do something small and kind for Jason, because if he thought about it too long he’d get a stupid grin on his face.
Jason took the phone and scrolled through the options. “Can we even order lunch from this place?”
“I called ahead.”
Jason raised an eyebrow.
“I’m giving them five hundred dollars for this,” Bruce said.
Jason swallowed. Five hundred dollars was—that had been rich, for him, growing up. He used to think doctors were rich because they made forty grand a year, and imagine his surprise when he discovered what doctors actually made.
Bruce picked up the list and folded it carefully. “Leave this here for now.”
Jason nodded. “Okay,” he said, quietly. “Uh. The ravioli looks good.”
Bruce took the phone and tapped a couple buttons. “I’ll call them. Go into the living room, pick out something to watch.”
Jason nodded again. “There,” he swallowed, hard, and said, “the plugs. The, the plugs.”
Bruce cupped Jason’s cheeks and kissed his forehead. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said.
Jason slowed his breathing and kept his eyes closed, trying to relax as much as possible.
“Jason,” Bruce called. “I rearranged some things. Everything should be covered.”
“Thank you,” Jason said. “I don’t, uh. I don’t usually do this, I just—”
“You don’t usually have to think about it,” Bruce finished for him. “I know. Go and relax, I’ll follow shortly.”
Jason stood—his head felt stuffed with cotton, so on his way to the living room, he ran his fingers along the wall so he could try and focus on the sensation of it. It helped a little, but what helped the most was when Bruce came back and pushed the ottoman to the couch so they could lay beside each other, watching Planet Earth, Jason curled into his side.
There was a kind of safety in being with Batman that only a Robin could fully realize—the kind of safety that the sky recognizes in the earth, where no matter how hard the sky rages and tumbles, the earth will hold steady beneath.
“You’re gonna be okay,” Jason mumbled into Bruce’s chest, watching a lion chase an antelope.
“Curious,” Bruce said.
Jason looked up at him. “What?”
“Dick told me the same thing.”
Jason swallowed, and turned his attention back to the TV. They spent the afternoon like that, pressed close, enjoying the push and pull of life played out before them.
Hope you enjoyed! And yes, Jason likes ravioli, because I like ravioli and it is inhumane to me to not enjoy a good, hot ravioli dish, even if it's Chef Boyardee. Trust me, I could fuck up some Chef Boyardee, let me tell you. He also likes the X-Men, because they're real and I said so, and when I wrote that I thought about the amalgam comics debacle and Darkclaw, the fusion of Wolverine (a super kill-y kinda Canadian) and Batman (not Canadian, super no kill-y) which is super fucking hilarious. SOMEONE in the family had to love X-Men for this reason, and Dick's obvious favorite is Spiderman, and Bruce is more of a classy Gray Ghost type, and Tim's more of "I like Spiderman because of the PS4 game" type, and if Damian touched a comic his favorite would be Dick's favorite because CLEARLY Grayson's taste is superior, I don't see Cass having much interest on account of still struggling with language and sometimes the erm "anatomy" of comics can be super offputting to someone who relies on reading body language, and I think comics is still such a boys' club so much of the time there's a good bet to make on Steph feeling excluded from the experience, but if she wasn't, she'd like classic Hawkeye. There's a reason I'm saying she'd like classic Hawkeye. There is a person I know who loves classic Hawkeye, and also Steph, and this one's for you. So that's why it falls to Jason to love X-Men. It's pure science. Peer-reviewed, even, I had my dog read this author's note to confirm it.
A quick note, guys. I use the pre-crisis explanation for how Jason became Robin (as in, Dick passed down the uniform himself) and this changes how Jason responds to Dick in #416 dramatically. Obviously, Jason isn't as worried about Dick taking Robin, that sort of thing - it pushes all of that out of the way, so Jason's main concern is the main concern of plenty of mistreated kids with low self-esteem: validation from the Cool Awesome Older Brother Figure. Because I don't really adhere to any one canon, and often throw the canon out of the window ([Will Graham voice] This is my design) and make up my own where Jason's concerned, everything that's relevant to the story, I'll tell you in the text. So basically don't worry about what's canon! I'll tell ya! Let me take you on a ride down the lazy river, turn off your notifications, it's fuckin Saturday chillin. Don't worry. I got u. Call me Allstate because ur in safe hands
Chapter 3: The White Horse
Chuggin smoothly along, my dudes. Here's an update, my dudes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
At seven forty-five Dick pulled over on the side of the road to check his cellphone, and was surprised to find he had service. This high up the mountain, this deep in the forest, he’d thought it impossible. He’d been driving for hours and his vision was swimming, and his hands ached from gripping the wheel with a bloodless grip and they ached from punching Jason’s stunned face, and more minorly the dried blood down his face had started to get itchy. He sat on the side of the road for a couple of minutes attempting to relax his breathing. It failed miserably. His breaths skittered like a stone across water.
So he did the thing that Batman did when he was alone; he called his Robin.
“Hey, kiddo,” Dick said. “How are you? How’s life? I miss you already.”
“Brown is accompanying me in my studies tonight,” Damian said. “Life is… the way that it is.”
Dick grinned. It must’ve looked awful, it must’ve looked hideous, because that was how it felt to hold. “Tell her I said hey.”
“How are you? How is Father?” Damian demanded. “I want to know more of his situation immediately, Grayson, illness is no—”
“No can do, Damian, not now. Too sensitive. Bruce, y’know how he is, he’d have a fit, he’s private like that.”
“Unacceptable. I refuse to be left out of the loop like so. Perhaps I should—”
Dick choked on the sudden irritation barreling up his throat. “Stay put. Stay exactly where you are. Gotham needs Robin, right now, because Batman’s not around. You know how it goes. You know the rules.”
“Tt,” Damian said. He knew the rules well, and Dick knew that, so he didn’t press further. He got the sense Damian wanted him to, to prove himself.
“How’s Titus,” Dick asked, scrambling for another subject.
“I caught Pennyworth sneaking him carrots at dinner,” Damian said. “I approve of this change.”
Dick chuckled. “I told you, he secretly likes that dog. Titus does all the mopping for him. That dog’ll eat anything. Batcow?”
“She appreciates it when I nap in the stall beside hers at night. I have taken to doing so, recently.”
“Make sure you get good rest, real rest, though,” Dick said. “Alright? And how are you, actually?”
Dick didn’t expect a direct answer, not with Steph in the room—but he needed Damian that he was thinking of him, that he wondered about how Damian was doing. It was an important thing to reinforce.
“Tt. Fine,” Damian said tersely. “I miss you, as well,” he added in a whisper.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Dick said through a grin. “Go get everyone, I want to talk to them. Pass the phone to Steph, while you’re at it.”
There were muffled, static-ky noises as the phone was passed off, and then Steph chirped, “Coolest Batgirl speaking.”
“I’m actually impersonating Cass, today. She’s the actual coolest Batgirl, her costume is way scarier than mine, and that gives her so many cool points. What’s up?”
There was a note of nervous tension in the question. Steph had probably not expected to be handed the phone.
“Keep his mind off the fact that we’re gone,” Dick said. “That’s an order. I don’t want him coming after us, under any circumstances. I don’t care if he’s five minutes from our door, you come and get him.”
“Bossy,” Steph said, with stronger emphasis on the last syllable. “Bruce must really be sick, huh.”
“Steph,” Dick said warningly.
“I’ve got it covered. I’m letting him teach me about archosaurs, he loves that nerd shit. But now I’m curious. What exactly is this secret illness that possibly has something to do with how the wine cellar was bombed?”
Steph read into his silence. “C’mon, I’m not an idiot. Bruce trained me, too, even if it was for—a whole five seconds, kind of. I hear things. One minute, Jason’s around, the next, he’s not, the next, boom, the house is kind of on fire for a bit. It’s a fun and vivid life we lead where that is a sentence I can say with minimal worry.”
“I can’t tell you anything,” Dick said.
“Fine, you won’t talk to me. I didn’t expect you to. But can you at least talk to Cass?” Steph asked. “I’ve had to stop her from coming after you, uh, three times, now, and it’s only been two days, and I nearly got punched last time. And she punches like a damn freight train, I should know. Bruce can’t just leave her like that. It’s unfair, and she was already worried about him to begin with.”
“What am I, chopped liver,” Dick said sourly.
“I mean, you can handle yourself.”
Dick jerked back. “What, and Batman can’t?”
“He can, but he’s soft and gooey on the inside like a good grilled cheese sandwich, you know? Mm, that sounds good, actually. I don’t want to eat Bruce, just his food look-alike. You’re soft, but you kind of spread your soft around, so when you get hit there it doesn’t suck as much. You’re like a slightly burnt marshmallow.”
“Slightly burnt marshmallow,” Dick repeated.
“What, you disagree?” Steph asked.
Dick rubbed under his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “I think,” he said, “that I’m just a fucking asshole sometimes, no soft about it.”
“You can be, yeah,” Steph said.
“That’s a resounding vote of confidence.”
“You can be an asshole, Bruce can be a major asshole, Cass can be an asshole, Damian’s always an asshole, Tim’s a stealth asshole,” Steph said. “The only perfect people are me and Alfred.”
“You say that now, but wait until Alfred cusses you the fuck out. It happened to me yesterday. My hand to God, I will never cross that man again.”
Steph laughed. “If you think Alfred’s mean, try dealing with a shitty Cass—at least Alfred’s too stoic and British to bite. Seriously, talk to her. She’s driving herself crazy. And I can’t promise that even if you do talk to her, she won’t show up, because she’s like a human bazooka.”
Dick swallowed. “If she’s doing that bad, let her take a car and come up. Fuck. I didn’t even think about her when we left. I know that sounds shitty.”
“It does. You’re an asshole.”
“Thanks,” Dick said, dryly.
“I have some advice,” Steph said, slowly. “And the hunky-dory funky-groovy thing about advice is that no one ever wants to hear it and everyone wants to give it. Advice is the advisor’s gift, or whatever the heck that dead guy said. I mean, he’s probably dead? They’re usually dead. But if you want it, I’ll give it.”
Dick stared out of the windshield, at the dark trees straining toward the inkpot sky, stared out at the gray leaves fluttering in the low breeze, the patch of grass illuminated in his headlights and the bugs fluttering through the slanting beams. Dick swallowed again. “I’ll take whatever you’ve got, oh wise one. I maybe need some advice right now.”
“Thank you, I am a wise old lady. So we’re gonna stop pretending that I bought your bullshit earlier about Bruce having—what was it, mono?—and cut to the chase.”
“I thought I did a good job,” Dick said, slightly indignant. “I was pressed for time, okay?”
“You did,” Steph said. “Until I listened in on Alfred shouting at you. Don’t worry, I haven’t told Cass. She should hear it from him. Uh, whatever you, whatever you want to tell Damian—I’ll let you handle that. I can’t imagine that’s going to go over well.”
“Oh, great, you heard that?”
“Word for word. It was incredible. A smackdown like no other. What was it he started in on, blind-as-a-bat bloody tosser?”
“It was,” Dick said. He paused, and then said, “He’s a good man, you know, don’t—don’t think about him differently. Bruce, I mean. Alfred’s a good man, too, but I don’t think you’d change your opinion of him because he called me a tosser. In fact, you may actually like him more.”
“I do. Alfred’s my idol. What the hell, yeah, Bruce? A royal pain in my ass, but he does a lot of good, and he tries. Hard. Can’t fault a guy for trying.” Steph continued. “I’m not gonna pretend I know you inside and out. I don’t. The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is actually super weird to me, and kind of validating, because you’re like the Robin guy who gets to decide who does the Robin thing right, and this is kind of terrifying because I don’t think I did the Robin thing right, and oh my gosh I’ll shut up. I’m so sorry, I have no filter, and I’m going on a tangent.”
“You really don’t,” Dick said.
“But, the thing is, guilt isn’t noble,” Steph said. “Guilt isn’t some punishment that will cleanse you, or whatever. You can feel guilty all day, every day, but the guilt won’t fix you. It won’t fix what you have. At the end of the day you’ll be sitting in the same place you were the day before that and the day before that. Guilt and atonement aren’t the same thing.”
I think you remind me of Salvatore.
“So don’t, uh, don’t play the guilt card with Bruce, ‘kay? ‘Cause he’ll come back and nothing’s really fixed, it’s just taped over, and Cass will cry and I hate it when—hi, Damian! Oh, goodie, you found Timmy.”
Dick bit into his lip. Bruce, they were talking about Bruce—why would he think of Salvatore, why would he think of Jason.
“Pass the phone to Tim,” Dick said, roughly.
“—what the, oh? It’s Dick? Hey, Dick,” Tim said. “I didn’t know you were talking to Steph.”
“I should talk to Steph more, apparently. She’s a wise old lady.”
“Oh? Do you want to—?”
Dick shook his head, only remembering afterwards that Tim couldn’t see him, and said, “No, no, not now. Just in general. How are you, Tim?”
“Oh, good, saving Gotham singlehandedly because everyone goofs off when Bruce isn’t around. I mean that for real, I’m doing all the work, please hurry up and bring Bruce back so I can gloat to him about it.”
Dick barked a laugh. “Wish I was goofing off. Got my teeth rattled, today.”
“What? Bruce wouldn’t—what?”
“No! No, not Bruce, Jesus,” Dick said. He felt sick to his stomach at the implication alone. “It was Jason.”
Tim was silent.
“What are you thinking, kid?” Dick asked.
“Well. I was just thinking. You know, uh, how thinking goes,” Tim said, nervously. “Damian, I swear I’ll give you the phone, soon. Dick, I’m gonna step outside, for a moment.”
Dick leaned forward so his head was resting on the steering wheel. He waited until he heard the click of a door shutting, and the thump-thump-thump of feet on the wood floors for a while, before he said, “Tim?”
“I’m not an idiot, okay?”
“Why does everyone think I think that about them,” Dick sighed.
“Because you’re trying to keep us out of the loop! I understand Damian—he’s like, five. He’s a sensitive toddler asswipe. But how do you and Bruce up and decide to just, just leave, with Jason who doesn’t even talk to any of us, when I know there’s something up—”
Dick pressed his forehead harder against the steering wheel’s leather. “Tim. I know what’s going through your head. And it’s not that you weren’t good enough, kiddo, it was just—Jason does something for Bruce that none of us can do.”
“How was that relevant here,” Tim whined. “Jason died and he lived. I helped him do that. I don’t understand why I can’t help now.”
Dick’s short fuse ran out—something about Tim’s tone, something about Dick’s day, something about the damn itchiness from the dried blood he’d never bothered to wash off his face. “I’m sick and fucking tired of trying to fix things Bruce fucks up, okay? Call me tomorrow. I’ll be a good little Robin then. I’ll tell you everything you want to hear. Everything. But until then, I’m done, okay? I’ve had it. I swear to God, I’ve fucking had it.”
“How are you, Dick,” Tim asked softly.
“I want to get out of this fucking car and lay down in the middle of the road and just wait,” Dick snarled.
“Dick,” Tim said, alarmed.
Dick slammed his head down on the wheel. “You know what’s the worst? I keep doing this. I keep getting short with people and screwing things five ways to Sunday, you know?”
“What happened?” Tim asked.
“I got in a fight with Jason, Bruce was mad. I said something awful that I can’t take back because it was kind of true, and he told me to cool down and I’ve been driving ‘round the boondocks since fuck knows when.”
“What’d you say?”
Dick huffed. “Can’t tell you.”
Tim groaned. “Dick, this is what I mean! How are any of us supposed to help if you won’t tell anyone what’s wrong in the first place?”
“Maybe I respect Bruce’s right to privacy,” Dick said icily.
“What happens to him,” Tim said shortly, “happens to all of us. He’s the Jenga block.”
Tim sniffed. “The Jenga block, the one that, if you pull it out, the whole thing topples over. That’s him. We have to know things, Dick.”
“Why can’t anyone just call him? Or Jason, I guess, or—anyone else, for five fucking minutes?”
“Dick,” Tim said, “you started this call.”
Dick swung open the car door and smashed his phone on the asphalt with a strangled scream. He picked up the shattered pieces and threw them through the air, still screaming, and they landed in the gravel on the other side of the road. He kicked the front tire, slammed the car door shut, and then punched the metal side of the car with his split-knuckled right hand and didn’t bat an eye when something in his hand cracked and pain like spitting fire bolted up his arm. It seemed to shock him out of his violent stupor, just for an infinitesimal moment, but then he grabbed his hair with both hands and pulled until thin clots came out and they drifted to the asphalt. Blood dotted the roots of one clump, and Dick prodded at the empty spot—his fingers came away red.
Real smart, you fucking imbecile, now you have to drive with a broken hand, he thought viciously at himself, and that thought was enough to make him crumple to the ground beside the SUV and cup his face in his hands and sob. Whatever threshold he had—and sometimes his thresholds seemed to be drawn arbitrarily, sometimes his thresholds made no lateral sense, it was all just a fucking guessing game—he had reached it and rushed right past it hours ago.
Dick had screamed at Bruce’s grave, he had wailed at Bruce’s grave, he had craned his head and sobbed into the dirt before Bruce’s grave, but he had never walked away from it—it felt like he lived it, he breathed it, like he had grave dirt for blood. It felt, sometimes, like he was losing his dad by inches, and now that he had lived it he was terrified and certain that this slow death was worse. His heart pumped faster and Dick found it harder to breathe because it was like inflating paper bags and expecting a steel cage to bend in time with them and he thought about how he’d left Bruce there, with Jason, someone Bruce wouldn’t fight back against—he was an idiot. He was a fool.
Would he come back to a murder scene? Or would he come back to—would he come back to Bruce perfectly alive, perfectly fine, doing something perfectly Bruce like sitting on top of the refrigerator and reading? Somewhere logically he knew it would be the latter, but there was still—there was still that doubt, that fear, that anger that lived in him that liked to say otherwise. He was an idiot for putting Bruce in danger, he was a monster for refusing to believe Jason had changed; he had to stop feeling guilty but how on this green Earth was that possible, when there was so much he had to be guilty for?
He thought of the treehouse, the one that Bruce had kept meticulously clean, all these years; despite the fact that Dick had outgrown it a long, long time ago. He thought of those nights, the warm summer nights they sat on the roof and played checkers by moonlight, how it had always somehow felt like an adventure because the trees were darker than the sky and there were soft owl hoots and the fluttering of bats and the soft sway of the boughs. The stars, the stars Dick had loved the most, like someone had spilled a bottle of glitter across the sky and swept most of it away and only a few stubborn pieces remained. Bruce taught him to navigate by those stars. It was the mark of a man to think of childhood and say to himself, when did it all get so complicated.
Dick pulled himself off the ground, favoring his aching hand. He swept dirt and dust off the seat of his pants and climbed back into the car, took a moment to breathe against the steering wheel, and then turned it hand-over-hand to slide into the right lane. He slammed the gas to the floorboard and flew. He didn’t think, on the drive to the cabin. His hand moved by itself. He kept the broken one cradled in his lap. He saw only one car on the entire way back, but stopped for several deer.
He pulled into the driveway and turned the key in the ignition and stopped. His mind had gone frighteningly blank, the kind of white-out where he couldn’t seem to figure out how to open the door and get out of the car and get into the cabin, the kind where he could only seem to sit there incapable of thought.
Knuckles rapped on the glass. Dick didn’t move. The door opened anyway, and Bruce leaned against the car’s frame, frowning.
“It’s three in the morning, chum,” he said.
Dick didn’t look up from his lap. “Can you yell at me about it tomorrow.”
“I’m not going to yell. I will say, however, you should have answered your phone.”
“I broke it,” Dick said.
Bruce snaked an arm around his shoulders and tugged at him. “You need rest.”
“I broke my hand,” Dick mumbled. “Keep breaking things today.”
Bruce paused, lifted Dick’s right hand by lightly gripping Dick’s wrist. “Come inside, I’ll get you cleaned up. Then we’ll go to the hospital. The urgent care won’t be open. I’m expecting you to sleep the whole way.”
Dick leaned forward and leaned his forehead against Bruce’s chest. “I’m stupid.”
“No,” Bruce said. He rubbed Dick’s head, and then stopped. He took his hand away and studied his fingers. No doubt he was seeing blood, the way Dick had earlier. “You’ve been tearing at your hair. You haven’t done that since you were a kid.”
“I did that as a kid?” Dick asked.
“Oh, yes,” Bruce said. “You were lucky you had such thick hair, or you would’ve been bald.”
Dick closed his eyes. “Can we wait until tomorrow, B. I’m beat.”
Bruce lifted Dick’s head up by his chin. “No,” he said. “Get in the passenger’s seat. I’ll bring out a blanket, a shirt for you to change into, and something to clean off your face. You can sleep on the way.”
Dick nodded against Bruce’s chest. Bruce carefully leaned Dick back against the seat and walked off—he looked back at Dick, from the door, and something in his shoulders slumped. Dick hated the way it looked. When Bruce got back, Dick hadn’t moved. He’d dozed off with his chin against his chest and Bruce woke him up with a gentle shake.
“I’m going to count to three and then I’m going to pick you up,” Bruce said.
“I can do it,” Dick rasped. “Give me a minute.”
“I already gave you five. We’re doing it my way now. On three—one, two, three.” Bruce lifted Dick with a grunt and carried him around the front end of the car, did some finagling to open the door, and slid Dick into the seat. He stuffed a pillow under Dick’s head and leaned over and dropped a folded shirt on the center console. Under his arm he’d tucked a small white bottle and a travel mug. He handed the mug to Dick and unscrewed the cap, shaking out a couple pinkish pills into his palm.
“Ibuprofen,” he explained, dropping the pills into Dick’s hand.
