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Clearly Calm and Keeping Terrorized

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What a shit night. Jason couldn’t decide which was worse, the constant downpour, the asshole who’d shot a crack in his helmet, or the freezing chill that had reached down to his bones. He’d managed at least to leave the guy bleeding in the warehouse he’d had stacked full of drugs, trussed up for the police.

He may have gone overboard, a tad, but he didn’t think anybody could blame him on a day like this.

Normally his night would continue for at least another hour, but Jason was done. The wet and cold was hell on his body, his joints ached, his muscles felt hard and tense and the constant shiver would be hell on his aim. He was calling it a night.

Just riding back to his place in the rain was enough to have him shaking out of his skin. He needed to get a better insulating suit before winter. When he was Robin, he’d had a winter version of the uniform. He’d never bothered much as Red Hood before.

Of course for a long time nothing really seemed to touch him, temperature wise. It could be over 100 or below freezing and it all felt the same to him. It was probably something to do with the pit, but it’d worn off by now and the waterproofing of his current get up could use some work.

Winters in Gotham were cruel and he wasn’t about to suffer like this through every patrol.

He’d work on it the next day, he told himself while dropping his bike at the bunker. The place was small inside and didn’t hold a lot. Jason had been thinking about expanding for a while but it was about all he could get on his current budget. It wasn’t exactly easy to find unmarked and abandoned subway tunnels that weren’t already in use, not to mention the people and funds necessary to set the place up. Stepping back from the crime boss angle definitely had its drawbacks. For the time being he was subsisting on the leftovers of another large drug bust. It would last him a bit longer if he stretched his budget, which he tried to. Stealing from criminals was easy money but he always got the ultimate look of disapproval anytime one of the bats realized where his money came from so he tried to keep it to a minimum.

Not that he really cared. They weren’t exactly a happy family and Jason couldn’t care less about what they thought of him, but keeping things peaceful was the best way to keep them all out of his hair. If he stuck to his territory and didn’t ruffle too many feathers then he could do what he wanted without worrying about interference from The Bat.

Changing out of his uniform was nearly painful, but the trip back to his apartment above ground was even worse. Enough to put him back in one of the worst moods he could remember. He didn’t even bother turning the light on when he walked in. He went straight to the shower, peeled off the under-layer of his suit and stood under the spray for an inordinate amount of time just trying to shake the chill out of his bones. By the time he finally got out he was limp and dead on his feet, all he wanted was his bed.

Of course half stumbling back through his apartment into his bedroom meant he forgot about the damn box sitting at the foot of his bed. It had been there at that point for nearly a month.

A little out of character for Jason really. Normally he kept his place spick-and-span, a burned in urge for cleanliness left over from spending nights in a dingy apartment with rotting food in the fridge followed by back alleys that smelled like piss and festering garbage. He liked things in their place, he didn’t like leaving shit on the floor to be dealt with later. But every time he’d thought about unpacking the thing it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

In his haste to mount the bed in the dark, loose limbs and mind utterly blank, he stepped right on top of it, tore a hole through the side and slammed his shin into the bed frame, spilling its contents out over the floor.

“Flipping, fracking, fudgecicles.” He swore, pressing his face into the blankets and groaning. There was a pile of shit all over his bedroom floor now. A pile of things he didn’t want to think about, and it was dark in the room and he was so damn tired and he was already lying there, facedown in the blankets and he thought screw it, climbed a foot further up in the bed and buried himself in the blankets.

He’d handle it the next day.


*


He dreamed that night.

It wasn’t unusual, he had them at least a couple times a week, sometimes more. It all depended on different factors, what cases he was working, what kind of crap he ran into on patrol, and whatever damn lottery his brain was playing that night.

The downside: They were never good.

Sometimes they started out that way. Completely innocuous.

He was in a grocery store, and he was looking for something he couldn’t find but he couldn’t remember the name of it, or what it was. And he was walking down aisle after aisle of endless produce. There was a puddle on the floor, one of those yellow caution signs set up next to it, a janitor turned away from him, mopping, whistling as he went and it was far away. A long ways down the aisle, but Jason recognized the tune. He knew the song but again, he couldn’t place it. But it kept getting louder, and the closer Jason got the less it sounded like music and the more it sounded like - like laughing.

Jason was shivering, it was suddenly freezing and when he looked down his clothes were all torn up and he - he was bleeding.

Suddenly he realized the shelves weren’t full of produce at all, they were packed full of bombs and the next step he tried to take he tripped, his ankles were tied together. He fell on his face, right in the puddle on the floor and it wasn’t water, it was blood and the janitor was gone but that sound - the laughing, it was so loud, and it was everywhere, and he heard this awful scraping noise in the distance, something thin and metal dragging on the floor and Jason couldn’t breathe.

He tried to push himself up but his wrists were tied behind his back and everything hurt, it all hurt so much. The scraping on the floor got louder, closer, he heard footsteps, and the laughing stopped echoing all around him because it was clearly getting closer too.

“Robin, kid, you’re really falling down on the job tonight.” And that awful laugh, “I really think you can do better.”

He felt the tip of the crowbar graze his side, just enough to make him shudder.

He was face down in a puddle of blood and Jason couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe-

He came to like a dying fish, gasping and choking on nothing, sitting bolt upright in bed. His chest felt like iron, like no matter how hard he tried his lungs wouldn’t expand, they wouldn’t take in the air around him. His skin was on fire and he threw the blankets off, hands aching for a gun, for a trigger to pull, something to keep him sane.

Jason shoved his face between his knees, trying in vain to slow his breathing because there was nausea crawling up his throat and - and shit - he managed to make it to the garbage can in the corner before he lost what little he ate for dinner. But like other times, at least, the vomiting felt like a relief. The coughing and gagging that followed were no fun, along with the racing heart and shaking hands. He spit into the can a few times, teeth chattering together.

It felt like there were ants under his skin, just looking for a way out. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he managed to stumble to the doorway, stepping over the mess of stuff still spilled out on his floor, and flicked on the light. It burned his eyes but it at least gave him something to look at outside of the visions clouding up his head.

He still felt the sharp point of the crowbar dragging up the side of his ribs and his stomach gave another awful squeeze that had him rushing to the bathroom just to dry heave in the sink. Turning the tap on and splashing his face with water helped just a little, but his mouth tasted sour and his stomach was still rolling up in knots.

Jason grabbed his toothbrush off the counter and nearly dropped it while running it under the water, his hands were shaking so much. He could hear the awful, stupid voice in the back of his head even over the stifled groan he let out when his stomach heaved again. He applied way too much toothpaste to the brush and jammed it in his mouth, barely managing not to fall down as he sat on the edge of his tub.

His ribs ached. And his knees and shins and his head felt like it was gonna split open. It was phantom pain he knew, maybe because he’d been close to hyperventilating for a good few minutes at that point and he was having some kind of premature brain death from low oxygen, but the knowledge very rarely helped. At least not when he was sitting in a blindingly bright bathroom with his eyes squeezed shut, scrubbing jerkily over his teeth and tongue trying to wash out the sour taste of stomach acid. Trying to scrub out the echoing laughs in his head, the sound of the crowbar dragging across concrete, the muffled thud of it against flesh and bone.

Of all his nightmares, the ones of the joker were always the loudest.

Sometimes he’d talk out loud to himself, or hum, just to try to drown it out but that just ended up making him feel crazier. He wanted his gun, but the reflex always made him nervous and he pushed it away.

Instead, he brushed his teeth for a long time, concentrating on the sound of the bristles against his gums, long enough that his mouth was just full of foam. Long enough that blood started mixing in with it and the taste nearly sent him spiraling. He forced himself to stand and spit in the sink, splash water over his face and just stand there for a minute. He stared down into the drain and watched drops fall from the tap, gripping the edge of the sink with white knuckles, trying to support his weight with nothing but his arms ‘cause his knees were shaking something fierce, listened to his own labored breathing.

Amazingly enough Jason Todd did not have cable, and his internet was spotty. It was annoying but the bunker he’d set up had better internet than you could buy plus access to the cave computer. When he moved into his place he reasoned that was all he really used the internet for. He didn’t have money to burn and the apartment didn’t come with cable. But on a night like this, when the skeletons in his closet were rattling like percussion instruments, he really wished he could turn on the tv and listen to some bullshit telenovelas or cartoons or reruns of Titanic or he really didn’t freaking care.

Reading a book was always an option, that was what he usually did, but after Joker dreams, sometimes it just - wasn’t enough. There were little tricks, little things he’d learned that helped and he went through the list in his head as he finally wrenched himself away from the bathroom sink, when it no longer felt like the bottom of his stomach was trying to climb up his throat.

There was a lighter on his nightstand next to a heavily scented candle that he lit with shaking hands, nearly burned himself before he set it to the side and breathed in the biting scene of pine. There was a half empty carton of cigarettes stashed under his bed but he’d been trying to quit and he saved them for when things were really bad.

The trash can in the corner was a problem, one he’d rather not address right then but didn’t want to leave overnight because disgusting and so he took a spare moment to rinse some water in it and dump the contents in the toilet. Then he splashed bleach in it and filled it the rest of the way with water and left it soaking in the tub.

Music was the next step. He didn’t remember where he tossed his cell when he came in and he had to stalk around the apartment before he found it sitting on the kitchen counter just inside the front door, unplugged and with a dead batter. He stared at the screen with an unexpected twist in his chest. “You gotta be fracking kidding me.”

Abruptly, even though he’d woken without tears, just the pounding in his chest and head, he felt like he was going to start crying immediately. Sucking in a deep, noisy breath, he made a point of plugging in his damn phone and going back to his room where the smell of the candle was enough to at least put him more in the present. It was the music that helped with the Joker dreams the most though, without it Jason was left jittery and anxious and angry in a way that reminded him alarmingly of The Pit. It only seemed to get worse the longer he sat on the edge of his bed, staring at his bookshelves trying to decide which one would be the winner for the night.

His knee was bouncing enough he’d probably wake up his downstairs neighbor before something occurred to him. The smashed up box at the foot of his bed was still just where it was when he’d demolished it on his way in. The thought of it made a different anxiety twist in his stomach.

The box was from Alfred. Sort of. The box was full of Jason’s things, so he wasn’t sure it was really from anyone. Except that one day after patrol when Jason had been high on pain meds, half lying down on a medical cot in the cave with Alfred working on his stitches, he’d admitted he missed some of his old stuff. The conversation wasn’t meant to go anywhere and Jason had no idea why he said anything but Alfred had told him he was free to take whatever he wanted from his old room - it was still his, after all. But the very idea of going back in there made his skin crawl.

He’d heard from Dick that it hadn’t much changed since he died and that kind of made it worse. Jason didn’t want to step back in time, no thanks. The idea that Bruce had turned it into some kind of museum to before he had died did weird thing to his insides and he’d told Alfred as much. He didn’t think he could stomach it.

Alfred had left it at that, didn’t push him to keep talking about it or try to tell him to try anyway, like Dick probably would have. Jason always appreciated that about Alf.

Instead, about a week later, Alfred had shown up at his apartment with a weeks worth of meals and a box of things he’d thought Jason might want. It was a nice gesture and Jason had appreciated it but he’d found, despite his earlier musings, that he held the same sort of apprehension to the box as he did to his old room. Everything inside it was part of his old life and most of the time it all just felt - untouchable.

He didn’t know why exactly, just that his years at the manor felt like some weird mix of dream and nightmare he could never quite suss out.

But now, with the Joker’s laughter ringing in his ears, he thought it might be the lesser of two evils and he hoped to anyone listening that Alfie packed his old MP3 player.

Jason slid down across his rumpled bed and slipped over the frame, nearly tripped over the crushed box at his feet but fumbled around until he could sit cross legged on the floor in front of it. He didn’t know where to start exactly, but he decided the best option was getting the MP3 player first. So, he dug in, pulling out old sweatshirts, a couple knit scarves, an old throw blanket. The soft things were all wrapped around the more fragile ones.

Underneath his old clothes there was a stack of notebooks, a larger stack of book, books, an old baseball, and there, the headphones wrapped neatly around it, was his MP3 player. An old iPod shuffle Bruce had gotten him more because it was something other kids had than that he’d known Jason wanted one.

What Jason was counting on, was good old Alfie, because while the charger for the device was neatly wound up next to it, it had been literal years since Jason had touched the thing and the idea that it might have any battery left was absurd. Unless Alfred had gone to the trouble of charging it before packing it away for him.

With still shaking hands he unwound the headphones rapidly and shoved them in his ears, pressing the home butting and just praying for some kind of miracle.

“Bless you Alfred.” Jason whispered out over the heavy beat of hip hop music he didn’t even remember downloading. He took a moment to breathe, suck in the smell of wintergreen and let the music drown out the noise in his head. The rest of the contents still sat there in stacks, pushed to the side of the torn open cardboard or still organized neatly inside it.

This was as far as he’d gotten in a month and Jason decided to just bite the bullet and get it over with. He reached for the first thing that caught his attention and pulled out a framed photo of Bruce and him at a baseball game. The same one, if Jason remembered correctly, that he’d gotten the ball in the box from. Bruce stood behind Jason, a hand on his shoulder, a half crooked smile on his face that meant it was real, while Jason, at thirteen years old, stood in front of him grinning ear to ear with a mitt and a baseball held up in his right hand.

He didn’t remember who took the photo, it must have been some random person at the game, but he remembered being breathless and excited about going, that he’d never been to one before. He remembered telling Bruce that the closest he’d ever gotten was scalping tickets outside the doors of a hockey rink once and being chased off by a security guard. Bruce had gotten a weird look on his face that Jason never knew how to take, then clapped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed in a way that made Jason feel weirdly warm in the chest.

“We’ll go to a hockey game next.” He had said. And Jason had been beyond excited.

He swallowed convulsively at the twist in his stomach and set the photo to the side. He wasn’t sure he wanted it anymore. Thinking about the good times with Bruce was always bitter sweet to him now.

Usually more bitter than sweet.

The phantom image of a Robin uniform always came to mind, filled out by some other kid, standing tall and smug. Jason shook his head. He’d decide later.

Next was an old backpack, still filled with his school books. He rifled through one, finding a doodle of a bow and arrow in the corner of one of the pages, a note scribbled underneath he couldn’t actually parse. There were pages of math homework, old assignments with mark ups from his teachers, little notes in red pen.

‘Good work’

‘Nice word choice’

‘Correct formula but you made a common mistake, see me after class and I can explain it better.’

Absently he wondered why Alfred had given him his old school stuff. Not like he had any use for it now and reading though it felt like going through some other kid’s stuff.

It did give him a weird pang of regret. Because Jason had liked school. He’d thrived despite little shitheads in a rich school who thought he didn’t belong there and some teachers alike. Jason felt a weird sort of shame at never having graduated high school. Hell, he’d barely started.

He stashed everything back inside the bag and set it to the side. He probably wouldn’t get rid of it, though he wasn’t sure why.

The stack of books was probably what he’d missed the most and he pulled the top most copy off and flipped it open. Jason had a pretty large stash of books at that point, and he had replaced nearly, if not all the novels he’d had in the manor when he was younger. But it wasn’t the books themselves exactly that he missed.

When Jason had moved into the manor the idea of having books of his own to return to had been a new and glorious thing. On the street, when he needed to keep something for yourself you found a way to mark it, or make it so other people just didn’t want it. He’d half ruined most things he’d snatched from stores just so they wouldn’t bother wanting them back if he got caught.

Before his mom had died he’d had access to the Library, which was great, but it meant that none of the books were his and he’d had to keep them nice and neat if he wanted to be able to keep checking them out. It hadn’t been all that easy either, with a drug addicted mother and a lowlife dad who was always bringing other lowlifes around. He’d ended up stashing them under his bed anytime he wasn’t reading them.

The books in the manor were different. They had a library, which Jason treated as such, but Bruce had also expressed to Jason that he could have his own books. Ones he got to keep in his room that he wasn’t required to return to anyone else or share. He could even make notes in them if he wanted, highlight whatever text interested him or that he wanted to return to.

The idea of marking them up in any way had horrified Jason when Bruce had made the suggestion, but he liked part of the idea. It made reading feel more like he was an active participant, like he could go back and forth with the characters, like he was involved in the story.

He’d never taken a pen to a book, but what he had done was fill all of his favorites with sticky notes.

Jason still did it sometimes, though he didn’t read as much as he used to as a kid when he was only patrolling on weekends and just had school to think about. He flipped through the first few pages of Frankenstein, one of his favorites, perusing his own messy handwriting on bright pink paper, faded with age. Again though, the nostalgia twisted hard in his stomach. He was glad to have them back, thought he might actually read through them someday. But what had been something he missed...felt a lot like something he could never have again, now that he was holding them in his hands.

There were all these mixed up, tangled feelings twisted around Jason’s childhood. Sometimes when he was high on pain meds, or drunk maybe, it softened the edges enough to make all this seem like a good idea. But harshly sober and coming down off a nightmare...they just felt like a sad joke.

Like looking at the props from a movie you used to think was real life.

“Whatever.” He mumbled to himself as he grabbed a pile of the books and stacked them back up in a haphazard pile. His bookshelves were neatly organized, lining his bedroom walls on three sides. He made sure to leave room for more, and the second bedroom still had blank walls he’d though about repurposing for just such an occasion that he ran out. Normally things were organized by genre, then author, then title. But this particular collection he would keep together. He shelved them all on the lowest empty shelf near the floor, next to his dresser.

The picture frame he stuck face down in the drawer to his nightstand to think about later. The baseball, and the mitt he dug out to match, he left sitting on his dresser. The couple sweatshirts smelled like fresh laundry, which wasn’t surprising, so he didn’t bother washing them, just hung them up in the very back of his closet. They’d never fit him now, and just looking at them when he tucked the arms of the hanger through the neck hole nearly had him reeling at how tiny he used to be.

His notebooks he didn’t even open, remembering clearly enough the awful drawings he used to make and his own amateur attempts at writing. Journaling had initially been a suggestion from Bruce, back when Jason had frequent outbursts of temper and never wanted to talk about them afterwards. Bruce wasn’t exactly a shining example of talking out your issues, so the journaling had probably been a nice cop out for him, but Jason still occasionally did some.

The throw blanket, Jason realized when he picked it up, was the same one that Alfred had knitted him his first year at the manor and that did get him a little choked up. It was red, and a little faded, the color clashed pretty badly with his bedspread if he was being honest but he didn’t care. He took the time to make up his blankets and folded the throw neatly at the end of his bed. Then he settled himself back on the floor in front of the nearly empty box.

There wasn’t much else he expected to find in it. It was large enough that Alfred had managed to fit his old skateboard, which Jason smirked at. Despite his skills as Robin he had never gotten very good with the thing. He left it leaned up against the wall behind the door and went in for the last item, sitting at the base of the box. It was wrapped in brown parchment paper and tied with twine, about the size and shape of a book if Jason had to guess, and a badly wrinkled card was tucked underneath the string.

Jason assumed at first that it was a gift from Alfred, stashed at the bottom of the box as some sort of surprise but the obviously crumpled and re-flattened card couldn’t have been the butler. So Jason slipped out the card, a nice stock with a simple picture on the front of a sailboat that looked oddly familiar to him.

Upon opening the card he was momentarily confused. There was obviously a decent amount of text written out at one point, but it had all been scribbled out pretty damn thoroughly, he squinted at it for a moment, trying to make out the words as a slow dawning unease settled on his shoulders. Because while he couldn’t quite make out the words, the handwriting still looked familiar. A messy, but somehow still graceful, looping cursive that could only be Bruce’s.

Jason swallowed roughly, eyes scanning the card over again and then peering into the box like it might now suddenly contain a poisonous snake. It didn’t make sense.

That there was possibly a...gift stashed somewhere in his room from Bruce that he had never know about didn’t make any sense. And the idea that Bruce would have for some reason gotten him a gift made even less. Unless it was something related to their vigilante lives maybe. Maybe it was useful to Red Hood somehow and the scribbled out card was code for something.

But something told him it wasn’t. Bruce was ridiculous and paranoid and overly dramatic at the best of times but a secret message disguised as an old gift instead of making a phone call or telling him in person on one of the not infrequent times they might run into each other on patrol made little to no sense. And the gift did seem old he realized.

Reaching in and picking it up out of the box Jason found that the parchment paper was covered in a layer of dust, brushed off in a pattern that could only have been someone’s hands moving it to begin with. The twine was brittle and snapped at the knot with a light tug.

There was a feeling Jason sometimes got, like he was swimming in the ocean and he could sense something huge and dangerous coming up beneath him, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. In general it didn’t mean anything positive but he was already waist deep in this whole thing and that feeling didn’t tend to leave him until the cause was addressed. So he took a single deep breath and tore the paper off, trying to brace himself for any possibility.

However, when the paper came off he was left with a complete absence of any reaction. He hadn’t known what to expect but somehow what he found was still entirely unexpected.

It was two items, stacked neatly one on top of the other. One, which was, in retrospect, predictably a book. A hardcover copy of Pride and Prejudice, with a swirling and beautifully designed cover in deep, navy blue overlaid with gold.

And two, a slim DVD case with a photo of Kira Knightly looking artfully off to the side with a blurry man in the background.

“What the hell.”

Jason yanked the headphones out of his ears, suddenly feeling the need for quiet to digest whatever the heck he was seeing. He grabbed up the crumpled card again and opened it flat, smoothing it out over his leg and squinting in concentration at the scribbled lines of pen. If Bruce wasn’t a pretentious asshole who always wrote in cursive he thought he may have been able to make it out but as it was, the only thing that wasn’t in cursive was a cluster of numbers in the upper righthand side of the card that had only been partially scribbled out. He should have noticed them immediately but he had been intrigued by what he was apparently not supposed to see.

The numbers were clearly a date. A date that Jason stared at with a numbness in his bones while his brain calculated where he was and what he was doing when it was written. It was dated nearly eight months previous. Just a couple months before...before the two of them had talked. That Jason had agreed to play by Bruce’s rules.

“What...the hell.” Jason repeated to himself. His voice strangled and clipped. Dropping the card he suddenly flipped the book open, flipping the pages in a fan and looking for something more, turning the book face down and shaking out the pages hoping to find some other information. Nothing.

He cracked open the DVD case next, popping the disc out and the little leaflet of information thinking there had to be some kind of hidden message somewhere.

“This is such bullshit.” He whispered to himself, incredulous and weirdly lost.

A strangely frantic idea was occurring to him and he picked up the card again, stumbling to his feet and going for one of the notebooks he’d stashed in his closet. He took the one on top and tore out the first blank page he came to and then spent ten minutes digging around for a pencil, ending up with the single sheet of notebook paper and the card, standing in his boxers and a t-shirt in his kitchen. The card he laid out on the countertop, putting the notebook paper on top of it. He angled the pencil carefully and began brushing gentle strokes across the paper.

It was an old hat trick Jason used to read about in ancient detective novels like it was some genius level move, it would create a negative image of whatever had been written on the card before it was scribbled out, provided the original script was written with enough pressure. Bruce tended to have a heavy hand so he thought it’d be enough but the way the card was crumpled up made it a special challenge, leaving other divots and lines through the text.

When he was done he stared at the sheet of paper with a scrutinizing gaze.

“Damnit.” It looked like scribbles, which was exactly what it was, but maybe a tiny bit more like actual words than before. Jason studied it, trying to make out the individual first and last letter of each word.

The first word was clearly his name, he took the pencil and carefully wrote out Jason below the scribbles.

The first line he could make out sparing words from. He went through the note methodically, writing down words he could make out, leaving a line on the page for each word he couldn’t, carefully counting each word until he was at the bottom of the card and his hands were shaking again, worse than when he’d woken up from the dream.

He stared at what he had, trying to make heads or tales of it.

Jason,

I know ___ ___ ___ this book, ___ ____ ____ more ____ ___ copy. I think I remember ____ ____ me at some ____ ____ I ______ you of Mr. Darcy. ________ I was ______ and _____ _____ if my ______ ______ right.

Maybe you’ve ____ the _____ _______ too, ____ for me to say. It’s ____ a _____ _____ ____ talked _____ books and movies. But I saw this pair _____ sold ________ in a classics __________ at the ______ Bookstore __ ______ and I thought of you. ____ _______ you might _____ it, ___ a good _________ of the book, if ___ _______. _____ __ _____ watch it ________ and _______ notes.

I miss you.

The vast majority of it didn’t make much sense beyond being clearly about the story and probably not some hidden message, but Jason didn’t care a whole lot.

Instead he stared at those last three words, feeling a tremor run up his spine. He dropped the paper on the counter like it burned him and took a step back, swallowing hard. His eyes were burning and his chest felt tight and this was not the bullshit he’d been expecting in that damn box.

“Fucking Alfred.” Jason scooped up the crumpled card and the sheet of paper and stomped back to his bedroom, grabbing the book and the movie and dumping it all in the bottom drawer of his dresser with old electronics and chargers he wasn’t sure went to what to be forgotten about. The drawer slammed closed and he stood there breathing like a freight train for a split second before he went back to the foot of his bed where he tore the empty box until it was flat and recyclable, stashed it under his sink, and fumed.

Glancing at the clock on his microwave told him it was nearing 5am, meaning he’d gotten maybe three hours of sleep and that the sun would be coming up in a couple hours. He stomped around his kitchen, dragging out coffee beans and milk and generally making as much noise as possible just hoping his downstairs neighbor would come pounding on the door so he had an excuse to scream and fight with someone.

“fucking Alfred.” He hissed again, feeling utterly unsteady and bizarrely hollow. Like someone had scooped out his insides with a spoon. It was such a bullshit move.

Jason wasn’t an idiot. No way Bruce knew that was in Alfred’s little care package. Bruce had probably forgotten the thing existed, had probably thought it had all been thrown away. He’d clearly meant to dispose of the card, probably had, and Alfred had rescued it from the trash and kept it on hand, just waiting to leave it like a bomb for Jason to find. Probably hoped it would open his eyes.

Make him see the light.

Jason was not going to be manipulated by some shitty card that Bruce had thrown in the trash rather than actually give him. And what kind of bullshit was, that? Bruce thought he could give him some crappy copy of a book and a movie with a casual little note and things would be good?

He was insane. Bruce was insane and Jason had known it for years.

Jason was shaking his head, pulling a mug out of the cupboard for the coffee and setting it down harder than he needed to. What had he even been thinking? what? That if he gave Jason a present he’d just forget about all the other shit?

Oh, except that he didn’t give him the gift. Instead he threw away the card and put the package somewhere it was gathering dust for the past eight months.

There were dishes in the sink from his dinner and he went about washing them by hand instead of using the dishwasher, needing to move, needing something to occupy his hands.

Needing something to work out his aggression on so he could keep hold of the anger in his chest.

 



*



*



*



He’d bought Jason a gift.

He leaned against the sink, gripping the edge hard and feeling the sharp edges of his indignation stuttering and losing their shape. He tried to grab onto it, hold it in place like the shield it was.

But - damnit he doesn’t know what to think of it. So Bruce bought it for him, and then what? Couldn’t bring himself to actually give it to him? His stomach twists in knots over it. Jason remembered meeting up with Bruce, agreeing to work by his rules.

He remembered he’d been in a good mood that day, that he’d felt more exasperated and amused by the request than he would otherwise normally be. He remembered Bruce being blank and awkward and the good feelings slowly draining. Remembered Bruce cutting the meeting short and making some excuse for it, leaving Jason with the same souring bitterness that always came in the end with Bruce.

Jason hadn’t gone back on the agreement, he wasn’t really sure why exactly. Except that maybe...maybe him asking meant he didn’t believe Jason was some kind of lost cause.

Not that Jason cared, he had nothing to prove, not to Bruce.

But sometimes there were reasons to prove things to yourself and Jason wasn’t sure he had yet.

It didn’t matter. For now he wasn’t killing anyone and he was on the Bat’s good side. It didn’t explain the movie. And the date on the card...it was before. It had been from before Jason had made the agreement, when he was still-

He didn’t want to think about this stupid shit.

But Bruce had thought about him apparently. He...he missed him.

It was ridiculous. It wasn’t true.

Jason had to resist the urge to go dig that stupid card out of his dresser and try to parse out the words again.

“God damnit!” He slammed his hands against the edge of the sink.

He wasn’t supposed to care about this crap anymore. He didn’t. He didn’t care.

Jason didn’t care and he was going to stop thinking about it.

......God he was going to need a shit ton of coffee to make it through the day.

Chapter Text

Jason was exhausted. He was dragging so hard that he’d fallen asleep on his couch while attempting to drink his damn coffee.

He’d slept for three hours after getting some pretty heavy exercise in the freezing rain, woke up from terrorizing nightmares and then spent an hour fighting off emotions he didn’t want to have. This all meant that as soon as he’d calmed down enough to sit the comfort of his couch was enough to put him out in minutes. He’d fallen asleep sitting up with his head lolling back on the cushions and he woke with a start to the sound of his ringtone coming from the kitchen, where he’d left his phone charging. His neck screamed when he lifted his head up and he groaned, reaching a hand up to rub at his aching vertebrae.

Standing up he nearly fell over, having to shake the dead limb feeling out of his legs before he shuffled into his kitchen. The clock on the microwave read 11am and Jason frowned when he looked at it, still feeling like he just crawled out from under a rock.

It was the grogginess, he thought later, that was to blame for his absentmindedness. Because he didn’t pause to check the caller ID before pressing accept and holding his phone to his ear.

“Yeah?” His voice was gravelly with sleep and he barely stifled a yawn before he suddenly felt like ice was pouring down his spine.

“Jason.” It was Bruce, and he sounded surprised, like he wasn’t expecting an answer. Jason wanted to laugh, because yeah he shouldn’t. And for the life of him he nearly hung up without another word. But that would just be weird and as far as anyone else knew everything was normal in the status quo. He could just see Dick start up with calling him everyday again, acting all chummy just so he could get the scoop on what was up with the black sheep of the family.

And maybe there was a little bit of him still aching on the inside over a book and a damn movie.

“...Jay...?”

“Yeah, Bruce, what’s up?” He cleared his throat awkwardly, leaning against his kitchen counter and staring at his shitty linoleum floors wondering if the falseness in his voice could be heard over the phone.

“I um...how are you?” Jason blinked, feeling his shoulders crawling up to his chin.

“Fine.” His voice was clipped, but that ache went a little deeper. He wasn’t used to being asked.

“That...that’s good.” There was an awkward pause on the line and Jason stood away from the counters and forced his shoulders down, stretching his neck back and forth before he walked back into the living room and perched on the edge of the couch. He didn’t know what to say back, didn’t know if Bruce was even expecting a response. It wasn’t exactly the typical way their calls went. If there even was one, considering he couldn’t actually remember the last time they spoke over the phone.

Sure he’d get a contact over comms during patrol on occasion but never a phone call in the middle of the day. There was a tight ball of anxiety forming just below his ribs and Jason ground a thumb into his sternum. Bruce cleared his throat then and Jason tried to imagine what he was doing on the other end of the line. Was he at work? Sitting in his study at the manor? Down in the cave?

“I know this is...a little unusual, and very last minute, but I was wondering if you might be able to do me a favor.”

Ah, Jason felt the tension go out of his frame and did his best to ignore the twist in his stomach. It was a Batman thing. That was fine. Jason wasn’t expecting anything else.

“What can the Red Hood do for you?” He asked back, trying to keep the casual tone but hearing just how flat it sounded. didn’t matter, Bruce would never say anything.

“Actually...this isn’t a...cape thing.”

“Well then maybe you should spit it out.” Jason barely resisted biting his tongue. It wasn’t exactly the unaffected tone he was going for. He was usually a much better actor. He put it down to a lack of sleep as he rubbed his eyes, noticing a small chip in the finish of his coffee table when he opened them and ignoring the unexplained acrobatics his insides were doing.

Pushed down the thought of the gift stashed in the bottom of his dresser.

“Right...you see, I’m going out of town for business starting tomorrow. I’m taking Damian along with me, he...wanted to come.” Bruce paused for a long moment to the point that Jason started getting antsy, tugging on a loose thread in his t-shirt until it tore before he bit off a sigh.

“And?”

“And...he is concerned about Titus.”

“Titus.” Jason slumped back into his couch, scowling at the blank screen of his TV. “His dog.”

“...His dog.” Somehow the conversation wasn’t going anywhere he was prepared for and Jason was thrown.

“And...you’re telling me this because?”

“Titus has a double ear infection, which has Damian extra attentive. Beyond that apparently he hasn’t been getting enough exercise since the weather’s been getting worse. Damian usually walks him twice a day. Normally Alfred would handle it for him while we’re gone but his knee has been bothering him and I don’t want him doing it.”

There was a very obvious connection Jason felt like he should be making that just wasn’t coming to him, like he was looking at a puzzle missing a single piece and yet still couldn’t figure out what he was looking at.

“I...was hoping you might walk Titus while we’re gone.”

Ah, there it was, the last piece slotting into place. And Jason could see the picture now, but it was a bizarre one.

“You want me to walk the demon’s dog.”

“I...” Jason was waiting for some sort of scolding for calling the kid names but it didn’t come. “Yes, if you’re available.” If he’s available? What the hell kind of question was that coming from Bruce?