Dick knocked them back with a swig of water from the mug. “Thanks.”
Bruce pressed a kiss to his temple. “I’ll be back.”
Dick rolled against the pillow and squeezed his eyes shut and waited. The bruising over his face twinged, but not enough for him to turn his face away. It was too comfortable.
He did lift his head when the gravel crunched under footsteps, but it wasn’t Bruce.
“Jason,” Dick said, mildly surprised.
“You look like shit,” Jason said, hands thrust in the pockets of his polar bear pajamas. He looked awkward. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no, you didn’t, uh, break my hand, or anything like that,” Dick said. “I went mono a mono with the car. Lost pretty bad.”
Jason snorted. “I did the list,” he said, casually.
Dick blinked. “The what?”
“The list, you asked me to do a list.”
“Oh,” Dick said. “Sorry, man. That feels like it was seven years ago, totally forgot.”
Jason scratched the back of his neck. “S’okay. Well, uh. Feel better, I guess.”
“Thanks,” Dick said. Guilt and atonement aren’t the same thing. “And, listen. I really was an asshole today. I’ve been an asshole all day. If there’s anything else I can do to make up for it, let me know.”
Jason beamed at him, genuinely beamed, and Dick was starting to understand why Bruce loved this kid so much—it was hard to read violence into an expression like that. “Just, uh, just listening would be nice. And a strawberry milkshake.”
Dick grinned back. “Got it. Strawberry milkshake it is.”
Jason smiled, and then turned to leave, and then turned around like he had something to say; but he thought better of it, and continued up the steps and through the front door. He passed Bruce, who had a blanket thrown over his shoulder and was holding a pack of frozen peas, a towel, and a smaller washcloth. They chatted for a second, but Dick couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Then Bruce came around and wrapped the bag of frozen peas in the towel. “We were lucky,” he said. “I found something for you to ice that with.”
Bruce laid it delicately over the hand in Dick’s lap, then tossed the blanket over Dick, tucking it around his shoulders. He took the corner of the washcloth and dabbed at Dick’s face, and sometimes he had to scrub away the dried, flaky blood, but on the whole it was a soft touch that Dick craned his head into. When he was done, Bruce pulled the lever that reclined the seat and laid it flat.
“Done,” Bruce said, dropping the washcloth on the floorboard. “Let’s go, chum.”
Bruce settled in the driver’s seat and reversed out of the driveway. Dick didn’t remember much, after that—he rolled over and knocked out for most of the drive. He did remember Bruce shaking him awake to ask him if he needed anything at a gas station, and he remembered the kiss on the temple Bruce had given him when he’d gotten back. But he didn’t remember much, after that. He didn’t even recall sleeping—his brain was just blissfully, blissfully empty.
When they arrived at the hospital Dick managed to walk in, but Bruce kept a hand braced at the small of his back. They checked in and Bruce filled everything out while Dick kept his face pressed into Bruce’s shoulder and kept his eyes shut.
It was a quick affair. The ER was deserted at this hour, and the doctor (thankfully) didn’t ask too many prying questions—he did have Bruce to leave the room so he could have the do you feel safe with him talk, which Dick responded to by snarling that’s the best man I’ve ever met and I’ve met Superman. The doctor was quiet, after that.
Dick got a blue cast. The doctor lent Bruce a sharpie, and Bruce bent down and signed over the part of the cast that stretched over Dick’s palm.
“You’re a dork,” Dick said.
Bruce capped the sharpie. “I had to be first.”
“You’ll be the only one, we don’t have sharpies.”
Bruce glanced out of the open door, and slipped the sharpie into his pocket. He opened his wallet and dug out a hundred dollar bill and left it in one of the drawers in the pristine white hospital cupboards.
“We do now,” he said.
They left at around six thirty in the morning. The sun was just peering over the horizon and the air was gray and thick and the sky was overcast, but the birds were chirping and it was kind of beautiful, in its own way, so Dick kept his eyes open on the ride home. That was how he saw what it was, exactly, that Bruce had signed.
“You signed it,” he whispered. “You signed it, uh. You signed Dad.”
Bruce was quiet for a long moment. “I did,” he said. “I can mark it out. I was not thinking.”
“No. I like it,” Dick said. “I really do.”
“Good,” Bruce said, warmly.
Dick scraped his bottom teeth against his lip, bit down, shearing a bit of skin off. “There’s something I owe you an apology for.”
“There’s nothing you owe me an apology for.”
“I said something pretty awful,” Dick said. “And I’m sorry.”
“You’ve been stressed,” Bruce said.
Dick shook his head. “That’s not an excuse, B.”
Bruce curved the wheel around a steep bend. “But it makes it understandable. You’re forgiven, Dick. You always will be.”
“Can I just, uh,” Dick said. “Oh, is that a turkey?”
Dick grinned. The turkey stalled as the SUV thundered by, standing and shaking on stilt-like legs, watching them fearfully with one eye. “Awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wild turkey.”
Bruce glanced at him. “You were saying?”
“I just wanted to say that, uh,” Dick said.
Silence fell after his words. There was so much he wanted to say; it hurt like hell to watch you do that to yourself was one, it still hurts that I wasn’t enough for you to live for after Jason died was another, I still think about you dying all the time was a third.
“You’re the Jenga block,” Dick said, finally.
Bruce’s brows crumpled, confused. “I’m the what?”
“The Jenga block. The one that, if you pull it out, every other block comes tumbling down. That’s you. And, uh, there’s a lot of people who are really worried, and I tried covering for you but I don’t think I should, because for one thing I was shit at it. And for another thing… they love you. How are they supposed to help if they don’t even know what’s going on?”
Bruce’s eyes flicked to Dick, briefly. “When did you get wise,” he said. He was fond the tortoise-like way he was; armored, slow, quiet.
“I am repeating verbatim what Tim yelled at me earlier before I broke my phone,” Dick said. “You should’ve heard it. Steph helped set me straight, too.”
“I’m proud of them.”
Dick leaned his head back and let his eyes drift closed momentarily. “Tell them. That’s—that’s what you should tell them, exactly that. I also maybe told Cass to come up. She’s worried.”
Bruce grunted. “Keep Jason occupied for that. She’s not going to treat him kindly. She’s worse than you, about that.”
Dick’s face twisted in offense. “No, no one’s worse than me, I’m the number one Bat-guardian.”
“If that’s what you would like to believe,” Bruce said. But it was said warmly.
Dick felt his face stretch into a smile. “I do have a question, though.”
“Go for it.”
“Why?” Dick asked.
“Today you are doing an interesting thing,” Bruce said, “where you say inane phrases and expect me to parse them and end up with the exact meaning you intended.”
“Why, uh, why alcohol,” Dick said, tapping his fingers against his thigh nervously. He ignored what Bruce had said, but otherwise, he would’ve commented, but that’s exactly what you do, old man! “Here’s the thing I don’t get. Painkillers, crazy addictive, and you were on those for ages after Bane, and it was hard to get off. Don’t make that face, yes, we’re talking about things, it’s been enough years that I can say the words about it. So I’m saying the words. Look where not saying the words got us. You go on a carfentanil bust. You come out, somehow, an alcoholic.”
Bruce was scowling. Dick poked him in the shoulder. “Too far?” he asked.
“The thought,” Bruce said thinly, “was to suppress an addiction to a substance with—another substance. One I believed I could control. Something I could do alone.”
“Oh,” Dick said.
“It was a poor idea,” Bruce said.
Dick shrugged. “I punched a car and broke my hand. We all have shitty ideas.”
Bruce snorted. “I have punched dinosaurs. I think I win.”
“Y’know, I love telling people the story of the time you broke a polar bear’s jaw,” Dick said. “The one with Mr. Freeze. Tim doesn’t believe me.”
Bruce huffed. “Disappointing,” he said, with a small, cheeky smile.
Dick watched the trees whorl by for the rest of the ride. Bruce called Jason ahead, so when they pulled in Jason was sitting on the steps with a book in his hands, which he laid flat on the wooden stairs and stood the second he saw the SUV pull up.
“You didn’t have to stay up,” Bruce said, opening the door.
“I wanted to,” Jason said. “What color’d you get?”
“Blue,” Dick said, raising his bad hand. “Bruce stole a sharpie from the hospital so you could sign it.”
Of all the things, of all the damn things in the world that could make a person look like they wanted to cry, this was it, for Jason. His eyes got glassy and he swallowed hard a couple of times before saying, “Sure.”
Bruce kept a hand against Dick’s back and walked him inside. Dick felt a brief flash of irritation that was quickly outweighed by how steady, how good that touch felt.
“Which bedroom did you take,” Bruce asked.
“He fell asleep in the car,” Jason said. It was somehow haughty, as if he were showing off; look, Dad, I actually made it to a bed. It was annoying, but maybe in kind of an endearing way, in the way Damian was annoying.
Bruce ruffled Dick’s hair, but his face tightened, concerned.
“Jay, get the blanket and pillow out of the car, and Dick’s stuff,” Bruce ordered.
Jason jogged off. “I thought no one called him Jay,” Dick said.
“He’ll always be Jay to me,” Bruce said. His voice was oddly final.
Bruce led Dick upstairs and pushed him at the first bedroom they came across. Dick gratefully fell against the bed, sighing in relief. Some tension in his shoulderblades released.
“I want you to sleep for as long as you are physically able,” Bruce said. His expression was stiff and serious. “I mean it, Dick.”
“I’m not that tired,” Dick mumbled. His eyes were closed as he said it.
“Got everything,” Jason said breathlessly, rushing into the room. Dick opened his eyes to see Jason dropping Dick’s duffle on the ground in front of the bed and passing off the pillow and blanket to Bruce.
Bruce tucked the blanket over Dick and nudged Dick’s head forward so he could tuck the pillow beneath it. There was a plastic click, and Dick opened his eyes.
Jason was leaning over Dick’s cast. “Hold really still,” he said.
“Holding,” Dick said, amused.
Jason signed in the awkward cursive of a high schooler. He signed Jason Wayne, which Dick supposed he was free to, because Jason Todd was a kid who had died years ago. The handwriting wriggled into Dick’s brain—but it was true, that Jason wouldn’t have had to chance to improve his handwriting since he was a teenager. He’d died a kid. He was still, fundamentally, that boy who’d died in Ethiopia, because the years after that must be empty black space.
For the first time, Dick felt an unexpected pang of pity for him; no wonder, when Jason smiled, he looked so much younger, no wonder he had a childish grasp over his own violent tendencies. He was a baby forced into a man’s body. He’d always thought Jason’s death barbaric, awful in every way, but there was a difference between being faced with that awfulness personally and seeing it from a distance; there was a difference between seeing what that death had taken away from the victim, and seeing what that death had done to other people.
I think you remind me of Salvatore. How had Jason felt, listening to a story from Dick’s idyllic childhood before his parents died—had he been seething, feeling like Jason was rubbing in a loss that Jason would feel forever? Had he been swamped with grief, had he just been numb? He’d been a kid. Good Christ, he’d died, and he was only a kid, he was still only just a kid. He wrote his name on Dick’s cast like he’d sign his name on his English tests, and good God in heaven, Jason had deserved to take every single test he’d been meant to take. Jason had deserved school, and college, parties with his classmates, but most of all he’d deserved to be Robin, and he’d deserved to be Robin as long as he wanted to be without it being viciously cut short. He’d deserved to live. That signature on Dick’s cast was the mark of a boy.
“Nice to meet you, Jason Wayne,” Dick said.
It's a STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. Let me tell you, folks, let me warn ya, a step in the right direction is not going to cure the chronic idiocy afflicting our boys currently.
Chapter 4: Winter Wolf Syndrome
Hi guys! Back at it again. I've got, uh, a bit of a sad one, here. Be warned. It's sad. It's the same sad as the rest of this entire series, but it is sad.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After making sure Dick was asleep, and staying asleep, Bruce tapped Jason on the shoulder and asked, "How tired are you?"
Jason shrugged. "A little, I guess."
"I'm going to call and have groceries prepared for pick-up, and I need a list. I believe you would, ah, be better at this than me. You like food.”
Jason shrugged again. "Okay. I’ll get on that. I, uh, yeah.”
Jason disappeared down the stairs, heading in the direction of the office downstairs. Bruce didn't follow him. He leaned against the wall outside of Dick's door and held a hand over his eyes, feeling briefly like a wolf had its teeth in his hide and was cutting the quick of him.
It was the look on Dick's face, when Bruce had first seen him that night when he'd arrived after driving so many hours—that was the one gutting him, ripping him to the bone. Or, rather, it was the lack of a look, the lack of life, the clear and clean and sterile slate of his face that carved Bruce's heart open and split it like a bone, exposing the marrow in the middle. He should have stayed, the night they'd arrived, and made sure Dick went to sleep—he should've forced Dick to stay in the cabin instead of sending him away. When he was born, he was born with holes in his hands, and that was where all his mistakes slipped free.
Bruce didn't follow Jason. He kicked off the wall and headed down towards the deck, sliding open the door, and bracing himself on his elbows to stare out across the thick forest and curling wisps of clouds. He'd never taken Dick to this cabin as a boy, hadn't even owned this cabin when Dick was a boy. He'd taken Jason, though, and as far as he knew Jason had enjoyed the trip, even if he hadn't enjoyed the part where Bruce showed him how to gut and clean freshly caught meat—he’d almost thrown up, in fact, but Bruce had pressed forward. Vital information, the gutting of deer, the scaling of fish. The other survival techniques he'd shared were greedily lapped up by a mind that was desperate for something to mull over. He ought to have taken Dick somewhere similar; he'd taken Dick to the rainforest, and the desert, and the tundra, and taught him survival there. In his experience, forests like the ones that carpeted Appalachia were survivable with the basic skills you could learn elsewhere, while receiving dual training from far more difficult settings, so he'd settled for the Amazon rainforest for a week-long trip when Dick was out of school. But it would have been nice to have a more relaxed vacation, out here, where the wilderness was gentler. Dick would've enjoyed it.
He would've enjoyed it significantly more than he was enjoying the vacation they were taking now—but now Dick was older, and far more responsible than Bruce had wished he'd ever have to become, and straining under the pressure of a lifetime lived in the fast lane. Dick had used to be capable of slowing down, doing less, but over the years Bruce had noticed that Dick seemed to only increase in speed exponentially; he always looked worse for wear, these days, and sometimes Bruce wondered if it was his own influence, if it was his own fault. If it was the holes in his hands, where the mistakes slipped through. Most probably, in broad strokes, it was. Most recently, it definitely was.
Jason, at least, didn't hold the same weight on his shoulders—but what he lacked in stress he made up for in damage, violent, cruel damage. When Jason was a boy, and Jason was still and would always be a boy in Bruce's heart, but when Jason was smaller Bruce had held him while he sobbed about how awful he was for an angry, unprovoked outburst against a classmate. Bruce had held him and said, the unsavory begets the unsavory. Suffering does not make you noble, suffering makes you suffer. And you can't make fire with ash.
Jason had stared at him, eyes wet, and hugged Bruce as tight as he could.
Bruce pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped the call icon, and dialed a number he knew both backwards and forwards. "Hi, Al," he said, when the phone picked up on the third ring.
There was a delicate, offended sniff. "You took your darling time contacting me, Master Bruce."
"Things have been hectic."
"Do tell," Alfred said. "Though I fear I have some insight into the kind of hectic you are currently experiencing."
"We got in the night of the day before yesterday. I spent most of yesterday with Jason. Dick and Jay fought, that morning, and Dick was angry, so I sent him to be angry somewhere else, and he didn't make it back 'til three in the morning. He had a broken hand, and I ran him to the hospital."
Alfred made an impatient noise. "In my entirely correct opinion, you had ample time to contact me yesterday, when you were with Jason."
Bruce winced. "Sorry, Al."
"When you return, I will expect reparations."
"Reparations?" Bruce asked.
"Breakfast in bed," Alfred said. "It's long past due for me to have a morning off."
"Anything you want, Al," Bruce said, smiling. "Waffles?"
Bruce shifted his weight to his other foot. "How are the kids?"
"I will not mince words," Alfred said. "They are all concerned, deeply concerned. Some are handling it better than others. Master Richard's excuse for you was… unconvincing."
"He was pressed for time."
"Miss Cassandra has already left to come and see you. She'll be there in the evening. She did not bring Miss Stephanie, though I am told by Master Tim that there was a great deal of arguing over this."
"Good," Bruce said, warmly. "Good that she's coming. I didn't figure Steph would've wanted to."
Alfred huffed. "Do not underestimate her attachment to you. It will hurt her in the long run."
"Duly noted. How are you, Al."
Alfred fell quiet. At long last, he said, "I am concerned. I am always concerned, and I have been increasingly concerned for you. But currently I fear I am angry with you."
Bruce cringed. That was never a good thing to hear. "Go on," he said, when Alfred stopped talking.
"I do not disagree that you needed time. That is what, I believe, you needed most. But why you would take—why you would fail to bring me, why you would take two young men with a strong animosity between them, why you would do this so poorly—this, this is what angers me."
"That's not what I thought you'd be angry about."
Alfred made a startled noise. "What on Earth did you think I'd be angry about, my boy?"
Bruce's mouth twisted ruefully. "Made quite a dent in the alcohol stock, for one thing."
"That," Alfred said savagely, "is not funny."
Bruce didn't respond.
"This is not a joke to me," Alfred said, and Bruce understood he was shaking, though Bruce couldn't be quite sure how he understood it. It was the tone, perhaps. It was the voice Alfred used when he was quivering with anger. "Here is what I have to say, Master Bruce: part of me fears that this may be only temporary because you are not in a position where you are receiving proper support. A large part, in point of fact. I think you should send those boys back and wait for me."
Bruce bit his tongue to keep from snapping the last time I did this I overdosed when you weren't looking and scared the hell out of my son, do you think that was ample support? It was the headache in him, the one that now lived with him—it was the constant dryness of his tongue that wouldn't go away no matter how much water he drank, it was the growl in his stomach for something he couldn't have. All his life, he'd spent mastering himself, mastering his impulses, mastering his emotions—he exerted a kind of control over himself that made him capable of blunt, brute violence and delicate footwork simultaneously, had learned to split his brain into halves and thirds and quarters to focus on an array of tasks at any given moment. He could count bullets from five different gunmen all firing at once. He could count bullets. He couldn’t dodge them.
The ire bled out of Bruce in a second. "I'm sorry, Al," he said. "They needed this. I couldn't say no, after—” the way they looked.
"You would serve them better by recovering fully."
I carry everything with me, Bruce thought. He marched the way wolves did through massive snowdrifts and left long winding, ugly trails behind him. He didn't say it out loud, because it would hurt Alfred, and that was the last thing he wanted. "It's been okay, Al. I'm fine."
"You say that and it is never true," Alfred said, softly. "I suppose you want to speak with everyone."
The sound of the phone was muffled but Bruce could hear footsteps and a, "Master Timothy!"
A minute and a half later, a high, excited voice asked, "Bruce?"
"You're up early," Bruce remarked.
"I fell asleep on the couch. Alfred woke me. What's up with Dick? He won't answer his phone."
"He broke it," Bruce said. "Rough night. Broke his hand, too."
"No way. Poor guy. He asleep?"
"Out like a light," Bruce said. Or, rather, Bruce hoped he was—but Dick was usually such a light sleeper. Had always been such a light sleeper.
"How are you?" Tim asked.
"Fine," Bruce grunted.
"Oh, here we go again, with the 'fines' and the 'leave me alones,"" Tim whined. "You're just as bad as Dick. Actually, you're worse. You're a walnut."
Bruce shifted again. "Point taken. How are you, Tim?"
"Worried," Tim said. "Also, Steph and Damian and Cass colored my hair with hair chalk last night, so I'm colorful, too."
"Hair chalk?" Bruce asked.
"You know the little chalks, that you color your hair with, the cute ones for babies. Steph picked some up."
"How is Damian?" Bruce asked.
"Worried," Tim answered. "We're all that thing, actually. I think I said that and you deliberately ignored it. I tried to come with Cass when she left this morning but she tried to bite me, so she's kind of angry, too."
Bruce frowned. "I'll talk to her."
"Good. Good. And, uh," Tim stopped and sucked in a breath, "whatever's up? I won't pretend to know what it is. I think Steph does because she's got that Spoiler look on her face all the time, but—whatever's up?” Tim stopped again. “Kick its ass, Bruce.”
Bruce smiled. "When do I not."
"I'll let Dick know you said that and whenever his busted hand's healed you guys can go one-on-one and he can absolutely slaughter you, and then I'll brag. Also, speaking of bragging, I am so keeping things together while you’re gone, you don’t even know."
“Are you now?”
“I am!” Tim said, and there was a distinct note of pride in his voice that told Bruce that Tim didn’t feel he was purely exaggerating, even if his tone was joking.
“Liar!” a voice—Stephanie’s—shouted. “Let me talk to him, I have something to say.”
The sounds of a struggle carried through the phone’s speaker. Then thudding feet, and a panting, and then, “I have something to say to you. I have a bone to pick!”
“Don’t sound like that, this is a real bone to pick. I’m about to tell you how it is, so buckle up, buttercup.”
Bruce bit down on the inside of his cheek, worked to quell the building annoyance in his chest. “Go on,” he said.
Steph sighed. “I’m in the garden,” she said.
“I am curious to discover how this will be relevant.”
“Shut up,” she said, without heat. “I’m setting these tees up and I’m knockin’ ‘em down.”
“I am a terrible golfer,” Bruce said, “but I have reason to believe that is not quite how it works.”
“Really? You’re a bad golfer?” Steph asked.