The whole conversation was throwing him for a loop.

“If I’m available.” He heard a shuffling noise in the background and could just picture Bruce turning away from the phone to give a heavy sigh so Jason couldn’t hear it.

“Yes Jay, if you’re available.”

“Because you don’t already know if I’m available or not.”

“Jay.” And now Jason could hear that signature frustration peaking through, and really, he was being a little shit about the whole thing but his brain was still stuck at the beginning of the conversation like he hit a wall and couldn’t find his way around. He slumped back again into the couch cushions, scowling at his reflection in the tv screen. He looked like a pissy preteen and it just made him more annoyed.

“I don’t understand why you’re asking me. What about Dick? Or Tim? Or Cass?” Because since when had Jason been top of the list?

“Dick is living in Bludhaven again, the distance makes it difficult. Cass is in Hong Kong until just before we return. Tim...” Here Bruce did let out an audible sigh, it came out like a burst of static on Jason’s end of the line and had him flinching away from the phone.

“Tim and Damian don’t get along well. Damian would not be...agreeable to leaving it to him and I’m reluctant to ask Tim for a favor in Damian’s behalf at this point in time.” Jason watched his face contort in the reflection on the tv.

“Reluctant to ask Tim, but not me.” Jason hadn’t forgotten the time Damian had snuck into his safe house and tried to stab him. Left a crowbar in his bed.

Not that Jason hadn’t repaid him in kind.

“That’s - I thought you might do it more for the dog.”The heavy resignation in Bruce’s voice almost made Jason laugh.

“Why can’t this mutt just go outside on his own? Not like the manor grounds aren’t massive, he can run around and exercise all he wants can’t he?” And he was just being difficult at this point, maybe, but he was rolling the request over in his head looking for some kind of ulterior motive because things were rarely ever this simple with Bruce and he wanted the full picture before he agreed to anything.

“Damian is insistent that Titus hates the rain and he won’t go outside longer than he has to without being walked.“

“And what, exactly, is going to happen to this dog without his twice daily walks for a week? Sudden death?”

There was silence on the line for a long moment and Jason thought maybe he’d pushed it just that bit too far that Bruce was going to give up and try to get Dick to do it after all but then finally, he responded.

“Apparently the breed is prone to weight issues and heart disease and he’s been gaining weight. With the recent ear infection he also needs something to cover his ears so they don’t get cold when he goes out. Damian gets...a little overprotective of his pets. If we can’t find someone to walk him while we’re gone I think he’s going to end up staying home and I’d...I’d like him to come with me.”

Jason was taken off guard by the twist in his stomach, making him swallow. Bruce’s voice was quiet, earnest in a way Jason barely recognized.

“Thought this was a business trip.” He mumbled in response, feeling suddenly tired again.

“It is...we won’t get to do much sightseeing but he expressed interest in coming along and I know he’ll be disappointed if he ends up staying.” Jason wanted to bite back something about being around more instead of leaving on stupid business trips and justice league missions, maybe the kid wouldn’t care so much then.

But he didn’t. Instead he thought of Bruce calling Jason out of the blue, the kid he could barely talk to, in order to ask him a favor for the brat because Bruce wanted the kid to come along.

Remembered being that kid, wanting nothing more than to follow Bruce wherever he went even it meant spending eight hours a day in a stuffy office while Bruce was in meetings, barely catching glimpses of him until the end of the day. that or holed up in a hotel room by himself. Living for the evenings when it would just be the two of them and they could go on some short little adventure to somewhere new. Even if it was just to try a restaurant they couldn’t go to at home.

And then thought of the crumpled up card stashed in the base of his dresser and it felt like there was a weight on his chest. He looked up at the ceiling, staring at cracked plaster and poorly addressed water damage before he could manage to muster up the energy for a proper response.

“Fine. I’ll watch the damn dog, but I’m not going to the manor every day. If you want me to walk him then you’re gonna need to drop him off with me and he can stay here.”

It occurred to him as he was saying it that it meant he would have to tell Bruce where he lived. Not that the asshole didn’t already know, especially considering he’d told Alfred a while back, but Jason had been tight lipped on the subject since the beginning and it had so far been a big enough hint to keep him away and keep the rest of the bats out of his business. Just by offering this he was probably opening a huge can of worms.

“That...seems reasonable. Damian probably won’t be very happy about it but I think he’ll live.” There was a hint of good humor in Bruce’s voice and Jason tried to smash down the corresponding lift in his own mood. “Thank you Jay, I appreciate it.”

“Yeah whatever. Just text me when you’re gonna bring him ‘round so I can make sure to be here.”

 


*


 

After agreeing to take Titus for ten days Jason had spent the rest of his time doing inane things that felt bizarrely out of place in his life. The Red Hood agreeing to dog sit and running errands seemed somehow laughable - going to the laundromat, buying groceries, shopping for a warmer coat, those were average people things and Jason hadn’t been average since he was nine years old and living on the streets.

And yet here he was, reading the same page of a book over and over because he couldn’t seem to stop the quiet buzzing in his brain while he waited for Bruce to get to his apartment with the dog.

It was early the next day, 7am, and Jason would normally be sound asleep, and had planned on being sound asleep until Bruce got there, but of course he’d woken up at six from a dream he couldn’t remember. One that had left him sweating with a racing heart and shaking hands and he had immediately remembered that Bruce was going to be there in an hour. The spike of anxiety that shot through him killed any possibility of him going back to sleep.

The thought hadn’t even occurred to him the day before when he’d made the one caveat to Bruce’s request - that he bring the dog to his apartment instead of expecting Jason to go back and forth to the manor twice a day or, God forbid, stay over. But he’d realized shortly after the call had ended that Bruce had never been to his apartment before. Of course he knew, but it hadn’t seemed like as big of a deal at the time.

Jason had never invited him and somehow Bruce had so far respected that and hadn’t shown up, even seemed to pretend he didn’t know where the place was even though Jason knew he did. Knew he’d never have an asset or anything close to one that he didn’t know every possible fact about. It wasn’t exactly a secret, Alfred had been, a couple times.

The place was really nothing more than a glorified safe house. That’s exactly what it used to be even, but slowly he’d started spending more time there than at any of his others. More of his things had migrated there and after a while he’d admitted to himself that the strain of moving from safehouse to safehouse every three of four days was getting to him and he needed a home base.

This was the place he’d gravitated towards.

It was in an old neighborhood. Not a great part of the city (not that there were any), but not Crime Alley by any means, not where he normally patrolled. It was removed enough that he didn’t worry about being followed, in the Northern part of Somerset near the Gotham Public Library. It had an old neighborhood feel that Jason had liked. It didn’t feel safe exactly, it was Gotham, but Jason had never really felt safe anywhere.

It felt familiar, like a better version of the place he’d grown up. His mom had always dreamed of moving out of Somerset all together when he was a kid, back when she’d still thought Willis might have come up with some money he didn’t immediately splurge on booze or paying back somebody he owed. But when Jason had dreamed about getting out of the alley as a kid, this was what he had pictured. Back when he hadn’t really know better places existed.

Jason’s apartment was comfortable. It was neat, clean and put together, but it wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury. The building was old and had gone through enough owners over the years to have some noticeable wear and tear.

The stairs squeaked when you walked up and the handrail probably wasn’t to code. There was no elevator despite ten floors and Jason lived on the sixth. The walls were thin but he didn’t have noisy neighbors. Hell Jason imagined he was probably the worst. Coming home at all hours of the night, waking up screaming on occasion. It was a wonder no one had called the cops on him yet.

His actual apartment was small, about 800 square feet, an open concept living room and kitchen with old linoleum flooring that matched the bathroom, which were yellowing with age, but not cracking or peeling. He had Formica countertops littered with scratches from people not using cutting boards and dents from dropped dished and knives. The sink had been replaced close to when Jason had moved in and so it was nice and large, with a garbage disposal. the fridge was old but perfectly functional, no funky smell to it, but it did give off a noticeable buzz.

The oven was small and the cooktop only had three burners. There was at least a dishwasher that had been added in the last few years but it, again, was very small. About half the size of what Jason would consider standard. The lighting wasn’t amazing, just two dome lights in the main living space, and there was the large brown patch on the ceiling that told him there was probably some unaddressed mold up there. Or at the very least some damp floor joists that might not hold as much weight as they were supposed to.

He had an old, worn leather couch with depressed cushions from years of wear, a thick knit blanket draped over the back he’d picked up recently as the weather was changing and he knew his building wouldn’t hold heat well. There was a thick, plush rug laid out on the living room floor over gray carpet that still looked decent. He’d picked up a coffee table at Good Will one afternoon, something vaguely antique looking that wasn’t exactly in style but was made of real wood and felt sturdy and well made.

His tv was probably the only new thing in the place and sometimes Jason wondered why he had splurged for it in the first place except that Roy had been the one to push it on him. Jason had argued with him about it for nearly three days before he’d been talked into a 72” smart tv with a built in Blu-Ray player. Why he needed a smart tv when he barely had internet was lost on him but there the monstrosity was, sitting on a squat little cabinet he’d picked up with the coffee table. They weren’t an exact match but it was close enough they didn’t clash. A single overstuffed armchair sat to the side of the couch in gray that probably used to be black. Still good condition but definitely not new.

Beyond the living room was the bathroom, on the opposite side of the hall to two bedrooms. The bathroom fixtures looked like they had been redone in the 70’s and sported a powder blue sink, toilet, and bathtub, with the same yellowing linoleum as the kitchen, Formica countertops, again, and a vanity with square drawers and a single cabinet under the sink where he stashed towels. The drawers used to stick but Jason had gotten fed up one night and fixed them with sand paper and some silicone spray.

The walls were a dull taupe color throughout and there was nothing hanging on them anywhere, making Jason suddenly aware of just how bare the place still looked.

He hadn’t even considered the fact that Bruce was going to see it.

The place was fine. It was clean, and things were worn out and well used but they weren’t falling apart, nothing was broken. It wasn’t the manor, sure, but it wasn’t a dump.

And why it even mattered Jason had no idea and had continued to bitch and moan at himself for straightening the blanket on the back of the couch and freaking vacuuming the carpet even though he’d done it two days ago. He was dropping a dog off, the place was gonna end up messy and Bruce wasn’t going to look around or probably even care.

These thoughts did not calm the flare of anxiety when that knock finally came.

Jason swallowed hard and took a quick breath, set his book down on the coffee table and got up to open the door before he could entertain the idea of pretending he wasn’t actually there and ignoring all attempt to contact him. For prosperity’s sake he did check the peephole before opening the door and nearly had a heart attack because it wasn’t just Bruce standing outside.

The demon brat was there too, leash in hand attached to the most massive dog Jason had ever seen. The kid was scowling like no other but the fish eye lens made it look more comical than annoying. Jason was an idiot. Of course the kid was gonna come along, it was his dog. That he was apparently protective enough of that he didn’t want just anyone watching him.

Bruce, next to him, looked enormous, with a blank expression that never failed to make Jason either irritated or nervous. That morning his stomach couldn’t seem to decide.

Damian glanced at Bruce, frown deepening, and Jason realized he’d been standing at the door for probably too long. “Here goes nothing.” He whispered to himself before stepping back and unlocking the deadbolt. He attempted to smile when he swing the door open but it was still really freaking early and Jason wasn’t really prepared for the way his stomach swooped when he looked at Bruce.

He couldn’t get that damned card out of his head. Couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking when he picked up the book and movie and decided it was a good gift for Jason, whom he hadn’t had more than one pleasant conversation that wasn’t about vigilante business within the last four months. And before that...he had no idea.

“Hey.” He said lamely, stepping to the side at the expectant huff from Damian. They both walked in, Damian with an air of superiority that Jason wasn’t sure he knew how to turn off, Bruce with an awkward sort of shuffle that almost caught him off guard. Jason realized that without the fish eye lense making him look huge and out of proportion - he mostly just looked tired.

There were bags under his eyes and a bruise on his cheek that Jason knew he would normally cover with makeup. His hair was mussed and he was wearing track pants and tennis shoes with a cotton t-shirt and a zip up hoodie. He was also carrying three enormous shopping bags that he set on the floor just inside the door. When he straightened, his eyes went to Damian before Jason and he realized he was staring at Bruce, obviously so, and snapped his eyes to the kid too.

Damian took the dog in a loop around the main space while inspecting everything with a sharp eye as Titus nosed around his kitchen cabinets and past the main window in the living room.

“He better not pee on anything.”

Damian gave him a sharp look and scoffed. “Please, just because you lack proper house training does not mean all animals do.” Jason raised his eyebrows at the acid in the kid’s tone and nearly bit something nasty right back before Bruce spoke up.

“Damian.” The kid stiffened, slowly lowering his shoulders, staring down at the dog with a deeply unhappy expression and a hard twist to his mouth. Bruce took a breath and Jason chanced a glance over. He had his eyes closed, a wrinkled line between his eyebrows, before it smoothed out and he opened them again. His gaze flicked to Jason where he stood, feeling weirdly out of place in his own apartment.

“He’s nervous.”

“I am not-“

“Damian.” They both stared at each other for an extended moment, Damian’s posture stretched tight. “Jason is doing you a favor. Act like it.”

“We could just bring him along-“

“We are not bringing a Great Dane to London. We’ve been over this.” And by the droning tone of his voice, they must have been, multiple times. The kid was wringing the leash in his hands and the dog was looking up at him, ears back and tail thumping the ground before he nosed at Damian’s clenched fists. Damn, the kid actually was nervous.

“He is not well.” Damian said as he let go of the leash with one hand and set it gently on the Dane’s head, rubbing back and forth absently, like he didn’t even realize he was doing it.

“He has an ear infection Damian. It’s not serious. Jason can handle it.” Bruce’s voice was soft then, cajoling like he was talking to a kid who was actually Damian’s age and not some old man stuffed in the skin of a twelve year old. He sounded...gentle, and Jason had to turn away from him entirely to ignore the uncomfortable tightness in his chest. Busied himself straightening the blanket on the back of the couch that was clearly already straight.

He remembered that voice, didn’t realize Bruce still had it in him.

Damian turned his gaze to Jason finally, glare firmly in place along with a look of deep distrust.

Jason remembered working with the kid. Wearing that ridiculous costume with the fake feathers and he wondered how they made it out the other side of that with less trust than they started with. Damian had been more upset than Jason anticipated when he’d found out who Wingman actually was.

It may have hurt Jason’s feelings, a tad, not that he would ever admit it.

Another part of him felt bad for lying to the kid.

“Relax twerp. I’ll take good care of your dog.”

“Tt.” He glanced around the apartment again with a look of distaste but the tension in his frame diminished just a little. “Your apartment is smaller than I anticipated. Titus may require more than two walks a day if he is cooped up in here all the time.”

Jason stiffened, “Well sorry I don’t live in a fucking mansion.” There was more heat in his voice than he was aiming for and he had to wrestle down anything else he might say before he looked just as defensive as he suddenly felt.

An awkward silence hung in the air after his outburst, Damian staring at him with that stupid scowl. Bruce took a half step closer to Jason and he had to resist the urge to step back.

“Your apartment is fine Jay. Titus sleeps most of the day anyway.” Jason rolled his eyes, telling himself to get a grip.

“Whatever. What’s with the apocalyptic supply stash?” He jut his chin toward the pile of crap by his front door.

The question at least, sent Damian into motion, so he wasn’t staring around Jason’s apartment like he expected the place to collapse in on itself at any moment. He unhooked Titus’ leash from his collar and coiled it up in a loop that he left sitting on Jason’s kitchen counter, and then went for the first bag.

When Jason said enormous bags, he meant it. They were three times the size of regular grocery bags, he didn’t know you could even get bags that size. They had a logo on the side he didn’t recognize, something with paw prints, obviously some kind of pet store.

First he pulled out a massive dog bed, which Jason supposed made sense. Best thing he had was the blanket on the back of his couch. The kid looked around while holding it, like he was gauging the perfect place and finally set it down next to the gargantuan tv.

Bruce sidled up to Jason’s left side while they both watched Damian unload the bags. Jason, uncomfortably aware of his presence, did not look over or acknowledge him.

“Thank you for doing this.” Bruce said under his breath, while Damian dragged an unwieldy bag of dog food across his floor and propped it against his kitchen counter. Jason only grunted in return, not sure what to think of the whole thing still.

Next came a stainless steel water dish and a matching one in porcelain for the food. Then a fresh container of tennis balls, two leashes, some kind of waterproof coat and then a red freaking dog sweater that Jason had to stifle a laugh at. “He really is just nervous.”

This was even quieter than the thank you and Jason felt the need to look over. “The infection isn’t terrible, but before we took him into the vet he was acting strange, whining and tilting his head back and forth, standing with it at an odd angle that obviously wasn’t natural. He wouldn’t stay still, would only lie down for a minute at a time before he got up and paced the room. I think he was terrified it was some kind of brain tumor, that he was having complex seizures.”

Jason frowned, watching a white paper bag make its way to his kitchen counter with a prescription tag stapled to the outside. “He’s a good kid, just...” He waited for the word difficult to come out. Just like how people used to describe him, always angry, defensive, annoying. Interacting with the kid he could see why people couldn’t stand him when he was younger but he still got Damian to a certain degree.

“He’s had a hard time.” Was what he said instead and Jason had to turn away again, deciding finally to go introduce himself to the dog to ease the tangled mess in his gut.

He was so irritated, two days ago he would never have been so much of a mess over talking to Bruce, even in a casual setting, even in his own apartment. One stupid freaking hint of the man caring about him beyond what he contributed to fighting crime in the city and he was bending over backwards looking for other signs. He hated his own stupid, dysfunctional brain.

Jason held out a hand to Titus, taking a deep breath to let go of the tightness in his chest. Animals and little kids, they could always tell when you were upset and he didn’t want to make him nervous.

Honestly, he was huge. Like, Jason knew Great Danes were one of the largest breeds of dog but this particular one had to be even bigger than average. He sat on the corner of the living room carpet, watching Jason with alert but friendly eyes and easily sniffed at the hand, then shoved his nose into his palm and butt it up so his hand rested on the top of his snout. Jason huffed out a laugh and crouched down.

“Like being petted huh?” He scratched behind his ears and was nearly bowled over. Titus twisted his head so far to the side Jason couldn’t quite follow with his hand and then shoved forward right into him, knocking him off balance with his insistence. Then a hand reached for the collar and drew him back just enough to keep Jason mostly upright. Bruce was standing there, looking mildly amused as he looked down at the dog.

“The drops the vet game him make his ears itch, he can get a little pushy.”

“I can see that.” Jason muttered back. He knelt then, knees on the floor so he was more stable and reached out, ready for the sudden twist and shove. “You can let him go, I got it.”

Titus nearly lunged for him, shoving his whole face in Jason’s stomach, making him wheeze out a laugh. He rubbed with significant force at his ears and the dog went boneless, flopping down across his legs, whip like tail slapping loudly against the side of his coffee table. “Yeah, wow, you’re so big and tough huh? You must get people running for the hills killer.” Jason scratched down his neck and Titus made a funny little grunting noise and fell over sideways, belly exposed, head resting on his thigh and yeah ok, Jason wasn’t a monster, he rubbed his tummy. “Man you are heavy. Might need to put you on a diet.”

“Apparently, he’s already on one.” Jason glanced up at Bruce, who was still standing there, arms crossed over his chest, looking down at him with this odd little quirk to his mouth. If Jason had to guess he’d say he looked fond. And he didn’t know what to do with that so he went back to the dog, feeling himself flush.

Damian cleared his throat, pulling Jason’s attention back to him. He was standing at the edge of his kitchen counter, hands clasped in front of him in a way that reminded Jason starkly of Alfred of all people. He still didn’t look happy, per say, but the anxiety leeching off the kid had gone down and he was staring at Jason intently.

“Yes. He is on a diet. He has gained weight since the weather started to turn.” With that, the kid launched into a spiel about the do’s and don’t’s of watching Titus. the list was significantly longer than Jason had anticipated, partially due to the ear infection but mostly just because the kid was a little pissant with way too many rules.

Jason took it all with as much stoicism as he could muster until he pulled out a freaking muffler for the dog.

“What the heck is that?” Jason was still kneeling on the floor, dog laid out half in his lap, lazily wagging his tail and Damian was holding a thick square of black fabric in his hands that turned out to be a tube, it had drawstrings on the top and bottom to adjust the size of loop.

“It is,” he made a face here, obviously unhappy about what he was about to say, “called a Head Muff. It goes over the neck and ears to keep them warm on walks.” He laid it down next to the prescription baggy and Jason had to hold back a snort and instead looked back at Bruce out of the corner of his eye and found him already looking down at Jason, expression completely blank and this time Jason choked when he caught the twitch of Bruce’s lip. Somehow he managed to disguise it as a cough when he looked back but Damian looked suspicious none the less.

“I expect hourly update texts with photo’s.”

“Excuse me?”

“You have never owned a dog have you?” the question sounded remarkably accusatory and Jason felt the need to gently push Titus off his lap just so he could stand to his full height for this conversation.

“No, I haven’t but-“

“Then I will need proof that you are capable of the job.”

“Capable of the job? It’s dog sitting, not nuclear fission.”

“The very fact that you are not taking this seriously tells me it is necessary.”

“Well if you don’t fucking trust me then you can get somebody else to watch your damn dog.”

Damian had his arms crossed over his chest tightly, scowl intensifying with every breath. “Because you have shown yourself to be so trustworthy.” Jason clenched his hands in fists, feeling red creep up his neck.

“Damian.” Bruce’s deep voice cut across the room, quiet, but firm. He stepped around Jason, putting himself vaguely between them but not enough to be obvious. “You’re being unreasonable. Jason is perfectly capable of walking, watering, and feeding Titus, along with handling his ear drops.” He glanced back at Jason, eyes uncertain for a moment. “He always wanted a dog when he was younger, he’ll treat Titus well.”

Jason opened his mouth, ready to argue until that last sentence. Instead he blinked back at Bruce for a moment, feeling floored by the simple statement. He didn’t have a response and quickly broke eye contact, swinging them back to Damian whose mouth was twisted in a grimace before he finally heaved a sigh and uncrossed his arms.

“So be it.”

Bruce gave a soft sigh but didn’t say anything for a long moment, eyes moving between Jason, Damian, and the dog before he slipped his hands back into his pockets and squared his shoulders a bit.

“Alright. I think it’s time we head to the airport. Jason has everything he needs for Titus, so why don’t you say goodbye and head out to the car?” Jason blinked at Bruce for a moment, wondering what the heck the kid could have to say to him.

But then Damian went to Titus, who still sat by Jason’s feet, and knelt down in front of him. Jason shuffled to the side, looking down at them as Damian lifted his hands and held the dogs face on either side. Titus flicked out his tongue, swiping it across the kid’s chin, making him huff. The kid glanced up at Jason, eyes guarded, before turning his attention back to the dog.

He pulled Titus face down gently, leaning forward and pressing their foreheads together. Whispered something in Arabic that Jason didn’t catch and ran a hand down the dog’s neck. Then he pulled back and then stood up. Jason felt oddly like he’d just witnessed something private, flicked his gaze away when Damian looked at him again. He glanced between Jason and Bruce, and gave a single, sharp nod.

“I will be in the car then.”

With that, he turned and walked out, head high above his shoulders. He left the door open behind him and Jason watched him stuff his hands in his pockets and hunch his shoulders as he began descending the stairs before he disappeared from view. Bruce cleared his throat.

“Thank you, again, I know it’s inconvenient and very last minute.”

Jason shrugged, not knowing what else to do or say, suddenly grateful that the kid had come along because now that he wasn’t there it was like the air was thickening.

“We’ll both be available by text or phone at anytime, regardless of the time difference, if anything does go wrong. Not that I expect it to.” Bruce hurried to add.

“We’ll be back in ten days, fairly early in the morning. We can arrange to pick up Titus anytime that day. Whenever’s...convenient for you.”

Jason nodded along, and then Bruce just stood there, looking at him with his creepy intense stare. He should have said something, probably, just to cut short the awkward and get the man out of his apartment but Jason was silent, staring right back.

“Well...I hope you - have a good time, while we’re gone. We’ll see you when we get back.”

“Yeah, you too.” Jason said back, tone flat, reaching down to rest a hand on Titus head. The air between them was so stale he could practically taste it. And finally, Bruce nodded, turned, and walked out the door after Damian.

Jason watched him go too, watched as he pulled the door shut behind him and caught the briefest hesitation before his hand disappeared and the latch caught. He was struck by the urge then, to ask about the gift. To yank open the door and stop him. His stomach gave an uncomfortable flip as his mind went through Bruce’s facial expressions, his stiff posture, wondered what he was thinking of saying when he hesitated.

And then he swallowed it all down and went to sit on his couch, where Titus followed and jumped up next to him. He was taller than Jason when they were sitting down and had no compunction about flopping back down over Jason’s legs, settling his head on his thigh. It was a comfortable weight.

“I’m being an idiot.” He whispered to the dog, scratching lightly behind his ears. “Reading into things that aren’t there.” He needed to learn a freaking lesson, there was nothing there with Bruce and there never would be and he needed to drop it. Should just throw away the card.

But he didn’t. And he wouldn’t.

Instead he ignored it all, leaned back on the couch, letting Titus settle over his hips, and fell back asleep.

Chapter Text

Jason didn’t know how long he was able to sleep in the end, but it must have been hours, longer than he would have ever expected.

Because when he did wake up the lighting was different, the sun was noticeably lower in the sky and there was scratching and a whining noise coming from his apartment door.

“Shit.” Jason jolted upright, turning to see Titus standing at the door, ears down and tail wagging low, whining in this pathetic, breathy voice. “Right, crap, you gotta pee.” He stumbled up from the couch, fumbling for the leash Damian had left sitting on his kitchen counter. He didn’t know how long he had exactly before this giant dog took an equally giant piss in his apartment and so he rushed to shove his boots on, stuff his arms through the sleeves of the first coat he saw in the hall closet, hook the leash up and go.

They half jogged down the stairs and hit the outside with enough force the door slammed into the wall and Jason almost knocked over a little old lady carrying a grocery bag.

“Sorry, sorry.” He said with both hands up before Titus was jerking him down the sidewalk and immediately peeing on the side of his apartment building. Ok so, Jason wasn’t starting off so hot, but he’d managed to avoid a complete disaster on the first go around. It was damn cold outside though and he very much regretted the thin t-shirt and lack of scarf.

And shit he hadn’t put any of Titus’ gear on. If the brat were there he’d probably have a conniption fit. It was one walk, Jason told himself, as the dog sniffed around. Animals were basically impervious to cold in short doses and it was just a couple blocks. He wasn’t about to go back upstairs and dress the dog for a nice long walk because of Damian’s stupid rules. Titus didn’t seem bothered one bit and in fact seemed more than happy to nose around the building and sniff at everything in sight. Probably hadn’t seen much outside the manor, Jason supposed.

The only sign that maybe Jason was mistaken were a couple head shakes from Titus as they looped around the building. They were only out for maybe ten minutes, but there was a breeze, and Jason sure felt it. He was all too eager to coral the dog back into the building, up the stupid amount of stairs and into his apartment where it felt like a sauna compared to the outside, even though it was probably sixty five.

Jason abandoned his coat and grabbed the throw off the couch, wrapping it around his shoulders and huffing to himself. He should just throw away that coat, he thought while going over the rest of Titus things. He measured out the directed amount of food and dropped it in his dish and left the water alone since Damian had filled it before they left. He also realized that he himself was a little hungry, having slept half the day away apparently, and went about dragging things out of the fridge.

He ended up just making a sandwich, and was halfway through when Titus came into the kitchen to eat his own dinner. Only Jason saw him stop eating after just a couple bites and jerk his head to the side, letting out a soft little whine and a halfhearted swipe at his ear. Jason paused, watching him, he panted for a second before he laid down on the linoleum, resting his head on his paws and abandoning his dinner.

Jason frowned as he added cheese and put the last piece of bread down, and frowned harder when Titus suddenly stood up and swiped at his other ear, tilting his head to the side and back again, panting. He slid his plate to the side and followed Titus into the living room where he curled up tight in the bed Damian put by the tv. Jason watched him, standing behind the couch with his arms crossed and still clutching the throw around his shoulders. After only a second he got up again, turning in a circle, still panting.

And why was he panting? It wasn’t hot. There was no way the dog was hot.

It was about then that Jason realized what this was. When Titus once again swiped at his ear and let out the same pathetic, breathy whine that had woken him up from his nap. A noticeable tremor ran through the dog’s shoulders, and he stepped out of the bed and sat on the carpet, panting and, now obviously to Jason, in pain.

“Shit. Shit.” He came over and knelt down, running a hand over Titus back. He breathed that same whine and shook his head again and Jason felt like the biggest asshole on the planet.

He sat there, petting him, wondering what he was supposed to do now that he had already screwed this up. Now that Titus was whining, and panting, and trembling and it was completely his stupid idiot fault.

Jason remembered suddenly, while rubbing hands up and down Titus’ sides, trying to warm him up from the rib cage out, having ear infections as a little kid. Walking home from the school bus in the cold, the sharp spikes of pain drilling through his head until he had both hands clapped over his ears and tears running down his face.

“Shit buddy I’m the worst.” He had no idea what to do when he finally remembered the ear drops, sitting packaged neatly on his counter still. Abandoning Titus and the throw for the briefest moment he hurried back to the kitchen and grabbed the paper bag, tearing it open and pulling out a small glass vial with a dropper. He spared a split second to read the directions - three drops in each ear, massage in, done.

“Perfect, easy, can do.” Titus had followed him into the kitchen, apparently seeking the only human company available, like he was looking for help. So Jason knelt down again, opening the drops and trying, after a couple poor attempts, to angle Titus’ head so the drops would actually go in.

He only made it to two before Titus yelped and jerked away from him, ears down, tail tucked between his legs and eyes squinting and wet.

“Oh fuck Jason you idiot, they’re cold. Shit, I’m sorry. Titus, pup.” He was practically pleading, on his knees, reaching for the dog who shrunk away from him, sitting miserably on the floor with his head hung low, swiping at the ear he’d barely managed to get half a dose into.

“I am the worst human being, scum of the Earth, I am going to hell for this.” He was nearly panicked now, desperate for a way to fix his stupid, idiot mistake and just make him feel better. A lump was rising in his throat just looking at him, pathetic and hurt. Jason scrambled for the rest of his memory, there was more, he knew there was more.

Once he’d gotten home, what had his mom done? It was heat, that’s what helped the most. There had been these little- hot packs. Yeah, yes, that was it.

Jason jumped to his feet, ran to his bedroom, grabbed the first pair of socks he saw out of his top drawer and rushed back into the kitchen where he jumped up onto the counter and dragged the single container of rice he had out of the cabinet above the fridge. He spilled half its contents all over the floor trying to fill each sock with enough rice to make it plump, tied knots in the ankle of both and tossed them in the microwave for a full minute. “This will work. This will fix it.” Jason mumbled to himself to cover the breathy huffs of pain coming from behind him.

He’d never felt guiltier before, it was like he’d committed mass murder.

And Jason had done that, once.

The microwave beeped and he grabbed both, juggling them a little to disperse the heat and then went to the couch. “Titus, come here boy.” He called, trying to sound friendly and not like he might cry. “Come here, It’ll make you feel better I promise, no more drops, no more cold.” He whistled lightly, watching over the edge of the couch as Titus slunk back into the room and hovered at the end of the couch.

“Up, come on.” He patted the couch cushion and Titus finally hopped up, tail still tucked down and shaking all over. Jason wasted no time, he scooted all the way to Titus, patting his legs and pushing lightly on the dogs shoulders until he folded down across his lap and he could press a heated sock to each ear. The effect wasn’t immediate, but Titus seemed to appreciate it anyway. He twisted his head around and stuck his nose in the crook of Jason’s elbow when he finally stopped panting.

“There we go, there we go.” Jason whispered, a distinct lump in his throat he had to swallow against. “I’m so sorry bud, I am the worst. I will do better. I will do so much better than this tomorrow.” He felt the little puffs of breath against his arm, watching as the dogs eyes slipped closed and he finally stopped trembling, slowly, but surely.

Jason slumped forward, tipping his head down until it rested on Titus’ side, breathing quietly. His chest felt tight and hot and he was such an idiot. He felt awful.

Abruptly, he felt like such an asshole about the text messages. ‘Cause yeah, what the hell Jason, he was apparently entirely the worst at taking care of dogs. Why was that surprising though really? He couldn’t take care of himself so why would this be different?

“Hey, I know,” Jason mumbled to himself, “just make the dog wait until he’s about to wet himself and then take him outside in the freezing damp weather with a double ear infection lacking the exact item that was designed for this specific issue.”

He felt intensely, dramatically, like such a screwup. He couldn’t even take care of a damn dog. And lord, Bruce had remembered that Jason always wanted one.

That had caught him totally off guard, because it was true, but Jason barely remembered it until he said it. It took digging around in the back of his mind to pull up the memories.

He shouldn’t have even been wondering about Bruce, shouldn’t be hoping or looking for hints or anything else because if there was something there, and there wasn’t, Jason would just screw it up like he screwed up everything else.



*



Jason woke up early. He wasn’t entirely sure why he would have set his alarm for seven in the morning until he remembered the massive dog sleeping in his living room.

He got up slow, but made himself move. He’d gone on a very short patrol the night before, after making sure Titus ears were feeling better and that he wouldn’t be nervous with him gone. When he came back that night he found him wagging his tail from the giant dog bed that Damian had set up.

It felt weirdly nice, to have somebody happy to see him at home. But it also just made him feel guilty after he’d spent forty five minutes holding hot packs to the pup’s ears because he’d been too much of a lazy know-it-all to use the ear muff thing Damian had brought along.

Now Jason was methodical. First he dumped the premeasured cup of dog food in the bowl in the corner of his kitchen, which finally got Titus out of bed. Then he dumped the old water and filled it with fresh. Next he grabbed the ear drops off the counter and read the label carefully, spent a minute looking up on the internet if warming them up would somehow take away from their actual purpose and found some kind of mommy blog with very specific directions. So he ended up doing the rest of his own morning routine with the the little bottle clutched tightly in his left hand so it wouldn’t be so cold by the time he was administering them.

When the time came, the dog wasn’t too happy with getting the ear drops but at least it didn’t seem to hurt him. He just shook his head back and forth a few time and then rubbed his whole body across the back of Jason’s couch, leaving a thin line of drool behind. Jason deserved it, he decided.

Then he put on the stupid water proof coat, and the doggy ear muffs, which Titus suffered through admirably, latched the leash onto his collar and nodded to himself.

This time he thought things would go much smoother.

But when they stepped out of the building there were more people than Jason had anticipated, which always pit him a little on edge. Ever since the league crowds had made him nervous. He’d find himself scanning the area for threats constantly, looking for the one person who might just be able to hold their own against him. He thought it was the fighting pits, when Tahlia would throw him in with any number of people, when he had to learn to prioritize threats like never before.

Pick off the strong while you’re still at your peak performance. It was a lesson he learned quickly.

He took a deep breath, forcefully diverting his eyes to the sidewalk and letting people move past them. It was just the working crowd. No threats. His grip on the leash was tight and he forced his hand to loosen, found Titus standing still, right in front of him, looking back, waiting like this was completely normal. Jason cleared his throat, swallowed hard and pushed himself into the moving mass of people congregating on corners and at crosswalks. It was easier with Titus there to focus on, making sure he wasn’t getting in people’s way, or being overly friendly and frightening some little kid. He ignored the small twinge of shame at needing a dog to make taking a walk easier.

Titus pissed on every corner of the building, which was kind of funny, until he started to crap next to a fire hydrant and Jason realized he didn’t grab any of those stupid poop bags Damian had left.

They were literally standing ten feet from a bus stop and there were at least five people waiting, but Jason didn’t look up or make eye contact when he went and left a huge, steaming pile of dog crap on the sidewalk. Ok so, he’d remember that one next time too. He could practically feel the heat of people’s glares as he slunk back to his apartment. Titus didn’t seem to care one bit and was happy as a clam when they climbed back up the six flights of stairs. Jason was too, he very nearly crawled back into bed when they got back inside.

It was earlier than he was ever actually awake and his sleep quality was...never great. But after walking around the block in the brisk cold he was alert enough he knew it’d take a while to fall asleep again and his stomach was growling. So instead he dug around in his fridge and made himself some eggs and toast, took it to the couch and enjoyed it at the coffee table.

Titus, for his part, did some lazy walks around the apartment, sniffing along the walls just like he had the day before, refamiliarizing himself with the place, Jason figured. Or maybe he was looking for something. Eventually he found his way back to his bed, where he grabbed a large stuffed hot dog (honestly, Jason was gonna have to tease the kid) and just held it in his mouth when he spun around and laid back down.

It was....kind of really freaking cute. And then he scooted around and stood back up to dig in the bed, turned a coup circles, laid back down and immediately rolled on his back, feet in the air, head flipping over one side of the bed. all with the hotdog toy still in his mouth. Jason couldn’t quite resist it, he pulled out his phone and snapped a picture.

He stared at it for a minute, a tug of guilt pulling at him. Without thinking on it too hard he opened his texts and sent it to Damian. He had no idea what time it was in London but he figured the kid was probably still jet lagged and wouldn’t respond for a while, so it was a surprise when he was putting his last bite of eggs in his mouth and his phone vibrated on the table next to him.

He picked it up warily, thinking it must be Dick or somebody else, but nope, it was the demon bird himself.

Damian:
Did you give him his ear drops? Is he eating? I have read that stress in animals can cause stomach upset.

Jason rolled his eyes, feeling simultaneously annoyed and amused.

Jason:
You’re welcome

Somebody needed to teach that kid some manners.

It was a few minutes later, when he’d gotten up and been washing his plate that his phone vibrated one more time.

Damian:
Thank you,

Did you give him his ear drops? Is he eating? I have read that stress in animal can cause stomach upset.

Jason couldn’t help but snort as he glanced at Titus, who was still laying spread eagle in his bed, feet in the air and hotdog hanging out of his mouth but now his eyes were closed, like he was in some kind of doggy heaven.

It had never been in Jason’s nature to be easy, or let people off the hook. He kept this in mind as he typed out his reply.

Jason:
Nah, threw away the ear drops, I’m more of a natural remedies guy. Not sure if he’s eating, I just tore a hole in the bag and I’m leaving him to it.

He watched the tiny dots at the bottom of the screen that told him Damian was typing a reply, wondering if the kid could even take a joke.

Damian:
That is not funny.

Jason grinned to himself, he hated to disagree but...

Jason:
Imagining your face was though

There were the little dots blinking on the screen again, but they just kept going until a few minutes went by and they stopped but no message came through. And then Jason thought about Titus out without the head warmer on, how he couldn’t even sit still his ears hurt so bad and he just felt like an asshole again.

He sat forward on the couch and stared at his phone before he finally started typing out another message.

Jason:
Titus is good. He’s eating fine, I gave him the drops last night and this morning. He seems normal.

He didn’t mention forgetting the head warmer, or that he’d only managed to get the drops in one ear. Not even when Damian replied again a moment later.

Damian:
Do his ears seem to be bothering him?

Jason cringed and tapped his fingers on the side of his phone, still guilty and feeling stupid over the whole thing.

Jason:
They were bothering him a little last night, but they seem ok right now. Still really itchy.

And he watched Titus after he sent the message, wondering how he could be so relaxed in this new place with this stranger he’d never really met. Wondered where Damian even got a Great Dane and how the kid ended up being such an animal lover in the first place. It definitely seemed out of character considering what else he knew of the kid.

But Jason was a little street rat and he’d loved animals too. Even when he was getting chased down by pimp’s and gang’s guard dogs he never lost the want. It was weird to think about, after Bruce had said it, when Jason had realized it was true. How could he have forgotten that? It wasn’t like he’d stopped liking dogs. Making the effort to remember was like looking through an old dirty window, squinting at the details. It was hard but he could still make them out.

He remembered feeding strays if he ever had anything extra, and even sometimes when he didn’t if they were friendly. There wasn’t a lot to daydream about as a kid on the streets, nothing that didn’t leave you with a bitter pit in your empty stomach. But there were small things, like finding an extra good and out of the way shelter. Discovering an abandoned apartment with no other squatters, finding a new pair of shoes in the bargain bins outside the second hand store - and having a dog.

There was a particular old stray Jason had liked, some kind of mutt that was on the smaller side, walked with a limp, skittish, but eager for affection. He’d always wanted to win her over, get her to like him so she’d come when he called or even follow him around. Sometimes a dog was better company than other people out on the streets.

Well, and maybe other places too.

He’d always hoped, but as soon as Jason started trying to keep her in one place she’d disappear for a few days. Jason got that, other people’s expectations made him nervous too.

And then he’d met Bruce.

He’d never seen the dog again.

Instead he distracted himself with new fantasies, bigger ones that seemed entirely possible in a world where you could be adopted by one of the richest men in the world who also turned out to be a superhero. Nothing seemed impossible then.

The desire for a dog hadn’t gone away though. Jason distinctly remembered wheedling Bruce repeatedly.

“I can handle it! I’ve got plenty of responsibility, I’m Robin!”

And then Bruce went on in that patient, droning way he’d had.

“Yes, you have plenty of responsibility right now, you don’t need anymore right this minute. Just...wait until you get a little older.”

Jason had pouted about it, until he had found a photo of Bruce as a kid with a huge dog with a tag that read Ace. (A really freaking stupid name for a dog, Jason thought) and he’d confronted him about it.

Bruce sighed and set down the book he was holding, picking up the framed picture and looking at it with attentive eyes.

“Yes, I had a dog when I was younger, but it got sick when I was about twelve years old. We had to put it to sleep. It...was difficult.”

And then Jason sort of got it, and he stopped asking after that.

But now Damian had all these pets and Jason just wondered about it. Maybe it was a real son kind of thing.

Or maybe not. Not like it mattered.



*



Gotham had been relatively quiet in recent times, which seemed...not quite bad, but always made Jason nervous. It wasn’t supposed to be quiet in places like Gotham, all quiet meant to Jason was that he was probably missing something.

It was going around and around in his head that night as he debated whether or not to go on patrol.

Things had been...weird.

Jason had been working under this “No Killing” rule for nearly six months.

Initially he had taken the deal with Batman almost as a joke.

But Jason had been in a good mood. Willing to give the whole thing a chance. It wasn’t like Red Hood was some kind of blood thirsty monster, and Jason could admit that he’d probably accomplish more if Batman and the rest of his colony weren’t trying to stop him around every turn.

It wasn’t like he had high hopes for reconnecting with the family. It hadn’t even entered into his mind that not killing the bad guys would somehow induct him back into the group. No, Jason would go along with Bruce as long as it worked for him and if it stopped being worth it then oh well. Not like it was a big loss.

They’d spent moths and years fighting, going back and forth between enemies, to allies of necessity, to something delicately more than that only to swing right back into enemy territory.

They had been in that fragile space in between when Bruce had asked to meet with him. Not enemies, but not exactly friendly either. There were things Jason didn’t allow himself to want. Bruce’s friendship or anything more than that was one of them but it didn’t mean there weren’t things to be gained from the partnership. Nor that there weren’t things to be lost by refusing it.

There would always be people who deserved to die, sure. But Jason wasn’t sure he was willing to kill himself to make the point anymore.

He had gotten in the game way back as a kid because he’d wanted to help people. He’d dreamed of cleaning up the alley and making sure the working girls were safe and willing, and that the homeless kids had places to go, and hopefully in the long run, places to stay, way back when he’d first become Robin.

When Jason came back from the pit, those things had seemed like a distant and faded memory. He’d put all he had into revenge instead. He’d made the fight, the killing, about him. He’d killed people to make a point.

Sure they deserved to die. But that’s not why he did it.

He wasn’t so proud of that anymore and the further he got from that part of his life the more he’d wondered if that was....if that had all been him.

It was impossible for Jason not to admit that directly after the pit - he’d been unstable, maybe slipping towards insane. But in short order his thoughts had become intelligible again and he’d gained back control of himself.

At least he’d thought so.

It always felt like he was in control. It felt like his thoughts and feelings guiding him forward. And then Bruce had told him he could keep working in the city, with his blessing, if he agreed not to kill anyone. It was annoying but he’d never thought it would be hard.

Parts of it, sure.

He had to be so damn careful when he wasn’t planning on killing anyone. Every fight took longer, was more tiring, more irritating. Not to mention in the first little while he’d made a number of embarrassing mistakes, shooting his enemies with rubber bullets and forgetting that didn’t mean they were down for good. Being surprised when someone he’d shot a minute before was suddenly back in the fray.

And then there was the mess of needing proof of things before the police would arrest someone. The kind of proof it could take weeks to get even while knowing definitively that a drug dealer was guilty, it didn’t matter. He had to be able to prove it to the police or the guy would be out in 48 hours, at it again.

None of this meant the Red Hood couldn’t properly punish someone he knew was guilty, even if he had no real proof. But it was a hell of a handicap in his line of work and while he didn’t exactly resent the new leash he had allowed Batman to slip on him, sometimes he found himself regretting the agreement. But he steadfastly held to the deal anyway, because regretting not killing people because it was harder was not a good enough reason to go back on it.

The point was Jason had anticipated these new challenges, but other things...were a surprise. The first time he’d felt the Lazarus green flare up in his chest after sparing someone he hadn’t thought much of it. It happened occasionally.

But the longer he’d been going without a kill to his name the more insistent the urges were becoming.

It was also a large part of why he hadn’t gone back on the deal.

It was part of why he cut his patrols short, why he hadn’t worked any deep cases in a long time because knowing the details made it even worse. It was hard enough to spare the life of a child trafficker without knowing they like to sample the goods.

He’d never told anyone, and didn’t plant to. It would wear off, just like it had the first time. Jason just had to wait it out and he didn’t need all of them second guessing his every move in the mean time.

Some days were better than others but the flash of the fighting pits that morning put him enough on edge that in the end, he’d sided with staying in. Even if skipping out so much left him with a lingering sense of guilt.

And hey, Bruce was right after all, he’d always wanted a dog so he might as well enjoy it while it lasted.

So he made himself dinner, something good, from scratch that he could keep on hand for after patrol snacks on other days. He dug through his kitchen and settled on fajitas, easy but delicious and good leftovers. He took Titus on a third walk that evening just before he ate.

He watched Titus fling one of his toys around a little while he ate and thought maybe he’d take him to a dog park the next day instead of just walking around the block a couple times. The whole point was that he needed the exercise wasn’t it? He was friendly and it was something for Jason to do in the middle of the day when he’d normally be knee deep in research for a case. So he read up on local ones and found one not too far away that was an off leash park where he could throw the ball for Titus and get him some decent exercise. The demon would probably even be happy about it.

When it was nearing the time he’d normally be leaving for patrol he perused his bookshelves, picked out an old favorite, made himself a mug of tea and laid out on the couch with the new blanket draped over his lower half and read. Tried not to think about the people on the streets that might need him, that he could be leaving without protection while he was lounging somewhere comfortable and warm.

It felt lazy, after everything he’d done and been through.

But he wasn’t Batman. He knew his limits, he knew when he should back off and take a break and so that was that. He didn’t think about it.

He tried to absorb himself in the story, and managed a little, until about ten minutes later when there was a heavy shift in weight on the couch and Jason looked up from his book to find Titus carefully placing his feet around his legs.

“What do you think you’re- Oof-“ His breath wheezed out of him in a rush as Titus’ full weight came down on his gut, all balanced on one small foot. “You’re crushing me, what are you doing?” Another two steps and the dog was suddenly settling down, shoving his hands and book out of the way. Titus’ whole body rested on top of Jason’s. Nose reaching all the way up to his collar bone, front paws tucked in next to his head, the rest of him a solid, heavy weight down his front with lower legs resting between Jason’s. He gasped out a laugh and wished his phone was within reach, he’d get another picture to send to Damian.

Titus huffed out a very soft growl and Jason settled a hand on his head, scratching at his itchy ears while he turned his head from side to side and whipped his tail against the soft leather of the couch.

“You do this to the kid too? You’re bigger than he is, you’d break his ribs.” Titus only let out a pleased little grumble at the ear scratches before Jason finished with a pat to the side of his neck and attempted to find a comfortable place to settle his book and read with the dog on top of him. It was an oddly comfortable weight, even if his bony little elbows were jutting into his rib cage and his lungs felt mildly compressed. The little warm puffs of air on the backs of his hands when he finally set the book in front of Titus’ nose, uncomfortably close to his face, were kind of...nice too.

Jason hadn’t gone to sleep before two in the mornin in he couldn’t even remember how long, but it was just nearing midnight when he started to nod off. Titus weight and body heat made him weirdly drowsy. The words on the page blurred in front of him multiple times before he finally slipped a bookmark in the page he could last actually remember and set it on the coffee table next to him. Then he rested his hands on either side of Titus’ head and closed his eyes, letting himself just fall asleep. He’d regret it later when he woke up in the middle of the night with his neck killing him or Titus crushing his sternum while getting down off the couch, but for the time being, he felt oddly relaxed.

He was out before he knew it.

The dream that night was not a new one. Not that they ever were, but it did start more abruptly than he was used to.



*



He opened his eyes in the dark and blinked and blinked. The air around him was hot and stale and Jason had no idea where he was or how he got there, but it was cramped and he couldn’t move his arms above his head and his heart was pounding so loud it was all he could hear. There wasn’t enough air, his elbows kept slamming into the sides of the box he was in and he was crying, panicking, in seconds. Clawing at the barrier above him until his nails were torn and bleeding. His only rational thought came when he managed to slip his belt off, when he started tearing at the exposed wood of the coffins with the buckle, mindless, angry, terrified, it was all he could do to keep moving so he didn’t just lay down and die again.

Splintered chips of wood cut up his hands but the sting was nothing compared to the frantic adrenaline pumping through him. All at once the weakened wood gave way and then Jason was sputtering and coughing up soil that was collapsing in -

Something cold and wet touched his cheek and he blinked his eyes open to a dimly lit apartment and Titus’ big head right in his face. He nosed at his chin and whined and Jason groaned, shoving his face away and feeling his skin crawl. He tried to push the dog off and Titus went without complaint, jumping to the floor with only one well placed kick to Jason’s bladder.

He laid there, staring at the ceiling and counting his breaths. Titus licked his hand and Jason jerked upright, startled, and swallowed. The dog sat down on the floor but pressed himself to the side of the couch, shoved his head in Jason’s lap and he focused on that, on the soft, velvet like fur under his fingers when he rubbed them across the bony head.

“I’m fine.” He whispered to the dog, like Titus was worried about him or something. “Thanks for waking me up.” He could just see the whites of the dog’s eyes flash when he glanced up at him, like he was really listening. “The rest of that dream is...not good.”

He drew in a deep breath, felt like his lungs were still compressed and counted himself an idiot for not realizing sleeping with a weight on his chest would drag up those particular memories.

“My fault.” He felt boneless. “Sorry I scared you.” Titus lifted his head and got a solid lick to Jason’s face before he managed to jerk back, where he got a face full of dog breath that had him suppressing a gag. “Christ.” He shoved his snout the other direction, felt a slightly hysterical laugh bubble up in his chest. “You are really something, you know that?”

Jason sat there for a little while longer, letting his breathing even out and scratching at Titus’ ears and down his neck. His bladder was dying for relief and he finally levered himself up off the couch and shuffled to the bathroom. Listened to Titus’ claws clicking across the linoleum of the kitchen floor when he went for a drink.

Exhaustion pulled at him, even after the dream, now that his heart rate was back down to normal and instead of pulling out a book or the headphones or watching stupid aimless YouTube video’s on his phone like he might normally, he crawled into his bed and laid on his stomach, face pressed into a pillow. He could feel himself drifting back off and had a minor twinge of fear that the dream would just start back up again - but then he felt the weight on the mattress shift and Titus’ pad up next to him, settling himself on the lower half of the bed, half curled up. He set his chin on the back of Jason’s leg and there was the weird sensation of the dog swallowing. He was out before he had another moment to worry.

Chapter Text

The dog park, in the end, was nicer than Jason expected. Even though it was small, it had some nice rolling hills, a couple benches set up at different points next to small maple trees that looked like they must have been planted in the last couple years, still waiting to grow big enough to offer any real shade. They were naked now, fall being in full swing.

It was still flipping cold and there was a light drizzle that was just uncomfortable, even with the hood of his jacket drawn up. Titus didn’t seem too happy about it either but he had his waterproof coat on and the head warmer so he wasn’t bothered so much by the cold. He let Jason cajole him into playing catch at least and ran freely after the tennis ball.

After a bit he seemed to get bored with it though and was more interested in the other dogs, so Jason let him roam without thinking much of it. He looked like a big dumb idiot in his getup. It just made him look more friendly and less intimidating though so Jason counted it as a win and happily snapped a picture of Titus sniffing some Labrador’s butt.

“Real polite bud.” Jason mumbled under his breath as he let his eyes scan over the milling group of people. He didn’t mean to be doing it, didn’t even realize he was looking for threats until he spotted one.

There were two men standing stock still next to one of the benches, a large Rottweiler sitting next to them with a spiked collar on a thick, black, leather leash. The guys didn’t look tough so much as they looked mean and Jason could see them watching the dogs, eyeing each one almost critically, staring at Titus for longer than he liked. He didn’t even really know what he was looking at but he didn’t like it, could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up like some sort of sixth sense.

“Titus!” He let out a loud whistle, clapping his hands to draw the dog’s attention. He trotted back over easily, abandoning the dog he’d been attempting to greet. Jason grabbed his collar when he approached and latched the leash back on while keeping an eye on the two thug looking guys who were now walking slowly in their direction. Jason tried to get a good look at them without making it obvious.

One was tall and thin, a shaved head and a nose that looked like it had been broken on a few different occasions. His eyes were half lidded, he looked bored, and with a brief direct glance he spotted a deep scar on the back of his hand. Raised and red skin in a curved line that looked distinctly like an animal bite if Jason had to guess.

The other one was heavy set, broad in the shoulders but average height, close cropped, dark brown hair and a chunk missing out of one of his ears. Sharp eyes that were focused directly on Titus. He was the one holding the leash.

And the dog was the other thing.

Every other dog in the park just seemed happy. Either excited and playing or relaxed. Tails wagging, panting, running around or just lazing about near their owners. There was one half grown mutt on the other side of the park that was being trained, learning how to sit and stay.

The Rottweiler walking next to this man didn’t look happy, or friendly, or excited. It was big, moved gracefully, didn’t seem to be in any sort of hurry but was looking at Titus and Jason both with eyes that Jason could only think to describe as...empty. If you could even think something like that about a dog.

They were only ten feet away when Jason tugged on Titus’ leash, ready to get the hell out of there before something nasty happened. And maybe he’d gotten rusty but he was just a little too slow.

Just as they turned around the broad shouldered man stooped down and unhooked the Rottweiler’s leash, said something sharp to the dog that he didn’t catch and suddenly - the dog lunged.

Jason had been in more fights than he could count, or remember, ones where his life was on the line. There was nothing quite like having 140 pounds of solid muscle barreling toward you with a snarl like you’d never heard, teeth bared and ready for sinking.

Titus immediately pulled hard on the leash, and Jason moved without thinking. It was reflex more than training that had him throw an arm out, right in the path of the big black dog. The tall thin guy shouted something just as teeth clamped down on his forearm, sinking through his leather jacket and to his skin and beyond.

“Shit!” Jason shouted, throwing his other hand out, he dropped the leash, grabbed at one of the dog’s ears and yanked hard, but the clamp down did not loosen. If anything it tightened and the dog let out a guttural growl. Jason was swearing up a storm, stumbling and nearly falling on his ass trying to pull his arm out of the vice it was crushed in. He’d never been bitten by a dog before, at least not beyond a warning snap, and it friggin’ hurt.

The short guy was suddenly there, clapping his hands, he shouted at the dog again.

“Drop it!” And Jason’s arm was abruptly free, he actually tripped and fell, feeling light headed and instantly furious.

Skinny guy had a hand around the Rot’s collar, holding him in place even though he was already sitting down, looking business as usual like nothing even happened when there was blood dripping out of its mouth. Jason’s blood.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” Jason hauled himself to his feet, standing just as tall as the skinny guy and broader in the chest than the heavyset one. He looked wide eyed and nervous, in contrast to his tall friend, who just seemed mildly surprised.

“Holy shit man, I’m so sorry, he just lunged!” The short guy stuttered out, fumbling to get the leash back on the dog.

“You expect me to believe that was the dog? I wasn’t born yesterday asshole.” He stepped toward the stocky one but the Rot took a step to meet him, letting out a low growl of warning.

“Whoa, Crusher no.” He swallowed harshly, glanced back at the tall one, who’d let go of the collar as soon as the leash was attached.

“Crusher? Are you serious?”

“I’m so sorry man, really, I didn’t exp- he’s never done anything like that before.” Jason doubted it, wanted, badly, to spit in the guy’s face.

“Chris, why don’t you take Crusher to the car? I can take it from here.” Guy had an accent like he was from the West Coast, words clear and almost overly pronounced. He had one hand stuffed in the pocket of his coat, the other holding a lit cigarette.

“Sure, yeah. I’ll uh, I’ll get him out of the park, just find me when you’re done.” Chris looked distinctly relieved to be out of the conversation.

Jason was reeling, what in the actual fuck just happened? what was this? The short one had clearly given the dog some kind of command.

His instincts told him not to let the guy leave, to stop him in his path and get answers, but the dog was still a threat and Jason wasn’t in costume. He didn’t have any armor on and his identity was not hidden. He needed to be careful. His mind also finally registered the ear splitting sound of frantic barking from a large dog. The realization that he hadn’t seen where Titus went hit him like a slap to the face.

He whipped his head around, feeling frantic for a split second before he spotted him Some twenty feet away, some random bystander holding his leash wrapped around a hand. It was a short woman, middle aged, and with a fat bulldog of some kind standing behind her. She looked stricken, face pale. Titus was pulling pretty hard on the leash and barking in a high pitched tone that definitely wasn’t natural to him, a near whine to it. But the woman stood her ground, feet planted hard.

Jason was distracted enough that the guy was already shuffling away, the Rottweiler following at a matched pace. He should go after the guy, wanted very badly to go after him but he couldn’t leave some random woman with Titus, who was obviously frantic and upset.

Jason eyed Tall Guy, still standing there and watching him, expectant and bored look on his face, and decidedly turned his back on him to handle Titus. The guy wasn’t a threat, not to him, even if he had a weapon his posture was slouched, feet planted sloppily, his balance wasn’t solid. He was obviously not trained to fight and Jason could take him in a heartbeat if he felt the need. He had to get his head back on straight before he talked to him though. There was a heat curling in his stomach with a distinctive green tinge that Jason needed to get a handle on before he killed the guy in broad daylight.

He marched up to the woman with the bulldog, tucking his bleeding arm in close to his side. Fuming, and furious, he was totally struck dumb like he couldn’t ever remember being. Jason almost wondered if they knew who he was. Why else would they randomly sick a dog on him?

“Are you alright?” the woman asked when he approached, eyebrows drawn up in the middle.

“Fine.” He tried not to snap at her, since she was literally the only reason Titus probably hadn’t either run away or gotten in a fight with that dog, but he was so tightly wound it was hard to keep the edge out of his voice. “Thank you for grabbing him.”

She nodded and Titus shoved into him, lifting his front half off the ground repeatedly like he wanted to jump on him, whining, ears down. “I’m fine buddy, I’m good. Stay down.” He grabbed Titus’ collar with his good hand and pulled down gently to get him to stay planted in the grass, not needing to get clawed in the arm after that.

“Are you really sure you’re alright? You’re bleeding pretty...pretty bad.” She sounded a little breathless, as she finally relinquished Titu’s leash. She grabbed at her ponytail with her now free hand and tugged.

“I’ve had worse.” He was too busy looking over the dog to making sure there were no injuries he’d missed that he didn’t see how she reacted to his little confession. The head warmer had fallen down and he carefully tucked it back up over Titus’ ears, while trying to even out his breathing.

“That was pretty nuts man.” Jason stiffened and turned back, Tall Guy was standing there, taking a long drag off a cigarette. “Why jump in like that? Your dog looks like he could hold his own in a fight.” And he was staring at Titus when he said it, eyes still bored, as they flicked up to meet Jason’s. He felt his shoulders hitching up.

“We should really call the police.” The woman interjected. “That is dangerous, we need to-“

“No police.” Jason snapped just as Tall guy said, “I don’t really think that’s necessary.”

“Not necessary?” Her voice was sharp. “Your dog just attacked this man, he’s bleeding, he could have a broken bone or-“

“Nothing’s broken lady.” She snapped her eyes over, looking at him like he was nuts. Probably not far off the mark.

“Regardless, I’m calling the police.” She reached in her purse, hanging off her shoulder, and pulled out a cell phone. This was not good - the last thing Jason needed was to be questioned by the police while Bruce was out of town, even if he was the victim, he didn’t need Barbara recognizing his fake ID in a police report and pulling this whole incident up.

He also didn’t know why any of this just happened, and if somehow this guy knew who he was...he didn’t want a civilian mixed up in that.

“Look lady.” He snapped at her, feeling guilty for the way she flinched. “I appreciate the concern but I’d rather handle this myself.” He put a hint of threat in his voice, for both her and the asshole’s sake. Jason knew what he looked like, big, broad shouldered and well built, standing there with a huge dog. “I don’t really think you wanna be involved.”

Her eyes darted between Jason and Tall Guy, like maybe she wanted to argue, but was quickly thinking better of it. She clutched her own dog’s leash in a fisted grip, expression morphing to wary suspicion.

“Fine. Guess I’ll find a new park.” She snapped, before turning on her heel and marching away, Bulldog waddling behind.

Smart lady, Jason thought as he watched her go, finally turning back to the guy who was just standing there, enjoying his cigarette without a care in the world.

“Mind telling what the frack this was all about?” The guy raised his eyebrows, seeming completely unphased by Jason’s thinly veiled threat a moment ago.

“Just an accident. Here, take my info.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a business card that he held out, nothing printed on it but a phone number. Jason stared at it. “I’d be happy to cover your medical bills for that arm.” He nodded to Jason’s left forearm, still held tightly against his body. Jason plucked the card from his hand, eyeing it for a split second before crumpling it into a ball and flicking it back at the guy. He watched it bounce off the front of his jacket and settle in the damp grass at their feet.

“Real generous of you.” The guy smirked.

“Suit yourself.”

Jason squinted at him, waiting for some kind of hint. “We met before?”

“Oh I doubt it.” He took a drag off the cigarette. “I’d remember your dog if we had.” He looked around Jason then, at where Titus was standing, tight up against the backs of his legs.

Jason took a step forward, fed up. “What the hell do you want? You think I’m stupid? Your friend there sicked that dog on us, I saw it. you-“ Jason cut himself off, felt Titus nudging at the back of his leg. He gave a low bark, quiet and unhappy. Jason didn’t want to make any hints if the guy didn’t know anything.

Hell this was Gotham. Nut jobs did insane shit like sick their dogs on people all the time. The difference being they didn’t usually seem so casually unrepentant and unafraid of the police showing up.

Tall Guy raised his hands in mock surrender. “Hey now, if you hadn’t jumped in, I promise you he never would have bitten.”

“Oh, cause you’ve done this before? Is that it?”

“I don’t know what you mean, didn’t do anything, this was all just an accident. Crusher can get aggressive around other big dogs. And that is one big dog.”

“Is this seriously about Titus?” Jason was recalculating the idea that this idiot might know who he was. He chuckled.

“Titus, good name for him. He looks tough.” Jason stared, feeling a muted sort of astonishment at the idiocy in the world. Whatever this was, he wanted no part in it.

“You know what, you can get lost.” Jason started to turn away, he didn’t need to tug on the leash, Titus was happy to take the lead.

The sound of rushed footsteps had him turning back just in time to see the guy reaching towards Titus. There was a flash of the red tip of a cigarette and Jason lashed out before he could think better of it.

Leash still in his hand, he struck with his bad arm, snatching up the guys wrist and twisting hard and fast until he couldn’t keep up the nonchalant act anymore.

“Ok, ok, shit man.” He sunk to his knees in an instant.

“Were you just gonna fucking burn my dog?” His arm was throbbing, the crushing grip he was keeping on the guy’s wrist making the pain flare like a bitch along with a hot, swelling aggression up his spine. Blood dripped down his arm in thick rivulets, down his hand, ruining is jacket and the asshole’s alike.

“Hey, hey, I just thought he looked tough-“

“So you thought you’d test your theory?!” His grip was entirely too tight, he could feel the Lazarus bubbling up in him, everything in his vision taking on that increasingly green hue.

“Hey, honestly man, I’m trying to do you a favor-“ His voice came out in a high pitched whine.

“You deadshit-“

“You like to bet? I can make you a fortune if he’s as mean as he looks.” He was on his knees, gasping out the words, gripping the wrist Jason held in his fist desperately with his other hand, eyes wide in obvious fear. He choked, color crawling up his neck. “Please man-“

Jason didn’t make the decision to break the guy’s wrist, but it happened just then anyway, his grip so tight that when he tensed at the statement - it was enough.

He gasped, “Shit man!”

“You’re lucky I don’t kill you.” Jason was shaking as he hissed out the words, skin hot. He felt the urge come up, the pulse rack through him.

Titus let out a high pitched whine, drawing back on his leash hard.

Jason let go. Took a big step back, breath heaving, blinking away the green clouding his vision.

“What the hell man?” He was crying, clutching at his broken wrist with his other hand. Titus whined again, pulling on his leash enough to make Jason stumble a step after him.

He stood his ground for a second more, staring a this - this - “If I see you or your friend here again you’ll leave with more than a broken wrist, you hear me?” It was hard to even form the words but they came growling out of him.

“Man why would you-“

“I said do you hear me?!”

“Ok man, ok!”