“Really,” Bruce said. “Alfred tried to teach me. Told me a lot of rot about it being a gentleman’s game, and on the first hole I missed so many times that I threw my club into the pond.”
Steph laughed, long, loud. “How old were you?”
Steph’s laugh turned into a snort. “Are you kidding? If I had done that and my dad had been—not to say that Alfred’s, uh, okay. Shutting up, woo for shutting up. I wanted to say, I’m in the garden. And you know Damian loves gardening.”
“He does.” It reminds me of my mother.
“He’s been out here a lot, since you guys left, just pacing. And you know Tim’s so bossy, no one can get him to shut up. And Cass—I told Dick, she almost punched me the other day. I guess what I’m saying is, you can’t just do this to people, okay? It’s not fair to them.”
“Stephanie,” Bruce said, lowly.
“No, no, don’t interrupt me, I’m saying something I think you need to hear, because I think Dick and Alfred are just gonna cover for you,” Steph said hotly. “And this scares the hell out of me because if you’re angry at me, I have to stay gone, and I don’t want to do that. I like hanging around here. But someone’s got to tell you. You don’t get to lie to people, and then take off with a shitty, nonsense explanation, after months of people being worried about you. You brought these people into your life and you don’t get to shut them out because you want to. That’s just not fair.”
After months of people being worried about you. Bruce straightened. “What do you know?”
Steph lapsed into silence. “About what?” she said finally, tentatively.
“You know something. Tim mentioned it. You confirmed it. What do you know?”
“I heard Alfred chewing Dick out, okay?” she said miserably. “Happy?”
“Not in the least.”
“I’m sorry for the invasion of privacy,” she snapped. “Are you going to work on, y’know, being honest with people, or are you just going to be terrible and cryptic?”
“I lean towards terrible and cryptic,” Bruce said.
“That’s not an option,” Steph snapped.
“Since you so kindly saw fit to give me advice,” Bruce said, only somewhat aware his voice was slipping into something high and cold, “allow me to return the favor. Leave it alone, Stephanie.”
“I’m not going to!” she shouted. “You’ve got no idea what Cass has been like, these past couple of months—she’s been beyond worried, she’s been almost hysterical, and—”
“I don’t think this is just about Cass,” Bruce said, evenly.
Steph spluttered. “Well aren’t I sorry I made the mistake of giving a shit,” she said dangerously, and the line went dead. Angry, and dangerous, as all the people in his life were.
Bruce had half a mind to crush the phone in his hand and fling it into the dense undergrowth beneath the balcony. The thought that stopped him was the potential of someone recovering sensitive data from the wreckage, because with LexCorp’s recent advancements in the field of data recovery, there was no telling what level of destroyed a device would have to be in order to render it completely useless. It was, oddly, these thoughts he found comforting; these were cool eventualities, these were motives he could define and anticipate, rather than the murky hotheadedness of whatever was driving Steph now.
The glass door slid open behind him. “I made a list,” Jason said. “This should, uh, last us a couple days—wow, you look angry.”
Bruce had turned to look at him, and now he turned back. “Do I,” he gritted out. “Take the car and go.”
“I don’t have a license,” Jason said.
“Did you bring a fake,” Bruce asked tersely.
“I mean, yeah, but—”
“Then you have a license.”
Jason retreated. He slid the glass door closed gently, and somehow that small gesture, intended to be kind, rankled. It all rankled. It would be easy, incredibly easy, to disappear into the forest beneath him—he could be gone and stay gone, and stay alone, and he wouldn’t have to answer questions that gouged him in the heart, and there would be no explanations he would have to make. There would be no words he would have to say to the trees and the mountains and the wolves. It was skinning him alive, to be here, to stand here—he stood in this house with people who saw through the skin and flesh and straight to the bone, and now it was expected for there to be more of them.
Maybe he could say it to a stranger, maybe he could step into a quiet AA meeting in a small church in Nowheresville, Small Town America, in a dusty hat with the bill pulled low and wrap-around sunglasses and some shirt with Bass Pro Shops splashed across the front. Maybe then he could say hi, my name is whatever false identification I slipped into the wallet I bought at the flea market downtown ten minutes ago, and I’m an alcoholic. Someone would say, boy, you sure do look like Bruce Wayne, and Bruce would blithely lie and say, sure do wish I had his money. Maybe then he could form the words, maybe he could form the words, my son died a couple years ago and that is the only thing I see when I close my eyes, I think about it every day, I think about it so much that the very first thing that gave me the ability to not remember holding my son’s corpse in horrific, perfect detail, the first time since my son died that I remembered being blackout drunk meant you could forget anything for a short while, I couldn't put it down. I recognize that I am profoundly stupid in every conceivable way. But I couldn’t put it down.
Maybe he could say it in Nowheresville, Small Town America, in a dusty hat with the bill pulled low and wraparound sunglasses and some shirt with Bass Pro Shops splashed on the front. But he couldn't say it as Bruce Wayne, as Batman, to his children and his partners—the lie made him a liability on the field and in their lives, but so help him God, he could not say the words. It was scathing enough that Dick knew, it was enough of a breach of privacy there among his eldest son and maybe one of his oldest friends, but for Jason? For Alfred, for all intents and purposes his father, who would be so rightfully disappointed—and Steph's implicit admission of knowledge, and her demand that he make such knowledge public among his family—
If the love he had for his family wasn’t beyond a shadow of a doubt the single best feeling he had ever experienced, it might have been easier. If he could stand their shame, maybe he could say it.
Bruce pocketed his phone. He needed a drink of water, because thirst was leaping at the back of his throat. He thought of the water he had bargained for to clean off Jason's body, and the thirst at the back of his throat leapt higher, more desperately—if there were only things he could rip out of his skull. If he had claws, he would do it himself. If there were only things he could forget after enough concussions. If only he could control this as ruthlessly as he controlled the rest of himself, if only—if only Jason had lived, and Bruce had watched him grow, and if only Jason had gotten to go off to school, if only Jason had graduated from being Robin the same way Dick had.
Bruce crossed the cabin to the kitchen and downed a glass of water, and then another, and then a third. It lacked the acrid aftertaste of vodka and he sorely missed the bitter bite of it, like long, icy canines digging into his throat. He drank a fourth glass and regretted sending Jason off to the store—it would have been something to do, but a thing to do that came with a knife in the back in the shape of the alcohol aisle in the refrigerated section, and the look on Jason's face when they passed it. Jason was so very expressive. Always had been. Likely always would be.
Bruce went back outside and did the only thing he thought could be more productive than waiting outside of Dick's door—Bruce had been watchful while Dick was asleep before, but Dick had called those instances fucking creepy, you weird old man, so Bruce tried to refrain. So Bruce folded his legs beneath him and focused on clearing his mind and tried, desperately, not to let it get dragged back to the glass embedded in Jason's skin, the blood, sweeping the cloth carefully over Jason's young face, still framed by puppy fat—
He failed. He usually did. He had spent five years throwing every ounce of discipline in his heart and soul at that one, shattering moment, and he relived it every day anyway. Day after day, a story carved into him by fangs.
He spent several hours lingering on the details of Jason's corpse, the well-trod ones embedded into his brain after half a decade of being beaten into the gray matter; the angle of cuts, the shine of the glass protruding outwards, the messy fall of hair and the smell of the ash and water and the heat. The sweat rolling down his back. The, the—the things he could not put words to, even inside the walls of his own skull, the things he could only see and would see forever.
When he opened his eyes the day had bled out of the sky, and he had gotten nowhere. Bruce sat there for an extra several minutes just mastering his self-directed rage. He breathed in the sweet night air, he listened closely to the crickets’ song humming through the trees, watched the woods sparkled with fireflies, even turned his head up to the bright night sky that blinked back at him so dispassionately. It used to comfort him, when he was a boy, that the world’s suffering was limited to the world. Now he had traveled the galaxy, had logged countless hours studying countless intergalactic histories, and had come to the destitute conclusion that the world’s suffering was replicated on hundreds of planets. Pain was universal. It was the goal of the Justice League to make hope equally universal. Bruce valued that work, and now, he dearly missed it—it was good, distracting work, it was something to occupy his mind when he felt the ghost of the sensation of Jason’s lukewarm skin under his hands.
Bruce missed the weight of the cape on his shoulders, the rush of wind around him as he fell a story, two stories, three—he missed the cackle of Robin beside him, he missed hauling innocent victims out of fires and he missed bringing justice to the people who lit them. Put your oxygen mask on, Dick would say, and then go. I can’t stop you then.
Bruce sighed and pulled himself off of the deck. It was an odd feeling, to have done nothing all day but traipse in the ash-filled expanses of his memory, and still feel as if his marrow was mixed with lead. He had accomplished nothing and yet he wanted to crawl into a bed and stay there. He shoved open the door and then paused.
“Cassandra,” he said, in more of a rasp than a word.
Cass was still in her costume—there was a hoodie (one of his own, actually) thrown on top, to cover the bat, but her cape trailed below it and dusted the floor with its ragged edges, and the cowl was tucked into the hood laid flat on her back. She must’ve gotten in the car to leave as soon as she’d returned from patrol. She certainly looked it, with dark shadows beneath her eyes, bloodshot sclera.
“Cass,” Bruce repeated, and then she barreled into his arms, squeezing him tightly around the middle.
“Bat,” she mumbled, quietly, and Bruce buried a hand in her hair and kissed her crown.
“You should’ve gone to sleep,” he said, but at the moment, bad parenting though it undoubtedly was—he didn’t much care, that she had driven through the night. She was in his arms, solid and safe and warm, and for that moment that was all he could care about. She was in his arms and her body wasn’t cooling down slowly, wasn’t stiffening, he wasn’t screaming himself bloody—
“She, uh, she just got here,” Jason said.
Bruce glanced up, but he didn’t lift his cheek from Cass’s hair. Jason looked pale. It wasn’t hard to deduce why. Bruce should’ve been there, to mediate—he had failed, but at least, in the scheme of his failures, it was a smaller one.
Cass pulled out of Bruce’s arms, frowned, and punched him on the shoulder.
Bruce absently rubbed the spot of impact and dropped his eyes. I’m sorry.
Cass reached out for his hand, squeezed it, and then laid it over her heart, right where Bruce knew the bat emblazoned on her chest was. “Gotham is okay,” she said. She used her other hand to gesture to herself. “Am worried,” she said. She sent a sideways look at Jason. I don’t trust him.
Jason seemed to pick up on that much of the conversation, because his shoulders dropped like the line holding them up had been cut.
“I trust Jason,” Bruce said, firmly.
Cass touched the place on Bruce’s stomach where Jason’s knife had driven home.
“My word is final,” Bruce said, letting his voice shift into something rough, rock-like. “Jason is trustworthy.”
Cass glanced at Jason. Her eyes were narrowed and she seemed to tense when she looked at him, but she stuck out her hand, and said snappishly, “Sorry.”
Jason took her hand delicately. “For what it’s worth. For what it’s—I didn’t, I don’t want to hurt our —your dad. I’m sorry for doing it in the past.”
Something in Jason’s slouched, small posture convinced Cass, because she eased. “You hurt him,” she said. “And I hurt you. Remember.”
Your dad. Jason had corrected himself. It cut deeper than the knife ever had. It cut deep enough it felt like the blade nicked his spine.
“Check on Dick, for a minute, please,” Bruce said tightly.
Jason ducked his head. “Yeah, uh, yeah.”
“No punching,” Bruce told him, half-jokingly.
Jason nodded again, clearly in no mood to joke. “Yeah, no punching.”
Jason walked quickly and stiffly to the staircase and then took the stairs two at a time. After a long moment, Bruce dropped his eyes back down to Cass, who was glaring at him with eyes like hot coals. She punched him in the shoulder again.
“No leaving,” she hissed.
You brought these people into your life and you don’t get to shut them out because you want to.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce apologized. He tapped his temple and then said, “Didn’t think.”
Cass huffed and crossed her arms. You didn’t, said rather forcefully.
“I was drunk at the time,” Bruce said. He left out the part where he wasn’t nearly drunk enough to make decisions with little to no forethought, that it had been the look on Dick’s face—unashamed, bright hope—that had crushed any resistance he had.
“No excuse,” Cass said.
Bruce bowed his head. “Yes,” he said. “I won’t do it again.”
“Not to me. Not to anyone else,” Cass insisted. She poked him in the chest. Then she drew a bat with her finger, tracing the ghost of its presence. “Batman is better. Than that.”
Bruce took her hand into his. “He is,” he said, softly. “Or he will be.”
Cass pressed her face into Bruce’s chest. She tapped him with two fingers—you. “Have been wrong,” she finished. “Moved wrong. Everything wrong.”
Bruce wrapped his arms around her. Say it, he thought viciously. Instead he held her silently.
Several minutes later, he managed to say, “I have—bad memories.”
Cass looked up at him curiously.
That was the bald summation of what he could say, the whole, ugly truth of it; he had bad memories. Why he was singularly incapable of managing them, why he was singularly incapable of sitting down and taking it—five years, and not a day had gone by that he didn’t think of his son’s corpse in his arms, five years and it was still excruciatingly unbearable. His son was alive, his son was upstairs, and he was still holding the bloody corpse, and—everything he tried, he could not close that fracture in his brain. The scar was burned there. It would never heal.
He imagined himself asking, can I borrow your car. He wanted to leave. How long would he have, before Jason or Dick realized he was gone? How long would he have to drive to find a hole-in-the-wall, how much could he drink before they found him? He imagined the shame on their faces, saying we’ll take it from here to the bartender, dragging him out of the building. The shame on Cass’s face, when he was dragged back like an unruly mutt—would all of that outweigh the bliss of a few hours he couldn’t remember?
He thought of cleaning Jason’s hair, slowly, methodically. Seeing his son’s corpse stiffened in the position Bruce had cradled him in. Baby mine, dry your eyes… It would have been worth it. They could forgo him, Jason could deny him, they could leave him to run wild with the feral dogs, but it would have been worth it.
“You should sleep here for the night,” Bruce said, into Cass’s hair.
Cass nodded against him.
Footsteps thundered down the stairs.
“Cass!” Dick shouted. He ran into them, hugging Cass from behind and managing to wrap part of Bruce up, too. “Man, you drive fast.”
“Go fast,” Cass said.
Dick chuckled. “Go fast, sure,” he said. “Gee, I’m starved. Did you guys ever make it to the grocery store?”
“Jason did,” Bruce said, jerking his head to Jason.
Jason was hanging at the edge of the room, looking like he’d seen a ghost. “Y-yeah,” he stammered.
“What’ve we got to eat,” Dick said, dropping his arms and crossing to the fridge. He flung it open. “What all’s in here?”
“I can make spaghetti,” Jason said.
Dick pointed at him. “If it’s as good as your ravioli, sure. Cass, you’ve gotta stay.”
Dick looked pleading. His jubilance masked a boy who was floundering. Bruce felt a stab of guilt that turned into a slow bloom of it, spreading through his chest and immobilizing him briefly.
“For a day,” she said. “Then. Gotham.”
Bruce craned his head to kiss her forehead. “Thank you for protecting my city.”
Cass smiled, open-mouthed, teeth glinting. She smiled like a wolf, every time.
“We can have a movie night?” Dick asked. “Uh. Do we—get movies here?”
“There’s an X-Box hooked up to the TV,” Jason said.
Bruce nodded. “It’s Tim’s. He left it when he and Alfred came up for a week.”
Dick grinned. “‘Course he did. Remember that? He had no X-Box ‘til the other one shipped, he was downright miserable.”
“I, uh, I’ll start the spaghetti,” Jason mumbled, and he slipped from the corner of the living room to the connected kitchen, bumping into Dick when he made a beeline for the fridge.
Dick took it in stride. “So—movies?”
It was a good night. They ended up watching an old Godzilla movie on Starz, Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster. It was horrifically cheesy but Dick enjoyed that cheesiness and Cass enjoyed the rubber monster suit battles, and even Jason perked up and chuckled a bit towards the end. It was subdued enough enjoyment that Bruce made a note to speak with him tomorrow. Dick sat next to Cass, but Cass curled up into Bruce’s side, and Jason leaned against Bruce’s other shoulder, and it was a solid, grounding weight. When it ended, and he sent Cass and Jason to bed and Dick helped him wash plates, their shoulders bumped together and Bruce listened to Dick’s whistling.
“You used to do that as a boy,” Bruce said, quietly.
Dick whistled louder, the corners of his eyes turning up in a smile.
It was a good night, a better night, a night Bruce would remember—warm, light, like the fireflies sparkling outside. Love, in Bruce’s experience, was a bit like thunder; an all-consuming, loud, cracking experience, and nights like these were storms of thunder. It felt a bit, usually, like his heart was going to give beneath the strain of it, but it would be a beautiful give. It was his greatest honor, to love these kids, to parent them, to call them his even if only in the privacy of his mind. An honor in a life of honors.
But it still would have been worth it. It would have been worth it, to walk into that bar, to tell the bartender, what do you give people who need to be so drunk that they forget they’re alive, for the taste of it. He would never trade memories. He would never wish the one he had away. But it would have been worth it, to stop thinking, just for a little while.
I loved sticking Cass in this fic SO MUCH - I didn't have her appear at all in Aquarium, which is tbh one of my biggest regrets about that fic, because Cass is fun and good.
Aquaman was in his dream. Jason had never really talked to Aquaman, had only ever been vaguely intimidated by the guy at a distance, but Aquaman was in his dream—Aquaman sat at the desk next to him, blonde hair long and in an unfamiliar, swirling blue costume. He didn’t speak to Jason, just sat there and raised his hand when he was called. When Jason was called on, he asked the teacher to repeat the question—he hadn’t heard it—and the teacher started laughing, but it was a victorious laugh that turned into something sinister and familiar and there was a banging on the classroom door that was sinister and familiar, and then—
Jason blinked. His fist was in Dick’s hand. Dick was looking at him with no small amount of reserve. Dick looked at him like he was a caged wild dog, half the time. The other half of the time he looked like Jason was a wild dog that had just broken out of its cage, and that was how Dick looked at him now—brows furrowed, maybe slightly annoyed. Not scared, though, never scared; the first Robin didn’t know the meaning of fear.
“Good mornin’,” he said, cautiously. “Bad dreams?”
“Wasn’t so bad, I guess. Aquaman was there.”
Dick straightened and barked a laugh. “You know, he and Bruce hang out sometimes. It’s the weirdest thing. Arthur brings over Redbox movies and they chill on the couch, full costume. It was something about a penny, originally, and now it’s just a thing they do.”
Jason blinked. “I don’t even think I’ve ever said hi to Aquaman.”
“Maybe you’ll run into him someday.” Dick stuck out his hand. “Up, out of bed. We’ve got a mission.”
Jason didn’t take Dick’s hand. He glanced at the window—baby blue light leaking through the slats of the blinds—and asked, “What the hell time is it?”
“Six sharp,” Dick said. He waved his hand. “C’mon, up and at ‘em, chief, we’ve got a mission.”
Jason took Dick’s hand tentatively and let himself be pulled out of the bed. “I don’t, uh, I don’t do those,” he said, awkwardly.
“Not that kind of mission, Jason, duh,” Dick said. “We’re gonna have some fun, promise. Get dressed. Jeans, closed-toe shoes.”
Jason did not point out that most of what he had brought were jeans, and that the only pair of shoes he’d brought with him were a pair of broken-in leather boots that were miserable to wear in summer but useful in the winter. Dick left the room and Jason changed, quickly, because as anxious as he was to discover what Dick’s definition of fun was, he was more curious.
Dick was standing in the foyer, dressed this time in a Gotham Buzzards t-shirt and a pair of jeans and sneakers, swinging his keys. “Cass and Bruce are asleep upstairs, same bedroom. I can promise you that they’re going to spend the next five hours snuggling. It’s kind of what they do.”
Jason nodded. He’d never met the enigmatic former Batgirl, current Black Bat before—he’d heard stories, because Gotham traded in under-the-table information, but most of what he’d heard was ghoul and monster and cannibal. Bruce had never mentioned her, carefully refrained from mentioning her, and she’d never been around the Manor when Jason had visited, and Jason had learned the reason for that last night—she was viciously, viciously protective of Bruce. Touch him, she said, before Bruce had realized she was there. Dare you. And when Jason hadn’t responded, because fear had made a frog in his throat, she’d snatched one of his hands, and said, I’ll take it off.
There was a hint of ice-cold steel in her eye that told Jason that she would, in a heartbeat, faster possibly than Jason could think. He’d thought Dick was bloodthirsty when it came to Bruce, but it was clear to him now that, compared to Cass, Dick’s ruthlessness was restrained. With Dick there was an understanding that even if he was angry, even if he could take Jason in a fight easily, Jason could give him a run for his money. Jason could get a few hits in. Jason could hold his own for a while. But Cass walked like she was the most dangerous person in the room and knew it, even when Batman was standing right there.
Jason was inclined to believe her.
Dick raised a brow. “You look like you’re about to be sick.”
“She’s, uh,” Jason said.
“Scary, yeah. You say that now. You haven’t seen her fight. If she wanted to kick your ass, we couldn’t stop her,” Dick said. There was something fierce in his eyes. He wasn’t warning Jason; he was challenging Jason. Dare you.
Jason swallowed. This was what it was, to be in the wolves’ den. Jason was acutely aware of the bruises mottling his face. “Noted.”
“What doesn’t help, is that she really doesn’t like you. She’s got some pretty good reasons,” Dick continued. “My advice is, leave her alone. Stay out of her way. She can be a sweetheart, but she’s not about to be one to you.”
Jason nodded again. “Okay.”
“Oh, and don’t break eye contact. She hates that.”