Jason relented, letting Titus yank him around until they were walking at a brisk pace in the opposite direction. He was still fuming, filling his lungs with deep heaving breaths, trying to rid himself of the feeling of hornets buzzing in his chest.

It took him too long to realize that Titus was leading them the wrong direction, away from his apartment. When he finally blinked back into awareness they’d gotten two blocks further away than they’d started and his bloodied arm was throbbing with every step.

Jason directed them all the way back around the block they were on instead of turning around. Felt like he could use the exercise even while his arm hurt so bad he was hissing through his teeth. They were leaving a dripping trail of blood down the sidewalk as they went, every person they met crossing the street when they saw them coming. He felt so tightly wound it was a miracle he didn’t snap like an old guitar string.

By the time they’d traveled all the way back to Jason’s apartment Titus had gotten undeniably more exercise than required or planned and Jason felt no less angry than he had twenty minutes before. He unlatched Titus’ leash and went hunting for his first aide kit, stashed under his bathroom sink.

He was pissed about his jacket, the sleeve was completely torn up and there was blood all down it. It was a nice freaking jacket and an expensive one and when he tore it off in a huff and slung it over the edge of the bathtub he wondered briefly if Alfred could fix it...get the blood out, stitch up the torn pieces? Maybe that was asking too much but the man could be a miracle worker sometimes. Not to mention Jason was feeling almost like Alfred owed him, after the stunt with the gift, even if he’d never say so.

After getting a good look at his arm he was not happy. The skin was punctured to varying degrees of depth in a large crescent shape on his forearm, including the tender underside. There was enough blood that it took a while for the warm water running in his sink to even rinse it away enough to tell. Following with antibacterial soap hurt like shit but dog bites were prone to infection and Jason did not wanna mess with one.

He dabbed it all dry with a clean dust rag he had stashed in his hall closet, not wanting to ruin one of his actual towels with blood. It happened enough already when he came home after patrol with injuries. He was down to two good towels that didn’t have unfortunate stains.

Then he plastered a good layer of antibacterial ointment on the whole mess and covered it with two large bandages.

He still couldn’t calm down though and he wasn’t totally sure why. At first he thought it was just the confrontation, the audacity of two assholes to sick their dog on him and Titus, but it wasn’t.

It was the dog fights.

Nothing should surprise him anymore. Jason grew up in the alley and then on the streets. He started fighting crime before he was even a teenager. He’d died, he’d come back to life, he’d been raised from a Lazarus pit, been through training like no other, done and seen things that could barely be believed.

But somehow the depravity of the human race could still shock him.

He remembered the fighting pits. It had all felt sort of far away then, outside of the deep ache in his chest that told him to move, act, kill. The fury like nothing he’d ever felt before or since.

But there was fear too, the pain, the terror and violence. He remembered the twists, the random handicaps to teach him how to keep going when he was on his last leg. Remembered never really knowing what would happen if he lost, just the vague dread that it would be worse than this, worse than the constant fights and the surprise attacks and the complete lack of humanity.

Then he thought about those dogs and he just felt sick.

He found Titus in the living room, just standing in front of the couch like he’d been waiting for Jason to come out, tail hanging low but wagging slowly, unsure. He huffed out a low sigh and threw his head back, stretching his neck and wondering, for a split second, if any of the shit he did, that any of them did, in costume ever made a damn difference.

“Hey boy.” He said quietly as he shuffled back into the living room and sunk down onto the couch. “I’m not mad at you. You can relax.” He scratched at his ears when Titus followed and laid his big ol’ head in Jason’s lap, making a happy little snuffling noise.

In spite of the morning Jason felt the edge of his mouth twitch up.

 



*

 



The rest of his afternoon was taken up with some rage cleaning that would have made Alfred proud. He killed time checking the contents of his fridge, which was getting low, and cleaning some of his weapons.

He sent the photo of Titus at the park to Damian on a whim with the subtitle ‘social butterfly’ and left it at that. He was in the bathroom trying to wash the blood out of his jacket when his phone chimed in the other room.

Damian:
Hilarious.
...

I see you are keeping up with his rain coat and head muff but if the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit he should wear the sweater as well.

“You little asshole.” Jason huffed to himself.

Jason:
YOU’RE WELCOME

Damian:
...

Yes, Thank you.

How is his condition?

“His condition? Titus,” he looked up toward the dog, who had just come back from some self mandated inspection of the apartment, he perked his ears up. “What year was you’re owner born? You think he’s a vampire? He’s gotta be at least a hundred.”

Jason:
His “condition” is normal. Took the drops fine, still real itchy ears.

He briefly debated telling Damian about the incident with the dickwads at the park but decided against it.

He remembered going on business trips with Bruce when he was young, how he’d told himself from the beginning, because Bruce had made it clear, that for the most part he’d be bored. Bruce wasn’t going to have all that much time to spend with Jason, but he said if he wanted to come he could, and they might be able to work in a couple excursions together.

Jason had insisted he knew that, and he had, but he’d ended up feeling frustrated and cooped up most of the time, his temper rising more than usual like it always did when he got restless. Trying to keep himself in check because going with Bruce was still better than being back at the manor without him and he didn’t want to be left out of the next trip.

If the kid was already debating staying home because of an ear infection he hated to think how he’d react at the thought that some asswipes were trying to recruit him for dog fights. He didn’t want to give him something to stress about, that he’d debate on whether he should tell Bruce about or end up doing something stupid like making his way back to Gotham alone in some misguided attempt not to bother him, all because he was way overly protective of his dog.

Damian:
... ... ... ...

The little repetitive dots that told him Damian had the text screen open just kept appearing and disappearing on repeat, nothing coming through for the longest time. Jason nearly gave up when his phone finally chimed again.

Damian:
Does he seem happy?

Jason stared at the words for a long time, leaning against his kitchen counter. The weird little pang in his chest that followed was completely unexpected.

“Shit, he’s a little sap like me.”

He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to think of how to respond. Titus seemed perfectly happy to Jason, but he also just met the dog for real two days prior. He thought about what kind of answer he’d be looking for back if he was twelve and leaving his dog for an extended period, worried about him, and heavily attached.

Jason:
I think he’s doing good. No deep depression or anything. He’s eating, playing, trying to hog my couch anytime I sit on it.

He stopped after he sent it though, staring at Titus who had finally laid himself down in his bed after his walk through the apartment. He added one more thought and pressed send.

Jason:
Keeps doing loops around the apartment though. Think he’s looking for you.

Maybe it was to humor the kid, but it could be true.

Damian:
He does spend most of his time with me, but he could also be looking for Alfred, they are somewhat inseparable.

This one really caught him off guard.

Jason:
Are you serious? Alfred’s a good dog loving Englishman for sure but I always kinda thought the mess would drive him bonkers.

Damian:
I am referring to Alfred the cat.

Jason raised his eyebrows in disbelief, before barking out a laugh. “Alfred the cat. I’ll be damned. The kid does have a sense of humor.”

He looked up at Titus again, chin resting on the edge of the dog bed and puppy eyes looking up at him. “That it boy? You looking for your cat friend? Feeling lonely?” Titus didn’t move other than to wag his tail, slapping it noisily against the wall.

It was nearing time for another walk but the first one was long enough that Jason let it slide a little longer. He set his phone down and went back to trying to get the blood out of his jacket. He’d finally come down off the rage high, but he was still struggling to keep it that way. Something as archaic as animal fights going on in his city was not ok.

He thought about following up. But really, there was nothing to go on. If he had taken the stupid business card when it had been offered he could have used that, but he hadn’t and now he had what? The name of a dog? How many damn dogs in Gotham probably had that same stupid name?

Great, this was just great. Now he knew about some sick dog fighting ring, and had absolutely no other information. Fantastic.

He kept remembering that Rottweiler. The eyes. The blank look like there was nothing there. Trained into nothing but a fighting machine, designed to obey orders and do nothing else.

Jason remembered people like that. Some of them were from the pits. Came to the league ‘cause they had nowhere else to go, just doing what they had to to keep on living, even if it meant killing, even if they hated it.

There were people in the alley like that, where Jason grew up, in gangs, or homeless like him, some of the working girls sometimes.

“Shit.”

He’d ask around. There had to be some bad guys in the city that partook. Rarely did they ever keep their hands to a single cookie jar.

 



*



 

A large part of Jason thought he probably shouldn’t go on patrol that night.

He’d already had a flare up from the pit earlier in the day and he was still strung tight from the events that unfolded. Not to mention his busted up arm. It really fracking hurt, and his grip strength in his left hand was definitely not at its best. The muscles in his forearm were bruised to shit and probably had a little bit of tearing too. He should rest it.

But a larger part of him was dying for someone to beat the shit out of.

Another warning sign, but Jason wasn’t always the best at listening to his own advice and he didn’t want to leave the alley kids and the working girls thinking he’d abandoned them with how little he’d been around lately. He was still on their side, still around, and he wanted to keep the bad guys scared and to do that he had to show his face.

By the time he was standing on the roof of an old brownstone overlooking the alley the need for a fight was itching under his skin.

It was stupid, and reckless, and he told himself to get his head on straight but there were plenty of fights to pick in Gotham and he didn’t have to wait long before one was snapping its fingers in his face.

Red Hood had earned the trust of the vast majority of the prostitutes in the alley way back when he’d initially shown up, back when he would admit his head was still murky with the Pit. But there were new girls always showing up, always skittish and unlikely to approach him if they had a problem. He let them be mostly, let the other girls convince them he was safe, but he kept an eye out for anyone who looked under eighteen because no way was that shit flying in the Alley. Not for any amount of time.

Low and behold, as he jumped down from the roof he’d been perched on onto a rickety fire escape, about to finish the jump to the ground, he heard voices around the corner. This in itself was in no way surprising, the place was never quiet. What was surprising and concerning all in one was that one of the voices sounded young. So Red Hood paused and instead of finishing his leap to the ground he shimmied to the edge of the fire escape, perched on the railing and peered around the corner to get an eye on things.

A girl, she couldn’t be more than thirteen, was standing up against the wall of the building. He couldn’t see her face in the dark, the streetlight above them long burnt out, but she was clutching at her bare arms in a white knuckle grip and holding her shoulders up to her ears. Her clothes were revealing in a very specific way that made his gut turn, surprised they could find mini skirts in sizes so small. Standing over her was a tall, thin man tugging at her elbow.

He was surprised he actually heard what they were saying over the blood rushing in his ears.

“Just- I don’t, I’ve never done-“

“Come on, I already paid, it’s not a big deal, I’ll show you what to do. You want me to complain? Cause I know Murray personally and h-“

Before he completely registered what he was doing, Jason was on the ground, boots smacking against tarmac loud enough to crack through the air like lightning. “Hey shitstain.”

Red Hood moved as he spoke and just as the guy lifted his head in surprise Jason swung. The little weasel’s glasses made a satisfying crunch under his knuckles and then he was down, out like a light.

Friggin’ pathetic. One punch and it was over.

Except that it wasn’t.

Because an old dimmed memory was slowly unraveling in the back of Jason’s mind of a girl who used to live on his block, way back before his mom died. Back when there used to be more good days than bad ones.

Her name was Darcy, she was fourteen when Jason was seven. She used to come babysit him when his mom felt good enough to go get groceries or make a trip to the laundromat. She would bring a deck of cards and they would play Go Fish and War and Slap Jack because the tv never worked and she never let him win but she woud fling herself on the floor and feign devastation whenever he beat her and Jason would laugh until he couldn’t breathe while she bemoaned his existence in a fake English accent.

But they could never pay her.

And he remembered overhearing an argument, could hear the echoing voices through the walls like they were funneling into his ears. The shrill voice of a woman, her mother, he thought, while his own was passed out on the couch. It was one of the bad days.

“Darcy shut up! He paid and you’re pulling your damn weight, I’m not the only one who’s gotta work around here and you gotta start somewhere! He’s a nice guy ok, I’ve worked with him plenty of times, don’t fucking whine.”

“But I don’t-“ Her voice was tight and wavering from crying.

“Stop being a damn baby. You think we eat for free?!”

Jason had a flash of grabbing the john by the neck and squeezing hard enough to feel his tracheas pop under the skin. Something hungry in the pit of his stomach surged and he reached for it, like his hands were moving on their own when the stifled whimper of a little girl behind him nearly had him jumping out of his skin.

He whipped around and she flinched, stumbling to the side and staring at him with wide, shining eyes. They were brown, he noted. Her hair was black, tied up in a ponytail at the nape of her neck and she was wearing cheap, dollar store lipstick and blue eyeshadow. She couldn’t be more than thirteen.

He jolted forward, nothing like his usual grace, with the intent to - to help but it was like his limbs were suddenly made of wood. His mouth was dry as the desert, and she made an unintelligible noise of fear and tripped backwards, landing hard on her butt.

“Hey, hey.” He choked out, raising both hands in a sign he meant no harm. He cleared his throat, “Not gonna hurt you.” But his voice came out harsh, biting. His veins were still thumping, his heart pounding so hard his brain was pulsing with it and the edge of rage that always vanished, always, when he went to help a kid just - didn’t.

He registered very clearly the this girl was terrified and had every right to be and that he was not helping one bit. But there was a foreign tug at the base of his skull to turn back around, finish it, it hissed. But that wasn’t right.

That wasn’t right because even before this whole no killing debacle he never would have put a bullet in a guy’s head right front of a little kid. Jason shook his head, hard, and forced himself to move instead of looming over her.

He knelt down, knees shaking as he went, and bit his tongue before he opened his mouth again. “Hey, it’s ok, I’m here to help.” The back of his neck was hot, uncomfortable, but his voice came out normal this time, gentler.

“Y-you’re Red Hood.” He nodded, and the sound of the kid’s voice did something. Filtered through the static that was fighting to overcome his brain and pushed back the last of the Lazarus clouding up his head. The squeezing sensation around his chest vanished. He hadn’t even realized it was there until it stopped.

“That’s me.” He paused, taking in her tight, outdated miniskirt, lowcut top revealing all of nothing, and combat boots that had seen better days. Her face remained unnaturally neutral until he asked, “You wanna get out of here?”

Then her lower lip trembled, eyes shining with unshed tears, and she nodded. “Please.” So Jason took off his jacket and settled it around her shoulders because it was damn cold outside and she was barely wearing anything. He had to take a steadying breath against the coiling sick in the pit of his stomach before he was ushering her around the building toward the main road.

Jason started talking, chattering about nothing, resting back on old habits he knew put people, especially kids, at ease. And at the moment, himself too. His bike was just a block down and he lead her to it, planning to take her to Leslie’s clinic. He was feeling jittery about the moment before, even while handing the girl a helmet.

Hood swung himself on in front of her and she wrapped her skinny arms around his waist from behind before he flipped the kickstand up. It was when Jason was just pulling onto the street that the tug on the base of his skull he felt before reared up something fierce, nearly making him lose his balance and throw both himself and the kid into the street.

But he steadied, put on the gas with an unsettling flair of anxiety. The feeling faded the further away they got, leaving him with a deep seated unease in the pit of his stomach.

He left the girl with Leslie. He’d get her information from the doc later so he could check back in, make sure she was somewhere safe and not back on the street. Make sure Murray didn’t find her.

Jason tried to write off the weird moment, told himself it was the bizarre flashback. Sometimes memories from before, before - before he was Robin - would surprise him. But as soon as he was mounting his bike to leave the clinic he could feel his hands shaking, his breath coming in uneven puffs.

He wasn’t safe to continue and he knew it. There were ants of violence and fury crawling under his skin and if he even thought of looking into a dog fighting ring he knew he’d lose it on somebody. Couldn’t risk it.

He hated it. This awful lack of control that left him tucking his tail between his legs and riding all the way back to his bunker, leaving the Alley behind.

By the time he was back in his apartment building the fury had shifted into shame, dragging down on his shoulders as he shuffled up the steps to his place. The key was in the lock to his apartment door when his com made a noise in his ear. He kept it on him just in case, since he was turning in so early, but the sudden contact made him tense.

“Hood, I’m on Ellis Street in Gotham Heights, I could use a hand if you’re not already tied up with something. Pretty sure a bank robbery’s about to go down.”

It was Dick’s voice, low and serious, and Jason just stood there, feeling his heart rate picking back up at the request. He quickly turned the key in the lock and shoved his door open, closing it behind him as softly as he could so the com wouldn’t pick up the noise.

He couldn’t go back out. He knew that. Not for anything less than a serious emergency.

Jason pumped his left hand in and out of a fist, trying to muster a reply that wouldn’t sound as awful as he felt.

“I thought - I thought you were in Bludhaven.”

“Yeah, I will be the rest of the week, just filling in for the night, if you know what I mean.”

Jason swallowed, nodding to himself.

“Right. Sorry, bigger fish to fry tonight.” But there was a little waver at the end that he didn’t quite catch and he bit his tongue, cutting off the frustrated growl that wanted to follow.

There was a long pause before he got a response, “Ok, no worries, nothing I can’t handle, just thought the company might be nice. I’ll let you know when I’m done if you need any help with those big fish.”

Jason let his head fall back against the door, feeling exhausted, like a little lego house some kid went and stepped on.

“Thanks, but I think I can handle it.” He said back through a tight throat. He was bitter all the way to the top.

“Ok, be safe.” And then the click on the other end that meant Jason could let out the compressed air in his lungs with a soft hiss as he slumped against the wall. The soft clacking of claws across his kitchen floor signaled that Titus was coming before he flicked on the light.

And there the big guy was, ears up, tail wagging, and for some reason Jason wanted to cry immediately. “Shit.” He whispered to himself, clamping his eyes shut and rubbing at his face.

Titus let out a low whuff, walked a circle around him when he stood away from the wall and prodded him in the leg with his nose. “Alright, I’m going.”

Jason should shower. He knew he should. Always did after a patrol because there was no telling what you could get on yourself without even realizing it while on the streets, but he couldn’t even must the energy. All he wanted was his bed and this stupid dog to lay his head on his stomach.

So he shuffled into his room, threw off his shoes and pants and crawled in bed in nothing but his boxers and undershirt. He flopped over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Titus climbed up after him in the dark and turned a few circles in the blankets before laying down next to him, grunting and huffing until he was comfortable, and then he laid his head on Jason’s hip.

Jason put a hand on his head, still staring at the ceiling, breathing shallow. He felt guilty then, on top of the shame.

He couldn’t even help out on a damn bank robbery, even when Dick asked. Every stupid thought he’d ever had about being the screw up of the family was rearing its ugly head. No wonder they didn’t want him around, he thought, when he was like this. It was no wonder they didn’t trust him. How could they? He couldn’t be relied on, not like this.

He didn’t even trust himself.

Chapter Text

There were no dreams that night.

Jason nearly sighed in relief when he woke up the next morning when the sun was already up and it wasn’t with any sharp sense of terror or anxiety. He just woke up slow, blinking his eyes up at the ceiling and listening to Titus’ soft snores fill the room.

Maybe he suffered from a chronic lack of sleep but somehow getting a single solid night made everything seem not quite so awful.

It was warm in his room, and it smelled faintly of pine and mint from the last time he lit his candle. Sun was bleeding through the blinds and everything had a sort of soft haze to it.

Then Titus grunted in his sleep. He’d shifted through the night until now, at which point he was sprawled on his side, legs and feet extended and pressing against Jason. He was taking up more than half the bed and Jason was shoved off to the side, right arm dangling off the mattress.

Titus grunted again and shifted, tail slapping the covers. Jason lifted his head just enough to check if he was awake but he was still laying there with his eyes closed, so he must have been dreaming. He silently reached for his phone on the nightstand and pulled up the camera, switching to video. Titus’ tail slowed and stopped, and he was quiet for a moment before he let out a muffled bark, a weird strangled noise because he didn’t actually open his mouth and Jason suppressed a laugh. He did it again, followed by a drawn out bizarre noise Jason thought was maybe supposed to be some kind of howl that had him wheezing.

His feet twitched, one after the other like he was trying to run in his sleep, up until he let out another bark, this one loud and startled himself awake. He sprang upright, legs tangling in the blankets until he tumbled halfway out of the bed.

“Oh shit,” But Jason was laughing through the whole thing as he dropped his phone to make sure Titus didn’t break one of his stupidly long legs falling on the floor.

The dog seemed more embarrassed than anything else though and slunk off to the living room as soon as Jason gave him a once over. And so his morning started, decidedly better than his past few. He went pee, started some coffee, got Titus ear drops warmed up and forced him to sit still enough to get the damn things in his ears after he dripped them down his neck twice first. He bundled him up, head muff first and then went for the rain jacked and paused.

He really didn’t need to, it was stupid.

But then again the last time he’d thought part of this was stupid he’d ended up with a 160 pound dog trembling in his lap for forty minutes.

He pulled out his phone again, checked the damn temperature, it was in the thirties. Early enough to still be cold as balls.

“Hey tough guy, guess what that means? You get to be the cool kid at school this morning.” Titus stared up at him with the head warmer on and wagged his tail.

The red sweater went on. Which was way more difficult than Jason anticipated. Trying to get his huge freaking dog legs through the leg holes was nearly impossible, like who designed this shit? Titus was even a good sport about it, but his claws snagged in the fabric at least a dozen times and when he was finally done Jason snapped another photo and sent it to Damian.

Jason:
Was this a joke? Were you just trying to get me to spend 15 minutes trying to get a sweater on a dog because you thought it’d be funny?

The response came in approximately ten minutes later when they were midway through their walk.

Damian:
It is disappointing I could not be witness to the struggle, but no, it is the only one we have. The store we went to before dropping him off did not have his size.

Jason rolled his eyes and went ahead and sent the video from earlier, wondering if the kid had ever used an emoji before in his life. Would he get a laughing face back? Maybe? He was almost hopeful.

Damian:
That is amusing.

Jason choked. “That is amusing, Christ, kid you are one of a kind.” He mumbled to himself, getting a suspicious look from an old lady as they walked by. Titus did his business relatively quickly, even with the sweater on it was still freezing and Jason was no more eager to be out in it than he was.

When they returned to his apartment Titus kept the sweater on, because Jason determined it was cold enough in his building to warrant it and he didn’t want to mess with trying to take the thing off. He was about to make breakfast, mentally reminding himself he needed to go to the freaking store soon, when someone knocked on his door.

Pausing with a hand midway to the egg carton, Jason thought back. Was he expecting anyone? Did he have any deliveries coming? There was nothing that he could think of and that made him immediately uneasy. He thought at first he would just ignore it, figuring it was maybe one of the neighbors for something unimportant, but Titus was at the door already, whining, and the knock came again.

Cautiously Jason approached his own door, grabbing a small knife from his kitchen as he went, just to be safe - he’d been surprised before. But when he peered through the peephole it wasn’t a stranger, and it wasn’t Dick - the only other person he might expect to see out of the blue. Instead, Barbara Gordon stared up at the peephole, arms crossed and an unimpressed look on her face.

“I know you’re in there Jason.” She yelled through the door. “I literally saw you on the security camera of the building next door.” He cursed, jolting back from the door and setting the knife back on the kitchen counter. He was gonna have to destroy that damn camera. Why the hell was she here? What was going on? He scanned through every interaction he’d had with her or any of the other bats in recent history. Was she here to yell at him for something? It wasn’t unlikely, he was sure he’d done something to deserve it, he usually did, but nothing was coming to him.

Another solid pound on the door punctuated her next statement, “Jason open the door!” Titus chose that moment to bark and Jason flinched.

“Jeez, inside voices Titus, Lordy-Lou.”

“I can hear you-”

“Alright!” With a growl of annoyance he finally unlocked the deadbolt and pulled the door open just enough to peak his head out. He stared down at Babs, who looked misleadingly average sitting there in her wheelchair, hair in a high ponytail, emerald green sweater under a dark wool coat, a white scarf and dark jeans, converse sneakers, he nearly snapped something snide and obnoxious but as soon as he opened his mouth it was like a record stop in his head.

“Wait- how the hell did you get up here?” Babs snorted, rolling her eyes.

“The polite thing to do would be to invite me inside.” And maybe Jason would have argued, or at least given her a hard time about it, but Titus took that moment to shove between his legs and nearly upend him trying to get through the door to greet her.

Babs let out another snorting laugh, closer to a choke. She let Titus lick her hands and rubbed all over his head while Jason awkwardly caught himself on the doorframe and tried to extricate his legs from straddling the dog like a horse, cursing under his breath the whole time.

“At least some people around here are nice to me, huh Titus?”

“Some people might say it’s rude to show up at someone’s place unannounced, especially before freaking ten in the morning.” She looked up at him, holding Titus’ head in her hands, she did not look impressed.

“Oh, because I’m sure you would have answered your phone if I had called.” Jason matched her expression with a mild glare for a split second more before he relented and moved back, opening his door all the way and making room for her to actually enter. He pulled Titus back inside by the collar and Barbara followed after, obviously glancing around with a scrutinizing gaze.

It was the first time she’d ever been inside - obviously, considering there still was not magically an elevator in the building - which brought him back to his original question, “Seriously though, how did you make it up the stairs? It’s six freaking flights.”

He watched as she rolled herself into his kitchen and did a slow 360 degree turn, taking the place in.

“What, you don’t think I could have muscled my way up six flights of stairs with nothing but self righteous fury?” Jason huffed a laugh, walking a little further inside and leaning against the back of his couch.

“I mean I know you could, but I don’t know why seeing my apartment would be worth it.”

“M, no, you’re right. I definitely did not do that.” She stopped as she turned to face him. “It’s a nice place.” Jason stared at her for a long moment, raising an eyebrow at the statement.

“It’s not.” Babs rolled her eyes.

“It is.” She went to his couch, glancing through the cracked door to the guest room and bathroom. His bedroom door was closed thankfully, not that there was anything to see inside really but the blanket Alfred had made him was still draped over the end of his bed and for some reason he didn’t think he wanted her to know that. “So it’s not a penthouse, it’s neat, clean, well decorated. And that is one massive television. I didn’t even think you really liked tv.”

Titus followed Barbara everywhere she went, immediately resting his head on her arm anytime she stopped, making her smile and diverting her attention enough that Jason at least didn’t feel like he was being examined too closely. The bandage on his arm itched and he resisted scratching at it.

“I’m neutral on the subject. Roy talked me into it.” She snorted, absently petting at Titus’ head and staring at the blank screen.

“Sounds about right.” Jason stared at her for a long moment, the unease he felt when she first knocked making itself known again.

“So...what I do this time?”

“What?” She glanced back at him with a frown.

“I’m in trouble for something aren’t I? Why else would you show up here unannounced.”

She turned her chair to face him, dislodging Titus’ head with the move. “I would have called, I just didn’t think you’d answer. Because you never do. Except apparently when it’s Bruce?” She cocked an eyebrow at him and Jason tried not to squirm. He didn’t really want to admit it was an accident, but he also didn’t want her to think he was suddenly chummy with the man. He shrugged.

“Depends on my mood.”

“Well,” She said, exasperated, “I didn’t want to leave it to chance. I...I’d like to talk to you. But you’re not in trouble for anything Jay, I’m not here to yell at you.” He frowned at her, searching her face like somehow she might be hiding something there. If she was he didn’t find it.

“So talk.” He started to cross his arms over his chest and then dropped them, the bite flaring bright with pain at the movement. He winced and of course Barb’s sharp eyes noticed. Her gaze narrowed and she sat with her hands on the wheels of her chair, ready to move, but in the end she didn’t comment.

“I thought we could get coffee, if you’re free.”

Jason felt immediately nervous, though he wasn’t even sure why. Dick was the only one who ever invited him to meals or to do stuff outside of patrol, though it had been a long time since even that had happened. But standing there in the middle of his apartment he couldn’t think of a reason to say no and the longer he waited to respond the more awkward it became so he was left with no recourse but to shrug.

“Got no plans.” He muttered out, telling himself that at least if she wanted to go somewhere public she was probably telling the truth, she wasn’t gonna yell at him. Because after the previous night’s events, even though in the daytime, after a good night’s sleep, he felt mostly better, it was still there in the back of his mind. He still felt a little tender over it, a little sensitive, and he wasn’t sure he could take it.

Barb smiled and gave a short nod. “Great, I know a place not far from here where you can bring dogs. Titus can join us.”

“Sure.” Jason mumbled back, still not sure about what to expect. He bundled Titus back up, who seemed excited to go out even though they just got back not thirty minutes before. Babs smirked at the headwarmer and Jason just shrugged.

“The kid brought it over with him, he’s got a double ear infection.” At this the smirk turned down and she reached for the dog.

“Aw Titus,” She rubbed at his ears through the fabric which just lead to him shoving his face in her lap. “Ok boy.” She laughed it off, pushing him away and finally looked up at Jason where they both hovered in his entryway. “Shall we?”

Jason gestured forward, “Lead the way, I don’t know where we’re going.” He opened the door for her and followed her out until they were suddenly presented with the issue of Jason’s stairs.

“So, guess I finally get to figure out how you got up here?”

Babs sighed, “I guess you do, too bad, it really ruins the mystery.” She seemed like she was in a good mood, which he supposed wasn’t abnormal, he was just used to mostly hearing her over coms and not during everyday life. It reminded him of before, before all the other shit that got him killed and her put in the chair. It was...weird.

With this comment she rolled right up to the top step and pushed a button on the inside of her left armrest, one Jason hadn’t seen initially. He watched curiously, as did Titus. There was a soft mechanical noise and the dog was tilting his head back and forth, staring at the chair.

The seat tilted backwards, and something extended out from the front, just above the floor, curved down over the stop step, and just like that it was moving her, one step at a time, down the stairs. The motion was smooth and Jason watched in fascination, walking at her side with Titus just behind them. He tilted his head, trying to get a better look at what exactly was happening.

“It’s pretty cool right?”

“It’s- yeah, that’s amazing. Didn’t know that was possible.” She shrugged, looking amused.

“They’ve had machines that do this kind of thing for moving cargo for years, it’s about time they make it work for wheelchair users when there’s, apparently, still apartment buildings that don’t have elevators.” She gave him a halfhearted glare then and Jason actually did feel a little bad.

“Hey, it’s not like I chose the place because of that. I don’t love the six flights of stairs either. Didn’t really think you’d be dropping in much.”

She looked up at him again, her face more thoughtful than before.

“Well, I might, now that I’ve got the upgrade.” Jason swallowed, trying not to show what he felt about that, since he really didn’t know. This whole thing was so weird. Thankfully she didn’t seem to expect a reply and turned back to looking straight ahead. “I do wish they could do something about the speed though, that’s my main complaint, it took me nearly twenty minutes to get to your door.”

“Shit Babs, you should have texted me, I woulda come down.” She looked at him again, considering.

“Would you have?”

“Y-yeah...” Maybe...he wasn’t sure. She hummed noncommittally back, like she wasn’t buying it, he didn’t really blame her. He scratched at the back of his neck, feeling just as steadily uncomfortable as he had since he answered the door.

“This is actually new Wayne Enterprises tech, Bruce asked me if I wanted to test it out, I’m working with Lucius to improve the design before they put it to market. Even if it’s slow, it’s still one hell of an improvement.

“There’s product out there like it, but they’re usually huge and bulky, and you can’t just roll around with them on your chair, you have to bring them with you separately. The idea with this is to make something compact and light enough that it’s not overly noticeable if you aren’t paying attention and that won’t cost an arm and a leg once it hits the point they can start selling it.”

“That’s...that’s really awesome Babs, I didn’t know WE did anything with mobility stuff.”

“Oh yeah, they have for a while, every once in a blue moon Bruce asks me to test something out for them. I get to be the guinea pig. It’s usually neat, but occasionally I’m left wondering what idiot invented it.”

“Oh?” Jason asked, feeling amused in spite of himself. He could just picture her asking Lucius that.

“Yes, there was one, and in all fairness it was a good idea, it was just-“ She rolled her eyes, glasses flashing in the dim light of the stairwell. “The idea was to create a wheelchair that could be both manual or motorized, so that say, if you’re faced with a really steep hill you could use the assist, or if you’ve been going all day long you could switch over when you’re tired. And also for people who would normally have a motorized chair but don’t want to give up the exercise entirely.

“But. Are you familiar with motorized wheelchairs Jason?”

“I mean...not really, they’re kinda bulky aren’t they?”

“They weigh about 100 to 250 pounds on average, depending on the kind of wheelchair. There is one on the market that’s only fifty. But in trying to integrate both, the kind of wheels are different, much larger than on a motorized chair, and anyway, it weighed ninety two pounds Jason.” She gave him a look when he let out a low whistle, tapering off into a chuckle.

“What, you mean you didn’t want to lug around an extra ninety two pounds everywhere you went?”

“Not that I couldn’t. But no, I’d rather not. And given the kind of workout I do I highly doubt your average woman would even be able to. Kind of defeated the purpose of being able to do both when the chair weighs as much as a fourth grader.”

Jason snorted, finally feeling a little more at ease. They were just hitting the ground floor, exiting out onto the street. “Seems weird they couldn’t get the weight down.”

“Whoever the idiot was designing it was very insistent on having the longest battery life possible so it was mainly that, this massive battery weighed fifty pounds on its own.”

It was still very brisk outside and Jason stuffed his hands in his pockets, being careful to avoid rubbing his left arm against anything.

“How much battery life did that give you?”

“Seventy two hours.”

“Seventy hours? Isn’t that a little excessive?”

“That is what I thought, yes.” They stopped on a corner, waiting for the crosswalk to change, Titus trying to inch his way towards a young kid holding a muffin. Jason tugged back on his leash.

“Why not introduce solar power or something? Make it charge itself when you’re out and about?”

“Because he was an idiot. That was actually one of my suggestions. In the end I think they did do something like that, but I refused to retest it if they couldn’t get the weight to fifty pounds or less.”

“How much does the one you’re using now weigh?” The crosswalk changed and they started across the street. “Titus, heel.” He was still after the muffin but looked back at the command, easily trotting up next to him. “Hell I didn’t even know he knew that command.” Barb smirked at him.

“It weighs about twenty pounds before the attachment, which weighs fifteen. So I’m at a grand totally of thirty five currently.”

“Must be why you’re so buff.” She grinned this time.

“And a few other things.”

Jason realized, abruptly, that he wasn’t so uncomfortable anymore, that the conversation was moving easily, casually, bantering about tech. It was weird. Because it wasn’t like he wasn’t used to bantering with any of the bats. It was just always in costume, on a job. He never really knew if it would transfer over.

But of course...there was Bruce, asking him to dog sit. And Damian, texting him snarky messages. Now Barb was here...it made him nervous in a weird way, like being handed a priceless piece of art.

It was nice, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it, and he was a little terrified he’d damage it somehow.

He was also not entirely certain that’s what it was. Maybe it was just some piece of kitsch, maybe this wasn’t different to any of them at all, just business. Maybe Jason was the only one who was reading so far into things.

“So where is this place?” He asked, shaking the thought from his head.

“Just another block down, you’ll know it when you see it.”

And sure enough, he did. There was a giant paw print on the sign which read The Barking Dog Cafe.

“Didn’t realize they were so upfront about the dog thing. How have I never seen this place?” He looked up and down the block, eyeing the other businesses on the street. “It’s barely three blocks from my apartment.”

“You don’t get out enough, sounds like.” Jason huffed but also felt a twinge at the comment because...it was probably true. Before Titus showed up he hadn’t been outside during the day to do anything but supply runs. He knew where the grocery store was, and the gas station, and that was about all he paid attention to. Anything else that wasn’t open after midnight wasn’t on his radar.

The place was a little on the nose for Jason. It was designed to look like a barn house, little checkered curtains in the windows with a blue, distressed, double-hung front door. Their was a bell that jingled when they walked inside, to old oak floors and mismatched table and chairs scattered around. It was warm, and there was a low murmur of conversation. A few dogs were laying under tables, resting their heads on their owners feet or sitting up and begging for scraps.

The menu on the wall above the counter was shaped like a dog bone. The place made him think of the couple times he’d ever been to the Kent’s when he was a kid and that hit him with a kind of nostalgia that felt like a punch to the gut. He blinked a few times, feeling dazed standing just inside the door, up until the bell rang again and he startled out of the way, jogging the couple steps to catch up to Barbara at the front counter.

Titus was more calm than Jason would have expected, but still looked around with interest, ears perked up high, tail wagging slowly.

“What do you feel like Jay? I’m buying.”

“Oh, uh...” He stared at the menu for a long second, not even sure what he was reading before she shrugged. “Just uh, whatever you’re getting is good.”

This ended up being a large black coffee and a scone, which Jason was perfectly happy with. They settled in at a little round table in the corner with four legs so Titus could still manage to fit most of his body underneath it. Each of their scones came with a dog biscuit, which shouldn’t be surprising, and Titus happily swallowed both of them nearly whole. As a last minute thought Jason tugged the headwarmer down on his neck so he didn’t overheat.

And then it was just them, Jason and Barbara, sitting across from each other in a cafe that looked startlingly like the Kent’s farmhouse, surrounded by other people’s dogs. It was awkward for all of a minute, but Babs was never one to beat around the bush and now that they were here, she jumped right in.

“So, you’re probably wondering why I wanted to chat.” Of course Jason had been, but he was also not entirely sure he wanted to know.

“Sure.” He hedged, staring down into his coffee and wishing he had asked for cream to go with it. There was some at a stand next to the front counter, just fifteen feet away or so but he couldn’t bring himself to get up.

“You know I monitor all channels during patrol.” Her voice was hushed then, dropped low enough that no one in their surroundings could make out what she was saying. Jason glanced up though, still surprised that she’d bring him to a public place to talk about something to do with their private lives. “I mean,” She amended, “I don’t just hang around and eaves drop. But I know who talks to whom, and when.”

“Oh?” Jason wasn’t sure where she was going and with this and his nerves were slowly ticking back up.

“Dick told me he asked for your help at the bank in Gotham Heights, and that you turned him down - and that’s fine Jay,” She rushed to add, as if she thought he would jump down her throat about it. “But I also know that you weren’t handling anything difficult when you told him that. You were standing in your apartment building. You’d already come home for the night.”

Jason stiffened, “Oh, you’re monitoring my location now?” Her eyebrows lowered, pinching together.

“Yes, just like I monitor everyone’s location throughout patrol, in case anyone needs help. The rest of them of course, wear trackers. You I have to follow on security feeds.”

Jason huffed and took a sip of his coffee, rolling his eyes and trying to decide if he should be angry yet.

“I’ve...” She hesitated, glancing around the shop and down to her coffee. “I’ve noticed in the last few months you’ve been cutting back, skipping patrol more often, heading in earlier than usual.”

And that was all he needed. To flip from unsure and anxious to angry. Jason knew how to be angry, and there was a certain amount of relief in having an excuse to fall back into it.

“That is none of your goddamn business Babs.”

“I’m not saying it is-”

“Then why the hell are you monitoring me? Keeping track? You making sure I don’t fly off the handle and kill somebody? Did Bruce put you up to it? Just to make sure I’m not lying to his face when I say I haven’t?”

“Jason could you shut up for a second and let me finish?” She was clutching her coffee cup just as tight as he was, and glaring at him, eyebrows so tight together they looked like they were fighting for dominance. “I monitor everyone. That is my job. You are not special. I’m saying I’ve noticed you cutting back and all I’m trying to tell you is if you need a break, you should take one.”

“Why? You think I’m a liability? That it?” Somehow, despite the heat of their conversation they were both still speaking in harsh whispers, bending closer and closer together over the table.

Babs closed her eyes, setting her coffee down just to pinch the bridge of her nose and it reminded him so much of Bruce that irritation flared up in his gut like a flame. “That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Then what are you saying?” He watched her, his shoulders stiff, every nerve strung tight like he was ready for a physical fight. She stared at the tabletop, set her hands flat on the surface and took a deep, slow breath. The act of it felt so patronizing he wanted to stand up and leave right then, but when she spoke again her words were level and soft, lacking any heat.

“I’m saying I care about you Jay, and I’m glad you’re back in the fold, but you seem...you seem like maybe you’re struggling right now and taking a break could help. I...” Jason hadn’t moved but she glanced up at him, mouth twisting in uncertainty. “Please don’t get offended by this, but I’m hoping you’d consider seeing somebody-”

“Somebody? Like a fucking therapist?” The very implication that Jason was not in his right mind nearly sent him through the roof if only because it was a thought that had been haunting him for weeks.

“Yes Jay, a therapist.” Jason opened his mouth, ready to spew every vitriolic thing he could dig up when she cut him off, “it is not because I think you’re crazy, or weak ok? I have a personal recommendation of someone who’s good. You know why? Because she was my therapist after I got shot Jay.” She stared at him, solidly, face impassive. Jason swallowed, feeling the acid in his stomach dissolve. He absently registered Titus settling his head on his feet under the table.

“I still see her sometimes.” She added softly, looking back down to the table, where she was chipping at a patch of peeling paint. “When there’s an Arkham breakout, or some Joker copycat shows up. Or sometimes just because the nightmares are bad and I don’t know what’s triggered them.” She looked back up, eyes scanning his face.

“Do you think I’m weak Jay?”

“W-what?” He sputtered, feeling completely thrown.

“Do you? I think we understand each other better than most. Especially when it comes to him. So do you think I’m weak?”

“O-of course not.” Babs was one of the strongest people he knew. She always had been.

”Or crazy?”

”No, Babs.”

“Good. Because I’m not.” She gave him a little smile before she continued, “It doesn’t mean you’re weak to need help Jay. But I know how you are and that your relationship with the rest of the family is rocky, and you’re probably not gonna reach out. So that’s why I’m here. Maybe I’m seeing things that aren’t there. Maybe I’m imagining the pattern, it’s not like I keep an excel sheet with your schedule on it.

“But I didn’t want to let this go if I could help. So, totally ignore me if you want to. I’m just saying, if you feel like you need a break, or someone to talk to. You can do both. You don’t have to tell anyone for that matter. I will happily tell them all that you’re helping me with some deep undercover mission if you want to go off the radar for a while.”

Jason - had no idea what to say back. She was being nice to him and he didn’t know how to take it when people were nice to him when he was expecting something else. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. To be scolded for leaving Dick hanging and for taking so much time off. To be scrutinized for why he turned in so early, for her to question his control of himself. He felt like everybody looked at him like a bomb just waiting to go off.

Maybe because sometimes he felt like one.

He rubbed at his mouth with a closed fist, swallowing against the lump that wanted to rise in his throat.

“You don’t have to tell me now. You’ve got my number.” He sucked in a deep breath through his nose and nodded.

“Yeah.” It came out gravelly and harsh and he cleared his throat self consciously, rubbing at the back of his neck. He felt like his insides were raw, like he just slid across concrete on bare skin. “I...I am sorry for not helping Dick, when he comm’d.”

“Oh, please.” She said, sipping at her coffee with both hands, apparently entirely at ease. “Dick didn’t need help with that, I was seeing everything he was. He just wanted the company.”

Along with all the other stuff he kind of felt like she just punched him in the stomach. He was itching to leave, to retreat and reassess, figure this all out in his head without someone else there watching and reading him. He shifted in his seat and dislodged Titus’ head, who grumbled loudly and moved to a sitting position. Babs smirked, broke off a piece of her scone and slipped it under the table.

“Damian’d kill you for that.”

“And he’ll never know,” She leveled her eyes at him above the frames of her glasses, “will he?” Jason snorted and rolled his own, taking a long gulp of his coffee and trying to think of a way to get out of there.

“You should call Dick.”

“What?” He snearly sputtered.

“He misses you.” Jason was caught off guard enough that he didn’t manage to stifle his scoff.

“Oh? Not like he calls me.” And then Barb stopped, tilted her head up from where she was looking at Titus below the table and gave him the most incredulous look he’d ever seen.

“Are you kidding me? You ignore his calls. Every single time. He told me. Trust me I heard about it every day.”

And Jason felt heat crawling up his neck, embarrassed and unreasonably upset all at once.

“That was months ago.” He mumbled, shoving a piece of cinnamon scone in his mouth big enough to choke on. When he glanced back up her face had gone all soft again and he didn’t know what to do with that because hell, it was weird. He knew Babs could be soft, but he’d rarely seen it, usually in relation to Dick or the two girls, Cass and Stephanie. Never at him.

“He’s trying to give you space. His other strategy of constant badgering obviously wasn’t working so he decided to change strategy.”

Jason, of course, didn’t know that. He remembered the constant phone calls after he and Bruce had made their agreement.

And how much they had bugged him.

Like oh, wow, now that Bruce approved he was suddenly on Dick’s radar. So he’d ignored him, feeling spiteful. But then eventually they’d stopped, and Jason told himself he was glad, he didn’t need a babysitter trying to drag him back into the mire of this “family”.

Except that he still always checked his voicemail. Tried to ignore the sinking feeling that Dick had given up on him, it was just what he expected, nothing more, nothing less. Not like he blamed the guy. It was just the way things were.

“That’s why he asks for your help on jobs he doesn’t need it for. He wants to see you, to talk, and you’re a lot more responsive in the field.”

Jason didn’t say anything back, because what the hell even was this entire conversation?

He felt like a cornered animal, he had to get out of there.

Maybe Barb could sense that he’d had enough, or maybe she was the one who couldn’t deal with him anymore, but either way she beat him to it.

“Anyway, just...consider what I said.” She pushed her plate and empty coffee cup to the side of the table and grabbed her purse where it was hanging off the handle of her chair. “I have to get back to the tower, but...it’s been good to see you Jay.”

He wanted to think she was being genuine but somehow his gauge for even being able to tell was completely shot. He just nodded at her when she backed away from the table. She hesitated though, before she turned to leave.

“I might drop in again sometime, get your opinion on the next upgrade to the chair.” It wasn’t a question, and Jason should have been irritated by that, but he couldn’t seem to muster it. He just nodded again, still sitting there, and she smiled back, still soft around the edges. He watched her go, feeling numb.

Him and Titus sat there, at this kitschy cafe, for another thirty minutes before Jason could muster the energy to leave. As soon as Barb was gone he felt like a puppet with cut strings. The place was bustling with life but Jason barely even processed it. Just kept going over random snippets of their conversation in his head.

I’m saying I care about you Jay, and I’m glad you’re back in the fold.

He just wanted the company.

He misses you.

And she...she’d referred to him as part of the family. Which was not what he wanted.

Hadn’t been for a long time.

But it still felt...it still felt like something to hear it.

In the end it was nothing more than Titus whining at him that got him out of the chair. Being out in the middle of the day, he should go ahead and grab some groceries but he couldn’t muster the energy, so instead they ambled back to his building, and Jason watched his breath crystallize in the air and tried to stop himself from scanning through people as they went. He thought about what she said.

He could take a break.

But somehow the very idea felt wrong. How did you take a break from this? How did you leave people without any help when you could provide it?

Jason spent years being the kid that needed help, and now he was old enough and strong enough to be the one giving it. It didn’t feel right to just turn his back on people, on kids like he used to be. He’d taken trips before, traveled, back with the outlaws when the band was still together. But they’d always been working, there was always crime, everywhere, and Jason wasn’t sure he’d ever really taken a break.

He groaned aloud as they entered back into his building, rubbing his face. Titus licked his hand when he dropped it back down, drawing his attention. He wagged his tail, looking up at him with perked up ears like he thought the sound was a growl or something.

“You wanna play? Is that it?” He unhooked the leash and knelt down, holding Titus’ collar in one hand, Jason held his other hand out in a closed fist, right in front of the dog’s face. “You ready? go get it!” He swung his arm forward like he was throwing something up the stairs and let go just to watch Titus rocket up the first flight and then stop at the landing, looking around, pacing back and forth and sniffing every corner.

“Ah, you big idiot.” Jason said fondly, walking up after him, “come on, I got actual toys in the apartment.”

 



*



 

He avoided thinking about anything else Barbara said for the rest of the day. Went out and grabbed some groceries at the corner market a block away from his place. He felt weird without Titus there for some reason, more nervous than he remembered being, eyes snapping up at every noise, watching each person in the market like they were hiding a bomb under their shirt or something.

He wasn’t sure a break would do him a lot of good anyway.

It was evening, just after Jason had eaten dinner, and he was settling himself on the couch to read for a bit before taking Titus out for his last walk. He’d been doing loops around the apartment again, two in the last hour, and seemed restless even after all their activity for the day. Finally he laid down on the floor, just in front of the couch. It wasn’t two minutes later that Jason was nearly passing out from noxious fumes.

“Holy shit Titus.” He waved his book in the air, hoping despite all odds that it would somehow create a gust strong enough to clear the air. “Oh my god I think I’m dying.” He wheezed, it was worse than a fraggin’ landfill. He could practically see it, a green cloud permeating his apartment.

The dog in question looked back at him, ears back, guilty if he’d ever seen it.

Jason was forced to get up, he walked to the kitchen, which helped, but only a little. He grabbed his phone on the way to opening a window and shot a text to Damian.

Jason:
You should market Titus to the US military, the bombs he’s letting off right now have got to be worth money.

After every window in his living room was open, which was ridiculous, because it was November and flipping freezing outside, he got a reply from the demon bird.

Damian:
Yes, the specialized diet helps but we so far have not found a perfect solution.

Jason cracked up, he couldn’t help it. What self respecting twelve year old boy replied to a message about dog farts with something so weirdly stoic? But then he got another alert.

Damian:
Father has made similar observations.

And that was enough to make him lose it, picturing Bruce waving his damn newspaper in the air, making that particularly pinched face he had, probably researching dog foods for three days.

Titus found him sitting on the floor against the back of his kitchen cabinets, holding his stomach with one arm, wheezing. He licked his kneecap.

“Gross Titus.” Then he licked his hands, sat down and laid next to him, rolling over and exposing his belly. “Aw bud, you got a stomach ache? This is all Bab’s fault. Should charge her for emotional damages.”

It was about twenty minutes later, when the air had mostly cleared and Jason was closing the windows and tugging on a sweatshirt, and debating pulling out a gas mask just in case, that he got another message.

Damian:
Father has insisted I not make “unreasonable” requests of you while we are away, but I am hoping there is one thing you might do.

As I’m sure you are away, dogs are pack animals and make bonds with those in their household. I am concerned that us leaving him with you will cause separation anxiety as not only am I gone, but he also does not have Alfred. Either of them, for that matter. Nor Batcow.

I know you did not want to go to the manor every day in order to walk Titus but if it is at all possible it would be beneficial to each of them if you could at some point bring him to the manor while we are away.

Jason stared at the message, suddenly feeling weirdly soft on the kid, acting like he was some kind of pet psychologist, using big words and a drawn out explanation for I think my dog misses my cat, (and cow, sheesh) can you fix that?

Damian was a little asshole, but he was also a little kid. And so Jason thought about it, for real, but it made his gut twist. Sometimes going to the manor felt ok, and other times it just...didn’t.

He tapped out a hesitant reply.

Jason:
I’ll try if I have time

Like he was busy...it was a stupid reply and he was just waiting for Damian to call him on it. Titus was pacing the apartment again and Jason was thinking it was time for another walk, he brought a couple extra poop bags just in case...

It was dark out and even colder than it had been. Jason wondered how much snow they were gonna get this year. He hated the snow, had ever since his mom died and he spent his first winter on the streets.

He thought about what he would do with his time if he did ‘take a break’. Jason wasn’t exactly busy now, not that anyone else would know, except maybe Barb...and there was a chance Bruce, if he kept as close of tabs on him as Jason sometimes worried he did.

Jason used to be busy, a lot. He used to sleep during the first half of the day, spend the second half investigating leads, doing street work, gathering intel, and then he’d spend his nights doing the dirty work. But it hadn’t been quite like that for a little while. Not since he’d made the agreement with Bruce.

Before, Red Hood was his entire life. It consumed him. there was no Clark Kent to his Superman, no Bruce Wayne to his Batman. Jason was Red Hood and Red Hood was on a mission, one that had changed at some point from a pure thirst for revenge to something much more complicated. Was still morphing, slowly.

Part of him worried sometimes, about how much of his actions were...well, his own. Sometimes on the bad days he wondered how much of things he’d done in the past were him, and how much were something else.

He knew in the beginning it was Pit Madness, that he had been sharpened like a sword by Tahlia and turned toward Bruce in hopes that - Jason wasn’t even sure anymore, what she had been trying to get out of it.

He’d gotten better, his thoughts had cleared. But since he’d stopped killing nearly six months previously certain things seemed...different...he looked back on some of the things he’d done, when he though the Pit’s influence had left him, and he wondered...was that me? And he couldn’t decide if he wanted it to have been or not.

Because both options scared him.

Red Hood was...figuring out who he was now, now that his methods and...priorities had shifted. Jason Todd was sort of doing the same thing, trying to figure out if he needed a Clark Kent. If he needed a person to be outside the mask.

For a long time he hadn’t thought so, but the further away he got from the Pit the more he knew his thinking had been...skewed, before. Wasn’t sure he liked the idea of not being a real person.

But after being dead, coming back to life, digging out of his grave, taking a dip in a Lazarus Pit, spending time with the League of Assassins and killing off half of Gotham’s criminal underworld he wasn’t sure he knew how to be one.

Titus was nosing around a fire hydrant, lifting his leg to piss when his phone buzzed in his jacket pocket. He pulled it out absently, wondering if he was about to get a mini lecture in text about why animal pack bonds were so important but instead, he found a short message with a photo attached. And it wasn’t from Damian.

It was from Bruce.

Bruce:
Thank you again for watching Titus, Damian seems pleased with your messages.

There’s a bookstore here specializing in classic literature and rare books. If there’s anything you’d like me to look for let me know, I can pick it up for you.

The photo was of a store front. All red brick with a black door and a black framed window. There was gold lettering above the window that read Maggs Bros. LTD.

Jason swallowed, feeling uncertain and a little alarmed. His initial thought was maybe it was meant for someone else, but this was Bruce and he’d mentioned watching Titus so obviously it wasn’t. His stomach flipped in his gut, squirming uncomfortably, his mind going back to the gift shoved in the bottom of his dresser.

He stared at it for a long time before he slipped the phone back in his pocket, ignoring the itch to re-read it, to look for some kind of hidden message. He didn’t know what Bruce was trying to do and he wasn’t willing to play his stupid games.

Titus licked his hand and Jason startled, realizing they’d been standing on the same corner for nearly five minutes while his brain short circuited over a text.

His arm itched under the bandages and he made the mistake of scratching at it as they continued down the sidewalk, hissing under his breath at the throbbing sting. He’d need to change the bandage, apply more antibacterial cream. He probably should have given himself some stitches but his hands weren’t the steadiest and he wasn’t about to bring something so small to Leslie, or go to the manor for Alfred, whom he was still a little peeved with.

He’d never stay mad, ‘cause it was Alfred but he couldn’t shake the feeling of being manipulated even if he knew the man would never do something like that on purpose.

Maybe it was because it was working and Jason hated himself for falling for it, for looking for things he’d told himself a long time ago to give up on.

But then there was his phone, feeling like it was gonna burn through his pocket if he ignored it for too long.

There was a part of him, somewhere in the back of his mind that said he was being ridiculous. It was a gift and a text message, it was nothing so profound.

Except that it was Bruce, so it sort of was.

Chapter Text

The bite was bothering him, itchy under the bandages, more than he thought it should be, so he checked them later than night, figuring it was time to change the dressing anyway. It was a little red for his taste, a small sign of infection, so he was careful to clean it thoroughly again, even though it still hurt like a bitch. He slathered more antibacterial cream on it, slapping on a couple new bandages. There were some antibiotics stashed in a go bag he kept in the second bedroom that he dug out, just to be safe, and took a dose, leaving them on his bathroom counter.

When he got back to the couch to continue his evening, Titus was so put off by the smell of the cream he wouldn’t even sit near him. Instead he slunk back to his bed, ears and tail down like he was in trouble or something.

“Oh you big baby.” Jason grumbled, wedging himself down into the cushions and leaning his head back on the arm rest. He’d just started a re-read of Howl’s Moving Castle and there wasn’t a character in it that he didn’t like. Something he went back to when he felt the urge. He’d read it more times than he could count, it was one of the first books in Bruce’s library he had finished. Something full of magic and adventure that at the time felt more real than it ever could have otherwise.

He didn’t know how it held, after everything, but something about it still gave him that feeling of a fire in the dark. So he came back to it, when he needed that.

He fell asleep reading it and the dreams hit him hard and fast.

It was freezing outside, snow dusting the ground. Jason was ten years old and it was his first winter on the streets. He was laying on Honey’s couch. One of the working girls he used to bum cigarettes off of when his mom was still alive. She’d heard he was on his own now, come and found him huddled back behind a storefront with a large enough overhang to keep the snow and rain off.

She was nice, she made him tea and he’d been staring at the mug and the steam wafting off it for a few minutes, wondering if he’d ever feel this warm or comfortable again.

She was humming in the kitchen, and for a brief moment, in his hazy mind, he thought it was his mom and he was home sick from school.

He could smell the mint from the tea, feel the weight of the blanket draped over him. It was soft and quiet, and the lights were off but for a lamp in the corner, glowing a soft yellow. Jason felt safe, safe enough to close his eyes and drift off like he hadn’t been able to in weeks.

Honey came back into the room and he felt fingers run through his hair once before he was out.

It was a good night.

And then everything dissolved into the dark, his feet pounding against wet concrete hard enough to string while he sprinted down an alley in the freezing rain, heart pounding in his chest. There was a dog after him, a huge mutt Honey’s pimp had sent after him when he’d found him sleeping there.

Never mind he’d had her permission, never mind she’d tried to stop him, it was bad for business and Jason was back out in the cold before the sun was up, running for his worthless little life. His ankle throbbed, blood squelching down into his sock with every clap on the pavement. The thing was snarling at his heels, it sounded like a freight train coming up behind him, drowning out the frantic sounds of his own breathing before he’d managed to leap at a dumpster he was about to fly by, clawing himself up on top of it and using the drain pipe of the building it was pushed up against the shimmy his way up to the roof where he lay on his back, shaking and freezing in the slushed rain clutching at his bitten, bleeding ankle.

Jason woke with a start to the smell of dog breath and a wet nose nudging at his cheek.

He sat up in a rush, book falling in his lap. Titus whined at his side and put a paw on his leg, pushing himself up to lick at his face. Jason sputtered, shoving him off and panting for breath like he was just sprinting down an alley.

“Shit.” He breathed in the dim light of his apartment. There were no lights on but for the lamp in the corner and it was too close to the dream, too close to that feeling of temporary comfort. It was strange, but sometimes the dreams that didn’t seem so bad hit him the hardest.

He fumbled up off the couch, nearly running into Titus just to get to the light switch. Jason blinked back the sting and stood there for a long time, feeling tremors run through his shoulders and down his arms, making the bite throb.

He wasn’t sure what it was really, but sometimes the dreams from when he was on the streets were the worst ones. It was so long ago it didn’t even make sense, he’d lived so much worse since then.

But maybe that was the point.

Those memories were his first. When he learned you couldn’t trust anyone, that you had to take care of yourself ‘cause nobody else would. He’d known to a certain extent since he was small not to trust just anyone. Willis Todd made sure he knew that, but it wasn’t until his mom died that everything became quite so clear. Even the people who wanted to help couldn’t.

He needed a fucking cigarette.

The carton was just where he left it, stashed under his bed, a long stem lighter laying on his nightstand for the candle. He used it to light up, not wanting to search for his Zippo, somewhere in one of his kitchen drawers. He took a long drag immediately and concentrated on the feeling of the warmth rushing down his throat.

Turning to go to the window, Titus was right there, tripping him up as he tried to step around him. He whined until Jason stopped for a second and finally ran a hand over his head.

“I’m fine Titus, I’m good.” He breathed out, careful to point the smoke away from him. Finally Titus let him slip by, allowing him to reach his bedroom window where he slid it open and hung his upper body outside into the freezing air, resting his elbows on the sill.

It was a wonder, Jason thought, that he ever really wanted a dog at all after that.

Except that even when he was little, he’d known dogs weren’t just like that. People made them that way. He took another drag, feeling the warmth in his chest as he thought about what that took.

What it took to turn an animal like Titus into something that snapped at anything that came too close. An uneasy feeling welled up in stomach that he should know.

Jason of all people should know.

He stared down at his hand holding the cigarette, watching the glowing end in the dark, listening to the noise of the city below and around him. Cars honked in the distance, driving by on the street below every now and then. He stubbed out his cigarette and dropped it out the window to the street.

Titus was sitting behind him when he turned around and he patted at his head as he slipped by, searching for his cell where he left it on the coffee table. Pulling Barbara up in his phone should have taken longer, considering how rarely he messaged her, except that he hardly messaged anyone.

Jason:
Hey, I’m wondering if you can look into something for me. I got a lead that there’s a dog fighting ring somewhere in the city. Don’t really have any good information, hoping you can dig up some more.

He sent it before he could think better of it. Maybe without the damn phone number he wouldn’t be able to find anything but Babs was a genius with surveillance and finding information. If anybody could figure it out, it was her.

It wasn’t a minute later that her reply came in.

Barbara:
I’ll check on it.

Jason took a breath, running a hand through his hair and tugging at the roots, he stared at his coffee table. Even if he was useless, hopefully she’d find something.

His hand felt empty without the cigarette but Titus was right there again, trying to push into his personal space and shove his head in his lap. Absently, he knew Damian would kill him if he found out he was smoking in the dog’s presence, even just a few puffs would be enough. But lord he still felt wired, like he drank three cups of coffee in the span of ten minutes.

This was when he really wished he had freaking cable.

Books were like magic to Jason. They could take you anywhere. But sometimes when your mind was buzzing too much it was impossible to let them. He needed the noise and the images, he didn’t even have any movies-

Except that he did actually. Just the one. Tucked in the bottom of his dresser with a bunch of junk.

Jason had read Pride and Prejudice probably ten times through the years. Though he’d never seen a movie adaptation. He tended to avoid them in general without a direct recommendation because they were just so awful most of the time.

It was just a movie. It wasn’t like Bruce was going to materialize in his living room if he decided to watch it. Really why did he make such a huge deal out of it? He liked that story, and the idea of settling in to a comfortable fiction on the screen made his shoulders lower just a little, the itch for a cigarette diminish just that much.

“Screw it.”

It took him a good ten minutes to figure out how to work the stupid BluRay player that was built into the tv because he kept looking for a button before he realized he just had to slide the disc in the slot on the side.

Initially, he found himself scrutinizing the characters and their costumes, looking for differences from the book, trying to find flaws, but it wasn’t five minutes in that his brain quieted and he just enjoyed it. Titus climbed up on the cushions with him again, settled himself between Jason’s legs after a few misplaced steps and a little cursing on Jason’s part. He rested his head on his thigh and was forced to curl up tight enough to fit that it couldn’t be comfortable. But Titus seemed happy enough so he left it, absently rubbing at the dog’s ears as he watched.

It was a good interpretation. Jason found himself laughing out loud at parts, quoting short snippets out loud of dialogue he remembered. They didn’t all match up, mind you, which was a little disappointing but it was enjoyable from the start, and as it came to its close he thought maybe he should pick up the book again, to refresh his memory.

Elizabeth Bennet was a character that had surprised Jason when he was a kid.

He remembered being in the eighth grade, reading the book with Bruce after he’d convinced him to give it a shot after Jason had claimed he didn’t want to read a stupid romance novel.

He remembered loving Elizabeth and thinking if he met a girl like that he’d hold onto her, wouldn’t screw up so bad at first though like Darcy. He also remembered thinking Darcy reminded him of Bruce when he was a kid.

The stoicism, the assumptions, the high handedness, the condescension. But alternatively, the care, the awkward care, the nobility, the strength, the softness...and then he remembered finding out it was all fake.

Jason turned off the tv and felt a stone settle in the pit of his stomach.

But he thought about that box now laid out on his bed where he’d left it, thought about the movie he’d just watched, about how Bruce had thought about him, bought him something when Jason was still killing just cause it reminded him of Jason and he’d thought he’d like it. Wondered with a twist if like everything with the pit, seeing how different things looked from this side of them, if maybe he’d been mistaken about other things too.

Jason couldn’t just believe that though, that he was entirely wrong about Bruce’s feelings for him, because if he did - then that would mean that the things he did because of it were awful and wrong and he knew he wasn’t all there back then but there was enough of him that he shoudn’t have...he just shouldn’t.

Why couldn’t he have seen? he wondered. If he - if he had come back differently, if he hadn’t come gunning for Batman’s head, maybe things could have been different but now - now there was all this shit in the mix and it wasn’t just Jason. He was still mad at Bruce. He would still be mad at Bruce for so many things but...but Jason could see, he could see plain as day that it wasn’t just Bruce who ruined their relationship.

He didn’t know why it felt so hard to take, Jason had always been bad at holding on to good things, it wasn’t who he was.

He couldn’t even stay dead.



 

*



 

Once again, Jason woke up to whining at the door. He sprang up from the couch, heart rate shooting to the ceiling in an instant. “Ah shit.” Jason stumbled to his feet, glanced at the clock and cursed himself because yeah, it was after 10am.

“Shit, shit, shit sorry buddy, we’ll go out in two seconds, two seconds-” He was already stumbling into his bedroom, digging clothes out of his dresser, he stripped out of his pajamas, tugged on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt. He slammed his feet into a pair of boots with no socks and grabbed his coat.

Titus was whining by the time he came out of his room. “I know, I know, I’m going as fast as I can.” He grabbed Titus’ jacket, shoved the head sleeve over his snout and snapped the leash on.

They were out the door in under two minutes, jogging down the stairs. It was probably a miracle the dog wasn’t dribbling pee every step but magically he held it all the way out of the building. He lifted his leg on the first upright object he came to, which happened to be a stop sign. And Titus went, and went....and went. Somebody honked and waved as they drove by and Jason didn’t know if he should flip them off or laugh.

The panic of waking up with the threat of imminent pee was finally fading as Titus finished his business and was happy enough to start on the route Jason had been taking him for walks. He really wished he had put socks on, but it was a necessary sacrifice.

He stretched his back and neck, still sore and tight from sleeping on the couch all night, and pulled out his phone. He planned to check the weather, see if it was supposed to rain and what the temperature was predicted to be.