Dick swung open the door and held it for Jason. “Hop in the Bugatti at the back. I don’t want to wake up Cass and ask her to move it, too lazy to move it myself, and who the hell doesn’t want to drive that car. It’s goddamn gorgeous.”
Thank you, Jason thought. If a regular Cass was terrifying, he wondered what a sleep-deprived, suitably annoyed one would be like.
The Bugatti was a sleek, panther of car that was black with blue trim—it must’ve been new, because Jason didn’t recognize it. Jason trudged out to the passenger’s side and opened the door and slid in. Dick followed a few seconds later, shoving the key in the ignition and revving the engine. The engine purred.
“I love this fucking car,” Dick said, with a grin.
“What is it?”
“Bugatti Chiron,” Dick answered.
Jason made a face like this was important information that impressed him.
Dick saw through it immediately. Bruce had always said Jason had no poker face. “Not a car guy?”
Jason shrugged. “Not really.”
“I’m more of a motorcycle man myself,” Dick said. “But I also appreciate divine beauty.” He adjusted the mirrors and the seat, and then shifted the car into reverse and pulled out of the gravel drive, slowly and carefully. He was an excellent driver, even one-handed, quick and with smooth movements. It was to be expected, from someone who’d trained under Batman.
It was another half mile of gravel trail until they hit the road. Half of that was spent in awkward silence, with Jason feeling pressured to start a conversation but unable to come up with any openers that didn’t sound fantastically idiotic, and then Dick flipped the radio on and relieved him of his misery. Jason was grateful and he spent the next fifteen minutes watching out the window, eyes on the trees as they whipped by, fingers drumming on his knee.
Dick interrupted his reverie. “You’re not scared of large animals, are you, by any chance?”
Jason shook his head. “No. The fuck does that have to do with anything?”
“Good,” Dick said. He looked conflicted, for a moment, and then said, “We’re going to a horse ranch. I paid them a lot of money very early this morning to let us come and rent two horses and ride the trails.”
Jason whipped his head to stare at him. “You… did what?” he snapped.
Dick glared at him. “If I knew you were going to be like that, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“No, no,” Jason said. “I just, uh. That came out wrong. I just—didn’t think we were, uh.”
I didn’t think you even wanted to be in the same room with me, Jason thought.
“We were what?” Dick asked.
“Good,” Jason said, quietly.
“You thought right. We’re not. We’re really fucking far from it,” Dick said.
Jason flinched. “Then I’ll just fucking—”
“Let me finish a sentence!” Dick snarled. “Jesus, c’mon. What I’m trying to say is, we aren’t good. You know that. I looked over that list. You had a shittier childhood than I ever knew, okay? This is an apology, for not seeing that. It’s just an apology, ‘kay?”
“I wasn’t a charity case that needed your sympathy,” Jason hissed, “and I’m not one now. You don’t need to replay your golden age on me just because I didn’t get that.”
“Y’know what, let’s just promise to not talk to each other the entire time we’re out here, and just enjoy it, okay?” Dick said, tightly.
“Okay,” Jason said.
They were silent for the rest of the drive.
The ranch they were going to was in the valley. It took over an hour to get there; Dick pulled the Bugatti down a long gravel path that led past an old country house and directly to a log barn, huge and with both barn doors opened wide. Dogs followed behind the car, barking, and one of them greeted Jason when he opened the door—a white dog with thick, thick fur, and a rounded muzzle, and great big floppy ears.
“You’re adorable,” Jason said, and pressed a kiss to the bridge of the dog’s nose. Rosa, her tag read. “You’re a sweet little Rosa.”
Rosa licked his face a couple times and Jason scratched her ears for a moment, and then he pushed her off of his lap and stood, turning to face Dick. Dick had come to stand at the end of the hood and and was Jason and Rosa, expressionless. Carefully expressionless. Jason was quickly learning that Dick’s tell with his poker faces is that they never looked natural on a body filled with so much animation—Bruce made expressionless work but crushing every physical tell he had and stalking through life with all the emotion of a brick wall, but Dick didn’t, Dick couldn’t.
“Dog person?” he asked.
“Both,” Jason answered, simply. “You?”
Dick grinned. “Dogs. Used to have a dog named Ace, Ace the Bat-Hound. He had a little costume and everything.”
“You’re kidding,” Jason said.
“Not in the least,” Dick said.
A short, ginger woman in her 60s approached them and stuck out her hand. It was clear she’d been waiting for them. “So which of you did I have the pleasure of speaking with this morning?”
Jason wondered how much, exactly, Dick had paid her to get that kind of a warm welcome.
“Me, ma’am,” Dick said, with a smile. “It’s not too much trouble?”
“Oh, not at all,” she said, waving her hand. She then offered it to Jason. “Ms. Marie, welcome to Highland Ranch. We’re pleased to have you both.”
Jason shook her hand. “Hi, Miss.”
Ms. Marie turned back to Dick. “We have a few absolutely lovely—”
“Watch out!” reverberated through the barn’s hall. Hooves clattered on tile and a brilliant red horse burst through the open barn door, a blue halter and lead swinging wildly in the air behind it—it reared and struck out with its hooves and then its front hooves hit the ground at a twisted angle. The horse flung its heels in the air with a sharp, powerful cry, and the second its back legs hit the dirt the horse was off again, galloping wildly around the barn. Seconds later, a man astride a bay horse rocketed by, lasso in hand. The barn blocked their view, as much as Jason tried to lean around to get a better look.
“A new horse,” Ms. Marie said, nervously. “Of course, you won’t be riding her, we have plenty of suitable—”
“What’s her name?” Dick asked. He was staring at the spot the chestnut had disappeared from view. In the distance, there was a loud whinny.
“Uh,” Ms. Marie said. She straightened her jean work shirt. “That there is Shirley Temple, she’s a rescue horse we’ve had for several months.”
“She always like that?” Dick asked. There was a weird, intense look on his face.
“I’m afraid so,” Ms. Marie said.
“How much?” Dick asked eagerly.
“Pardon me?” Ms. Marie said, a hand to her heart.
“How much,” Dick repeated. “And if you’d be able to spare someone to drive her out to New Jersey, we’ll pay for that, too. We’re generous tippers.”
“She’s not, uh, she’s not listed for—”
“Fifty grand,” Dick said. “Twenty grand to ship, and a five thousand dollar tip.”
That was the point Ms. Marie’s mouth fell open and she stared at Dick for no less than a full minute, and then she stammered, “Would you mind, uh, would you mind repeating that?”
Dick winked, and his grin was splitting his face. He was much better at masking his emotions with charm, Jason thought. “Fifty grand, twenty grand to ship, and a five thousand dollar tip.”
They left Jason outside to work out the details. It felt, annoyingly, like being left out of the adults’ discussion—but it meant Jason could sit on the stairs in front of the old country house and pet Rosa’s ears some more, and he was okay with that. Rosa was soft and warm, and kept licking his jeans and flopped over to lay on top of his boots, and it was easy to focus on her instead of fifty grand, twenty to ship, and a five thousand dollar tip.
Dick was comfortable, using Bruce’s money—not that Jason wasn’t, because Jason had lived through being poor, dirt poor, stealing-food-for-dinner poor, and he never wanted to be there again. The safety of having Bruce’s billions behind him was all-encompassing and it comforted him that, no matter what, there would be food on the table and there would be water in the pipes and a roof over his head. But sometimes the numbers themselves made Jason sick. Catherine had told him to be a doctor, because doctors were rich —you know, them doctors, they make forty thousand a year. Imagine that, Jason, honey? She had thought forty thousand a year was rich. She would’ve never been able to imagine Jason sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a man who contributed roughly a billion over a span of several years to an orbiting space station populated by superheroes, who spent millions yearly on its upkeep.
Dick was comfortable using Bruce’s money, though—more comfortable than Jason would have thought him to be, given that, from what he’d overheard as a kid, Dick had an independent streak about three miles wide and seven miles deep. Something must have changed. Dick had changed, from how Jason remembered him. Jason remembered him as a hotheaded prick, and he still was, but he was a hotheaded prick who looked like he was tired of being one, and when had that happened? A selfish part of Jason wanted to say that maybe it had, in some small way, cut into Dick, when he’d died. A selfish part of Jason wanted to know if Dick had even been at his funeral. It was a pathetic desire, small and ugly, because wouldn’t he have? Why wouldn’t the first Robin attend the funeral of the second Robin, irregardless of how Dick had felt about him personally?
Had anyone else attended? Had Superman been there, had Wonder Woman? Had Harvey? Had there been separate funerals, one for Robin and one for Jason Todd, would his teachers have gone to Jason’s funeral? Would—
Jason closed his eyes and counted his breathing until his mind was clear and all he could feel was the warm brick beneath him and the rhythmic motion of Rosa’s fur beneath his hand.
The storm door opened and shut with a rattle. “Got it sorted,” Dick announced. “Damian is the proud owner of a four-year-old mare named Shirley Temple.”
Jason scrambled to his feet. Rosa pulled herself up lazily and trotted off. “You got that horse for Damian?”
“Of course. Did you see her move? That’s a Damian horse,” Dick said, hands on his hips. “What, are you judging me? Seriously?”
“Did… did Bruce say it was okay?” Jason asked.
Dick snorted. “I don’t ask his permission for everything.”
Or anything, apparently. Jason swallowed a stab of anger. “But it’s his house, and his kid.”
Dick’s glare was glacial. “My brother, my Robin. Bruce is a little too occupied at the moment to care much about a horse, I think.”
Dick stalked off, bumping into Jason’s shoulder hard. “They should have our horses tacked up,” he said.
Dick marched off to the barn and Jason followed several paces behind, keeping his head low—navigating his father’s family was like navigating an old field of landmines. At the barn, two horses, a leaner chestnut horse and a larger, stockier dapple gray, were held by a stablehand, each adorned with big Western saddles.
“Right this way,” he said. Jason got the impression this guy was overworked and underpaid, from the bored tone of his voice. He slapped the flank of the chestnut. “This is Jack, and the gray one here is Bill.”
The stablehand led the horses to a mounting block, and Jason watched Dick swing his leg over the horse and settle in easily, naturally. Jason hadn’t ridden a horse in years—Bruce had required basic lessons, but it wasn’t something Jason was begging for more of, so further lessons fell by the wayside over the years. He was more awkward mounting his horse than he’d have liked, but once he was on, and the warm fleshy weight of the horse beneath him shifted, his seat shifted to accommodate the animal’s girth, and he remembered. He took the reins in his hand.
“Jason, since you’ve never—”
“I’ve ridden a horse,” Jason snapped. “I can handle this.”
“Okay,” Dick said, raising his casted hand in the air. “Alright.”
“If you head to the road, and take a right, about half a mile back, there’s a dirt path that leads off it. That’s the trail to the mountain, that’s the one we use. Enjoy the ride.”
“Thanks, man,” Dick said, settling the reins in one hand. He edged Jack into a walk and then a trot, and Jason, startled, followed him—he’d been quite bad at a rising trot when he was younger, but Bill had a trot that was easy enough to sit.
When they hit the road, Dick slowed to a walk and maneuvered beside Jason. “I didn’t know you could ride a horse,” he said.
“Bruce made me take some lessons,” Jason said. “‘Til I could at least handle myself.”
“Ah. Robin training,” Dick said.
“I rode some with Talia,” Jason said.
Dick’s head wheeled to Jason, eyes blazing. “Talia?”
“In the League,” Jason added.
Dick’s eyes narrowed. “You were working with Talia,” he said, dangerously.
“She’s the one who dropped me in the Pit, Dickwad,” Jason said. He urged Bill into a trot and Bill, who was turning out to be a lovely, responsive horse, obeyed immediately.
Dick and Jack followed suit. “She dropped you in the Pit?”
“It’s not actually something I love to fucking talk about,” Jason hissed. Confusion and overhanging sense of danger you're in danger thrummed through him. “Wouldn’t Bruce have told you?”
“No, he didn’t, and trust me, he’s getting an earful about it. I don’t think you get a choice anymore,” Dick said. “What the fuck do you mean, you were working with Talia al Ghul?”
“I wasn’t! Not really. She told me I was comatose, and she decided to drop me in the Pit, and then she kept me around the League headquarters for a bit before smuggling me out and I made my way back to Gotham,” Jason said. “I don’t really remember it that well.”
He remembered parts. He remembered the fleshy weight of the horse beneath him, the one that he felt now, but he also remembered the chill, and the stinging whip of sand on the wind. Mostly he remembered the hotel room she’d put him up in, the plane ticket she’d handed him, and the look on her face when she said, let this be an apology to my beloved, Robin.
Dick was silent for a while. They entered the wooded trail and were half an hour along it before Dick sneered, “You’re just full of discoveries, aren’t you.”
Jason shrugged. It was a motion he felt he did frequently, around Dick, because Dick seemed to strip him bare of words.
“Why would she do that?” Dick said. “What in the hell could Talia get out of—fixing you, or whatever?”
“When she sent me back to Gotham she told me I was an apology.”
Dick spluttered. “What’s that supposed to me?”
Jason shook his head. “Fuck if I know. I just assumed it always had to do with that brat you’re so fond of.”
Dick pulled Jack in front of Bill, bodily crossing the path. “Say one more word about Damian and see where that gets you,” he said, and his voice was like a steel whip that lashed at Jason’s chest.
Jason felt his face twist into an angry mask. “I’ve actually met Damian, I think it’s safe for me to say he’s a brat.”
“He’s my brother,” Dick spat. “And he’s put in a lot more work to be a better person than you ever have, you understand me? You will respect that.”
“How would you know what work I’ve put in!” Jason shouted. Bill shifted uncomfortably beneath him. “You’re not there for it! You’ve never been there for it! You don’t even know who I am!”
Dick opened his mouth to speak, but Jason steamrolled him. “And who the fuck are you? The second-best Batman? The ungrateful little asshole who insults his dad to make himself feel like a big man? You didn’t ever give a fuck about me, did you, and you probably went to my funeral anyway and lied your ass off to Bruce about—”
“I didn’t,” Dick interrupted. The look on his face was almost guilty. But only almost.
“I didn’t go to your funeral,” Dick said, finally.
Dick moved his horse and walked on down the trail. Jason and Bill sat there until the sun was high and dappled the forest floor, and Dick was long gone.
The rest of Jason’s ride was enjoyable, if there could be a word put to it. The trees stood tall and proud above him, and it was beautifully shaded—sometimes, through the gaps, he would catch a glimpse of the rising altitude, the lovely blue mountains off in the distance. He didn’t think, the entire way. His mind remained peacefully blank. Still as the surface of a pond on a day without wind.
If he did think—but he didn’t—he would’ve thought about how stupid, how inane it was, to have thought Dick would’ve actually shown up to his funeral, how juvenile of him, to think that. Dick was a busy man, even then, with much better things to do. Gutter trash didn’t stop being gutter trash when it was dressed up in a tux and tucked into a casket. A cape and a mask didn’t fix an internal lack of value. If he did think, he would’ve thought about how it felt like there was a hole in his chest, that even his death hadn’t made Dick pick up that phone. That there was something so rotten about Jason that he was untouchable—that there was a line of siblings after Jason that Dick was perfectly loving to, that it was Jason, and specifically Jason, that was the bad apple of the bunch, the ugly Robin.
But he didn’t think. He hummed quietly to himself and listened to Bill’s breathing and enjoyed his ride, and by the time it was late in the day, he passed a chestnut horse tied to a hitch by a small grassy overlook.
Dick was lying on his back in the grass. One hand was covering his eyes. “I didn’t go,” he called. “I was offworld. I didn’t even know you were dead until two weeks later.”
“If I were you,” Jason said, slowly, “I wouldn’t have gone either.”
Dick dropped his hand and peered at him quizzically. “That’s no good,” he said. After a minute, he said, “Second-best Batman?”
“Seemed like a good insult at the time.”
“I’ll take second best,” Dick said. “Better than Jean Paul, at least. I’m a disappointment but I’m not a nut job.”
The barb stabbed Jason in the stomach. “Yeah, save that for me,” he said, hollowly. “Save that for me, save that for the inner city piece of shit. You know the difference between us? When you were a kid, you rode horses to the beach. When I was a kid, my mom parked me on the street corner to use me as bait to rob pedophiles for drug money. That’s what we’re worth.”
Dick sat up, balanced his elbows on his knees. “If you’re trying to make a point, Jason, about your mom’s drug addiction meaning you’re worth less as a person, if that’s the grand point, you’re talking to the wrong person, in the wrong family.”
Jason paused. “Just saying. Different childhoods. One of us is the runt of the litter.”
“That’d be Tim. He still shops in the boys’ section.”
That, of anything, got a laugh out of Jason. Jason dismounted and hitched Bill to the post beside Jack, and then walked over and sat in the grass beside Dick.
Dick looked at him with an open gaze. “I’m serious, though, Jason. What happens to you doesn’t make you worth less. Y’know, you’re just like Bruce, sometimes. After Bane broke his back, I can’t count the number of times I had to tell him that. He didn’t much appreciate it, and he shouted me down quite a bit, but I told him anyway.”
Jason’s blood beat cold in his heart. “What,” he said. “Broke his—?”
Dick huffed and waved a hand. “Bruce had a crisis, or five, after you died. He—he was reckless, didn’t want help. Tim becoming Robin saved his life, but it’s not like you can fix things instantly, you know? Things take time. He needed time. He didn’t get it, ‘cause Bane comes in—wow, don’t make that face, why the hell hasn’t Bruce forced you to sit down with the files on everything you missed? Bane planned to break down the Bat. It ended with Bruce’s spine broken. It took a lot of surgery to fix it.”
Jason swallowed. “His spine.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it was—painkillers, you don’t come off those easy, but you know that,” Dick said. “He overdosed, once.” He made another vague gesture with his hand. “He kicked those, eventually. Took time. Everything takes time.”
Jason plucked a blade of grass and studied it. “It’s a pattern,” he said, quietly.
“He just needs time,” Dick said, hopefully.
Jason plucked another blade of grass. He didn’t respond, and he didn’t respond because he didn’t think time was an inherently healing force—wounds could fester, given time.
His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out and tapped the green answer call button.
“Where the hell are you,” Bruce growled.
“Nice to hear from you, too,” Jason said weakly.
A brief quiet. Then, “How much of a game do you think this is, Jason,” Bruce said.
“Dick took me horseback riding,” Jason explained.
Jason chuckled. “That’s what I said. He got me up early for it.”
“That’s—that’s good,” Bruce said, strangled.
“Yeah,” Jason said. “We’ll be back in a couple hours.”
“What time, precisely, is a couple.”
“Six o’clock,” Jason answered.
“Good. Be there. Not a minute later.”
The line went dead. Bruce wasn’t much a fan of long phone calls. Jason stared at the phone in his hand. “Can we even get back by six?”
“Oh, definitely not,” Dick said, grinning. “But at least we’re getting yelled at together.”
The start of the ride back was less tense, and far less thoughtless—Jason’s brain was buzzing, and he tried to keep it away from imagining the sound of Bruce’s spine as it cracked in half, he tried to keep his mind off how it reminded him of his own bones snapping, giving way beneath a metal weight. After a while his skin prickled with the intensity of it, and he said, far too loud, “Thanks for this.”
Dick snorted. “Yeah, yeah, you’re welcome, it was a swell time. Loads of fun, this trip down memory lane. Let’s never do it again.”
Jason’s mouth flattened, rumpled at the edges. “I’m sorry I said what I did about Damian,” he mumbled.
Dick glanced at Jason strangely. “Don’t be. He is kind of a brat.”
Why’d you have to yell at me over it, Jason thought, sourly, but he said nothing. “Tell me about your dog.”
Dick paused. Then he said, carefully, “I’ll tell you about Ace, if you tell me something. A trade.”
“Okay,” Jason said.
“I told you about Salvatore. He was, he was kind of my best friend, because the circus didn’t really have other kids—I hung out with him all the time. It might surprise you to find out I wasn’t easy to get on with, as a kid.”
Jason tossed his head back and laughed. “Surprise me? Are you fucking kidding? You’ve been a total ass my entire life, dude.”
Dick’s nostrils flared. “Oh, whatever. Shut up. I was an ass of a kid, for a while there. I didn’t have friends at school, because I spent all the time thinking about watching my parents die, like a real violent little shit, and y’know, I just wasn’t all that happy. So Bruce ended up getting me a dog, and he sewed the dog a costume and we called him Ace the Bat-Hound. He helped, quite a bit. Y’know, he went and did the same thing for Damian—bought him Titus.”
Jason had been around the Manor enough to meet Titus, and get drooled on extensively by Titus. “I thought you were everyone’s little darling Robin.”
“When I was Robin,” Dick said. “I hated anyone who wasn’t a hero, or at least involved in the crowd. I got expelled for fighting, once.”
It was like trying to piece together the shards of a broken mirror—the pieces that Bruce had given him, that Alfred had given him, that brief interactions with other heroes had given him. He tried to imagine Dick as both the clingy, chirpy Robin Bruce remembered and the angry, violent one Dick recounted to him now, but the pieces of the mirror just wouldn’t fit.
“My turn,” Jason said.
Dick grinned. “Make it good. I want the dirt, man.”
“When I first came to the Manor, when I first came to meals—I’d eat. I’d eat so much, so fast, that I’d throw it up,” Jason said. “I didn’t, uh, I didn’t know there could be that much food. I wasn’t sure if it was real, I wasn’t sure if Bruce or Al would take it away, so I’d eat as much as I could and then throw it up and—vicious cycle. Bruce had to make me count. Had to control what I could eat, at the same time making sure I knew it wasn’t gonna be taken away, and—I think about that, sometimes, how difficult it had to be, to figure that out.”