But then he saw the message from the night before, the one from Bruce. He stared at it for a long time, a strange nervous energy coming over him. What would be the harm in replying? It was a text message and the last thing Jason wanted was for Bruce to think he was brooding or ignoring him and try to fix it. There was enough, in that moment, floating around in his head, to make him question his self imposed silence.

So he stood there for a minute and on a split second decision, he opened the text and finally tapped out a reply, pressing send before he could talk himself out of it.

Jason:
You know, Matthew McFayden played a way better Mr Darcy that I expected. Especially considering I had no idea who he was before I watched the movie

With that he shoved his phone back in his pocket and concentrated on Titus, who appeared way too interested in a cat hanging out at the end of an alley.

“Leave it Titus.” He tugged on the leash gently and the dog obediently backed off, though he kept looking over as they walked by. The cat seemed unfazed, cleaning its face in peace. It wasn’t until they were rounding the corner to Jason’s building and his phone buzzed with a text alert that it occurred to him what he’d just said.

It was about the movie. It was the flipping Pride and Prejudice film that Bruce had bought him nearly eight months ago. He hadn’t even acknowledged the bookstore or anything else Bruce had said. No, he’d made it about the movie. The gift that Bruce had purchased for him that Bruce never actually gave him.

Shit what if he knew it was in the box of Jason’s things? He would know then, he’d make the connection surely.

He felt a clammy sweat break out on the back of his neck as he opened the door to his apartment building.

It didn’t matter. It wasn’t a big deal.

Except that it was a huge fucking deal. Because it was Bruce. The guy didn’t know how to be direct. He didn’t know how to say what he meant, he communicated in weird gestures and grunts and in turn he read into everything everyone else did. If Bruce made the connection that Jason had not only received his old gift but opened it and enjoyed it he didn’t even know what he would take from that.

Suddenly he felt the urge to pull out his phone and send another message. Some sort of explanation or hint of where the movie came from. That he had watched it online, that it wasn’t just on tv the night before. Except Bruce probably knew he didn’t have cable ‘cause he knew everything.

He was stomping up the stairs with his sockless feet, ankles rubbing on his boots, and it was like his whole stomach seized up. He didn’t even know why. It shouldn’t matter or be a big deal, even if Bruce thought that Jason had a bunch of warm and fuzzy feelings for him suddenly it didn’t affect Jason. He didn’t have to acknowledge it or feed into it at all. Jason could ignore it easily, it wasn’t like Bruce was going to be reaching out to him all the time anyway. They didn’t talk. Not about stuff outside the missions, or apparently personal favors.

Or book stores.

Jason swallowed hard, reaching out and petting at Titus just for something to do as they reached Jason’s floor. He pulled out his keys with stupid clammy hands and unlocked the door. Shut himself and Titus back up inside and went about taking each piece of both of their ensembles off. It was slow moving, his brain was sluggish, like the spooling cursor on a frozen computer his mind was blank.

Because he didn’t want things to go - he didn’t know. He didn’t know what it would mean if Bruce knew he’d watched the stupid movie he’d gotten Jason as a gift when he was still offing people.

He set his phone on the kitchen counter and didn’t think about it.

There were meals to plan, and things to clean and if his shoulders stiffened when his phone buzzed on the counter top it was nobody’s business. He didn’t look at it. There was no reason to because it was probably nothing. Probably some stupid app notifying him of a sale or the release of some new feature. It wasn’t even worth checking.

So he ignored it for the majority of the day, even when each buzz against his counter top made him flinch. He ignored it right up until the alerts started coming some three minutes apart and showed no sign of stopping. Thinking there had to be some kind of emergency happening, he finally picked it up to discover he had twenty-three unread messages.

With a deep sense of foreboding he tapped the notification, already berating himself for being dumb enough to ignore his phone in his line of work-

Except that twenty-one of them were from Damian, the little weasel, and when he actually opened them to see what the damn emergency was there were fifteen messages that amounted to hellooooooo????

Jason was tempted to block the little shit’s number until he scrolled back to the top to read the earlier messages.

Damian:
I have been informed that you asked Barbara to investigate something on your behalf and while I understand this likely has nothing to do with Titus, I will ask for an update.

____

You have been giving him his ear drops still correct? The prescription is for seven days regardless of symptoms.

____

Barbara did not have any information for me when I asked her about your request, I demand more information.

____

It is unlike you to take so long to reply, unless you are ignoring me on purpose, I demand answers Todd.

____

If Titus is harmed in any way upon our return I will eviscerate you.

____

Just send me a photo, I will know if it is current or not.

____

I demand a reply, Todd.

____

I will not beg for information.

____

If this is some attempt to teach me ‘manners’ you will be sorry.

____

What could you possible be doing at two in the afternoon that makes it impossible to reply?

____

Todd, answer me

____

Todd.

____

Please send a reply

____

I do not know what you are waiting for from me but I will gladly provide it

____

Answer please

____

Todd

____

Every message from that point on was some iteration of Jason’s name and he felt his stomach sink like a stone.

“Shit kid.” He rubbed a hand down his face, feeling like the biggest schmuck in Gotham. He took a minute to come up with a good enough lie and then dove in.

Jason:
Shit Damian, I’m sorry, battery on my phone died cause I forgot to plug it in. Left it at the apartment to charge while I was running errands. Titus is completely fine, nothing happened. Just some assholes on patrol making stupid comments.

He found Titus passed out on his couch, sprawled all the way across it, drooling on his single throw pillow and snapped a photo, sent it all together before tapping out another message.

Jason:
His ears are doing great, don’t seem to be bothering him at all, I’m being faithful about the drops. Always run the entire course of antibiotics and all that, I haven’t skipped out.

Sitting on the arm of his couch he just watched the little dots appear and disappear that told him Damian was seeing his messages, his gut twisting up in guilt and anger alike. Why the hell had Babs been telling people he asked her to look into something for him? She’d just spent half the morning convincing him she wouldn’t tell a soul if he decided to take a break, that she’d cover for him.

Damian’s reply came a moment later, and while Jason was waiting to be blasted by the kid it was surprisingly mild compared to his expectation.

Damian:
I should not be surprised you would do something so idiotic.

Jason heaved a sigh and reach over the armrest of the couch, patting at Titus’ hip, who wheezed out a slightly louder snore in response. Two seconds later another message registered.

Damian:
Thank you.

Jason quirked a smile, wondering briefly if he should screenshot the message and send it to Dick, if he’d die of shock and awe - jealousy maybe.

Instead he moved over to the head of the couch, where Titus’ head was resting on a throw pillow, tongue just peeking out of his mouth, whistling snores with every breath. He snapped an up close photo and sent it back with a thumbs up.

Then he hovered over the back arrow, telling himself to just rip off the bandaid. If Bruce was gonna be an asshole putting off the inevitable did nobody any good. There were two messages from him.

Bruce:
I was impressed by the film in general, the accuracy was decent and where it differed from the book the feel of the novel was still there.

____

I hope everything’s alright. If it’s something you don’t want to tell Damian just let me know and I’ll handle it.

Jason was honestly not sure what he expected, but it wasn’t either message.

Bruce made no comment about knowing about the gift. And then Jason thought, Duh, you idiot. Alfred was the one who put the box together.

The card had been half destroyed. Bruce wouldn’t have let Alfred give it to him if he’d known about it. And Jason couldn’t think about that either because - what did that mean? He still didn’t get it. Why buy the gift and then never give it to him? Why keep it for so long? Had he been intending to give it to him at some point, and just...never got around to it?

And then the other message. He didn’t even know what Bruce heard from Damian...Or maybe Babs. But he would have expected something a little more...accusatory. Instead it was just an offer for help...nothing more nothing less. Even offered to take the brunt of the demon bird’s wrath. Jason tapped at the screen, sitting himself down, criss-cross-applesauce in front of the couch since Titus, the mammoth, was taking up the entire thing.

Jason:
They changed the dialogue in some of my favorite scenes though, kinda disappointing.

And everything’s fine, just off the radar for a bit.

He still wondered if Bruce might know, or at least have some suspicion. The man’s head was like a steel trap, even if he never intended to give the gift to Jason, he probably knew where it was, did he realize it was missing?

Bruce:
I’m glad.

Which scenes? I remember them staying pretty on script for the important ones.

Jason read the message three times, looking for something, for some sign that Bruce was fishing, that he was leading somewhere with the conversation, but he just felt stupid. It was dumb, it was about the damn movie and if Jason thought Bruce read into everything he apparently had nothing on Jason.

He tapped at the side of his phone for a minute, wondering if he wanted to reply, if he wanted to keep the conversation going.

But it was casual, it was about a movie, it wasn’t any big thing.

Jason:
You asking for a line by line comparison? I don’t remember exactly. Mostly the second confession scene, like it was dramatic, but they cut out basically their whole conversation.

Bruce:
Hm, I’ll have to rewatch it again soon and refresh my memory.

Jason:
And ok, that ending? A little sappy for my taste personally.

Bruce:
...I suppose.

Jason laughed, couldn’t help it. Of course Bruce would have some secret hard on for sappy romance.

Jason found himself falling into the rhythm of the conversation. The easy back and forth of favorite and least favorite scenes, theories and ideas, characters you love and the ones you love to hate. He got a photo in the middle, of a bookshelf, lined with ancient looking hardbacks and Jason had to pull it up and zoom in to make out the details and realize that the entire shelf was copies of Pride and Prejudice.

Jason:
You go to this place every day of your trip? The demon brat can’t be enjoying that, surely there are other things to do.

Of course he didn’t know that, didn’t know much about Damian at all beyond where he came from and that he acted like a little shit ninety percent of the time.

Bruce:
He’s enjoying it. There’s a large art section that he’s found interest in.

And there was another photo attached, a pile of art books on anatomy and landscapes with Damian to the side, sitting at the table, head bent over a notebook with an expression of fierce concentration.

He looked all of his twelve years and it hit Jason in such a weird nostalgic place his stomach twisted into a knot. There were so many trips to the bookstore when Jason was that age. Bruce and Dick had done things like go to an amusement park, or the zoo. He remembered that the elephant from Dick’s circus days, Zitka, was there, so they’d go visit her sometimes, when they weren’t at each other’s throats.

But Bruce and Jason had always gone to the bookstore.

He didn’t reply.

Jason was really just looking for things to do to kill time, that was most of his life lately, feeling pointless. Sometimes when he got restless like this he got weird cravings for Alfred’s baking. A trip to the manor though was...not in the cards for him at this point so instead, he decided he’d make cookies. On an inventory of his cabinets however, he found, despite his earlier grocery run the day before, he was out of sugar and low on flour.

It was easy enough to make a run to the grocery store but it was after five pm and the sun was already down, the temperature would have dropped significantly from earlier in the day. But Jason still needed to take Titus for his evening walk anyway so he might as well make it a two for one deal. He’d hedged away from taking him inside anywhere so far, just because he was so big, but when he’d gone to the corner market before there was a large German Shepherd walking around inside and the checker made a deal of petting it. For being a place that hated people so much Gotham was relatively dog friendly.

So they both bundled up again, properly this time, and headed out.

The thing was, Jason hadn’t lived a normal person’s life since...well ever really, and he found himself entirely disconnected from the general population. Meaning he was totally taken off guard by the amount of people at the store. He didn’t even get it, it was after working hours now so maybe people were stopping at the store on their way home but it seemed so much worse than that to Jason. He didn’t catch on until he saw a woman with three turkeys loaded into her cart with enough dressings to feed an army that oh right, it’s November, holidays are just around the corner.

It was just that the whole thing, the crowd, the bustle of it all, made him nervous. Put this buzzing in the back of his brain that had him scanning people again, looking for threats, for weak spots. He found himself calculating how quickly he could set something off, vault the check out stands, and be out of the store. And people weren’t paying any attention, when he looked around all he saw were sitting ducks, fussing over lists, talking on their cell phones.

Jason could bring the place down in under a minute, and he could see exactly how it would go. He wouldn’t even need anything special, he could probably do it with what he had on him right then.

He was carrying a bag of flour and a back of sugar tucked under one arm, his other hand wrapped so tight in Titus’ leash he could feel the fabric creaking. He was just standing in line, there was nothing special about it, about any of it, but the thought hit Jason like a truck.

I could kill everyone in here.

Titus nosed at his hand and he flinched, taking in a deep breath, the noise of it covered by the bustle around them. This was a bad idea. Crowds were not for him. Not like this. He concentrated on the cold, wet sensation of Titus’ nose, pressing on the back of his hand, the tongue that followed, warm and a little bit slimy.

He didn’t want to admit how much it helped. Getting through the line and completing his purchase was a blur and by the time he was back in his apartment building Jason felt like a ball of anxiety so tightly compacted he might just spontaneously implode. He was searching for that feeling, the Lazarus green where it lurked in the back of his head, because where else did that come from?

He slammed the flour and sugar on the kitchen counter and ran a hand through his hair because he could feel it, the Pit, like a second heart beat. And the thought was still there.

I could kill all of them.

He’d done things like that before. Not to innocents but back when he was with the league - there were probably some people who didn’t deserve it, who, if Jason had known the whole store, he never would have agreed to kill.

But he hadn’t asked for the whole story. He’d just done the job, because it was his training, it was what he was there for and he couldn’t say no, didn’t know what would happen if he said no. And it was what he’d wanted, anyway. The thought made him nauseas.

His phone buzzed in his pocket and he nearly knocked over the flour. It was a message from Bruce and Jason opened it with numb fingers.

Bruce:
There’s some limited editions in that shop I think you would be interested in. I’ll send you some photo’s tomorrow, you can tell me what catches your eye.

Jason swallowed, his lips were numb. He stared at the message and he realized, Bruce had no idea what he was doing, who he was reaching out to. He saw the kid that died in Jason, and then when he got Jason, as he was now, he’d realize it wasn’t right, it wasn’t what he wanted. That’s what it was.

That’s what it was every time. It was why they could never stop the cycle, the runaround of enemies to working allies to something else, and right back again. It would never work, because Jason was too far gone. He was.

He couldn’t even go to the goddamn grocery store.

It was infuriating sometimes, the things Bruce refused to see. Looking at their messages from earlier in the day, it all just felt fake. Like they were playing pretend. Like Bruce was his dad that he just lost contact with, they just drifted apart and now they were reconnecting? Please.

Jason:
Go have your bullshit fake conversation with someone else.

He tossed his phone on the counter, putting both palms flat on the porcelain tiles and breathing deep through his nose. Even with how ridiculous it felt, in the wake of everything else, he really just needed something to do. To be in motion. And making fucking cookies would do the trick.

The concentration it required to pay attention, measure the ingredients, make sure he didn’t leave anything out, the physical act of mixing and sizing - it helped. It pulled back on the anxiety, pushed his shoulders down away from his ears and slowed his racing heart. Titus came wandering into the kitchen after another loop of the apartment and hovered behind Jason, interested in whatever he was doing.

By the time he put the first batch in the oven he was already regretting the message. Even if it was fake, snapping and making a deal of something innocuous was just gonna get him more attention than he wanted.

Bruce hadn’t replied and Jason unlocked his phone to stare at the offending text, alternating between anger and anxious guilt. He’d never liked texting, at least when he said stupid shit to someone’s face they could act like it didn’t happen the next time they saw each other. With texts the words were right there every time you brought up the conversation to say something else.

It was stupid. It was so stupid because Jason was right! Whatever Bruce thought he wanted out of this thing he was doing with Jason he wouldn’t get. Jason was just - he wasn’t capable of being the person that Bruce thought he was.

Jason avoided his phone while he finished off his baking, even though he was distinctly aware of the lack of notifications. He played with Titus some, gave him his ear drops, and was just taking the last batch out of the over when his phone buzzed on the counter behind him.

He was standing in the middle of his kitchen and he set the cookie sheet on the stove top and stared at it for a minute. The message could easily be from Damian. Or hell, anybody, maybe Barbara had news on the fighting ring, maybe Dick had a stupid meme to send him like he used to, before Babs said he “changed strategy”.

Taking a deep, slow breath, he started transferring the cookies to a cooling rack and carefully bit a piece off one. He turned around and Titus was standing there, tail wagging, ears up.

“Sorry bud, I learned my lesson, nothing but puppy food for you.” They were sugar cookies, because Titus was so huge Jason was afraid he’d just pop his head over the counter top and eat one, so chocolate chip was out of the question, even if they were his favorite.

And then he bit the bullet, snagging his phone and tapping open the message, wondering what kind of shit show he just started by being a petulant little asshole.

Bruce:
I’m not sure what you mean.

Jason clenched his hand around his phone, bouncing between irritation and some unknown emotion.

And then his phone started to ring and he startled so hard he dropped it.

It clattered to the linoleum floor and went shooting to the other side of the kitchen, ricocheting off the side of Titus water bowl with a sharp ting. The dog startled but immediately investigated, going to nose around the bowl at the weird object vibrating against it, the sound reverberating in his kitchen like an angry hornet’s nest.

He’d only had a split second to look at the screen, but there was no mistaking it was Bruce that was calling. Jason could only stand there, leaning up against the counter and staring at Titus where he pushed the thing with his nose and then jumped back, shaking his head, looking back at Jason as if to ask, ‘What the hell is that thing? Is it safe?’

And how the hell should Jason know, really?

He let it ring, feeling frozen in place right until it stopped and he got one more little buzz for another text. Finally unsticking from the counter Jason approached his phone like a snake, as if expecting it to strike back at any moment. What he found was a ‘1 missed call’ notification and a message that read:

Is everything alright?

It was so the opposite of how Jason expected Bruce to react he, for a moment, thought he must be hallucinating.

And then for a split second he wanted to tell him. About the Lazarus, about his issues with crowds, going to the grocery store and planning a detailed escape route in which he blew the place to high heaven.

What he sent instead was: It’s fine, forget about it.

Chapter Text

Miracle of Miracles Jason slept through the night, Titus pressed tight to his left side. He kept trying to shove him away in his sleep but he was so freaking heavy all he did was push himself closer to the edge of the bed and by the time he woke up he was just barely still on the mattress, dog splayed out next to him.

His morning was slow. Titus got his drops, food, Jason packed up two dozen cookies and wondered why he thought it was a good idea to make a full batch for just himself. He took another dose of antibiotics.

Bruce had eventually responded to his last message from the night before, just a simple, if you’re sure.

And that morning he had another one, a photo, from Bruce. It looked like it was taken from a hotel room, a large window with a table in front of it, where Damian sat, eyes half lidded, a plate of breakfast in front of him. Behind him, outside the window, the sun was coming up over the city. The Thames was winding through the photo, the sun bright and yellow over the peaks of the tallest buildings in the distance. There was the slightest fog, putting a soft haze over the whole thing, and the clouds were sparse but enough to catch a pink glow at the edges.

It was beautiful, but for the life of him, Jason had no idea what to say back. Or even what Bruce was thinking sending it to him. He fiddled with his phone, staring at the shot for a minute before Titus pushed into the back of his legs.

“Alright, alright, I’m going.” It was early enough, but also late enough, that there weren’t so many people on the street when they went out. As they neared the end of the block they would normally turn around at Jason decided to go ahead and keep going, right on to Hamilton Park where they’d run into the assholes last time. It was sunny outside, so even though it was freezing the warmth of it on his shoulders felt good.

Despite their last experience in the park Titus seemed happy to be let off leash to go find another dog to run around with. Jason watched carefully, scanning for any too familiar faces or a particularly large Rottweiler. But it was quiet, just parents with their kids and their dogs, an old man with a little poodle, a teenage girl with a spotted Australian Shepherd, a lady who couldn’t be anything but a dog walker, surrounded by some six dogs, all different breeds.

Jason snagged a short video clip of Titus, bent low, front paws stretched out in front of him and tail wagging, in the face of a Corgi who was barking like mad. The Corgi’s owner was laughing, looking around for whoever owned Titus, Jason gave a half wave and the guy returned a thumbs up. He sent it to Damian, still feeling a hint of guilt at making him worry so much the day before. His arm itched pretty insistently and he wasn’t sure if it was being at the park or because the infection wasn’t clearing up like it should be. He started thinking about maybe stopping by Leslie’s, maybe she would have a wound wash she could give him or just stronger pills.

He sat on one of the benches scattered around and opened the photo, wondering, again, what he was supposed to say back. Damian replied to his video while he was sitting there staring at it.

Damian:
I have wanted another dog for some time, I believe it would be beneficial for Titus’ exercise but Father still says no.

Jason smirked at it.

Jason:
Hey, I never got a dog growing up, you’ve got half a barnyard already, be happy.

Damian:
Yes, that is Father’s general reaction as well. He asks if you considered his question about the books.

Jason blinked at that. Somehow feeling surprised that Bruce apparently...talked about him. Which was stupid. They were both messaging him and he was watching their dog, it only made sense. And it gave Jason a way to respond to Bruce without seeming like he was ignoring his last message. He reopened the conversation and tapped out a reply.

Jason:
They got any Mary Shelly? Or an illustrated copy of the Hobbit?

He wasn’t even sure why he was playing along, like he was expecting Bruce to buy him some expensive, limited edition classic novel or something. It was ridiculous. But then an hour later he got a picture of both books, laid out next to each other on an old oak table.

Bruce:
I’ve been chatting with the owner of the store here, seeing if he’d ever be interested in expanding.

Jason scoffed, he had his laptop open on the counter where he sat on a bar stool, trying to browse for a new wireless router since the lag was getting to him. But unironicaly, hardly anything would load.

Jason:
Might be hard to find anybody willing to move to Gotham from London just to open a bookstore. Not sure the profit would be there, probably more bibliophiles in England.

Bruce:
Hm, but if it was sponsored by Wayne Enterprises...I’m in negotiations.

Jason:
What’s the big deal?

Bruce:
I’d just really like you to see this place.

Jason swallowed roughly, setting his phone down on the counter and clicking aimlessly at his laptop, waiting for the spooling page to load.

He opened a new tab to check his current bank balance. His rent was due in a few days and he figured he would go ahead and send it now, to be safe. Catching sight of the total funds though made his stomach lurch. It was less than he remembered. Not horrifically so, not in an emergency kind of way, but with all his normal bills and costs of regular life he probably only had about two more months worth to live on. It meant he needed to find a way to get more.

Which was normally simple enough. In the past he’d just track down a higher level smuggler, weapons, or drug dealer, shut him down and steal whatever funds he had lying around in cash. Because they always had cash. But Jason hadn’t had his eyes and ears on organized crime for a little while. He was gonna need to start from scratch, which meant it could take a while before he found the right people.

He replied to Bruce’s text.

Jason:
There’s bookstores in Gotham, I’m sure I’ll live.

Even though he hadn’t been to one in he didn’t know how long. He sort of wanted to. He didn’t live far from the Gotham Public Library where he was and considering how much of his days felt wasted in recent times he thought he might. Jason was a lover of classics and he re-read his favorites on the regular but he wasn’t opposed to new stories either, it just took a little more of a keen eye to filter through for something good.

It was a peaceful day. And Jason wouldn’t admit it but he freaking needed one.

It was when patrol time rolled around that he started to feel a little edgy.

He skipped the night before, after his freak out moment in the grocery store and this every-other-night thing wasn’t ideal but it was better than staying in more than he went out. There was just an edge of nerves to the idea after the last time. Even though the circumstances weren’t ideal. Really it was fine, Jason could handle it.

Plus his head felt...stable, he thought. Not to mention that since he had been cutting back on deep op’s he found his days feeling rambling and pointless, filled to the brim with useless fluff. There was a growing need in his gut to get out there, do something with his time and energy that was actually useful, productive, something, instead of staying holed up in his apartment just reading books and cooking.

His dwindling funds weren’t far from his mind either, and while Barbara’s offer of a break was still floating around in the back of his head, it wasn’t an easy thing to consider when you had no other backing. Crime only kicked up around the holidays, he needed to keep an eye on things. Wanted to feel like he was actually doing something instead of just existing in his apartment with Titus.

Titus was asleep in his bed when he headed out, slipping down to his bunker and out on the streets on his bike in near silence.

Fighting crime with the main purpose of stealing money still did feel a little on the uncool side to Jason but he also couldn’t give a rip. Especially in Gotham. The police force were half corrupt. Even if they ended up arresting, charging, and successfully putting away the people that Red Hood might catch, their money either went into an evidence locker for a year or more or it got pocketed by the less than honest cops on the case. All Jason did was skip the line.

So he did a cursory check on Crime Alley, stopped a couple muggings, sent a hopelessly lost tourist on their way in a cab, checked on the working girls, and then he headed to the docks.

There were a lot in the city, but the busiest and largest was Port Adams, off Old Gotham. If you were looking to catch a smuggler of any kind, whether it be fake handbags, illegal weapons, or drugs, nearly everything came in from the docks. The little island that Gotham was could be accessed by car or truck of course but it wasn’t possible to get a shipment of the size that Jason was looking for that way.

When he arrived, things were more bustling than usual. Probably, again, the holidays. And so Jason took his time moving through the shadows. Observing from the tops of shipping containers and listening for anything that might not be aboveboard. Thankfully his helmet had good enough tech he could amplify voices if he pinpointed his target correctly. It was mostly just a bunch of stressed out shoresmen trying to get UPS packages to their proper stations so they could be loaded onto delivery trucks the next morning.

He did find a target though. Hood was hugging the northernmost dock, sitting on top of a double stack of containers, watching a singular man standing outside another, dressed in all black, beanie covering his hair, keeping out of the dock lights and hissing angrily on a cell phone he was covering with his other hand. His breath puffed out in angry white clouds of condensation.

“I don’t care what your schedule is like, we have product, it needs moving, so you get here and you move it.”

The amplification on his helmet wasn’t quite enough to catch the other end of the conversation but it became clear what was going on quickly enough.

“It’s the holidays, people will think you’re visiting family or out sick, no one’s gonna notice kid.”

There was a pause as whoever was on the other line spoke, muffled noise all Jason could make out in his helmet. The guy cracked his neck and turned toward the container, hunching his shoulders over. When he spoke again his voice came out rough and gravelly, like he was barely holding back from screaming.

“Listen you little shit. I don’t give a rat’s ass about your ninth grade aspirations. You needed money, you came to me. This is how you make money. I need all the runners. All of ‘em. That includes you and your runt little brother. If you ain’t in place tomorrow at six, you can forget about the payment, and you better watch your damn back next time Mark drops by your school.

“You don’t get into this game and then just drop out kid. You made the decision to get in on this, and now you deal with the consequences. It’s the holidays, things pick up, everybody and their brother needs a little diesel in their veins this time of year. You’re doing ‘em a favor.”

He hung up the phone.

Jason was crouched low, a hand planted against the metal top of the container. His other hand went to a gun on his hip, shaking with barely suppressed rage.

Heroin. The guy was moving heroin with school kids. Why he was at the docks made less sense, since heroin wasn’t generally an import drug. That was until he pounded on the side of the container he was standing in front of before undoing the latch, opening the left side door.

“How’s it coming?” He asked whoever was inside. A girl’s voice replied, followed by a boy’s, both young sounding, high school age probably.

“Are they-? What the fuck.” He whispered to himself, because based solely on the eerie light coming from the container, the fact that there were people inside and this dude was apparently a heroin dealer, they had to be making the stuff in there.

It made a weird sort of sense. The cops didn’t pay the docks a ton of attention, too much going in and out at all hours of the day, plus custom’s agents were around and it was their job. Jason was sure every single one of them must be paid off since illegal goods had been siphoning into the city since long before Jason’s career in a mask had started.

Long before Bruce’s even.

Jason leapt off the container into a practiced landing roll, hopping up and tucking himself to the side, closer to better hear the conversation.

“We need to double this.” The man said.

“I know that’s what you said but I don’t think we have enough supplies to double the batch-” The girl spoke, sounding nervous.

“Did I ask you? Make it work or you won’t be leaving by sunrise.”

“But - that’s not-”

Of everything this moldy piece of shit had been spouting since Jason caught onto him, this was what did it.

Because Jason’s mom had been a user. A cancer patient first, desperate for relief she could no longer get at a pharmacy for insurance premiums and bullshit prescription laws. Heroin was the cheaper option, the best one she had, and while Jason would never know exactly what killed her - overdose being the official ruling, he would bet the shit she was getting in this city wasn’t pure.

Half the danger of street drugs was what was mixed in.

The fact that he had fucking teenagers with a gift for chemistry mixing it for him, (in a shipping container of all things, that definitely did not have good ventilation and was likely to get the both of them killed) and more dealing on the streets. It was a combination that was precisely horrible enough to push him just the wrong side of furious.

From the sounds of it there were only the three of them inside. Jason spared a split second to think of the kind of bank roll this guy must have if he was able to keep his operation this small, then he moved.

He kicked the already partially open door wide and drew a gun, pointing it directly at the man he’d watched on the phone. All three of them jumped. The kids, two teenagers, just like Jason had thought, were dressed in homemade hazmat suits with gas masks around their necks. At least they were smart, but they looked terrified. The girl was Asian, dark hair pulled into a bun, mouth partially open in tense fear, eyes wide. The boy was white, tall, thin, wearing glasses with lenses so thick they could start a fire. He looked blank, but so stiffly frozen in place Jason thought he might be looking at a mannequin.

There were plastic buckets sealed and stacked in the back corner, three large foldable tables pushed against one wall covered in portable cooktops with pots on each, boiling away. A few glass and plastic bottles sat scattered around, measuring cups, and one large white plastic container labeled CHLOROFORM in black permanent marker.

Large lamp stands were set up in the corners, blaring 500 watt white lights, hooked up to extension cords that all ran towards the back. Everything was cast in long sharp shadows, and there was enough steam in the place it was noticeably warmer inside.

And then there was the singular adult, standing in the center of the space looking entirely unimpressed. Up close, Hood was similarly underwhelmed. He was average in height, a little bit of a paunch, thick brown hair and mustache, indeterminate race, heavy five o’clock shadow and beady little eyes. The guy was standing there with his phone in his hand, looking totally incredulous when Jason took a step forward.

“Kids, go home.” Jason spoke loud enough that the statement couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. The girl started to move but the man threw out a hand.

“No way in hell. Who do you think you are coming in here?” At this the boy faltered, looking at the back of their leaders head in terror.

“That’s Red Hood.” He hissed.

“Oh good, Little Red Riding Hood decided to pay a visit?” He sneered and both teens paled.

“That’s right.” Jason drawled out, feeling green lightning crackling up his spine, “Little Red here, would like the kids to get going before the situation gets serious.” He had to hand it to the guy, while being held at gun point he still managed to keep his head like nothing changed. Guy didn’t even know they were rubber bullets.

Must be new in town if he didn’t know Red Hood’s reputation, ‘Cause the kids clearly did.

“You heard me.” He spoke up for the kids, motioning to the side with his gun and head. “Scram.” They both glanced at each other and before anything else could happen the girl took off, not even seeming to register the yell from her boss.

“Sarah you get the hell back here!” The guy screeched, taking three heavy steps after her and reaching to grab the back of her suit. Jason took a warning shot that whizzed past his head and the girl ducked, shrieking and clapping her hands over her ears.

The boy flinched and froze again, going back to a deer in headlights, jaw so tight Jason could practically hear his teeth cracking. The girl stumbled, nearly running into him, forcing Jason to put out a hand to steady her. She jerked back and fumbled into the metal wall and in the meantime Mustache Man had put his hands in the air, and was spitting curses like it was making him money.

“Do you think I’m joking?!” Hood took a step forward, feeling adrenaline pumping through his veins like it always did after firing a round, lethal or not. That signature tint was hazing up his eyes and he blinked it back, gripping his gun tight.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?!” Mustache screamed.

Jason took another step forward, furious, and looked at the girl cowering to the side. “You need to go.” He growled, deep in his chest. But she just took a shaky breath and looked back at the blonde boy.

“Seth.” Jason couldn’t hear her over the uninterrupted stream of bluster coming from Mustache, but he could read her lips and the way her hands shook.

Jason shook his gun in the guys face, feeling his heart pounding in his ears like a war drum. This was out of hand, he needed to get it under control.

“Move to the wall!” He fired another shot over the guy’s shoulder, and he flinched back, but he didn’t move. Jason had a split second to wonder how badly he was traumatizing these kids before he pressed on. “I am Red Hood, and you are going to be sorry if you don’t listen to me right now.”

“H-he’s one of the Bat’s, Mark.” The blonde kid, Seth spoke up, audible only because the man was sucking in a new breath. He heaved for air but he didn’t keep going, eyes snapping to the kid. “He works with Batman and the others.” Mark paled and Jason realized, watching his eyes dart back and forth, that he was remembering stories about him, finally making the connection.

“He- he’s killed people before.” The kid’s voice shook that time and Mark finally looked back at him, scowling heavily in spite of the obvious fear in his eyes.

Jason might be out of that game right now, but he still leaned into it. “That’s right Mark, I have. And you know the kind of people I hate the most? Drug dealers who cut their product, violent pimps, and people who use kids to do their dirty work. You are batting two for three my friend. It’s not looking good for you. But if you let the kids go, I’ll go easy on you. We can call the cops, you go to jail, you tell me where you keep your cash and I’ll be outta your hair.”

There was a deep gravel to his voice Jason barely recognized, feeling the heat of the Pit still swirling in his stomach like acid.

Finally, Mark moved, shuffling backwards toward the wall, hands still in the air. Jason looked back at the boy and motioned him forward. “Go, you and the girl get outta here.” It took a second for the kid to unstick his feet from the floor but he finally, jerkily, began to walk toward the entrance, hands up just like Mark’s.

It was just as he was walking past the man that thing’s got frighteningly out of hand. Jason could see it just before it happened but he wasn’t fast enough to react. Mark shot an arm out and grabbed the kid, dragging him by the shoulder to his front and wrapping an arm around his chest.

Jason started toward him, adrenaline and whatever else pushing him forward like something unstoppable, right up until he pulled a knife and brought it to the kid’s throat. Jason froze, staring at the wide, terrified eyes of a teenage boy.

“What the fuck are you doing?! If you don’t let that kid go right now, I will shoot you in the head.”

“You’d risk it? A bat? Shooting an innocent kid?” He shoved the boy forward pushing until they both stood in the center of the container, meanwhile, the girl was still huddled against the opposite wall, now silently crying.

“Let him go Mark!” She screamed, voice cracking with it.

“Shut the hell up!”

“How do you see yourself getting out of this pal? I ain’t leaving until you let the kid go!”

“Oh?” He pressed the knife into his neck and the kid’s breath hitched, holding perfectly still. “If you don’t put the gun down I’ll slit his throat.”

Jason sucked in a shaky breath, feeling like his lungs were filling with water.

“And I’ll fucking kill you if you do.” His vision was going green, clouding up with it. He wasn’t sure if the guy was serious or not. These peddlers, drug dealers, they were the scum of the earth. He took a minute to curse himself for not just waiting until the kids were gone, or the guy stepped out. He jumped the gun, literally, and now this kid was in danger.

The boy let out a hitched whimper and flinched when a tiny bead of blood welled up at the knife. Tears were swimming in his eyes and Jason could fight the pit, for this, he could fight the urge in him telling him to risk it and fire straight through the guys eyes. Fuck rubber bullets.

He took a deep breath, and he folded. Jason lowered his arm, pointing the gun down, he crouched slowly, setting it on the ground next to him. Jason could take the guy in hand to hand anyway, knife or no.

“There, now let the kid go.”

“No way, you think I’m stupid? We’re all gonna walk out of here, and I’m gonna watch you take that helmet off, get in whatever vehicle you came here in and leave. Then I’m gonna do the same, we can act like we never saw each other.”

He pushed the kid forward and they started to walk toward Jason.

He should have waited. He should have done his fucking research. He was sloppy, he was stupid.

Hood stood where he was and the guy stopped a couple steps from him, “You think I won’t do it? You said yourself I’m a drug dealer using kids for my dirty work, what’s a little blood on my hands?”

“If you don’t drop that knife right fucking now I’ll kill you. I will end you.” He let out a thin, whispery laugh.

“Better than prison pal. Been there, done that.” And Jason could see then, just how much he had underestimated this man. Not his capabilities or his competency, but his sheer lack of fear and capacity for cruelty. He could see it in his eyes like he remembered some of the guys Willis used to do jobs for. They came around the apartment when he was little, to talk shop or collect money owed. He learned early on to hide when certain ones showed up, remembered being ignored most of the time, but then there were some of them, some of them that thought it was funny to scare him, make little seven year old Jason cry. Not like Willis was gonna do anything about it.

There was that same glint in his eyes.

The boy’s breathing was speeding up, fast enough and loud enough to be a distraction and Jason could tell he was about to hyperventilate, could see the panic in the kid’s glazed over eyes.

Jason took a step back, hands held in the air.

“Prison time won’t be long if you get caught cooking heroin. Murdering a teenager though - I’d reckon that’d be a lot worse.”

“Stop talking or I’ll do it now.” Jason almost choked on his next inhale, watching the kid panic was making his chest tight.

“Kid you gotta slow your breathing.” His wide, frightened eyes flicked to Jason and immediately away, like he barely registered the words. “You need to listen to me kid, Seth.” Even his name did nothing, eyes staring at the ceiling like he was praying for an angel.

“You have to calm down Seth. Even out your breathing.”

“I told you to shut up.”

“You need to exhale Seth.” His breathing was taking on that wheezy, rabbit quickness and then he shut his eyes entirely.

“Shut up!” Jason clipped his mouth shut, jaw so tight it hurt, his own tense panic seeming to clear his head of the pit, at least temporarily.

“You, get out of here.” Jason tried for the girl, one more time, but she just shook her head at him, still crouched against the wall.

“Back. Up.” Mark pushed forward, the kid tripping over his own feet as Jason watched a line of blood trickle down his neck in the bright lights and shadows and Jason didn’t know what to do. The kid was either going to puke or pass out and with a knife to his neck it wasn’t likely to be pretty either way.

“You need to let the kid go.”

“We’ve been over this. Back up.”

“That boy is going to throw up or fall-“

“Stop talking! And move!”

“This is not going to end how you-“

“I don’t want to hear another-“

They were yelling over each other, voices gaining in volume and clashing together to creat an unintelligible mash of words, right up until the kid just - dropped.

Mark staggered under the sudden weight, the knife shifting, the girl screamed, Jason saw another flash of blood and was moving before he could think better of it. He darted forward, grabbing the arm with the knife and yanking it away from the kid, disarming him with a swift twist to the wrist and barely managing to catch the boy with his other arm when he fell like a sack of potatoes.

Mark dashed around him, moving faster than expected for his bulk and Jason couldn’t catch him, too preoccupied with dragging the kid over to the girl and checking the cut on his neck. “It’s shallow, he’ll be fine.” And Jason was telling the truth, it wasn’t deep, didn’t nick anything important but the blood on his hand and the sight of an unconscious kid with a cut on his neck had Jason seeing green.

When he turned to the door he registered that his gun was gone from the ground but he didn’t care, he raced out after the guy with nothing left in him but the urge to hurt. All his reasoning, all his control, it was gone, evaporated like steam off his shoulders.

A shot rang out as soon as he stepped out of the open door, ricocheting off the metal container. Red Hood didn’t flinch, just narrowed in on where the shot came from. He was just conscious enough to remember that the bullets were rubber and he let himself get shot. They hurt like scorpion stings but Jason had had worse and he was on the guy after three shots, even as he scrambled backward.

They grappled briefly, Jason shoving him to the ground, on top of him. The gun went off between them, right into his chest plate and he lost his breath for an instant before he wrenched the gun from his hands and threw it away from them. Mark clearly wasn’t unfamiliar with a fight. He knocked him in the head pretty hard but in his state and with the helmet it just felt like bugs on a windshield.

Jason was bigger, stronger, and angrier than this man and he didn’t stand a chance. He hit him so hard in the face the man was momentarily stunned and then Jason’s hands were around his neck.

Jason didn’t feel anything. What little awareness he had of his surroundings before faded like mist in the wind.

There was nothing in the world but the man below him on the tarmac, nothing but the sensation of flesh under his gloved hands, a pulsing heart beat struggling under the pressure of his grip, the choked noises of a dying man like a gasping fish. The way he bucked his whole body trying to upend Jason’s weight, his spine twisting and seizing. The hands wrapped so tightly around his wrists it should hurt, it should be searing against the wound still covered in bandages but it wasn’t, it didn’t feel like anything. And Jason stared into those bloodshot, bulging eyes, taking in the fear, the panic, the sheer instinct that took over when you were staring death in the face.

It felt like the ocean.

Like Jason was swimming in viscous green water, his lungs straining for air, ears filled with a rushing pulse. He couldn’t see through it, he didn’t know where the surface was, where to swim, nothing but green, green, green and Jason was drowning in it.

It felt like a split second. It felt like a time jump, like the crashing of a wave being thrown head over heels into rough waters, and finally struggling to break the surface only to find that hours had passed since you went under.

Jason blinked back to himself in the quiet and the dark of the shipyard. Nothing but his own labored breathing and the distant sounds of cranes and operating vehicles.

The form beneath him was still.

Jason fumbled, scrambled backward on his hands like a terrified child until he was three feet away staring at the open eyes of a motionless body, limp arms and legs splayed out to the sides.

“Fuck.” It came out a strangled whisper. “Fuck. No. No.” The words didn’t get any louder but it was like he was screaming. That was how his brain felt, like it was burning from the inside out.

This couldn’t have happened. It couldn’t. He did not do this. There had to be - maybe - he tore off his gloves, lurching half to his feet and falling back to the ground on his knees, kneeling at the man’s shoulder, he pressed shaking fingers to his carotid. For a second there was nothing, and Jason couldn’t think, couldn’t formulate anything because all there was was static in his head.

And then there was a beat. It was faint, and thready, but it was there, and he nearly went boneless before he was moving. He grabbed the guy by the wrists, pulling him into a half seated position, dragging him then by the arms to lean against his shoulder. He thrusted his hands under Mark’s ass, hauled him over his right shoulder and stood, all in a singular motion. His bike wasn’t far but it was far enough and the guy was just as heavy as he looked, but there was enough adrenaline pumping through Jason’s veins to power a freight train.

Fumbling with a limp, full grown man was not easy, and trying to get him propped on the fucking motorcycle in a way that Jason could actually support his weight so he wouldn’t go flying off on the first turn had him cursing in three different languages.

Leslie. He kept thinking. He had to get him to Leslie. She could fix it, she could save him, and Jason wouldn’t have - wouldn’t have this on his hands, if he could just-

In the end he had him behind him on the bike, used zip ties to fasten his arms around Jason’s chest, thanked his lucky stars that he was broad enough it was a tight fit. He leaned forward as far as he could, trying to shift his center of gravity so his head wouldn’t roll back and then he was taking off at a breakneck speed even Batman would frown at.

He didn’t know what happened to the kids, he’d just left them in the makeshift lab, panicked and bleeding but they would live and Jason couldn’t say the same for this guy.

He knew the risks here. Even if he woke up later and seemed ok the damage to his esophagus could cause post traumatic swelling and completely block his airway. More immediately, whatever damage Jason did to his throat could still be blocking it partway, cutting off enough oxygen to slowly bleed his brain of life.

Jason knew all of those things but he wasn’t thinking about them. Instead he was mapping his way to the clinic in his head and trying not to vibrate out of his skin. He was damned lucky it was close. He shot down Dini highway without looking and cut off a sedan that blared its horn behind him but he was out of earshot before the horn even stopped, just fading in the distance as his speed climbed. They passed a semi and two SUV’s before they hit Madison Bridge, cutting to Oldman Avenue and down an alley to the backside of Leslie’s clinic.

He fumbled briefly trying to get off the bike with arms still ziptied around his chest, before he managed to pull a knife and slice the plastic, barely catching Mark’s weight before he fell sideways off the bike. The fact that he hadn’t regained consciousness was not helping Jason’s state of mind and all he could do was keep moving, keep going, get Leslie, she would fix it, she would fix it.

His arms shook when he hoisted the man up again, but Jason had no idea if it was from adrenaline or fatigue or terror. He pounded up the steps behind the building and kicked the door nearly as hard as he could three times in quick succession. He knew she would be there. Of all the ways this night could have gone wrong that wasn’t one of them, but he still had to pound on the door again with enough force to dent the veneer, finally giving in and yelling for her.

“Leslie! Open up!”

When the door opened it happened so fast Jason nearly fell backward down the steps, barely managing to catch himself with his free hand on the guardrail so he could stare at a blank faced Dr. Thompkins for all of five seconds before she grabbed him by the arm and yanked him inside.

“What happened? Who is this?” She led him back down a long hallway to a treatment room, the kind she kept set up for emergencies, stocked with enough equipment to bring the dead back to life and Jason prayed to anyone listening that she wouldn’t have to.

“I-I don’t know. It was- it was an accident.” But his voice shook with the lie of it and Leslie gave him a cutting stare before she motioned to a steel table in the middle of the room.

“Set him down, gently, and tell me what happened.” Jason did so, stepped back, and stared at his handiwork.

It was too early for real bruises to have formed, but in the glaring light of the clinic he could see that his left eye was swollen shut, the skin around his neck was bright red, like he’d been burned, and darkening every minute.

“I- He was-”

“Jason I need answers.” She was already at the head of the table, checking his pulse, shining a light in his eyes, she tipped his head back and listened to his breathing with a stethoscope, eyes staring into the distance for a brief second before they snapped back to Jason when he still hadn’t responded.

“Did you choke this man?” she said with no inflection, and it was the only reason Jason could even answer.

“Yes.” The word was small and sharp, like everything about Jason felt.

“For how long? When did he lose consciousness?”

“I - I don’t know.”

“Where did you bring him from? How long was the drive?” She was moving again, pulling drawers out on the other side of the room until she pulled out a weird hook shaped tool with a light at the end of it and drew out a length of thin tubing and a manual oxygen pump.

“We came from Port Adams, didn’t take more than three minutes to get here, tops.”

“And you have no idea how long his oxygen was cut off?” She was propping his mouth open, tilting his head back, using the curved tool to look inside and finally sliding it down into his mouth.

“I- No - I don’t.” His fingers twitched at his sides, “W-what are you doing?”

“I’m intubating him.”

“Be- is it - is he gonna be ok?”

She spared the briefest glance up, eyes sharp and unreadable. “Without a CT scan I don’t know the damage to his trachea but his breathing didn’t sound good and it’s possible the hyoid bone is broken. I need to restore airflow as quickly as possible.”

Jason watched her work, frozen to the floor. “But he’ll be ok, once you do that.”

“I don’t know Jason, it depends on how long he’s been without air, which you apparently don’t know.” This time her voice had that hint of scorn he’d been waiting for. The curved tool went into the man’s mouth and just kept going, down his throat until it stopped and Leslie picked up the thin cut of tubing and inserted it into an opening in the back of the tool already down his throat.

She looked up at him then, “Wheel that machine over here, will you?” She motioned with her chin to a square computer looking thing in a box that Jason took for a breathing machine. He did what she asked though he wasn’t entirely sure how, with the way his hands and feet were going numb.

“He’s gonna be ok.” Jason said, more to himself than Leslie.

“I don’t know.” she said back, firm and unyielding. “I need to do imaging, run tests, I don’t know Jason.” He sucked in a noisy breath, could feel his lips going numb, recognized it, absently, as a sign of a panic attack.

“He’ll live though.” He choked out. But Leslie didn’t speak, only continued her work. She attached the manual oxygen pump to the end of the plastic tubing and pumped slow and deliberate three times. “Doc, he’ll live, right? He’s gonna survive.”

Jason took off his helmet, feeling too hot and like he couldn’t get enough air through the ventilator.

“Who is this man Jason?”

“I-” He swallowed, throat tight and painful. “Just some drug dealer, I don’t know.” And he held onto that, grasping for something to make him feel better about this. He was a drug dealer, scum of the earth, he held a knife to a kid’s neck.

“And he got on your bad side, apparently.”

“He - there were kids, he was, he held a boy hostage.”

“Oh, and this boy’s immediate safety relied on you strangling this man into unconsciousness?” Her words were scathing, losing the neutral tone altogether.

“It was an accident.”

“An accident Jason?”

“I-” But he had no explanation. Nothing he could say to possibly explain it to her. Where Batman disapproved of killing, Leslie Thompkins disapproved of Batman. She wasn’t going to care, she wasn’t going to take any of his hollow excuses.

“I can’t talk about this with you Jason. I have work to do. You should go.” Jason stood there, feeling like his lungs were filled with sand while he watched her work, connecting pieces of equipment to the machine he’d wheeled over, looking at readouts, adjusting knobs and dials, pushing buttons Jason had no idea did what.

“He’ll live.” Jason said again, voice smaller than he wanted it to be, “Just - just tell me he’s not gonna die because of this.” She looked up at him, eyes hard and unsympathetic.

“He’ll live Jason. You did not kill this man, but there’s no telling whether he’ll wake up yet or if he has permanent brain damage, so I’m not sure how much that counts for.”

That was all he needed.

It was all he could take.

He’ll live, he’ll live, he’ll live, he’ll live. He repeated it in his head, over and over again as he turned from Leslie and the dead beat drug dealer he’d nearly strangled to death and he fled. He could barely manage to mount his bike, feeling like he was made of jelly, like he was a two dimensional being that had lost his outline.

The ride back to his apartment was a blur. He didn’t even stash the bike in his bunker. He left it in an alleyway that was reasonably dark, stripped off his helmet and mask, and stashed them in a locked compartment on the bike so he could stumble up his building’s stairwell without another stop in between.

He dropped his keys twice trying to get his door unlocked, his hands were shaking so much. The fact that he couldn’t feel his fingers didn’t help and he had the bizarre thought that he hoped none of his neighbors were up, that no one saw him like this. Barely able to hold it together long enough to open his damn door.

Jason slammed the door open and shut it behind him, like he could shut out the pit with it. There was an overwhelming sense that something was following him, watching his every move, that it was bearing down on him and he just wanted to hide.

He was terrified.

Terrified of what just happened and of how he could still feel the pulse of it in the back of his head, like a tug on the base of his skull, the echoing hunger of it.

He turned on all the lights, one by one, trying to count his breaths, to calm down, but he couldn’t stop moving. He was pacing, back and forth, back and forth, doing loops through his living room.

The feeling of his gloved hands closing around a neck was overwhelming him. He didn’t want to do this. This tipping over.

The nightmares were supposed to be dreams but he wasn’t going to wake up from this.

He was seeing spots, enough that he slumped to the floor midway from his front door to the first bedroom, sliding down against the wall, boneless. He saw blood shot eyes, petechiae so heavy they just looked red. Like a demon staring at him, like his own goddamn soul looking at him, judging him.

There were things Jason did, when he came back from the League, that he didn’t really remember. Things that faded over time, or never made enough of an impression to stick in the first place. But everything now was like neon lights shining through the backs of his eyes, like flashing signals he couldn’t ignore. It was a highlight reel. All the brightest, blazing memories of his time conquering the city.

He saw his hands, grabbing someone by the hair, slamming them into the ground, felt the righteous fury of it come up in his chest. Felt the recoil of a gun reverberate up his arm as he watched the bullet explode though skull. Saw blood - everywhere, smelled it. Felt the snap of bone under nothing but his hands, the rending of flesh under a Bowie knife so sharp it slid through like there was nothing in its path. Like this was the space it was always meant to take and someone was just in the way.

Jason fumbled, on his knees, through the doorway to the bathroom and vomited in the toilet, barely reaching the bowl. And then he did it again.

The feeling of a tongue against the side of his face was so startling he couldn’t stop from jolting, elbowing Titus in the chest hard enough to hurt, probably.

“Shit.”

Titus grunted, backing up one step, carefully avoiding Jason’s legs. The dog stared at him, head low, ears down, tail wagging low behind him. “I’m sorry.” Jason whispered just as Titus let out a soft whine and pushed forward again, right into Jason’s space where he was leaned up against the bathtub. He licked at his face, tongue lapping insistently over his nose and eyes and the side of his ear, enough to make him sputter, the smell of dog breath somehow welcome over everything else in his head. Titus folded down, wedging his massive body between the toilet and the tub next to Jason and laid himself across his legs.

“Titus.” His breath caught, shaking hands coming up around the broad chest of this massive animal. His spine curved, the weight of his shoulders suddenly feeling like a cinder block, bowing him forward until he’d curled over the dog. Forehead pressed to the side of his neck while he insistently licked at anything he could reach; Jason’s hair, the back of his sweat damp shirt, his hands where they clutched at the soft fur and pliable skin. He whined again, pressing all of his 200 pounds up against him.

And Jason couldn’t do anything but sit there, barely holding on, feeling like he was shaking apart, like a faulty engine losing pieces with every lurching jolt forward. He didn’t even realize he was crying until Titus shoved himself up, licking at his tears like he was trying to comfort a puppy, whining high and insistent.

“I’m ok.” He gasped out, “I’m alright.”

He wasn’t.

Sitting down, even with Titus half laying on his legs, the dog was taller than him, his head reaching up high enough that he sort of just - fit around him, Titus tucked his face into Jason’s shoulder and licked at his ear.

The concept of time was lost to him. There was nothing more than his numbing ass under the weight of this huge animal on his cheap linoleum floors. Nothing more than breath on the side of his neck and an insistent tongue, smoothing over his hair until it was stiff with dried saliva.

It was weird, and uncomfortable but Jason focused on it. Pushed down on the knotted ball of dread that had lodged itself just under his lungs.

He wanted Bruce.

The feeling hit him out of nowhere, like he’d just swung his grapple line square into a brick wall. He wanted his dad.

But that wasn’t Bruce. He hadn’t been that- not for a long time. Jason was still - he was still angry and he wasn’t - he was no one’s son.

He nearly reached for his phone anyway. Thought about tugging it out of his pocket and dialing him, just to hear his stupid, rumbling voice. It would be morning in London.

But that was fucking pathetic.

And he couldn’t. Because what was this?

The very idea of Bruce knowing he’d lost himself, lost all control and nearly strangled a man to death, conscious decision or not, made him want to lean over and hurl again. He couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t be able to bare Bruce’s judgment on top of his own.

There were people who deserved to die. Jason held on to that. Because he knew it was true. Something universal he had known since before he was even Robin, a thought he knew didn’t stem from The Pit. He’d killed as Red Hood fully aware of what he was doing, fully in control. But this time it hadn’t been a choice he made and that was what scared him.

Things were ok with Bruce. He was talking to him, texting him, sending him pictures of the sunrise and talking about stupid books and it was so fake. It was so ridiculous but Jason still didn’t want to ruin it.

It was selfish, because he knew beyond a doubt that if Bruce knew the truth about Jason, about his various slip ups and the constant urges, he wouldn’t want this with him. He would look at Jason like he had back then, back when he’d been mindlessly mowing through Gotham’s criminal class, the disappointment, the disapproval. And Jason was angry about it, because it wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair.

He hated Bruce for never caring when he needed him before. He hated him for acting like everything was fine now, like there wasn’t a mountain of poorly buried issues between them. He hated him for the whiplash of being yanked around every other month, the rules always changing.

He pushed down the sick shame that he might deserve the disapproval now. Even if he didn’t before. Because he was better, he should be in control.

Jason didn’t call Bruce. He waited until his legs could support his weight and he gently urged Titus off his lap so he could stand up. His arm was throbbing, and he thought it had been for a long time, just below the surface of everything else pressing down on him.

Titus didn’t want to leave him but Jason managed to corral him out of the bathroom so he could strip down and take a shower. He needed one. He was covered in grime and blood and now dog spit.

His arm felt bad, not right. When he peeled off his shirt he found the bandage under his sleeve mangled, half torn off, bits of cotton stuck in the wound with oily antibacterial gel. It looked irritated, like the skin was abraded at some point, red and puffy and warm to the touch.

He washed it thoroughly in the shower, hissing at the burn of it and pressing just that much harder with the washcloth, drawing on the pain like an anchor.

Titus was waiting outside the door when he finally left the bathroom, towel around his waist. He tailed him into his bedroom and climbed onto the bed while Jason changed and then crawled in after him, yanking the covers out from under the dog and tucking himself in. Titus butted up next to him, back against his side. Jason could feel him breathing, the expansion of his rib cage as it pressed into him. He rolled over, slinging an arm over the dog.

The ball of tension under his lungs didn’t loosen. It held firm and Jason pressed his face into the gray fur, feeling raw and empty, like someone carved out his insides and stuck a tangled knot of wires in their place.

Jason remembered this book, from when he was just a kid, from before Bruce, before he was on the streets, when he was still going to school most days and almost always had enough to eat. His class had read Maniac Magee. It was one of his favorites.

Especially after he’d been on the streets.

Sometimes he’d imagined himself as that kid, on his own, too fast to catch.

But now he thought of that famous knot, tied to the top of the flagpole, bigger than a basketball, so impossible to untangle that there was a prize for managing, that had been around for longer than anyone remembered.

That’s what it felt like, the ball lodged under his ribs.

He told himself it wasn’t usually this bad. The Pit didn’t rear up and just hang on like that. It usually hit him in bursts, flared bright and hot and then went out in a flash.

But that wasn’t right either. Because it didn’t used to happen much at all. He couldn’t remember feeling the Lazarus come over him like that. Not since he’d recovered. Maybe occasionally, when he’d decided to spare someone on a whim. But never like this, not days apart, not when he’d been killing, not as the Red Hood of before.

It was only after he’d stopped that it started to flare up like this, angry and starving.

Jason took a shuddering breath, clutching at Titus’ fur maybe a little too tight, but he just grumbled amicably and shifted in the bed.

He knew what was wrong, but he’d kept telling himself it would wear off, go away. It was just the Pit making him antsy.

Way back when it had been all he’d felt, all the time, until it had faded. But why was that? Had it faded because that’s what happened with time or was it because Jason had fed it?

He’d killed and maimed until it was sated and it let him have his sanity back, sitting back in some sort of silent approval while Jason continued in his righteous mission. And now, now he’d stopped killing and it was rearing back up, demanding to be fed. It terrified him. The thought that he could be going back in that direction. He’d been lost in a haze of rage and aggression and betrayal and his mind was just - it was hardly there back then.

He couldn’t go back to that. He couldn’t. He couldn’t lose control. He couldn’t lose everything he’d gained since he stopped. The joint patrols, the snarky comebacks, the tenuous reaching out from Barb and Bruce and even Dick if Jason would let him. Hell even Damian was growing on him and when he let himself really think about it Tim wasn’t so bad either. And the potential, the potential for more, for other relationships and deeper ones.

But he felt it getting worse the longer he went without blood on his hands.

It was hungry.

And there was this awful, shitty thought tiptoeing around the edge of his mind.

He could go back on the agreement. He could make the decision himself, but then that was it, all of it would be gone, and he’d still be letting the Pit control him, in the end. He might keep his sanity, maybe could hold onto the fact that he was killing by choice and not by impulse, but he’d know in the back of his mind that it was selfishly motivated. And then could he really trust himself to make the decision? If he knew that if he spared too many people he’d suddenly be losing himself again, could he really trust himself to make the call?

There were other things too. Jason had found, over the months since he’d stopped that he felt - lighter. Maybe he didn’t think what he did was wrong, but it was heavy And he hadn’t realized the extent of it until that weight was lifting. It would only be worse now, if he went back to it.

But what else could he possibly do?

How was he supposed to fight magic? A billion year old curse?

Chapter Text

The sixth day of dog sitting was a blur. Jason stuck around his apartment, took Titus for his walks in a haze of awareness that let him accomplish the bare minimum and gave him his ear drops. He slept most of the day. He felt a little sick and his arm hurt like shit and he was just lucid enough to decide to double up on the antibiotics.

Damian texted about Titus and Jason managed to answer. Bruce sent something too but he didn’t open it, stomach rolling at the thought.

Titus stuck close to him the whole day, enough that Jason was tripping over him just to get to the bathroom. He ate a single meal in the middle of the day and then slumped across his couch face down, felt Titus crawl up next to him, half on top of him, and settle his head over his back.

He wasn’t even aware when his normal patrol time rolled around. He woke up in the middle of the night on his couch, when he’d normally be midway through his rounds, with his heart pounding. He didn’t remember the dream.

But Titus was there, sleeping on the floor next to the couch, snoring softly. Jason breathed, and breathed, and rolled over and went back to sleep.

 



*



 

Day seven was better.

He woke up on the couch to sun filtering through the window, levered himself up, made a pot of coffee, ate three sugar cookies and felt vaguely human again. He fed Titus, gave him the second to last dosage of his drops.

He checked his text messages.

Damian:
This is the final day of Titus’ ear drops, do not forget to administer them.

Jason rolled his eyes and tapped out a ‘sure’ in return. He didn’t let himself pause before opening Bruce’s from the night before.

Bruce:
Gotham doesn’t have a bookstore like this though. Maybe we could open one.

Jason wasn’t sure how to take the last sentence. If the we was in reference to the vague amalgamation of Bruce’s entire family, if it was an autocorrect for WE, or if it was some strange new universe where he meant me and you.

He didn’t reply. Clicked the screen off and went about cleaning his bathroom. With the amount of times he’d vomited in it recently, he felt the need to bleach it from top to bottom. The work helped him think, even though he didn’t really want to.

He started with the bathroom mirror, spraying Windex on and working away with paper towels, avoiding his own eyes as he went, feeling stupid. His mind strayed to that gift. To the disc still sitting in the player on his tv and the book still stashed in the bottom of his dresser. The phone call, the awkward fumbling request to watch their dog while Bruce and Damian were out of town.

He paused in his work, eyes flicking to a chip in the glass. And then he thought about the last time he’d let Bruce in. When everything had been a winding whirlpool of manipulation sucking him down to a “secret mission” in Ethiopia.

He threw the wad of paper towels in the trash with more force than necessary, dumping a liberal amount of comet in the sink and wetting a washcloth.

It was the cycle. Jason could feel it. Like a horse on a race track just going in circles, thinking eventually there’d be something new around the bend. That the race would end, that the prize would be something worth it and not just this continual, exhausting, bullshit.

Jason would admit it wasn’t always the same. Sometimes it was him that screwed everything up. He snorted as he scrubbed away at a lump of hardened hand soap.

It was so damn tiring. He didn’t want to run anymore, even if sometimes it felt like that prize would be worth it if they could just get there.

There was just this feeling that kept telling him he had to be missing something. Whenever Bruce reached out there was always a motive. It was never just because.

Obviously he’d always wanted Jason to stop killing. That part was never in question, but why this. Why ask him to watch their dog while Bruce and Damian were out of the country? What was the point of that?

He turned on the tap, rinsing the washcloth and swiping it over the porcelain, clearing away the gritty residue of the Comet.

Maybe it wasn’t any big plan, maybe Jason was just a last resort, like it sounded from the beginning.

And the messages. Maybe they were just to try to stay in Jason’s good graces. Bruce getting a read on his mental state so he could be sure he wouldn’t react badly to Damian’s bullshit behavior and take it out on the dog. Because Bruce would think that, wouldn’t he? That Jason was that petty.

He was running the washcloth over the counter, clearing away dust and grime, thinking yeah, he would just be a last resort, except that something else occurred to him. It wasn’t a fully formed thought, slowly taking shape as he moved on to the tub.

There was no way Damian, the little brat, would allow Titus to be kenneled while they were gone. Bruce would never sacrifice Alfred’s knee for the sake of walking a fat dog. But then there was Tim. Which yeah ok, Damian hated Tim, no one seemed to know why but Jason had his theories. He could maybe write that one off.

And Cass was out of the country too, so she was off the roster.

But then there was Dick. Whom Damian loved. Who loved animals and would have said yes in a heartbeat...He lived in Bludhaven, yeah, but in the end they’d let Jason keep the dog at home so that hardly seemed like it would matter.

He was kneeling next to the tub, working at soap scum build up and water marks. He tried to switch to his left arm but it was a mistake. He nearly face planted in the tub at the throbbing pain that shot up to his shoulder just from trying to grip the washcloth hard enough to scrub with. Resting his left elbow on the edge of the tub he switched back to the right, cursing under his breath.

So then why? Jason wondered. Why ask him to do this if it wasn’t really how Bruce said it was? The question ground at him. Why make a comment about opening a friggin’ bookstore? What was it all? What was he doing?

Abruptly he faltered, knocking a shampoo bottle off the shelf above his tub and startling at the sound.

Dick. Dick would know the answer.

He was the closest to Bruce in the end no matter what anyone thought. Even when they were fighting Dick kept tabs on him and vise versa.

Before he could talk himself out of it Jason was dropping the washcloth in the middle of the tub and digging his phone out of his pocket to open Dick’s contact information. He almost sent a text but dismissed the idea quickly. Jason was already nervous every time his phone buzzed in case it was Bruce, he didn’t need to add to it.

It rang three times and Jason worried he wouldn’t pick up until he did.

“Jay! What’s up? How’s life?”

Jason exhaled, rolling his shoulders out and taking a seat on the edge of the tub. His mouth felt suddenly dry and he briefly contemplated his own stupidity. Somehow Dick’s cheer was grating. Not that he should be surprised.

“Why did Bruce ask me to watch Titus?”

The words came out a little more forceful than he wanted but he just had a bad feeling. Like the other shoe was about to drop and he was done waiting on it.

“Uh, what?”

“Why did they ask me to dog sit? Why not you?” There was a pause before he heard a slow breath on Dick’s end of the line.

“Why? Is everything going ok?” The hint of concern was worse than the cheer and Jason grit his teeth against it.

“Everything is fine, now answer the question.”

“Ok, I’m sorry,” Now there was a hint of irritation coming through. “This is why you’re calling me? To ask why you were selected to dog sit over me? I don’t get a phone call or an answer to a phone call for like, four months, and this is what you want to talk about?”

“Just answer the question.”

“Jason-“ Dick cut off, and then there was the sound of a heavy sigh over the line. When he spoke again his voice was quiet and purposefully even.

“What is this actually about?”

Jason picked up the roll of paper towels off the counter and squeezed in frustration, that little hint of unwarranted aggression climbing up his spine.

“Don’t psychoanalyze me, just answer the question.”