Dick was quiet. Then he asked, “How much food did you have, as a kid?”
“None,” Jason said.
“A thing I know is, there’s different types of none. At the circus, we had food, but we had none extra. No snacking, nothing fancy. Perfectly rationed out and no seconds, ever. That’s one kind. Another kind is, you weren’t allowed to eat, so you had none.”
Jason reached a hand forward to rub the mane of his horse. “I mean none none. I mean I stole most of what I ate. I mean that I stole from school so much they banned me from the cafeteria and I had to eat with a teacher. I mean—I didn’t, I didn’t know what it was like to not be starving all the time until I lived with Bruce. I mean none.”
Dick didn’t respond until after they’d dismounted back at Highland Ranch, until after they’d bid Ms. Marie goodbye, until they were just a bullet rocketing down the road.
“It’s so hard to look at you sometimes,” Dick said.
“Didn’t know I was that ugly.”
“Not like that,” Dick said, softly. “It’s like, it’s like you’re uniquely unlucky. It’s like you just got the bad end of everything possible. And every time I look at you, I have to remember that I could’ve—I could’ve been important to you, once. I could’ve helped.”
“This is the part where I lie my ass off and say I never wanted your fucking help in the first place,” Jason said.
Dick looked at him.
“I never wanted your fucking help in the first place,” Jason finished. He turned back to the window, and watched the trees blur outside of the window, watched the sky darken ever further, and thought about, I didn’t go to your funeral.
So there's, uh, well, there's, I really do promise I'll stop having people buy Damian horses when they're in crisis. I really do. Except, I, uh. I'M ATTACHED TO IT AS A THING OKAY.
Chapter 6: By Billie Holiday
Typical warnings for a chapter of this hell fic; violence, shouting, messy emotions, everyone kind of sucks in all directions until they don't.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bruce was, predictably, angry.
“Something could have gone wrong,” he snarled. “And where would you be? Bleeding in a forest, no one with any idea where you are? You would be—we would have had no idea where to start looking for you.”
Cass stood behind Bruce, her arms crossed; in so many ways she, out of all of them, resembled Bruce the closest. Because of that he trusted her in ways he didn’t trust the rest of them, and, if Dick were feeling honest, on his bad days he resented her for it—hadn’t he worked all his life to be the kind of man Bruce could trust, that Bruce could believe in, and then this half-feral girl crops up in Gotham and suddenly his faith is for her and her alone? But the truth of it was, Bruce trusted Cass to act in a situation as he would, as an extension of his judgment. It never had anything to do with Dick. It had everything to do with Bruce’s controlling nature.
That’s what Dick told himself, at least.
“So, at what point in this conversation do you remember that we’re grown-ass adults?” Dick asked, faux-cheerily. “Because I, for one, am really excited for that part of the conversation.”
“If you were adults, you would act like it.”
Dick looked to Jason. Jason’s eyes were on the ground, and he was chewing his lip, looking for all the world like a sixteen-year-old getting cussed out for snatching the family minivan to sneak off to a kegger—and Dick would know what that looked like, because he had done that exactly once, save the minivan. He’d shown up on Bruce’s motorcycle, the one Bruce had built from the ground up. He didn’t have a single drop of alcohol the whole night. He spent the whole time showing off the bike, because the only reason he’d gone had been to make Bruce angry.
It had worked spectacularly.
“Well, as an adult, can we talk adult-to-adult, here?” Dick asked. “Because the adult thing to do would be to tell you, I bought Damian a horse. Her name’s Shirley Temple. They’re having her shipped to the Manor. Bought her for fifty.”
“Grand,” Jason cut in. “And a twenty thousand dollar shipping fee. And a five thousand tip.”
Dick glared at Jason. “Which one of us is handling this conversation?”
Bruce had flattened a hand over his eyes. “Good God,” he said. “What on Earth makes you think Damian is ready for a horse? Whatwith—”
“I think he needs something to take his mind off of you,” Dick said.
A curious thing, happened to Bruce’s face, one that Dick had—technically—seen many times before but now was seeing again in a new way; it shuttered, but his expression didn’t give way to its typical blank, empty mask. It gave way to a twisted mask of rage. “That was not your decision to make,” he hissed.
“My Robin,” Dick said, stepping forward, “my brother. My decision. It’s not like you can’t afford it, it’s not like you’re ever going to have to see the damn thing, and it would make him happy. He needs something else to think about.”
Bruce’s mouth became a thin line, straight as a ruler. “You went over my head, to make a decision affecting my son’s life. You bought him a living creature to hand to him as a project, one that he will have for years, very possibly decades.”
“Bullshit, you’re not angry about equine welfare, you ass, you don’t give a damn about the fucking horse. You’re angry because you just got reminded you don’t get to control everything in the universe, especially me,” Dick snapped.
Bruce bristled. Cass jumped, and blinked at him. What did she read there, what secret did she find, buried in the way Bruce held himself? “I am reminded of what I do not control daily, Dick,” Bruce said, evenly. “I am angry because you are behaving like a child.”
Dick jabbed his finger at Bruce. “You’ve left your entire fucking family in shambles around you because you’re a fucking eight-year-old who can’t manage to say I need some goddamn help before you run yourself into the ground and end up fucking dead! You think I’m the one acting like a child, here? Do you know how many times I’ve had to pick up after you, that I’ve had to fix things because you royally screwed them to fuck because you can’t get your thick skull wrapped around the fact that honesty is a novelty damn concept you should try using sometime? Real fucking rich, coming from you.”
Bruce’s face was—Bruce’s face was gray, like ash, but his eyes were hard. “Get out,” he said, devastatingly soft.
“And there’s how you deal with everything! Everything, you tell it to go away like that’s actually going to help you, but news-fucking-flash, Bruce? Things don’t stop just because you will it. You have to get off your fucking ass and do something about it.”
Bruce’s eyes flashed. “Are you accusing me of laziness?” he said, incredulously.
“I’m accusing you of not giving a shit!” Dick said, throwing up his hands. “I’m accusing you of not giving a single fucking damn, and the rest of us—”
Bruce was no longer listening. Dick could see it in his face, could see it in the way Bruce’s shoulders were angled away. That angle cut Dick open and rearranged his organs. That angle was the devastating thump of the shut book, the crack of the gavel coming down, the final word.
“Nevermind,” Dick said, hoarsely, tearing his gaze away. “Never-fucking-mind. I’ll be outside. Don’t come after me.”
Dick stalked out of the front door and slammed it behind him. Usually, when he was angry, he would pace—all that excess energy, all that rage pounding through his veins. Usually, he would beat it out on a bag, usually he would pull on his suit and fall thirty stories in his favorite game of cat-and-mouse with gravity. This was a different kind of angry. This anger was a slow, inexorable force, like glaciers, like tectonic plates; he was empty, and drained, so he slouched into one of the plastic chairs by the firepit and looked up at the stars.
He thought of the treehouse. He thought of the stars and the moon above them, lighting their way, Bruce’s easy chuckles and Dick feeling his own giggles burst from his chest. B, you’re a sucker! Y’had to see that move comin’ a mile away! and I suppose you’re just smarter than me, chum. What good nights those had been. What good days those had been, what wonderful, sweet times when the city seemed like it was lit from the inside by golden light. Even the Joker had been nothing more than a clown, back then. Dick never had reason to look at a crowbar twice.
The gravel crunched behind him.
“I thought I told you to leave me the fuck alone,” Dick said.
“You, uh, you told Bruce,” Jason responded. His voice was shaky and nervous.
Dick turned in his seat, almost disbelieving his ears, but there Jason was, in his jeans and boots and Wonder Woman t-shirt from Target. He’d changed out of the sweaty shirt he’d gone riding in earlier, but Dick wasn’t sure about the jeans, and as far as he knew Jason had only brought the one pair of shoes. He looked ludicrously awkward. Dick waved him over.
As he came around, Jason poked the firepit in front of the circle of lawn chairs with his boot. “This has wood in it,” he said. “There any lighter fluid around here? I’ve got a lighter.”
“Why the hell do you have a lighter?”
Jason shrugged, a shadowy movement in the dark. “I always carry a lighter.”
Dick jerked his head to the house. “Can’t imagine a bat-house comes without lighter fluid. If you want to go back in, that is.”
Jason stood still for a moment. “Are you okay?” he asked, finally.
Dick snorted. “Shouldn’t you be asking Bruce that? Since you two are so close, and all.”
“I think he’s fine.”
Dick grinned. It felt sharp, like a crocodile’s. “Or you’re avoiding Cass.”
Jason sat down. “Maybe. You’re avoiding them both.”
“Oh, you know, Cass is basically Batman’s right hand, wouldn’t do to run into either of them,” Dick said.
Jason shifted. His jeans rasped as he did. “I don’t think, uh, I don’t think that’s true.”
“I don’t think Cass is—I think she’s her own person. I think Bruce recognizes that.”
Dick folded his hands behind his head. “I’m being bitter, Jay. Just let me be bitter.”
“In that case, the world is ending, everything’s on fire, and the country’s fucked,” Jason said.
Dick laughed. It felt good, to laugh even as bitterness—like battery acid—choked him. “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. The good stuff. Be a bitter old man with me, Jay, it’ll be fun.”
“I’m bitter that I can’t go into the bagel shop I used to go to all the time because I was arrested for assault there,” Jason said, lightly.
Dick clapped his hands. “That’s the bitterness I want. Languish in it, dude. People like us can only be filled with hope for so much of the time before we have to take a break. And then on Monday morning we can haul our asses back up and believe in the good of the universe and the potential of world peace, but on a gloomy Sunday night, we’re bitter.”
Jason swallowed, loudly. “I’m not, uh, one of you.”
Dick looked at him seriously. “Once a Robin,” he said, “always a Robin. I made you Robin. I gave you that costume myself. You’re damn well one of us.”
In his head, Dick saw Bruce’s blood on his hands, Dick heard the shriek of the heart monitor as it flatlined. But most of what he remembered was the fear, sharp and thick, his tongue bleeding where it was pinned between his teeth and the thunder of his own pulse and feeling like his chest was sucked downwards into an abyss. The flutter of words from his mouth, goddammit goddammit wake up wake up don’t you dare leave me don’t you dare leave us, not you not you never you. Wanting to rip his own beating heart out and offer it up as sacrifice, that if he could die so Bruce would live, he would do that, he would make that choice, hand him the knife—Alfred and Tim and Cass and Steph and Clark and the world needed him, Gotham City needed a Batman, hand him the knife and he would make that choice without thinking. He had lived eternities in that moment, had seen the future spiral out around him, the realities, all of them ending with the heart monitor and its awful sound and Dick wanting to scream himself bloody at a gravestone.
He sat across from the man who had almost done that, had almost sliced Dick’s hamstrings and walked away flipping his dagger and whistling an odd tune, and called him damn well one of us. That uncaring would-be wrecking ball that had almost taken them all out, left them to deal with their crippling grief and—for what?
“That, uh,” Jason said. “That always confused me, y’know? I was good enough to be Robin, but I wasn’t good enough for you to talk to.”
Dick felt that like he’d swallowed shards of glass. Christ, but he was a kid. “It was never about you,” he said.
“Wasn’t it, though. You’re so close to the rest of your family. It was everyone except me,” Jason said.
Dick shook his head. “I was angry with Bruce. We fought like cats and dogs. I avoided you because—I didn’t want to deal with him.”
Jason fell quiet. He said, several minutes later, “Liar.”
A simple, clean cut—what a hypocrite Dick was, for accusing Bruce of running away from honesty when it was all he ever seemed to do with Jason. “What gave me away?”
“Nothing. I can’t even see your face. It was a lucky guess.”
Dick stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles. Acting like Bruce had gotten him nowhere. Maybe it was time he did something Superman would do, and offered up the truth. “This is ugly of me, you know. I said it’s hard to look at you sometimes, earlier.”
“It’s not just—not just ‘cause I could’ve been there for you, and I wasn’t. It’s why I wasn’t there. I was jealous, simple as that. You had it good with Bruce when I didn’t.”
Jason paused. “That simple?”
Dick bowed his head. “That fucking simple. And I know you’re thinking, wow, his name really is accurate, he was jealous of a twelve-year-old, but—I was young, and stupid, and Bruce was the person who introduced me to every great thing that ever happened to me. It felt like I was losing him. And I put that on you.”
And God, Dick’s hands were shaking with the effort it was taking not to say, and then you turned around and tried to take him anyway.
“That fucking simple,” Jason said, in a whisper. “I’ve spent—what, years?—years of my life, wondering what I did to make you hate me so badly.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I was—am—an ass.”
Jason shook his head. Just the blur of that pale face in the dark. “You’re not—you’re not so bad.”
“You called me an ass just today,” Dick said.
“Well, you’re still an ass,” Jason said, grinning, “but you’re not—you try. That’s more than… that’s more than a lot of people would do.”
Dick craned his head up and looked at the stars. They winked down at him, cruelly—he had been among them, had walked among them, had lounged in space with the best of them and still the stars were so far away.
“I’m so tired,” he said, after a heavy silence, “of being terrified of losing people. I’m tired of people dying, I’m tired of watching people… crawl into themselves, and never come out. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of waiting for them to come back. I’m sick of waiting for ‘time heals all wounds,’ or what-the-fuck-ever.”
Jason snorted. “I gotta ask a question,” he said.
“Go for it.”
Ask me what it was like when I found out that the person who had almost killed Bruce was a Robin. I dare you.
“What idiot,” Jason said, “taught you that time heals all wounds?”
Dick looked at him. “What?”
“Go on, tell me. Because that’s someone I need to set straight. Time doesn’t fix things by some magical, intrinsic power of time. If you get shot, you have to stop the bleeding, because if you wait you’re gonna end up dead. I waited my entire life, as a kid, for things to get better, and they never did until someone stepped in and forced the issue. Time heals jack-fucking-shit, Dickie.”
“Bruce used to say that,” Dick said, hollowly.
From what Dick could make out, Jason’s eyes were solemn. “That explains a lot,” he said.
Dick balanced his elbows on his knees and bent his head into his hands. “This is a fucking mess,” he said. “Everything’s a fucking mess.”
“Yeah,” Jason agreed. “But I don’t, uh. I don’t regret coming.”
Dick looked up. “You don’t? I thought for sure you would. I mean, hell, you’ve still got bruises on your face where I wailed on you.”
“The parts where we’re not at each other’s throats are nice,” Jason said. He reached out and tapped Dick on the knee. “Which has been, uh, the last three minutes in total, I guess. C’mon, let’s find something to eat.”
It was then, that Dick remembered he’d forced Jason to get up and go without breakfast and hadn’t even brought snacks, hadn’t even stopped for lunch. “Christ, I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing his face. How many ways was it possible for him to fuck up, today? The balance, the balance was screwing him over—constantly trying to decipher whether Jason would be, in any given moment, a murderer who spat on every good thing he’d ever had, or a kid who’d only ever had one lucky break in a lifetime of disaster. Constantly trying to figure out if they existed at the same time, in the same place, in the same body, and if that were true, trying to figure out what the hell Dick was supposed to do about it.
“It’s cool. I’m used to it.”
Dick frowned, because it wasn’t exactly a good thing to be used to, but he didn’t comment, because he’d forgotten about eating entirely, too. Dick followed Jason to the kitchen and they ended up splitting the leftover spaghetti. It took exactly two and a half minutes for either of them to notice Cass folded on top of the cabinets, crouched low to the wood, eyes dark and serious.
Dick bumped Jason’s shoulder and pointed to Cass. Jason yelped, pathetically, when he saw her, and that drew a slow smile from her and she slithered from her perch to sit on the counter.
“How is he,” Dick asked.
Cass’s serious eyes turned sharp as daggers. She perched on the counter and folded her legs, criss-cross-applesauce, and then balanced her wrists on her knees, all without taking her eyes from Dick’s face.
“Meditating,” Dick repeated. “Doesn’t Bruce ever get enough of that?”
Fast as a striking rattlesnake, Cass’s hand shot out and shoved Dick in the shoulder. “Cruel,” she said. “Cut him.”
“Cass,” Dick said, helplessly.
“Cruel,” she snarled again, her hand pulled back to strike again. She would not hold back a second time. A second hit, and Dick would be writhing on the floor, and he’d have more than the broken hand. She’d be standing above him still snarling cruel, like some wraith sent from hell to exact vengeance—or whatever the fuck they thought Black Bat was these days, in Gotham City.
“He has to hear it,” Dick said. “Better from me than anyone else.”
Cass hissed. She reminded Dick of a very large, very ornery lizard. Dick turned to look at Jason, and was surprised to find that Jason had not backed away an inch—in fact, he’d stepped forward, curiously. It seemed this was a display Jason understood, wonder of wonders.
“So you’re on her side, now,” Dick said, sourly.
Cass’s head whipped to Jason and she affixed him with a baleful glare. “You—you were supposed to protect him. Why is he worse.”
“Worse?” Dick asked, startled.
“Moves wrong. Slow. Not—not—” she gesticulated for a moment, and then pointed to her eyes, and blinked a couple times. “Looking,” she finished lamely. She looked worried, her brows folded together, eyes creased pleadingly.
“I think he’s just—”
Dick plowed through what Jason was going to say. “I need to know more about worse,” he said. He was aware, distantly, that his voice was loud and harsh and angry, and even more distantly, he was aware that Jason had flinched at it. Whatever rapport they had managed in their brief ceasefire, Dick had just tipped it into the drain. It seemed to be what Dick was best at.
Cass raised two fingers and tapped below her eyes, and then she poked herself in the chest, and said, “Like he never see me again.”
Understanding Cass was still work, even if she was much better with language than she had been, once upon a time. It was work. Some days Dick was better at it than others, and today was, evidently, not one of his better days. “I’m not exactly following,” Dick said.
Cass shook her head angrily. Her black hair whipped at her jawline. She would need to get it cut, soon—usually Bruce or Babs did that, because Cass wouldn’t trust anyone else near her neck with a blade of any sort. A holdover from the world’s most hellish childhood with one of the world’s most monstrous men.
Dick leaned against the counter and stared into his bowl of lukewarm spaghetti, like if he tilted it right it would have the answers to all his problems, and maybe end world hunger while it was at it. He stabbed into the noodles with his fork. The problem with hearing the words he and worse from Cass’s mouth was that Cass was so rarely wrong in her reading of people; there were, undoubtedly, secrets that Cass and Cass alone could decode and recognize and keep. If there was something wrong with Bruce, Cass would know before any of them, before anyone in the world—except for Alfred. But Alfred wasn’t here right now, and Dick was relatively certain Alfred wouldn’t be speaking to him for weeks.
“Worse,” he said, tasting the word in his mouth.
Cass tapped Dick on the shoulder, and Dick turned to watch her. She tapped beneath her eyes and then signed dead.
“This is the worst game of charades,” Jason mumbled.
“Like you were dead,” Dick said.
Jason crossed his arms. “This is fine. I think you guys have talked in three languages, two of which are totally made up. But this is fine.”
“Shut up, Jay,” Dick said, holding out a hand as if to physically barricade Jason.
Jason glared at him. “Shutting up,” he growled, but it was clear he wasn’t happy with doing so.
“Like you were dead?” Dick repeated.
Cass nodded again. She looked almost like she might cry.
The pieces didn’t fit together. Don’t try too hard, Bruce would have said. The key is to think around it. Let the information show its pattern to you. The pieces didn’t fit together, not at all; Cass was simply too good at reading people for this to be the first time she noticed Bruce looking at her like that, when Dick catalogued at least one thank God you’re alive look from Bruce every time he saw the man. It was Bruce’s default state, one Dick knew well, one that was an effect of crushing loss that would never go away—Dick had spent his life looking at people that way, from Babs to Wally to Roy to Donna to Bruce himself.
“Cass, I don’t know how to tell you this,” Dick said, slowly, “but that’s kind of what he does.”
Cass punched him in the shoulder again. “Not the same,” she said, fiercely. “Not the same. Not understanding me.”
Dick’s hand snaked out and grabbed her wrist. “Cass. I think you’re worried over him. I get it, I am, too—but we’ve got it covered, here. Things get worse before they get better. Home. Go home.”
Cass’s eyes shone with tears. It wasn’t a response Dick had expected—he’d expected something more along the lines of another hit to the shoulder, fiery rage, the sound of her footsteps rattling the floors as she stormed off. Maybe, occasionally, he could do something right.
“Saying bye,” she said, swiping at her eyes. She darted through the gap between Jason and Dick and melted into the shadows around the corner, silent as ever.
Dick blew out a breath and turned back to his bowl of spaghetti. He stabbed at a forkful and shoved it in his mouth. Jason took his bowl out of the microwave and left to sit down at the table—he leaned over the bowl and practically inhaled it, like a starving dog. Dick stayed at the counter and polished his bowl off in silence—he hadn’t been sure what to do with the fragile peace of earlier, but this, the broken edges, the mean and lurking quiet, this he could do well. Here he could be comfortable. In the foyer, a door slammed, followed quickly by the rumbling of an engine, the noise of tires on gravel.
Bruce entered the kitchen and went to the refrigerator, swinging the door open. He moved easily, lithely, too quiet for a man of his size—but there was a tenseness there that told Dick that, however Bruce and Cass had parted, it hadn’t been on good terms.
“Good to see her,” Dick said, casually, tossing his half-finished spaghetti in the sink.
Bruce hummed. He continued staring into the fridge, and then said, “You ate the spaghetti.”
“Be faster, next time, old man,” Dick said. He hazarded a glance at Jason—what he didn’t expect was to find that Jason’s eyes were already on him, and they were pleading, and wasn’t that grating? Didn’t that just make the skin on his arms prickle, that look, like Dick was some animal on the loose?
Bruce grunted. He pulled out a plastic tub of cantaloupe, and Dick opened the drawer next to his hip, plucked out a fork, and handed it to Bruce, who grunted again and took it.
Bruce settled on a stool at the breakfast bar, directly across from Dick, and pierced a chunk of fruit with his fork and plopped it in his mouth. It was the choice to remain in the room, to remain near, that told Dick the same thing that the angle of his body had told him earlier —we won’t be talking about this, so don’t even try. It would become one of the things they tossed overboard, into the water under the bridge, the water that was murky and bloody by now with all the things they didn’t talk about. Dick couldn’t decide if he was righteously, ruthlessly angry about that, or if he was softly grateful.
Bruce waved the fork with a bit of cantaloupe on the end under Dick’s nose. “Eat,” he said.
Dick’s mouth twisted but he snatched the fork and tore the fruit off. He dropped the fork back in the plastic tub Bruce was eating from, and when he’d swallowed, he said, “Christ, Bruce, I can feed myself.”
“I sincerely doubt that, most days,” Bruce said, idly. He was looking just past Dick, at the single dirty bowl in the sink. Then his eyes flicked to Dick’s, one brow perfectly arched. Dick settled on righteously, ruthlessly angry in that moment.
“I was going to try to apologize, despite everything, really, I was. But you can’t stop reminding me how irresponsible you really think I am, can you?” Dick snapped.
“Stop assuming what I am saying, and listen to what I’m saying,” Bruce said. He sounded as unbothered as if they were discussing the weather. Sunny, low nineties, might be a good day for sunscreen.
The absurdity of it only sent Dick’s rage spiralling higher, and he slammed his good hand down on the countertop. “I’m fucking listening, and I’m telling you that you’ve got some nerve.”
Bruce rose. The stool clattered to the ground behind him, and he braced his hands flat against the countertop and leaned forward until he was inches from Dick’s face, and said in a voice pitched only for Dick’s ears, “I am saying that I doubt you’ve eaten much at all today, and that I’ve noticed you haven’t been eating much at all recently. You still haven’t slept, not like I asked you to, and every minute we have been here, you have been trying to tear someone’s head off, whether it be mine or Jason’s. You are unreasonable, you are explosive, and if you were Robin still I would have benched you.”
Dick reared back like he’d been slapped. If you were Robin still if you were Robin still beat in his brain like his pulse, and Dick clenched his fist until his nails dug into the warm flesh of his palm and his knuckles were bloodless and white. “I am unreasonable,” Dick said, and it was like being possessed, like Brother Blood again, where he was out of his own control and his own power, “I am unreasonable. Good God, do you ever look in the fucking mirror? Do you ever look at yourself like hey, what the fuck am I doing, actually? No, of course you don’t, because Bruce goddamn Wayne never did a thing wrong in his life—did you ever think that, maybe, just maybe, we’d all be a lot better off—”
“Don’t finish that,” Bruce snarled. His brows were furrowed, but other than that, his face was impassive—too impassive.
Dick stopped. He closed his eyes and sucked in a breath and said, “I told myself I’d stop fucking things up today, but, hah, look. Here I am, fighting you again. Christ.”
He opened his eyes and looked at Bruce.
Bruce was silent. His hands trembled against the stone, and it gave him away. He leaned back, stiff, and bent down to recover the bar stool. When he straightened he flicked a hand to the fridge. “Help yourself to the fruit. You’re in need of it, I think. Anything in the fridge, actually, there’s freeze pops, if you would like. You can both head out tonight. I’ve work to catch up on.”
And Bruce walked away. Dick watched after him, desperately replaying where he had overstepped, what he had said that had tripped some invisible wire, wishing he could dip back through the time stream and throttle the Dick he’d been just half a minute ago.
Dick turned just in time to see a ceramic bowl hurtling towards his head, and ducked quickly. It shattered against the far wall of the attached living room, in a shower of shards.
“What the fuck,” Jason hissed, shaking with what had to be fury. His fists were balled at his sides. “What the fuck.”
“I—I don’t know,” Dick said. The ground was moving too quickly beneath him, something had shifted but he didn’t know what. “I don’t know what I said, I don’t know what made him—”
Jason loomed over him for a moment more, and Dick was aware in a small place beneath his soul that Jason had packed people off in body bags, had mutilated corpses, had tried to kill someone he’d since claimed to love deeply. That was the crux of it, the oxymoron—how could Jason Wayne be a monster, a murder, who had turned on his family, and someone who was so fundamentally a scarred child? The pieces didn’t fit. The pieces didn’t fit, they refused to fit.
“Every time I think you might be less of an asshole than you appear to be, you just go and prove me wrong,” Jason said. “What the fuck? Better off without him? You can’t—you can’t say shit like that to people.”
“That’s not what I said,” Dick said, feeling the tension of a fight creep into his shoulders. Something wild and desperate in him made him shift into the corner, something in the back of his brain was crowing hit me, hit me, just fucking hit me, I deserve it. “That’s not what I said. And you have no fucking room to talk, are you kidding me?”
“That is exactly what you said. That’s what he heard, that’s what I heard, that’s what you were saying even if you didn’t think you were,” Jason said. Jason crossed his arms and his furious look melted into something thoughtful. “You really didn’t think you were saying that, did you?”
Dick gritted his teeth. He could say it. Out in a rush. A handful of words and he could guarantee he would wipe that idiotic look off of Jason’s face. “Bruce would’ve been better off without you,” he said.
The hit made him see stars. He tasted copper in his mouth; when he opened his eyes again he was opening them up to the bright, blinding light that was the kitchen’s overhead light, and he was flat on his back and someone was sobbing and good fuck-all, there was just no end in sight to the ways he could screw this day up.
“M’sorry,” Dick mumbled, craning his head until his eyes could land on Jason, who was huddled in the corner with his arms wrapped over his folded legs, sobbing into his knees. It was loud, ugly sobbing, and it tore at Dick’s heart to hear it. I did that, he thought. He thought of Bruce’s impassive face, his unusually hasty retreat—the words he’d said earlier that he hadn’t apologized for.
Dick picked himself up off the ground and rubbed at his face—he was going to have a split lip to rival Jason’s shiner, and wouldn’t that be fun, to explain to Bruce. “I wanted you to hit me,” he said, quietly.
“Stop doing that!” Jason shrieked. “I could’ve, I could’ve—stop doing that, you can’t do that, I’m so sorry. I thought you said you’d stop.”
“I wasn’t—” testing you, Dick finished in his head. He’d wanted Jason to hit him for his own, selfish, petty reasons, and he’d said the worst thing he could imagine saying to get it. Good Christ, but the pain had centered him. The edge of panic that had been taking him over, beaten back by a clean, solid, grounding hit. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I lied to make you angry. He—he loves you. More than anything, he loves you. You walk into a room, you make his day better.” I walk into a room, I rip him to shreds, I take every knife I’ve got and I stick it in him, and for what? Because misery loves company?
“I need to go find Bruce,” Dick said, pushing himself to his feet. His legs were unsteady, coltish. “I need to—I need to go find him.”
“Leave him the fuck alone already,” Jason said.
Dick stumbled off through the cabin. Bruce was in his room, which was expected, thumbing through something on his phone and he was wearing his dumb reading glasses that made him look older than he was, and a strangled cry erupted out of Dick’s throat when he saw him sitting there.
Bruce glanced up. “What did you do,” he said, lowly.
Dick didn’t answer. He couldn’t—there was no air in his lungs. Bruce rose and almost immediately Dick was being crushed into his chest, a hand running through his hair, and Dick threw his arms around Bruce and thought I’m a monster I’m a monster I’m a monster.
Except he must have been saying it, because Bruce growled in the back of his throat and leaned his head next to Dick’s ear and murmured, “You’re an ordinary human, sweetheart, you’re just being human.”
“I’ve been awful,” Dick mumbled. “I’ve been—fuck. I’m sorry.”
Bruce’s hand was rubbing circles into Dick’s back. “You have been,” he said, “but consider it water under the bridge.”
“How do you do that. How do you—how do you forget, that easily.”
Bruce chuckled. It was absurd, for the heaviness of the moment, but Dick’s brain tallied up a laugh of the day. “I don’t.”
Bruce shook his head. “I don’t. I don’t forget. I never do. Forgiveness is not something that happens once, and then never again. You do it every day, in every interaction you have. It is an act of the most rigorous self-discipline. It never stops. It is hard work. Whether you want to commit to that or not, that is your choice. But the reward is… great.”
“Seeing people trying to do better, and succeeding. That is the reward.”
Dick sighed. “You should give Jason this speech. It’s a nice speech. I’ve fucked up enough he probably needs to hear it.”
“Fair,” was Bruce’s response. “But not tonight. Tomorrow, you are sleeping all day. You will not leave the bed. I will bring your meals to you, and you will eat them. Are we clear?”
“Yeah,” Dick said, miserably.
Bruce pressed a kiss into Dick’s hair. “I am not—this is not… my area of expertise. I do not do well with emotions, simply put. I know that. You know that. But one day, we are… we need to talk.” Bruce swallowed. “About how you’re doing,” he clarified, a moment later.
Dick didn’t have the energy to even stiffen in his arms. “Alright,” he said.
Bruce herded him towards the bed and Dick fell into it. Bruce said something about checking on Jason, about how he’ll be back, but Dick scarcely heard him—he was already sinking into sleep.
Have we reached a TURNING POINT?
Chapter 7: Extinct Genus Hesperocyon
HALLELUJAH IT'S DONE
I had to rewrite most of this chapter. Fuck me.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jason didn't see Dick again for a day and a half. He lounged downstairs with Bruce, and occupied himself with working on the styles of meditation Bruce had taught him, and even once, in a fit of cabin fever, he'd gone out for a run. He'd pushed himself harder than necessary, because there came a point in the trail where Jason's chest was heaving and it felt like bands of steel had encased his rib cage and were slowly winking shut—in that moment, Jason understood that for as long as he could remember he'd been in peak physical shape, and now he wasn't. It was a terrifying thought. He pushed himself hard enough on that run to throw up, and when he'd gotten back Bruce had clapped him on the shoulder and said something earnest about the importance of maintaining himself, something approving and congratulatory, and Jason had cringed inside of himself. He’d only managed about two miles before his lungs were poison and so was the air and his muscles were pumped full of lactic acid that burned to the bone.
The important thing was, he didn't see Dick until a day and a half after Jason had decked him. Dick had trotted down the stairs looking for all the world like nothing had happened, save the fading bruises, and said, hiking. I'll be back by sundown. And Bruce, who was curiously someone who was painfully earnest and an achingly gifted liar, had said, stay hydrated. Of all the things, that had been his most honest, knee-jerk, immediate response, and for a moment it was easy to believe how people could buy into Bruce’s well-crafted and well-cared for lies. It was easy to believe, that maybe if you didn’t know any better, Bruce Wayne would appear as nothing more than a father of a large family who appreciated the value of exercise, and said stupid, innocent things like stay hydrated instead of Robin, I have reason someone is trying to assassinate the mayor or Robin, there is an incoming arms shipment at the docks tonight that’s going directly to Two-Face.
Dick had come back a little after sundown, sweaty, looking like he'd spent the entire time moving, and immediately tramped up the stairs. The shower flicked on moments later, and the next day, Dick did the same thing, and the day after that, and the day after that. He trotted down the stairs, said something about hiking, and Bruce grunted back something painfully earnest like stay hydrated or make sure you eat something or make sure you watch your left ankle, don’t think I haven’t ever seen you favor it. Then Dick came back, just before sundown, looking like he’d perhaps been rappelling from the trees instead of going on an easy, simple hike, and plodded up the stairs like a dog after a walk in the summer heat. The shower would rumble to life moments later. Bruce would stare at the front door for a moment, looking oddly pleased, or maybe perturbed, or maybe ecstatic—it was an expression Jason found profoundly unreadable. Jason supposed Dick must be eating, but when, he didn’t know.
Not seeing Dick didn't mean not talking about him, though, because the afternoon after Dick and Jason's fight, Bruce sat down beside Jason with a gloomy look on his face and said, "Dick mentioned there was a conversation we might need to have."
"Did he," Jason said, absently, thumbing a page of White Fang, a book Jason had dug out of the office that morning, on the search for something, anything to do.
Bruce inclined his head. "He did. We were... holding a discussion, last night."
"And how did that go," Jason said. His eyes were still skimming the page but the words were flat, no longer sharp.
"Forgiveness," Bruce said, and that was all he had said for a long time. He seemed to be mulling the concept over in his mind, prodding at it.
Jason, for his part, had been considering something else entirely; canines. White Fang was not a book he had been interested in when he was a boy, even though it was a book Jason knew he could find on the shelves of the Manor's library—it had less to do with the book, and more with Jason. Dogs, in his mind, were a distant concept, for people who could afford dinner, for people who needed a snarling beast to guard their apartments. But now he considered it, hefted its weight in his hands, turned over the weight of its words in his brain and considered the odd plight of dogs; crafted inexpertly from the bloodlines of wolves, bred for their unshakable, born love of anything that could give them the time of day, their malleable minds that allowed them to become the snarling beasts guarding the ramshackle apartments Jason grew up surrounded by.
"Do you think," Jason said, "wolves would hate us, if they knew what we did to dogs."
Bruce snorted. "What, Jay."
"I mean, we breed dogs with funky faces, we breed them too small, we breed them to love unconditionally—imagine you were a wolf, and you'd been attracted by the smell of meat to what-the-fuck-ever hominid it was that domesticated dogs, and that hominid offered you a piece of meat. If you were that wolf, and you had all the instincts of a wolf, and you could see into the future, wouldn't you hate what we did to dogs?"
Bruce raised his eyebrows. Effortlessly, he plucked the book out of Jason's hands. "You've cabin fever."
Jason jolted, and jumped up, reaching over Bruce for the book. "Okay, yes, yes I do, please give me that back—"
Bruce spread the book open with his hand and dropped it on Jason's head like a little tented hat. "To answer your question, yes, in the limited capacity a wolf has for understanding, I don't think a wolf would be very excited by the prospect of a domestic life, insofar as it has to spend that life around humans. But consider that, should the wolf gain the capacity to understand what dogs have done for us, it might be satisfied by the happiness it would bring."
Jason paused. "Satisfaction at a good deed," he said.
Bruce arched an eyebrow. “Where is this coming from, Jay.”
Jason shrugged. “Cabin fever, mostly. You were talking about forgiveness?”
“I think,” Bruce said, and a heavy hand reached out and squeezed Jason’s knee, “that forgiveness is something that comes naturally, to you. Or it was, the structure of it at least, learned from an early age. In order to function in your household, you had to forgive flaws in your parents that were not necessarily forgivable—because you were a child, and it is the instinct of all children to love their parents, no matter how worthy of that love those parents are.”
“Right,” Jason said, thickly. He felt like polished brass-sheen fossils on a wood stand, hesperocyon gregarius, held up to the fluorescent lights for observation—it was what Bruce’s sharp, calculating eyes did to a person. “I think. I did, uh, try to stab you, and, er, I killed the Joker. I don’t feel very forgiving.”
“The circumstances of that stabbing, and subsequent murder, I think you’ll allow, are highly unusual. What I should say is, even if you are not always forgiving, the structure and pattern of it are familiar to you. You know the process well.” Bruce stopped there, and squeezed Jason’s knee again.
“I suppose,” Jason said. I think you’re dead off, he said, to himself.
“It does not come naturally to your brother. It is something he has to re-learn, every time, and in some ways I respect him more because the act of forgiveness is a difficult, long process for him, and he so often chooses it anyway,” Bruce continued. “He needs time, and space.”
Leave him alone or he’ll tear your head off, essentially.
Jason shook Bruce’s hand off his knee, and leaned back, glaring at the ceiling. “You didn’t come on this trip because you thought it’d be good for you, did you. You came because you thought if you dropped the two of us in a pressure cooker, we’d come out attached at the hip.”
Bruce was silent. It was a heavy, painful silence.
"Dick has the trust of everyone in the family," Bruce said, hoarsely. "He, more than anything else, is the thing that ties us together. You are my family. I would like you to join it."
Jason pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. "You batshit motherfucker. You can't engineer a family. You can't—you can't force it. You can't make it happen just because you want it to, you—you batshit motherfucker."
Bruce's answering smirk was rather grim, for something that turned the corner of his mouth upwards. "But can't I."
Which had been the end of that conversation, because Jason had stormed off to go meditate on the balcony before he said (or did) something he’d regret, and Bruce had disappeared into the forest for a while and wandered back sometime after dark, and had picked through the pre-made pasta salad they'd picked up from the grocery store before heading off to sleep. Sleeping, of course, meaning brooding alone in a locked room with the light off until four in the morning, because I am an overgrown teenager.
On the fourth day, Bruce finally acted on Jason's case of cabin fever.
The light spotting the far wall was a filmy blue-gray, when Jason's blanket was rudely ripped away from him. "Get up," Bruce said.
Jason squirmed until he was face-down in the pillow, hands wrapped over his head. "Bruce? What th'fuck."
"We're going out today."
"Dick's going hiking," Jason whined. "He needs the car."
"I talked to him last night. He'll be perfectly happy sticking to the forest surrounding the house. The lack of marked trails will be good navigation practice. Get up, and get dressed."
Heavy footsteps—louder, still, because Bruce wanted Jason to hear them—moved away, off towards the door, and then the door slammed. Jason managed to doze again for fifteen more minutes before Bruce came back and pulled Jason upright and splashed a cup of cold water in Jason's face.
Jason sputtered, slapping at Bruce's hands. "Asshole!"
"I told you to be up." Bruce said, leaning back. Now that Jason's brain was, in a fashion, online, he could see that Bruce was wearing dark green hip waders, and a black long sleeve shirt beneath that. It’s ninety-fucking-five degrees outside, it’s the middle of the goddamn summer, you assweed, Jason wanted to tell him.
"What the fuck," Jason said.
It would, apparently, be the mantra for his entire day, because after Jason got dressed, he ventured outside and found Bruce packing fishing poles into the trunk of the car, and wouldn't that be something, a seventy-five thousand dollar black Escalade pulling into the parking lot of some dingy lake.
"We're on a fucking mountain, where the hell did you find a lake," Jason called.
Bruce stopped. A brand-new tackle box was in his right hand, two fishing poles clutched in the other. He looked mildly guilty. "It's several hours away," he said. "It'll be a day trip."
"And that's why you got me up at the asscrack of dawn."
Bruce hummed. "Get a blanket, and sleep on the way."
Jason peered into the trunk. "Did you... buy an entire fishing shop. When did you even put this together."
"I might have," Bruce said, grimly. "I got very good deals on some deep sea rods, however. I had these delivered."
"How did you get them delivered."
"You might not know this," Bruce said, sliding the tackle box—which Jason now saw was one of three—into the back, "but I am a billionaire. If I ask someone to jump, they ask me how high, and then I pay them seven thousand for going through the effort."
"You woke someone up at," and here Jason glanced at his phone, "fucking five thirty-four in the goddamn morning to deliver you the entirety of Bass Pro Shops's fucking inventory?"
Bruce tutted. Jason hated that sound. "Use your brain, Jay. It would've been earlier."
"Okay, I’ll bite, how earlier."
"More like three forty-seven in the goddamn morning, when the call ended."
Jason dropped his head into his hands. "Sometimes, you're a total bastard, B."
Bruce inclined his head and hummed. "Noted."
Jason did end up sleeping on the drive, and only roused a half an hour before they arrived; he roused to a fresh, golden sun and the occasional flutter of the morning birds, the delicate greenery casting dapples of shadow that whirled by on the other side of the thin glass. It promised to be a gorgeous, blazing day, and Jason muttered something about sunblock and Bruce flipped open the middle console to pluck up a baseball cap and drop it on Jason's head.
Jason took it off. "Did you buy me a fucking Yankees cap? Where’s your Gotham pride?"
“When the Gotham Knights have lost every game in the season, I leave my pride behind.”
That was as much as they talked, on the drive, and then they pulled into a dusty parking lot with cracked asphalt and pulled into a parking space. There were only a handful of people clustered about an old, half-rotted gazebo by the waterfront, and Jason was correct that they were most definitely staring, and Jason saw the glint of a phone as it raised through the air and snapped a picture.
"We stick out like a sore thumb," Jason muttered.
"Mm," was all Bruce said, before he swung open his door and stepped out of the car.
Bruce took them through the trees—a thoroughly loathsome experience, for Jason, who was a born-and-bred child of concrete and steel and didn't care much at all for the abundance of nature—to a shaded copse with plenty of access to the water, dropped their things (Jason had had to talk him out of taking all three tackle boxes) and straightened.
"I ought to have bought chairs," he said.
Jason tossed his head back and laughed. Something about the image of Bruce, hands on his hips, glumly surveying the empty space before them, struck a joyful nerve in him. "Are you kidding? You went through all this trouble and you forgot chairs?"
"I can have some delivered."
Jason shook his head. "Don't, you've stressed out too many poor delivery boys today anyway. The ground's good enough."
Bruce dropped the tacklebox on the ground and knelt down in front of it, rifling through its contents. “Most of this is useless to us,” he said, casually. He plucked up a neon green worm-like lure, with a flashy, ribbon-like curled tail, and sniffed it. “The smell is odd.”
Jason frowned. “Have you… never been fishing?”
“Not with rods.”
Jason closed his eyes. “Not with rods, he says. Not with rods! Did you just, I don’t know, spear them?”
Bruce dropped the lure back in the tacklebox and pulled out a plastic, clear box of hooks. “Yes. And no.”
“Sorry, that’s not an acceptable answer.”
Bruce straightened, holding a glinting, tiny little metal hook between his thumb and forefinger. “I’ve spearfished. I’ve caught fish bare-handed. I’ve also stolen fish, but I guess that wouldn’t count as fishing, would it.”
Jason jerked. “Uh, why were you stealing fish? Couldn’t you have just paid for it?”
Bruce glanced at him. “Bears are not interested in money.”
Jason sucked in a breath. “You were stealing the fish,” he said, thoroughly dumbfounded, “from bears?”
“I was a poor survivalist.”
“No the fuck you weren’t,” Jason said. “Considering you’re standing there and you’ve got all your limbs.”
“It was a near thing,” Bruce said. “A rod, if you please.”
It took a bit of time, but eventually, Bruce got the rods set up and taught himself how to cast, and then taught Jason. He adjusted Jason’s grip, led him through the motions of the arm—and usually, Jason found Bruce’s closeness comforting. There was a stillness to Bruce that the rest of the world lacked, a stoniness; like the hazy blue-gray image of a distant mountain, unmoving in the face of the sky. Bruce carried that stillness with him, and spread it into whatever he touched, like a small gift. Jason had always found it calming.
But, today, it was ninety-fucking-five degrees, and Jason was sweating through his shirt, and he needed space to breathe air that was less that a hundred percent humidity. He gritted his teeth and bore it until Bruce finally moved away, and an hour later as the sun climbed higher Jason pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it carelessly behind him.
“Isn’t the point of fishing to catch something,” Jason groused. He checked his phone. “We’ve been here almost two hours.”
Bruce reeled in his line. “Go on, reel it in, and we’ll catch something.”
“No bears involved?” Jason asked.
Bruce nodded sagely. “No bears involved.”
Jason reeled in his line quickly, and Bruce took the rod from him, hooked the fish hook through the bottom eye, and then leaned it against a tree beside his own. He pointed, looking at a far-off point behind Jason. “We’ll head there.”
Jason followed his gaze; on the other side of the lake, there was an old fallen tree half-submerged in the brackish water. “All the way over there?” he said. His voice raised into a whine.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Yes, all the way over there. You want to catch something, you follow me.”
Jason moved to grab the rods, but Bruce waved his hand. “Leave them,” he said.
“Fucking bears,” Jason hissed under his breath.
It was a long walk, through thick undergrowth; Jason didn’t put his shirt back on, because frankly, it felt like the temperature was crawling towards a hundred degrees, so tall briars and low-hanging branches whipped at his shoulders. Bruce marched through at a brutal pace, almost slithering through the bracken and bushes. The two of them were of a size, so this irritated Jason to no end, that Bruce could slide through thick brush such as this as easily as if it were empty air, and leave Jason struggling through several feet behind him.
By the time they got to the fallen tree, Jason’s shoulders and back were stinging, and he regretted leaving his shirt behind. He had to pick twigs and leaves and spiderwebs out of his hair, and Bruce emerged unaffected, his hair singularly unruffled. It didn’t even look like he was sweating.
“I can’t fucking believe I let you drag me all the way over here,” Jason swore.
Bruce squinted at him. “You look like you were mauled by cats.”
“Maybe I fucking was,” Jason said, and he flopped on the ground. The dirt and dead leaves stuck to his sweaty skin, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to care. He closed his eyes. “Wake me up when it’s not two hundred and three degrees, old man.”
It was eerie, how silent Bruce could be—Jason knew he was moving, but couldn’t hear him at all, until there was a slight sound that indicated a dip in the water. Jason cracked open an eye, and Bruce was several paces away, slowly wading into the water, gaze sharp and predatory. Jason watched as Bruce disappeared beneath the water, and, just as Jason was beginning to think Bruce was trying to have him for a laugh, crashed through the surface with a flopping, flailing fish in his hands.
“Holy shit, you weren’t kidding,” Jason said, scrambling upright.
Bruce waded to the shore and held out the fish, one hand hooked in its mouth, out for Jason to touch. “Largemouth bass,” he said, “like cover.”
The fish lived up to its name, being about a foot long and a dusky green, with a gaping maw that Jason assumed denoted a predator. He brushed his fingertips against its scales and jerked backward. “I thought it would be smooth,” he said, wonderingly.
Bruce shook his head. He nodded towards the spines lining the bass’s back, which were fully extended. “Those are sharp.”
Jason tapped one, lightly. “Damn,” he said.
Bruce hefted the fish up and walked back into the water to release it. Jason watched the swirl of dark water as a powerful tail pumped just beneath the surface, and then the bass was gone, disappeared into the depths.
“Damian would have yelled at me if we kept it,” Bruce said, by way of explanation.
Jason thought of the short, stubborn little thing he’d met only a handful of times; confident, in a scary way. Damian had looked at the murderer in his midst and extended curiosity that was shielded by foul and territorial language. Talia’s son. The one she had apologized for.
“Are you still mad about Dick buying him a horse?” Jason asked.
Bruce waded back up to the bank, and lowered himself to the ground by the water’s edge. He picked up a twig, rolled it between his fingers. “It is nice, here,” he said, stiffly. “I had planned to bring Damian to this very cabin, this year. I thought he might enjoy it, because he’s very passionate, about this.”
Jason offered a word he knew was the incorrect one, in the hopes that Bruce would tell him more. “Fishing?”
“Animals. Plants. Nature, in its entirety. He teaches me more about it every day. It is something he latches onto, I think, because his childhood was cruel and bereft of any respect for life. It is a luxury, to him, to care about these things. It is the only luxury in life he cares much for. I should not be angry, because Dick was right—there is turmoil in Damian’s life right now, and that’s turmoil that he should focus into his healthiest outlet, his animal menagerie. An addition to that is a wonderful distraction. It was a smart move.”
Jason pulled a stray burr off of his jeans. “You didn’t say you weren’t angry.”
“I am,” Bruce said, after a long moment, “sensitive, I should say, when it comes to Dick overruling my parenting in any way. I was… less than exemplary, when I first met Damian, and then I was lost in time, and Dick raised him. Dick was a wonderful parent. I have a lot to live up to. The horse was never something I should have been angry about.”
“So you apologized.”
Bruce shifted uncomfortably, which Jason took to mean no, I did not, and I will spontaneously combust before I ever apologize for anything, so stop trying now.
Jason studied the low slouch of Bruce’s shoulders. “You ought to,” he said.
Bruce grunted wordlessly and went back to studying his twig, which had become the most fascinating thing in the world.
“You know, I asked Dick why he hated me, when I was a kid. He said it was because I had it good with you when he didn’t. I don’t know Cass at all, really, but I think she’d kill for you, too.”
Bruce stiffened. “She doesn’t kill. She doesn’t lose, but she doesn’t kill.”
“But losing you is different. You’re different. You matter to them, in a way no one else does. You’re their Batman. I’ll bet Damian and that little pipsqueak are the same way. And I almost took—I don’t think it’s fair to them, to want me to be part of the family so bad,” Jason said. “Not when I almost killed you, and they love you so much. It’s not fair. You can’t force it. This is wrong.”
The twig snapped between Bruce’s fingers. “The one thing I want,” he said, dangerously quiet, “in this world. The one thing I want in this world is my family whole. I would do anything.”
“You can’t force it,” Jason said, helplessly.
Bruce stood. “We should head back,” he said, gruffly. “I’m soaked. I need a shower.”
“Okay,” Jason said.
The ride back was quiet, tense. Jason ended up falling asleep in the warm noonday sun slanting in through the window, curled into it like a cat, and he was almost disappointed when the Escalade pulled to a stop in the cabin’s gravel driveway. Dick was sitting on the front steps, elbows balanced on his knees.
“I got locked out,” he called, with a rueful little twist to his mouth.
“I told you to take a key,” Bruce said, shutting his door. “Why didn’t you pick the lock?”
Dick shrugged. “Wasn’t really sure what freaky-deaky alarm systems you’ve got, and I didn’t want you to come running back from your trip. You’re back early. How’d it go?”
Jason shut the passenger’s side door and twisted his hands in his back pockets, looking anywhere but the yellowing bruises on Dick’s face.
“Well,” Bruce grunted. There was a flash of light as he tossed the keys to Dick. Dick sprung up and hopped up the front steps, jamming the key in the lock. The door swung open.
“Fuck, I missed air conditioning,” he said.
Bruce immediately marched up the stairs towards the shower, leaving muddy shoeprints in the hall from the dirt that had gotten caked on his waders. Jason toed his shoes off at the door, skirting around Dick to see if he could make it to the kitchen and snag something to eat, and then find somewhere to disappear to with White Fang in hand. Dick, however, followed him.
“Catch anything?” he asked, lightly.
“Bruce caught a bass,” Jason answered. He swung the fridge door open and snagged a plastic bowl of watermelon. “He bought, like, an entire fishing shop, and then he just walks into the water and catches it with his bare hands, because he’s a freak or something.”
Dick snorted. “Sounds about right. How’ve you been?”
Jason cut his eyes to White Fang. He could just see the corner of it on the coffee table in the living room. He was reading it for a second time, now. “Uh,” he said.
Dick followed his line of sight. “Oh. Huh. I was always a Robin Hood person, honestly.”
Jason set his tub of watermelon on the breakfast bar and leaned over to take a fork from the silverware drawer. “Oh, no, I had no idea. Never could’ve guessed.”
“Pass me a fork, I want a piece.”
Jason dutifully snagged another fork and slid it across the table. Dick speared a piece of watermelon and plopped it in his mouth, and then said around it, “So I’ve been thinking.”
Jason’s stomach twisted. He forced himself to say, “Really?” as level as he could.
“Mhm,” Dick said, stabbing another piece of fruit. “Damn, this is good. Anyway, so I was thinking, that, uh, you fucked up pretty bad. You know it, too. But that doesn’t mean that I get the right to treat you the way I’ve been treating you, because there’s a way you treat people, when you know they’re guilty of something, and that’s not it.”
Jason studied the watermelon. He poked at a piece of it. “Okay,” he said, dully.
“Hey, can you look at me? I want you to see my face for this part,” Dick said.
Jason looked up. Dick had sharp eyes, the kind of eyes that cut a man to the quick. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you. This family believes in rehabilitation instead of punishment. That’s what Bruce raised me to believe in, and it’s time I stepped up and became the man he wants me to be.”
Jason stabbed a piece of fruit slowly. “Alright,” he said.
“And I’m not just sorry for what I’ve done to you since we’ve been here,” Dick continued. “I’m sorry for how I’ve fucked up with you since I’ve known you. And I know I’ve fucked up, and if you don’t want to deal with that, you don’t have to. You say the word, I will never speak to you again.”
Dick paused, and swallowed. “But I think,” he said, softly, “I should try. Not because I owe you, but because I think you were worth it back when I was too jealous of you to try, and because I think you’re worth it now.”
Jason chewed the inside of his lip. “I tried to kill your dad.”
“And I’m working on forgiving you for that,” Dick said. “And, you know, I should warn you. It’s not easy, for me, to just forget that. There might be times I have to ask you to leave me alone for a while, because I’m having a bad week and—forgiveness is a thing that you do every day. There might be days I just can’t. But—but I want to try, if you’re willing.”
Jason looked up, into those sharp eyes, and he stuck out his hand. “If you’re willing,” he said, voice thick.
Dick beamed at him, beamed like the sun high up above, and shook his hand. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Jason Wayne.”
Dick ate another piece of watermelon, threw his fork into the sink, and left for somewhere deeper in the cabin. Jason’s head was still spinning, so he quickly polished off the watermelon and focused on White Fang, scribbling notes in the margins with a pen he’d dug out of the desk in the office. Later on, Bruce came down, hair damp from the shower, and squeezed Jason’s shoulder.
“Did you eat, Jay?” he asked.
“I ate your watermelon.”
“Dammit, Jay,” Bruce said, without heat. He wandered to the kitchen and perused the fridge. He didn’t take anything out. “We need more groceries,” was all he said, and then he went back upstairs.
The day wound down. Jason finished White Fang, after which he turned on New Girl . He’d finished New Girl, but it was funny, and relaxing, and it occupied his mind just enough to let the hours pass. Dick was in and out of the living room, doing God knows what. He seemed to move around constantly, a human perpetual motion machine; one moment, Jason would get up to get a glass of water and spy him doing what looked like contortion-ism on the deck, and then he’d be gone, off somewhere again. Around five, he jogged through the room in athletic shorts and a tank top and asked Jason if he wanted to go for a run, and it became clear that Dick wasn’t nervous, like Jason had originally thought. He was bored, and profoundly so. Even then, Jason declined the invitation to race, and Dick had come back two hours later drenched in sweat.
“Are there any more books?” he asked, nodding to the discarded book on the table.
Jason tossed the copy to him. “I just finished. You’ll enjoy it, I think.”
And that was how Jason discovered that Dick did not sit down to read. Dick read while he paced back and forth, and how one person could be so annoyingly active, Jason would never know. Eventually Jason had to tell him to fuck off to the deck, because the pacing was stressing him out, and Dick did so without a word of complaint. Jason guessed it was a comment he got often. Now and then, Jason would glance behind him through the broad windows and wince, because wasn’t Dick tired at all? It’d been hours, and he hadn’t stopped.
Bruce re-emerged from his dungeon sometime at ten in the evening with a fairly impressive bedhead. “Good morning,” he growled. He bumped into the island’s corner on his way to the coffeemaker, and stopped to glare at it menacingly.
“Good morning,” Jason called back. “Enjoy the nap?”
Bruce stabbed a button on the coffeemaker. He was glowering impressively at it.
“Guess not,” Jason said, uneasily. “Do you, uh—”
Bruce held up a finger. “Let me,” he ground out, “drink my coffee first. I am not awake yet. I will not be awake. Goddammit.” Bruce rapped on the glass. Outside, Dick stopped, raising an eyebrow and slithering in through the door.
“Mornin’, B,” Dick said cheerfully.
“Pace where no one can see you,” Bruce said.
Dick sighed. “Fine,” he said. “I’m guessing you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, because you look like I killed your goldfish.”
Bruce huffed. He poured himself a rather generous mug of coffee and settled on the couch beside Jason, and Jason flicked out of New Girl.
“Uh, you can have the remote,” Jason said.
Dick leaned over the edge of the couch and plucked the remote out of Dick’s hands. “I’ll take that, thanks, I really don’t want to watch a documentary on the life story of a Russian composer I’ve never heard of, and that’s what Bruce will make us watch. We’re watching another Godzilla movie.”
“That’s not entirely fair,” Bruce said. “Not twice in a row.”
“Then we’re watching The Last Unicorn.”
“The what?” Jason asked.
The hand that was holding the remote dropped to Dick’s side, and he glared at Bruce. “How,” he said, strangled. “How. It’s the best movie.”
Bruce snorted. “It is not the best movie.”
Dick swung himself over the couch, dropping into the corner. “Yes, the fuck it is, and don’t you dare try arguing with me because I will pound you into dust, you old grumpy goat.”
Jason settled in, pulling a blanket around his shoulders—he wasn’t cold, really, it was just comforting. It ended up being a good movie, even if it wasn’t the best movie. It was a good, sweet evening, and Jason felt suddenly that he might just be able to do this. Maybe, inexplicably, he could pull it off; Dick was willing to try, and so was he, and wasn’t that what mattered? The willingness to try?
Jason ended up falling asleep on the couch, after. Somewhere distantly he heard the quiet noise of a door shutting, and it shook him briefly, but he was out again not long after.
I'm not kidding, I had a blast writing Jason and Bruce's fishing trip. It's the weirdest thing I've ever written, but I had a blast.
Chapter 8: The Wolf Pack
Hi I uh poured out the bucket of gasoline that represents my Bruce and Cass feels, and struck a match
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The door rasped as it shut. A mistake; potentially, a fatal error, fatal at least to his venture. Bruce waited for a moment on the porch, perfectly still among the amorphous shapes and shadows of the thick summer night. The door did not open. He waited a moment longer, lingering, and there was something in him that wished the door would open, that a sleep-addled Jason had heard him and blearily come to investigate. The fuck, he’d say. The fuck are you doin’, it’s late. And the lie would come to Bruce as easily as it always did; I was going to call Tim. I didn’t want to disturb either of you, so I was going to use the car’s Bluetooth. Not an ounce of regret in any of him, not single beat missed. The lying was the easiest part of Bruce’s life—he had a particular gift for it, had a particular gift for sitting in the middle of a web of lies and feeling even the finest pluck of the finest strand.
He slipped down the front stairs and padded across the gravel to the Escalade, swung open the door, jammed the key into its socket and and twisted. The car thundered to life, smothering the sound of crickets and the soothing whisper of wind between the trees, and Bruce pulled out of the driveway. The walls were thick. It was possible they wouldn’t hear him leave, since they’d both been sleeping deeply—Bruce had waited for precisely the moment they’d be the least likely to react. It was equally possible they would. Bruce would give them time; he would wait them out. He would drive to the nearest convenience store and wait for the beep that alerted him that his phone’s tracker had been turned on, the light on the dashboard that flickered when the car’s tracker had been activated. He would wait for them to call, and the truth would hide his intent; I needed a drive. I’m at the convenience store, the one with a sign out front that is shaped like a chicken. Do you need anything. I am not buying you cinnamon gum, Jason, it is an affront to God.
He drove mindlessly. The wheel beneath his hands was not a wheel; it was clammy skin, the crunch of fried armorweave, a textureless weight from behind his own gloves—but mostly, it was the water. The water, lukewarm, rivulets rolling down his arm, pinkish from the blood. Mostly it was the water. Mostly it was the water, and the graying of the world around him as he fixated on the sensation of it, the way the beads of liquid shook in time with him, leaving jagged wet tracks down his arm. The shaking would be a constant. He would be shivering for weeks as the cold crawled into him and made its den there; he shook and shuddered his way through Jason’s funeral, his hands balled into fists at his sides as he tried to stave it off. Years of training, a decade of training, all down to the semicircles carved into his palms where his nails had dug in, all down to the shaking in every limb and bone. The jagged wet tracks reflecting the jet’s internal light, slipping down his arm—every moment of Jason’s life, every ounce of love Bruce had for him, all down to a small and battered corpse—
The tires squealed against the asphalt and the car careened to a stop in the middle of the road. Bruce raised his hands off the wheel, let them flutter in the air, swallowed a deep breath to try and steady them. His pulse beat like a hummingbird’s. Headlights winked at him through the rearview mirror, so Bruce snatched the wheel and whipped it end-over-end, pulling into the left lane. He floored the gas and the engine bellowed.
He’s alive, Bruce told himself, firmly. He’s alive and breathing. He’s fine. They’re all alive. They can’t be—
He pulled into the parking lot of the nearest convenience store and shifted the car into park. It was a quick transaction; simple, efficient. The man behind the register did not ask questions, he did not raise his brow, he did not even appear disappointed, and yet Bruce wanted it. Maybe to give himself an opportunity to stop, or the opportunity to raise one spider’s leg and play the strands of his web like a harpsichord; he didn’t know.
He did know that he didn’t much care for the taste of beer but he pulled over on the side of the road to suck it down resolutely anyway. He did know that he hadn’t eaten today, and the alcohol dulled the edges of his vision too quickly. He did know that the burn of it going down his throat kept him tethered, kept him from trawling the canals of the other things he knew; the weight of his son’s body in his arms, the smell of his burnt hair and fried blood, how to weave a burial shroud from armorweave and kevlar. The bloodied water rolling down his arm.
They’re all alive, Bruce told himself. He took a gulp of rancid beer and scowled, crumpling the empty can in his fist and dropping it into the passenger’s seat. He slipped another can out of the carton, pulled the tab, and took a drink.
There was little pleasure in drinking as an act; he found the taste of alcohol singularly revolting, had never had a drink he had truly enjoyed. The pleasure was in the dulled senses, the dulled workings of his mind, the way he could—if he could get drunk enough—almost forget the six inch piece of glass lodged into Jason’s shoulder, the blood pooling beneath the skin rendering it lurid blues and purples where Jason’s heart had stopped pumping and it sat still. Bruce had seen the same injuries, the same stages of death in hundreds of corpses; Jason’s body was far from the first he’d ever carried, far from the first he’d ever felt deeply for, but it was the only one he couldn’t live with. No part of him had died with Jason, because the death would be a blessing—it would mean he could not remember, not the way he did, in vivid and extravagant detail, it would mean he would be free of it. Instead there was a part of him that had splintered off and been left chained in Ethiopia and lived the same hell day in and day out. Instead he lived it every day.
They’re all alive, Bruce told himself. They’re alive until I know otherwise, they’re alive until I know otherwise. He slid his phone out of his pocket anyway, tapped it a couple of times, let the car’s speakers crackle to life.
“Uh, what the fuck,” Steph said, blankly. “Listen, I’m trying to do my chemistry homework here.”
Bruce rumbled a laugh. “You’re up quite late for that.”
“I’m always up late. You could say I have a night job. No, but, really, what the fuck? You’re supposed to be in blissful vacation heaven.”
Bruce glanced beside him, at the empty carton of beer and the similarly empty cans surrounding it. “Is that what you think this is.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s all camping and fishing trips and roasting marshmallows,” Steph said.
“It is actually a bit of that.”
Steph sighed. “Now I really want marshmallows.”
“No, no, the… the fishing,” Bruce amended. “I took Jason fishing. He hated it, naturally. The second we got back he buried himself beneath a blanket and a book and only emerged to watch New Girl.”
Steph laughed. “Jason watches New Girl?”
“Yes, apparently.” Bruce shifted in his seat, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. He was well-practiced at controlling nausea. “Quite a lot of it, in fact.”
“That’s so weird. The guy who tried to brutally murder Batman and successfully offed the Joker is a big New Girl fan, who knew.”
“He is more than the sum of his actions,” Bruce said.
Steph made a noncommittal noise.
“You disagree?” Bruce asked.
“I don’t. Kind of. I guess I mean that he’s more than the sum of those actions in particular, I guess, because I’m sure he’s done a lot of good in his life, too. But people are the things that they do. There’s not a secret person hiding inside your person that desperately wants to be good, because if you were actually good, you would just do it. I hope people can change. But I don’t give them credit for it until they actually do.”
Bruce grunted. “I don’t think I agree.”
“I know, because then you’d have to change how you think about Harvey Dent, and that’d suck major balls,” Steph said.
There was a pause, and then a quiet, “Bruce. Why are you calling me?”
“Because you did make a mistake,” Bruce said. “And I’m sorry that you did.”
“Well, fuck you too,” Steph said hotly.
“Allow me,” he said. “You said, the last time I spoke with you, that you were sorry for making the mistake of giving a shit. You did. That was a massive error in judgement, on your part. Colossally terrible. I think you should re-evaluate that caring, and rescind it immediately, because there is no possible way I can do right by you.”
Steph fell silent. After a long, aching moment, she said, “You’re damn right. And the only reason that’s true is not because you suck, in a personal way, it’s because you fucking suck at people. I mean, honestly, I don’t even think you listen to half the shit you say, because you really say some of the stupidest stuff I’ve ever heard, you—you—you dick.”
“You were building to a much stronger expletive,” Bruce said mildly.
“Shut up and listen to me,” she snapped. “It’s assflash, newshole time.”
“That sounds painful.”
“It will be, for you.” Steph sucked in a breath that rattled the speakers. “Alright. Listen close. Listen closer to me right now than you’ve ever listened to anyone, ever, and also for the rest of time. You can’t turn off emotions. They don’t have an off button. Congrats, you’re stuck with them, and the majority of them suck, except for the couple that don’t, and love happens to be one of the ones that doesn’t. If I’m gonna be lucky enough to have someone to love, and to be able to give them that, I’m not gonna fucking not do that, because first thing, I can’t, and second thing, I don’t want to. I, for one, happen to believe in the mushy-gushy power of love.”
Bruce’s eyes flicked open. He glanced at the stars through the glass windshield, tiny pinpricks of light so far away. “Hn.”
“And another thing,” Steph continued, “guess how you can do right by me, and also everyone else? You do it. You just do it. You don’t try giving up first because that’s easier. You do the damn thing.”
“Do or do not, there is no try.”
Steph barked a laugh. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re quoting Star Wars at me right now. You’re unbelievable. And also, Yoba’s wrong. He’s really wrong. There’s a lot of try. There’s a whole hell of a lot of try, actually, and you should get used to that as a concept.”
They’re all alive, Bruce thought.
Steph huffed. “And what, pray tell, am I wrong about this time.”
“It’s Yoda, not Yoba.”
Steph snickered, but she said, “I hate you,” anyway.
“I have two things I need you to do for me,” Bruce said. “After you finish your chemistry homework.”
“Anything,” she said, without missing a beat, and what had he done to deserve that?
“I’m going to send you a number. Call it. Clark will answer it. You can save it in your phone, if you would like. Tell him I need to see him, he’ll know where to find me. Tomorrow, go into my study. The top drawer on the left is locked. Pick the lock. Inside there’s something I want you to consider.”
“You cryptic wackjob,” Steph grumbled. “Fine. Okay. But, uh. Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Bruce said. The word tasted sour between his teeth; or maybe that was the beer.
“You’re drunk, aren’t you,” she said, lowly.
There was no good lie, for this moment. “Without a doubt,” he said.
“I was mad that you were right,” she said. “Because it wasn’t just Cass that was worried, it was me, too. And I’m really fucking pissed about that, because the two of us get on like a house on fire.”
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think that is a good thing.”
Steph fell silent. “Maybe,” she said, finally, and it wasn’t a disbelieving sound. “I’m gonna call Clark. Don’t do anything stupid. And for fuck’s sake, next time call Cass, because she actually is beside herself and I really ought to slap you for how you’ve made her feel.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Bruce promised.
The line went dead. Bruce reclined his seat back and closed his eyes, willing his stomach to stop turning and twisting and writhing like a snake in pain. After around fifteen minutes there was a cautious knock on his window, and Bruce opened one eye to see Clark standing outside, making a motion asking Bruce to roll the window down. Bruce leaned over and pulled the lever that raised the seat, and then rolled the window down.
Clark leaned his elbow in the crook of it. He was grinning. “Any idea how fast you were going?”
“You,” Bruce said, “have a terrible sense of humor.”
“Shut up, my sense of humor is beautiful. Look at you, you’re frowning a little less hard.” Clark paused a moment, looking just past Bruce at the trash in the passenger’s seat. “Can I be honest, actually.”
“Go for it.”
Clark shuffled his weight to his other foot. “I didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what?” Bruce asked. He knew what the answer would be, but he asked anyway, mostly for a lack of anything intelligent to say.
Clark nodded to the discarded beer cans. “About the drinking. I mean, yeah, sure, I knew that you occasionally drank, but I didn’t think it was a problem. To be quite honest, I’m having a hard time picturing it now, and you’re drunk right in front of me.”
“Interesting,” Bruce hummed.
“Interesting, because I am drunker than anticipated.” Clark’s brows furrowed, and Bruce said, “You may want to move.”
Bruce swung the door open and heaved onto the ground, throwing up nothing but bile—after, Clark dug a rumpled tissue from his pocket and handed it to Bruce, who gratefully wiped his mouth with it. He stepped carefully around the vomit, and Clark braced him when he swayed with a hand on his shoulder.
“Where are you—” Clark began.
“It smells like beer,” Bruce said, and I can’t stand the smell of it if I’m not drinking it, and Clark led him to the edge of the treeline, leaned him against an oak and let Bruce slide to the ground. He lowered himself to sit beside Bruce, after watching carefully for a moment to make sure Bruce wasn’t about to tip over.
“So I was going to ask you why,” Clark said. Ever the investigative reporter, never letting anything lie—but, Bruce supposed, that was why he had asked for Clark. “A couple whys, really.”
“What did Steph tell you.”
“That you’ve been drinking enough you needed to take a vacation, and of all the people in the world you could do that with, you did it with Dick and Jason.” Clark arched a brow. “And I’m sure you had some sort of motivation for that.”
“It was pointless, at any rate,” Bruce said.
Clark frowned, a sharp, downward turn of the mouth. “My whys.”
“Why didn’t you come to me, if it was getting that bad?” Clark asked.
“Jason and Dick needed reassurance. I needed them to forge some sort of bond,” Bruce said. “Dick is situated at the heart of my family. They take their cues from him, as to who is family and who isn’t, moreso than they do me—if he says Jason is family, then, perhaps, it will be.”
“And you would do anything for that to happen,” Clark finished. “You’ve made a mistake, there, I see.”
“So I’ve been told,” Bruce said. “I know. I’ve heard it. I can’t force everyone to accept Jason as family.”
Clark tilted his head. “Actually, I was going to say that you made a mistake in assuming that Dick’s the heart of the family. That’s still you. They follow his lead, but they’re all there because they believe in your mission, because they believe in you. Maybe, if you asked them to consider it, they’d listen to you.”
“And if not.”
“Then it won’t happen,” Clark said. “At least, not then. People change, times change. If not now, then maybe later.”
“I am tired of waiting. I am tired of it. I have spent my life waiting—I waited first for justice and then I waited for the death of my son to get easier. He has come back to life, now, and it is still as hard to remember as it was the day after he died,” Bruce spat.
Clark studied him. “That’s the most you’ve ever said to me about it.”
Bruce glared at him. “What?”
“About Jason’s death. You don’t really talk about it. That’s the most you’ve ever said, in five years.”
Bruce looked down, found his hands balled into fists. With time the shaking had passed, but it had taken months of poorly thrown batarangs, of scribbling handwriting; and sometimes still it crawled back. All down to semicircles carved into his palms.
Clark fiddled with the buttons at the collar of his plaid shirt. “Not that you have to, or that I expected you to,” he said. “I’m just saying, you did that alone. You threw Dick out when he tried to help you, and I don’t imagine you accepted any support from Alfred, either. You did things your way.”
“You had whys,” Bruce said, roughly.
“That’s partially related to my whys,” Clark continued. “Because I was going to ask you why do you drink, except I think we both know the answer to that one. So I’ll ask you, why alcohol.”
“Less dangerous than pain medication,” Bruce answered. “Simple logic. Replace an addiction with an addiction that’s more controllable.”
Clark whistled, long and low. “Okay, that’s a hell of an answer. Can I—”
“After Bane,” Bruce said. “When my spine was broken. My recovery was… painful. Medication helped until I grew a tolerance, and at that point I wasn’t taking it simply because I was in pain, anymore.”
Clark’s eyes were sharp. “You said it was dangerous.”
“I overdosed. Dick was there. I’m sure the memory of it is unpleasant, for him.”
Clark pulled off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “We really have to work on this communication thing, y’know? I mean, I love you, and I love our friendship as it is, but Jesus, Bruce. You used to tell me more than the bare minimum.”
Bruce looked away, cutting his gaze out across the road to the opposite treeline, heavy and dark and domineering. Crushing.
Clark raised an arm. “C’mere,” he said.
“What,” Bruce said.
“You didn’t honestly think you were getting out of this without a hug,” Clark said, aghast. “It’s the Kent family tradition. When someone cries, they get a hug out of it.”
Startled, Bruce felt at his face—but he wasn’t the one crying. It was Clark, little silvery tears having drawn tracks that reflect the distant stars up above. Bruce let Clark tug him close, and relished the uncomfortable warmth of his closeness—Clark ran a couple degrees warmer than normal, and the night was already humid and hazy—and let the shock of it numb him. Clark’s ability to care ran deep as a gorge.
If I’m gonna be lucky enough to have someone to love, and to be able to give them that, I’m not gonna fucking not do that, because first thing, I can’t, and second thing, I don’t want to, Steph had said.
“You did things your way,” Clark said, after a long time. “Let’s try ours.”
“Who is ours.”
“The people who want to see you doing better,” Clark said. His arm, thrown over Bruce’s shoulders, squeezed slightly. “C’mon, hop up. We’re gonna get you sobered up, and then I have a plan.”
Clark pulled him upright and helped him to the passenger’s side door, and then swept out all of the trash onto the ground and Bruce climbed in. Clark shut the door, and stopped, for a moment, slipped off his glasses and incinerated the trash where it stood in a small plume of smoke. Then he swung into the driver’s seat. He started the engine and leaned over to look in the back.
“You have seven fishing rods but not a single blanket?” he asked.
“Long story,” Bruce rasped.
The convenience store wasn’t far. Bruce wordlessly passed Clark his debit card and Clark came back out, moments later, with a couple twenty-four ounce bottles of water and a plastic tub of pasta salad.
“It is cute,” Bruce said, sneering at it, “that you think I will eat this.”
Clark handed him a plastic fork. “You’re a snob. Eat the darn salad.”
Bruce dutifully picked at it as Clark drove. Occasionally, Clark asked directions, and Bruce responded with as few words as he could get away with, until they pulled into the gravel driveway in front of the cabin. The pasta salad was mostly gone, then, and it sat uncomfortably in him, so Bruce took another deep drink of the water and tried to forget the lingering smell of beer. He tried harder to forget the lingering smell of roasted flesh that had been following him all day.
Clark parked the car. “I’ll wait until you finish that bottle and then I’m taking you back to Gotham.”
Bruce paused. “What was the point of the pasta salad,” he growled, “if I’m just going to throw it up during high-velocity transport anyway.”
“It’ll be a slow flight,” Clark said. “I’ll take my time, I promise. I just wanted you to be sober enough to consider something.”
“Shoot,” Bruce said, stabbing the last of the pasta salad and shoving it in his mouth.
Clark turned in his seat to face him. “So, um, two options. I can take you back now, and then come back later to talk to Dick and Jason. Or I can take you back after you talk to them. I know, uh, I know tonight’s been hard—I would be willing to talk to them for you.”
“I don’t think,” Bruce said, slowly, considering his empty box of pasta salad, “it would be good for them. To see me right now. They haven’t been getting along. I don’t want to make that worse by adding—further stress. And there’s someone else I need to talk to more urgently.”
Clark raised a brow.
“Cass,” Bruce clarified. “I fought with her. I need to… I need to fix things. She was right, and I couldn’t see it.”
Bad for you, she had said. Need to be home. All family, not some.
Clark nodded. “Alright.”
The flight was, truly, slow—high enough in altitude that Bruce’s breath was short, but the lingering speed made it bearable. He’d always found it awkward, flying with Clark; there was something undignified about being carried through the sky, and it seemed to underline the difference in power between them. But Bruce had been nothing tonight if not undignified.
By the time they arrived at Wayne Manor, the sky was beginning to fade into a lighter, softer blue. Clark set him down gently, and Bruce stumbled slightly before righting himself and straightening his back.
“Find Cass,” Clark said. His hand reached out and squeezed Bruce’s shoulder. “I’m going to fly back. I’ll call Diana when I get there, just a heads up.”
Bruce stared at him. “Diana,” he said, flatly.
Clark took him by the shoulders. His expression was grave. “You have a support system, Bruce. I think not using it has cost you a lot. I was going to call Diana to ask her to start checking in on you for a bit, but I want you to consider maybe staying with her for a week or two.”
“Absolutely not,” Bruce said. “I can’t—”
“Because you’d have to be honest,” Clark finished. “You can’t lie to her. Just—think about it. I’ll tell her to check on you, but I won’t tell her anything you don’t want me to.”
Bruce looked away. “Cass said I needed my family. Not some, but all.”
“Staying with Diana until you’re steadier on your feet doesn’t mean not having your family,” Clark said. “You can call them, talk to them all day if you want. But lying does.”
Bruce felt his mouth twist. “I suppose,” he said. “Is that going in the self-help book you’re clearly thinking about writing?”
Clark grinned, and clapped Bruce on the back. “You’ll have an entire page in the acknowledgements.”
Then Clark was soaring through the air, carving a line into the purpling clouds and disappearing altogether.
Bruce turned on his heel and kicked the hollow in a tree he knew held a perimeter alarm—distantly, he could hear the Manor’s internal sirens beating a shrill tone into the morning. There were deer surrounding the Manor, quite a few of them, so the perimeter alarms were programmed to recognize both a certain heaviness of step, and were used in conjunction with thermographic cameras designed to recognize the human body. He would not have to find Cass. She would come to him—they all would.
It took less than a minute before Damian dropped out of the branches above. He was wearing his pajamas, but it didn’t look as if he’d slept in them.
“That was unnecessary,” Damian sniffed.
Bruce gestured him forward. “But it got your attention.”
Damian took the opportunity to barrel into Bruce’s arms, hugging him tightly around the middle as if he were trying to squeeze the life out of Bruce. There was a dapple of shadow from above that signaled the arrival of someone else, and Tim landed on the ground with a whuff and the rustle of his long, dark cape.
“Bruce!” he said, startled. “I didn’t know you were supposed to be back. Why are you—”
Bruce pressed a rough kiss into Damian’s hair and then slipped an arm free, extending it outwards to Tim. “You, too,” he said.
“If I have to,” Tim said, but he was beaming.
Tim wriggled in and Damian shifted to give him room, and Bruce tugged them both close and he knew his heart was thudding fast against his sternum, but the dizziness was worth it. When Bruce let them go, there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“I heard Tim runs a nice ship,” Bruce said, to Damian, and Damian growled like dog and Tim snickered, and the sound of it nestled in Bruce’s heart.
“I need to talk to you both,” he said. “But in a moment. Cass first.”
A branch shook above him. I’m here, it said. A few leaves fluttered down.
Tim was squinting at him. “Does it have something to do with how you’re here without Dick? Or… a car, I guess, since you would’ve come through the front and parked in the garage—”
Bruce ruffled his hair. “In a minute, Tim. Go tell Alfred he can put the shotgun down.”
Tim nodded, but his eyes were careful and watchful. Damian followed him back to the house reluctantly. After they were a significant distance away, the wood of the branches above him creaked, and Bruce looked up to see the twisted, snarling mask of Cass’s costume staring down at him.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said.
You have a support system, Bruce. I think not using it has cost you a lot, Clark had said.
“Actually,” Bruce said, “let me make it up to you.”
The branch shifted. Cass crawled to the trunk, where she clung like a forest cat halfway up, her cape draping over one shoulder.
Bruce thrust his hands in his pockets. “I had a suit made,” he said. “For you. I got the measurements from Barbara, I figured you wouldn’t mind the intrusion. Lightweight, long cape. The way you like it. I had it made for emergencies, and—because, eventually, I won’t be able to do this anymore.”
Cass slithered to the ground and pulled off her mask. Her brow was furrowed, mouth carved into a vicious frown. “More,” she said, sharply.
He stepped forward and cupped her face in his hands. “I need my family,” he said, slowly, “and I will tell them everything. But I—need time. Away. And I want you to be Batman while I’m gone.”
Cass stilled. Her eyes widened and she took in a breath that whistled between her teeth. “Batman,” she said.
“It’s yours,” Bruce said, rubbing a thumb along her cheek. He lowered one hand and tapped her collarbone. “I need your help. I’m sorry. That I didn’t ask before.”
She flung her arms around his neck and squeezed tightly, wheezing—no, sobbing—and holding him there. “Batman,” she said. “Batman.”
“It’s yours,” he murmured.
They stayed like that for a long time, her clinging to his neck and occasionally whispering I’m Batman reverently; and he had thought that this implicit promise of it’s yours would hurt, that the implication that he would have to stop someday would grate. Instead, it felt like—something shared, between them, a solidification of the connection he had felt with his daughter for so long.
When the sun was fully over the horizon, he ruffled her hair, and said, “Alfred knows where it is.”
She smiled, a small, secret thing, and scrambled up the nearest tree, launching herself from branch to branch—a dark ink blot against the livid greens and blues of the trees. He started in that direction after her. As he walked, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and sent Clark, you win.
Seconds later, his phone vibrated, and the message read, two pages in the acknowledgments, now.
His conversations with Damian and Tim were long and brutal in different ways. Damian didn’t understand the same whys Clark had been so patient with just hours before; Damian wanted easier answers than the ones he got. There were many times, throughout the two and a half hours he held Damian and whispered here’s what’s going to happen and do you have any questions and I’m sorry that he regretted being so upfront with him, but he knew, deep inside of himself, that Damian would have resented the not knowing more than anything else. His conversation with Tim was, comparatively, quick; half an hour, and the meat of it was done. Tim didn’t ask the kind of hard-hitting questions that Damian did, the questions that knocked the wind out of Bruce—Tim was quiet, and accepting, and unassuming. He’d been hurt, deeply, by Bruce lying about why he’d left, about Dick lying for him—in some ways Tim still saw himself as Bruce’s keeper, the way he’d been directly after Jason had died—and it was a hurt Bruce didn’t know how to soothe. It was not as easy as sharing the cowl with him.
And then there was Alfred, who had the placid, innocent expression that read I told you so, but he still reached out and held Bruce’s hand in his own.
“This, I believe, is a wise choice,” was all he said, when Bruce explained where he’d be. There was something nameless and complicated lurking beneath the surface, but Clark had said Diana would be there in an hour, and Bruce didn’t have enough to time to pry it out of the man—there was one thing he needed to see before he left.
Cass was in the basement, twirling, flaring the cape out behind her like a ballgown; her suit was darker over the body than his, but the symbol on the chest was the same. It would always be the same. She smiled at him, from beneath the cowl—her grin was sharp, like that of a wolf, like an apex predator preparing for the prowl. There were moments that stayed with a person, that followed them all their lives, and in Bruce’s life there had been a fair amount of moments that cut bloody tracks into his brain; but this one was a moment of pride to beat them all.
When Diana arrived, he was sitting on the Manor’s front stairs with a bag beside him. He noticed the indentions in the grass from her jet, first, and then the door swung open in midair and Diana stepped out, wearing a spangled skirt and flowing top with an eagle emblazoned on the chest that glinted in the midday sun. She flew upwards through the air and landed on the ground in front of him.
“I take it you have a great deal to tell me,” she said.
He nodded. “I’m… sorry. For this.”
She reached out and touched his arm. “Please. We are friends, Bruce, and I am here whenever you have need of me. Have you said your goodbyes?”
Bruce swallowed. “I have.”
She nodded. “Good. And I do hope you know they are welcome to come by and see you, if they would like. I have only the deepest respect for your bond with your family. You are so very like… the wolf packs, of Man’s World.”
As he followed her to the jet, he pulled out his phone and texted Clark, I want three pages in the acknowledgements for this.
Then: you can just ask how they’re doing.
Fine, Bruce sent back.
Then: they’re okay. Worried, but they’re okay. Take care of yourself.
Bruce shut off his phone and slid it back into his pocket. He took a deep breath, and followed Diana into Wonder Woman’s invisible jet—through the window he watched his home become smaller and smaller, but it was alright, because he carried it with him.
Everyone say bye Bruce!!!!!!!!! And yes, he is gone. This story is not going to have a Bruce for a while. This is very sad for me, but I will live without the joy of making him miserable.
A note about wolf packs - alpha/beta/omega dynamics aren't, actually, how real wolf packs function in the wild. Those were circumstances observed in captive, highly stressed wolves. In the wild, wolf packs function as - you guessed it - families. The parents, older siblings, middlest siblings, all working together to hunt and raise sweet baby siblings.