“Ok, I’ll humor you. They probably did not ask me to take Titus because I live over an hour away. That’s not for sure mind you, but it seems the most logical explanation.”

“Yeah no, but that’s bullshit.” Jason adjusted his weight on the edge of the tub, gesturing with his bandaged left arm like Dick was sitting in front of him, ignoring the sarcastic lilt to his words. The more he talked the more the thought was solidifying in his head. The more that unwelcome tug at the back of his skull could be felt.

“That’s what Bruce said, but I told them I wasn’t gonna come to the manor everyday so they dropped Titus off at my place. He’s been staying with me the entire time so why couldn’t they have left him with you? There’s no reason.” It was like a series of lightbulbs coming on all at once.

Because of course there was, there had to be, just not the one Bruce had insisted on.

“I...are you that upset about it? Is Titus being difficult or something? I can come get him if it’s that inconvenient-” Dick sounded utterly confused and exasperated but Jason wasn’t stupid.

“No, that’s not- I’m saying, Bruce told me he couldn’t ask you because you lived too far away. But you don’t apparently. So he lied. He lied to me so what, why? Why ask me? What’s the real reason?” He was breathing hard by the time he stopped and he knew he must sound crazy, like he was fever mad or something.

There was another long pause on the other end of the line and Jason swallowed harshly, feeling jittery, his foot bouncing against the floor, the smell of cleaning fluid stinging in his nostrils.

“Jay...” His voice sounded soft, gentle in a way that immediately put Jason’s hackles up. “Where is this coming from?”

“Don’t Dick.” He growled into the receiver, thinking this call was a mistake from the beginning. This was what he got for acting on impulse. It had always been a weakness, way back to his Robin days. “There’s always an ulterior motive with him, you know there is. So what is it? He trying to keep an eye on me?”

Jason had to swallow against the sick swirling in his stomach.

“Ok.” Dick sounded hesitant, careful, “I’ll tell you what I think but I’m not sure how you’re going to take it.”

Jason ignored the way his stomach clenched. He was expecting this. It wasn’t a surprise and whatever the reason was it was better to know the truth than to keep lying to himself.

“Tell me,” he growled, when he could speak over the rushing in his ears.

“...He wants to see you Jay. You never come around the Manor. You know how he is. He can’t just stop by, he needs an excuse. Plus you never really lent an invitation..He’s probably hoping you’ll take it for what it is; him trusting you with something important, and that - who knows - maybe you’ll get attached to Titus and come visit for the dog.”

Jason couldn’t hold back his scoff. “Please, Bruce doesn’t want to see me, his normal go to is to act like I don’t exist.”

The words came out unbidden, angry. It was something he hadn’t realized he’d been thinking up to this point but that he recognized now had been hanging around in the back of his mind this whole week.

“That is not true Jay, and you know it.”

Jason gnashed his teeth, barely resisting the urge to stomp his feet like a petulant child. “Bullshit. the last time he acted like he wanted to see me he took me to fucking Ethiopia.”

“He - ok. I know there are things you guys need to work out-” Dick’s voice was strained this time, like he was fighting to keep it even.

“Work out?” Jason, absurdly, wondered how he got here.

His intention had just been to get information. That was all, but suddenly he was feeling furious, indignant, and close to snapping. It felt like every single person in his life had been lying to him for months.

“We have things we need to work out?”

“Jay, please don’t-“

“I bet this was your fucking idea.” Jason stood up, unable to sit still any longer. He felt like a bomb, a timer ticking against his skin. He could feel the Lazarus thrumming along in his veins like it was just waiting to be called on, ready to push if he didn’t. He should cut off the call, end the conversation here but he couldn’t.

“They did ask you first didn’t they? And then you thought, wait, no, here’s the golden opportunity. I can have my big happy family, you should ask Jason. He’ll get all soft and then he’ll want back in and everything won’t be so damn awkward anymore.”

He kicked a bottle of Lysol on the floor, sending it flying. It clattered against the vanity and sent a stray shot of spray into the air. Jason stomped out of the bathroom like there was somewhere to go, something to do that would stop the hornets buzzing against his ribs, the sensation of water filling up his lungs.

“Whoa, Jay, what the heck? You are twisting everything around. Of course Bruce wants you around. He’s just awful at saying what he means or realizing when other people don’t see what he thinks is- ...is self-evident.

“He’s getting better, he is, and that - is why he asked you to do this, instead of ignoring everything like he used to.”

Jason stood in the in between space that divided his living room and kitchen from the bedroom and bathroom, one hand on his hip, thinking, not for the first time, that Boy Wonder was crazy.

“Please, this is just like you. You always see all this grand emotion in the little details but I call bullshit. It’s make believe. You see what you want to see, and you want everybody to get along and - and, reconnect or some stupid shit.” Jason was breathless, vibrating under the skin, he had to stop himself from kicking his couch, wanting to do damage, wanting to throw his phone across the room but forcing himself not to lose it.

“Ok,” Dick’s voice was a frustrated laugh, like he was barely keeping his cool and Jason could feel something in him that wanted to rattle that, to test that reserve. “You may think that, but you know me Jason. I am not a manipulative person, I wouldn’t lie straight to your face about this, and no, I didn’t arrange it. They never asked me to watch Titus.”

Jason was quiet, searching for a reason to rally back in even half the fury that was prickling at his skin like pins and needles.

“I’m telling you Jason, Bruce wants to see you. He likes talking to you he-” Dick sighed again, this time quiet, “I know this kind of stuff makes you nervous, but he loves you.”

And Jason stopped. He stood there staring at the rumpled blanket pooling on his couch, thinking about the texts, and the movie, and the fucking picture of the sunrise and he snapped back, “He’s disappointed in me.” The words were rough, and Jason hated himself for the way they hurt, even through the pit trying to claw up his throat.

“He’s not, Jay.” Dick’s voice was insistent, pleading. “We all know that - that you weren’t really yourself after the pit. Bruce knows that, he’s not disappointed or angry or whatever.”

Jason should have left that alone. He shouldn’t have touched it but the anxiety that flared up in him was so wildly intense he wasn’t sure how he even stayed on his feet. His whole body was so tightly wound it was a miracle he didn’t start ricocheting off the walls and ceiling. He was barely hanging on to control.

“You think I wasn’t myself?” His voice was hard and tight, anxiety morphing into outrage at an alarming rate. He knew in the back of his mind it was the Pit, turning everything around in his head.

That Dick would suggest that he wasn’t in control of himself - that they apparently all - all knew this already. It set his teeth on edge. Had they all sat around talking about it? Was Jason some kind of hot topic of conversation?

Did they have any idea how true it might still be?

“What I did was necessary. The only reason I’m playing by Bruce’s rules now is so he doesn’t get in my way.” He took two steps forward, gripping the top of the couch in as tight of a hold as he could manage. Because if he didn’t hold onto something for dear life he felt like he might just go shooting into space, that gravity would fail, like nothing was anchoring him to the earth.

“Jay.” And Dick sounded profoundly exasperated, like he didn’t believe a word that just came out of his mouth and Jason didn’t know whether to be pissed off or relieved. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish with this conversation. I call bull on you wanting to go back to that. To- to killing. I know you’ve been patrolling less-”

“Oh? Am I just the hottest gossip lately? First Babs goes blabbing about the dog fighting ring and now this? Is she in on this? Trying to reel me back in? Is Bruce using her to keep tabs on me?” Jason squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to feel wounded. She’d promised she wouldn’t say anything.

“Wait what? No - what are you even-? Jay, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I’ve been in Gotham working with Bruce and Damian a lot, trying to - to ease the transition better than we did before. I notice when you’re not on comm’s Jay. Babs hasn’t said anything that I’m aware of, is there - I don’t even know what she would have said.”

Jason pulled away from the couch, that bomb ticking away under his skin. He had no idea what would happen if it went off and the Pit took hold. He didn’t know what to do with his body, standing stiffly in the middle of his apartment.

“I just want you people to be fucking honest with me. I don’t need this soft, beating around the bush bullshit to try and make me feel better.”

Dick made a frustrated growl on the other end of the line, “I am being honest, Bruce loves you Jason, just as much as the rest of us.”

“Oh please,” Jason spat, “why should I believe that? You can say it as many times as you want Dick, that doesn’t make it true.”

“Ok, tell me, what would he need to do to prove to you that he loved you Jason?

“The things he does are apparently to manipulate you, the little details, as you call them, are not enough, and if he came outright and said it I know you’d never believe him. So what? What is this shining beacon you are looking for?”

“Oh I don’t know,” Jason sniped back, feeling bitter and sick, “kill the Joker?”

He wasn’t being serious, and he knew it was a stupid shit thing to say but it was an easy dig, an obvious comeback that Dick should have seen coming a mile back and yeah it was in bad taste but Jason never had much in the way of tact.

Dick’s response however, was not appreciated.

“Jay - Damnit, I thought you were over the Joker.” And that - that did it.

Jason swallowed. Felt every broken bone from that night aching in remembered pain.

There was a sharp inhale on the other end of the line, “Wait, that didn’t-” But Jason had already hung up.

He was shaking, standing there breathing like there wasn’t enough air in the room. He had to move or he would explode.

He walked to the living room window and the only thing that stopped him from opening it and chucking his phone into the dumpster below was the fact that Damian would probably text later, asking after Titus.

His phone rang, Jason pressed ignore. It rang again, Jason silenced his phone.

Titus was laying in his huge dog bed, looking at him, ears down. Jason pushed himself, unstuck his feet from the floor and pulled the raging mass of his body into his bedroom and shut the door. He didn’t want to scare the dog, but Jason was seething.

This was why he couldn’t be a part of their damn family. Why he could never get along with Dick, because nobody could ever just let you be. Dick had to fix everything, Jason wasn’t allowed to be upset about something because it bothered Dick, it bothered Bruce, so he needed to just get over it. Didn’t matter if it was being beaten to death and blown up by a deranged clown, you just need to fucking move on Jason.

He could feel the pit in every part of him, pumping through his veins, filling his lungs, his stomach, in the sweat coming up through his skin.

Just look, look at the minuscule details, the clues, the hints, the unequivocal proof of Bruce’s love. You don’t need to question it anymore! Just tell yourself it’s true and you can be happy!

He wanted to tear the shelves off his walls, throw the stupid fucking baseball from Alfred’s damn box through his window. But that shivering pulse in the back of his head meant it was a horrible idea. It wouldn’t stop there, if he let it take an inch.

Instead he sat on the edge of his bed, put his head in his hands and barely resisted the urge to scream.

He wasn’t even asking Bruce to kill the Joker anymore. He wouldn’t. It’s not - he knew that wasn’t - it wouldn’t be fair, to expect that of someone, no matter what. He knew that. He got that now, but he couldn’t - he couldn’t just let go of what happened.

How could Dick just -

He knew they all must think it. that Jason was just some moping child who couldn’t get over his past.

 



*



 

The next time Jason checked his phone he had 17 texts from Dick.

Dick:
Jason, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.

____

Please talk to me.

____

I never should have said it, it’s totally not ok, please answer my calls.

____

Seriously Jay, I just want to make sure you’re alright.

____

Jason didn’t read the rest of them. There were also five missed calls and one voicemail. He deleted the message.

He almost turned off his phone all together but again thought of Damian, panicking over Titus.

He cleaned his entire apartment, top to bottom, left every surface sparkling and smelling of Pine Sol. He had to favor his left arm through the whole process and ignored the voice in the back of his mind telling him to get it checked out. Took Titus on his evening walk, did a round at the dog park, and tried to push his conversation with Dick out of his head. Reminded himself that this was what happened when you let your guard down.

This was what happened when you tried to unravel the knot. You couldn’t just go pulling on loose threads and expect things to turn out ok.

The shoe had dropped.

Bruce had probably asked him to watch Titus because he wanted a way to keep tabs on him without Jason being suspicious. With Batman out of town there needed to be eyes on him. Oracle was probably one of them.

Maybe Bruce didn’t hate him. Maybe he even liked talking to him about stupid books and movies and shit but he still didn’t trust him. He still looked at Jason and saw all the things he did wrong, his mistakes. He couldn’t even muster the energy to be upset over it because he was right. He should watch Jason like a hawk. He couldn’t be trusted. Not with the Lazarus flowing through his blood.

Maybe Bruce had loved him when he was a kid, before he died. Jason could look at how messed up he was after the Pit and recognize that Tahlia had manipulated him, even if the bitterness didn’t 100% fade.

But then he came back, like this, and he wasn’t that kid anymore. Not the one that Bruce had lost, not the one he wanted back.

It was fine. He wasn’t even angry about it. Dick was right, Jason knew he wasn’t some mastermind, trying to maneuver events. He probably was convinced.

Convinced that Bruce loved Jason, but Dick had always seen love and good feelings where there was very little. He saw the world through rose colored glasses and Jason couldn’t do that. He couldn’t convince himself that Bruce still loved him just because he wanted it to be true - and that. Shit.

He didn’t - that wasn’t - he was over that. Over wanting that.

Shit.

 



*



 

By the time night rolled around Jason was antsy. He had two more unread texts from earlier in the day but they weren’t from Dick.

Damian:
You have been unusually quiet. You gave Titus his last dose of ear drops?

Followed by one from Bruce. It was a picture of Damian, standing in front of Buckingham Palace, a bag in his hand from some souvenir shop, staring stoically into the camera.

Bruce:
He was actually smiling, before I snapped the photo.

Jason swallowed against the lump in his throat. It was stupid. It was just conversation. But Bruce trying to be funny with him called up old memories he didn’t want to think about.

He backed out of the text from Bruce to answer Damian.

Jason:
Isn’t it the middle of the night there? Titus is good. Drops are done.

He sent a photo he had snapped at the park earlier that evening.

Damian:
Bats are nocturnal. Is that Hamilton Park?

Jason rolled his eyes, sitting at his counter eating leftover pasta.

Jason:
I feel like I remember reading that robins are not.

Yeah, it’s close by, why?

He also had his laptop open, and was in the process of ordering that new router.

Damian:
I have wanted to take Titus there. It is supposed to be one of the better parks in the city. Less garbage, literal and human.

Jason snorted. “If only you knew, kid.” He rubbed gently over his left arm. He’d been sitting in a t-shirt, wound unbandaged and exposed, trying to let it air out. Everything he knew about wound care was never let something stay damp, you want it clean and dry and leaving bandages off was usually better if the wound wasn’t bleeding and wasn’t at risk for more damage. Of course that had taken longer than usual since he hadn’t administered stitches. He was gonna have some gnarly scars from this one. The bruises around the wound alone were shockingly dark.

Jason:
It’s not bad. Not a lot of experience with parks though. Titus seems to like it.

Damian:
Perhaps when we return I will take Titus and you can join us there.

Jason blinked down at his phone, mouth full of tomato sauce.

The kid had been different since Jason was watching his dog. Not so ready to attack. But he hadn’t made any hints of wanting to spend time with Jason so far. It was weird. Just one more thing to add to a list of weird things.

On any normal night, before all this shit started, he would be getting ready for patrol. The thought now sent anxiety rolling through him like storm clouds.

Jason spent his entire life resisting the control of others. From the time when he was small and Willis would knock him around, to living on the streets and resisting gangs, to being Robin and making the hard calls himself even when Batman would get mad and bluster at him.

The very idea that he wasn’t in control of himself now rankled on every possible level.

He wanted to be out there. He wanted to help people. And he wanted to think that whatever these...episodes had been that they were temporary.

He wanted to think it. He did.

It also didn’t escape his memory that he had failed to restock his bank account.

Jason had died and come back to life without the pit. He should be able to handle whatever this was. If he just kept to the shadows, waited instead of jumping the gun he could be ok. It wasn’t so impossible to keep a cool head on patrol if he just planned ahead. He could handle it. He could.

He told himself that as he put his gear on, stamping down on the anxiety with a now practiced hand. And he told himself that all the way until he’d climbed his first rooftop, when he knew immediately and without question that he couldn’t do it.

The phantom feeling of his hands wrapped around the drug dealers throat was still fresh and he couldn’t risk it. He couldn’t forget the look of the man’s bloodshot eyes. Couldn’t ignore the way the hunger in him rose up, just a little, when he even thought about it. Couldn’t forget the scorn in Leslie’s voice.

He could go to her clinic now, check in, find out if the guy had woken up. If he did have brain damage, what the prognosis was.

Instead, he went back to Port Adams, checked that the drug lab was empty, making sure the kids weren’t there again, and he put in an anonymous call with the GCPD. It was raining, mixed with sleet, and damn cold, probably going to snow soon. Jason had been feeling it for days.

Then he found the best rooftops in Gotham, and he ran.

It was a bad idea with the arm. Really, patrolling was a bad idea to start with but he’d bound it up tight and slathered a bunch more antibacterial ointment on it, took another double dose of pills.

He knew he should just go back to his apartment. Titus had been subdued all day and it was obviously because of him and his weird ass mood and he could play with him a little, cheer him up. But Jason felt like a hurricane, like a raging storm in the shape of a person.

So he ran. Across rooftops, trying to stop from feeling like he was trapped in his own skin. Trying to be tired enough that he’d actually sleep.

Jason should really have known better, even if he had no intention of patrolling. This was Gotham, you cover enough ground in one night and you will come across a crime. He was just about to hit the edge of a building and leap to the next when he heard a scuffle below and skid to a halt in the pea gravel covering the roof. Edging up to the small ledge he peered down over it, caught sight of the alley below.

There were three men. One of them was backed up against a wall, hands up, while the second held a knife at his throat and the third rifled through the first’s pockets.

It was too dark and the angle was too poor to see their faces, but Jason could hear them just fine.

“I- I really don’t have anything. You got my cell phone, that’s it, that’s all I have.”

“Shut up,” said the one with the knife.

“There’s nothing Peter, pockets are empty, no wallet.”

“What the fuck are you doing walking around without a wallet?”

“I was- I was just taking out the trash man.”

Jason should have stepped in. It would have been simple. Two guys, one knife, they obviously had no real training. It would be easy. He might even be able to just scare them off. Sometimes just the sight of Red Hood was enough with the pettier criminals.

But his hands clenched at his sides and his breathing picked up, feet shifting in the gravel. What if he lost it? What if the Pit took over, what would he do? An image of that Rottweiler from the park flared up in his mind, the dead eyes. His arm was throbbing.

Jason was a lot worse than that, his mind supplied. He wasn’t empty on the inside he was filled up. Brimming over with malintent, always hungry for violence. He could feel the Pit even then, lurking below his skin.

So he stood there, and he watched. Watched a dark haired man in a hoodie get punched in the gut for not having enough money on him. The two assholes who robbed him wandered off, laughing to each other. He stayed there, waiting to see the guy move. He had slumped against the wall when he got hit.

“Shit.” Jason heard him swear under his breath, pressing both hands to his face before he pushed himself up and away from the wall. He wiped a hand under his nose and sniffed hard and Jason didn’t have to be a genius to register that the guy was crying. Probably terrified, possibly flat broke, unable to replace the stolen cell phone. The man walked slowly out of the alley, looking both directions, checking the two men who mugged him were gone. Then he slipped silently back inside the building Jason was standing on.

Just taking out his trash.

And there Jason was, just standing there, just watching.

Useless.

He stepped back from the edge of the roof, feeling his lungs fill up with fire until he was pushing off, leaping the gap between buildings and going, and going, and going.

Who even was he? Jason wondered, who even was he if he didn’t have this anymore? If he couldn’t fight crime he had nothing. He was nothing. He didn’t even have a civilian identity. He was legally dead. Jason was literally no one if he wasn’t Red Hood.

There had to be a way to get himself together again. He couldn’t let go of vigilanteism, he didn’t want to. He wanted to help people, create justice in a world where there was none. But how could he? How could he when he was like this?

Jason ran furiously. Ran so hard and leapt so far that he tripped on the edge of a roof he nearly didn’t make. The jump was bigger than he should have risked. His toe clipped the edge and he went down hard on his knees, with enough momentum to keep going. He rolled sideways, slamming his hip into cement and scraping his bitten arm trying to stop. He landed on his back and laid there.

It was still raining, and Jason was soaked through to his skin, but he felt hot. Yanking off the helmet he stared up into the sky, wondering what stars he could see if there wasn’t such heavy cloud cover, if it wasn’t raining. His breath came in huge plumes of white and his lungs burned.

He remembered a night with Bruce once, when he was Robin and the night was clear and they had laid out like this on a skyscraper’s roof, looking at constellations in full costume. Jason had thought it was so cool.

He didn’t feel so bitter about it anymore, knew the feeling from Bruce was probably genuine. That the new Robin had never replaced him, that all the shit about Bruce loving him back then was true. It didn’t stop everything that happened since then from hurting.

Now he just ached for something he knew he’d never get back.

 



*



 

That night he didn’t dream, but it still took him the longest time to fall asleep. Even with Titus there, snoring softly next to him, he couldn’t seem to quiet his brain, just woke up over and over again through the night. When he finally got up the next day he was so tired it was like the sleep did him no good. His arm was throbbing and it was hot to the touch. He took a triple dose of the antibiotics this time, cleaned the wound thoroughly even though he cussed through the entire thing because it felt like a hot iron being shoved into his skin.

He made the mistake of leaving the bathroom door open. Titus ended up laying on the floor, head on his feet, looking up at him with those sad little puppy eyes while he did it.

Jason knew he should get help for the arm. Go to the manor at least, but he couldn’t talk to Alfred right now. Didn’t want the old man to somehow convince him that things weren’t how they seemed, didn’t want him to see just what Jason was thinking and feeling. Because he would, and Jason didn’t need that. He was tired of the rise and fall, the steadily growing expectation and the inevitable let down. He was done with it.

Leslie was no longer an option either, Jason thought with a bitter laugh. Not after he dropped a half dead scumbag off on her doorstep.

The hospital was always an option but the amount of people...no, Jason would manage on his own, like he always had.

Chapter Text

Jason was in the middle of Titus’ first walk when he got another text alert. He figured it was from Damian, thinking Dick had given up, but really, he should know better.

Dick:
I didn’t mean that I thought you were over what happened, nobody expects you to just, get over being murdered, or anything else. I just meant, I thought you were over expecting that of Bruce, or anyone. And now that I really listen to what you said, in my head, I think you were probably being sarcastic and I’m a total asshole and I’m sorry.

He still didn’t respond but the low simmering resentment in his gut settled just a little. Jason believed him, mostly, but it didn’t erase all the other shit and he didn’t have the energy to deal with it right now.

The weather was miserable, even worse than the night before. It started snowing while they were out, just like Jason had been waiting for. He felt pretty much like shit, exhausted and achey, and so he cut the walk short, leading a perfectly agreeable Titus back up the stairs to his apartment where it was at least warmer than outside.

Luckily there wasn’t much he needed to do, because all he really wanted was to sleep. He didn’t let himself though, he was an adult and he could stay awake during normal daylight hours, thank you very much.

Bruce messaged him around noon, when he was making tuna salad ‘cause he didn’t have the energy for anything else. Titus was following him like a shadow and Jason thought the walk probably wasn’t enough exercise and he was feeling restless. He nearly tripped over him when he turned to retrieve his phone from the kitchen counter where he’d left it charging. Jason resigned himself to going to the dog park later, in spite of the nasty weather and how miserable he felt.

When he saw the message from Bruce he paused, not sure if he should even open it with everything else crowding around in his head.

But he wanted to see what it said.

Bruce:
I got you something at that shop I think you’ll like. It’s not all that rare, but it reminded me of you.

And Jason clicked back, regretting it completely. That stupid note was still stashed in his dresser, the two clear sentences in the whole thing that had started this whole mess in the first place returned to him in an unwelcome flash.

I thought of you.

I miss you.

He put his phone back down, ignoring the way his hands felt heavy and clumsy and how it was hard to get a full breath for a moment.

Jason wondered, idly, what Roy would think of this whole thing. He’d gotten video calls over the last few months but the last that Jason knew was he and Kori were in deep space somewhere. Out of range and impossible to contact. Being outlaws without him.

It wasn’t as if Jason couldn’t have gone with them, but he found the longer he was away on missions with the Outlaws the more he missed Gotham and the more it felt like he’d left things unfinished here. Maybe it was imaginary, maybe it was all in his head but Roy had gotten it.

”Hey, it’s not like I don’t have an idiot of an old man myself.”

”That’s not what this is about Roy,” Jason grumbled while reassembling one of his guns.

”Yeah ok,” he said like he didn’t believe it for a minute. “It’s home though, isn’t it?” He shrugged, “sometimes you need to be home for a while.”

Kori had gotten it too, though she’d been sad to leave him behind. But Roy and Jason had a special understanding about sometimes-shitty father figures and Jason wished he could talk to him. Talk to someone who didn’t have a stake in all this.

Maybe even about the other stuff...he wouldn’t get it probably, but he wouldn’t look at Jason like he was a monster either.

He shook the thought from his head in a quick jerk, rubbing a hand over his face. They’d talk when he and Kori were back in range. There was no use dwelling on it now.

Titus didn’t leave him alone for more than a minute. Even with what little moving around the apartment Jason did between reading bouts of Howl’s Moving Castle, it drove him nuts. Every time he used the bathroom or walked into his bedroom, got up from the couch even, Titus was there, blocking his path, like he was just waiting for something to do. So Jason figured it was better earlier than later. It was while he was getting Titus put together to walk to Hamilton Park that he got another message.

He paused briefly this time before opening it but Damian hadn’t messaged since the day before so he checked.

Damian:
You shouldn’t take anything Grayson says to heart. He is an imbecile who speaks without thinking.

Jason stared at it for a long time, holding Titus’ leash in his hand while the dog looked up at him expectantly, head sleeve and all. He had no idea how to take it, the kid was just...a kid. But Jason was getting full on fed up of everyone talking about him behind his back. He finally settled on irritated and typed out a reply before he shoved the phone in the deepest pocket of his warmest coat and took Titus out.

Jason:
Mind your own business demonbrat

What was with everyone in this entire Batman-and-Associates Club? Did they all just sit around and talk about him twenty four hours a day? He kicked a damp, half empty pack of cigarettes across the sidewalk as they passed it, feeling mulish and spiteful. He was so tired of this. Of all of them.

Acting like they wanted to help him, manipulating him into doing what they thought he should. And all because they thought he was someone he wasn’t. They thought he was better.

Jason let out a bitter laugh as he tugged his hood over his head before leading Titus through a crosswalk. It was so cold outside the tip of his nose was going numb and he wished he had thought to wear a scarf. There was maybe an inch of snow on the ground, half gray from whatever pollutants covered the sidewalk. It was packed down into brown slush, a tissue paper thin layer of ice coating the concrete that made it dangerous to even be out.

He kept thinking about the night before, watching some helpless civilian get robbed and just standing there, unable to move. Because it was either do nothing or risk taking someone’s head off over a cellphone. He could blame everyone else all he wanted but Jason knew full well things would fall apart whether they were genuine or not.

There were hardly any people around, gearing up for what would probably be much worse weather before the night was over. It was around four in the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky, hitting the street with long shadows and a hazy glow even under the thick cloud cover. Jason blew on his fingertips as they reached the park. It was even more empty than the streets which wasn’t surprising. Only the truly idiotic took their dog to the park in weather like this. He unhooked Titus’ leash and pulled a lone tennis ball out of his pocket, ready to run this dog’s energy down as quickly as possible and get back to his apartment.

He threw it only once, watching Titus go after it in his goofy red sweater and jacket, neck and ears bundled in that ridiculous head sleeve. Titus had just reached the ball when there was a shout somewhere behind him.

He looked over and there were two figures in the distance, a guy and girl, they were both bundled in coats, scarves, and thick boots. The girl had a purple beanie on and matching mittens that she was waving at him from across the park.

“Jason!” She shouted his name and Jason couldn’t stop from rolling his eyes.

“Perfect.” He mumbled to himself, turning away from them and walking to meet Titus.

He heard Stephanie jog up behind him but didn’t turn around.

“Hey! You’re here.”

“Yeah, and apparently so are you.” He reached out to take the ball from Titus but the dog ran straight passed him. Jason turned to watch him go right to Stephanie, tail wagging like crazy while she crouched down.

“Hey big guy, how are you? What an amazing outfit, you fashion icon.” She was laughing as she pulled the ball out of his mouth, making a face at the slobber. Titus barked, loud and excited, hopping his front half back and forth. Stephanie was grinning full on now and Jason felt guilt weigh on his shoulders. Titus had been subdued most of the day, other than following him around everywhere he didn’t seem too excited for anything, including his food. All while Jason had been moping around the apartment.

She stood up and chucked the ball across the park and Titus took off after it. Then she turned back and shouted to the lone figure still trudging up to meet them, “hurry your ass up Timothy!”

“Alright, alright I’m coming.” He half jogged the rest of the way, coming to stand next to her with similarly red cheeks. The kid’s hair was a mess, sticking up in all directions under a ridiculous pair of bright red ear muffs, matching scarf pulled up over his mouth and giant puff coat making him look like a black marshmallow. One hand was shoved in his pocket, the other clutching a steaming cup of coffee with bright red knuckles. When he looked at Jason his eyes were pinched at the sides. He offered a nod that Jason ignored in favor of glancing back at Titus, who dropped the ball directly between him and Stephanie.

Jason stepped forward at the same time she did, almost knocking shoulders. There was an awkward shuffle until she backed up. “Sorry, you throw.”

Jason grunted back, picking up the ball and tossing it halfheartedly. He steadfastly faced away from the both of them, feeling more and more peeved the longer they were there.

“So, pretty nasty day huh?” Stephanie ventured, pulling herself into his peripheral vision.

“Sure.” Jason clenched his hands in his pockets, staring straight ahead.

He still saw her glance back at Tim, making big eyes and motioning toward Jason with her head. She whispered something he couldn’t hear, Tim whispered something back. Their voices got faster, more insistent. He saw Stephanie’s eyebrows scrunch down, she jerked her head toward him again and it was enough to have Jason growling into the collar of his coat where it was pulled up to his chin.

“Alright what?” he snapped, not turning around. “I am standing right here you stewed prunes.”

There was a pause as Titus came bounding back up.

“Stewed- what?” Tim sounded lost but Stephanie rushed forward, catching Titus before he could choose Jason for the next throw.

“That’s Shakespeare isn’t it? Henry the fifth or something?”

“Fourth,” Jason corrected begrudgingly shaking out his shoulders with a harsh shiver. His arm throbbed and he clenched his jaw.

“Right, right, my creative writing class just did a whole section on Shakespeare and made up words and shit, pretty interesting.” She glanced back at them as Tim shuffled up to stand on Jason’s other side, taking a drink from his coffee.

“Fascinating,” Jason clipped back. Stephanie looked briefly constipated and moved to intercept Titus again.

“I feel like this is a conversation for the two bird boys. I’m gonna go play with Titus over there.” She nodded her head towards one of the benches and took off just as Tim was starting to protest. Then he let out a heavy sigh and took another long drink.

“So...” Tim ventured, toeing the ground with a boot that looked too big for him.

“Fucking what?” Tim looked startled by the venom in his tone, glancing at him with wide eyes that made Jason just want to punch him. “You’re the one who showed up here out of the blue, obviously looking for me, so stop beating around the damn bush. What do you want?”

“Uh, ok.”

Jason turned away from him, his toes were going numb and he needed to move. He started a walk around the perimeter of the park, forcing Tim to rush to catch up. He was still quiet though, acting nervous, fidgety, and Jason was so tired of this.

“Dick sent you.”

Tim glanced up at him, eyes darting over his face. “Sort of.”

“Just spit it out Replacement.” Tim looked momentarily stung, pulling Jason’s shoulders further up to his chin. He’d stopped calling him that mostly, since they’d all been working more together on patrol. Jason looked down, hating the way his anger couldn’t quite swallow the guilt.

“Ok yeah, I’m checking in with you because of Dick.”

Jason snorted. “Figures.” He wanted to say more, there was a whole slew of other things ready to come pouring out of his mouth but for once he managed to hold his damn tongue. Dick probably thought he went flying off the handle after their conversation, probably sent the little bird looking for him on patrol first, to make sure he wasn’t cutting off heads or breaking into freaking Arkham. He didn’t say any of it, because it all felt too close to what could have happened.

Of all of them Tim was the smart one and if Jason got overly defensive he’d be the first one to see through it for what it was.

“It was pretty interesting trying to figure out where you’d be,” Tim finally ventured, tone casual, like he was inviting conversation. Jason scowled, walking faster, making Tim take an extra step to every three of his.

“It was quite the run around,” he continued when Jason said nothing back. “Dick sent a group message to everybody, asking if they knew where he might find you, because you were ignoring him.” And there it was again.

“You know I am fucking tired of everybody in this Goddamn-” He didn’t want to call it a family, he didn’t, but he didn’t know what other word to use, “group thinking everything I do is everybody else’s business. Dick shoulda’ kept his mouth shut.”

Tim swallowed but was quick to continue, “ok, but, he didn’t actually tell anyone what happened.” Jason cut away from the sidewalk, following a thin spot in the grass where you could see the dirt even through the snow. “Ok so, he told me, but nobody else and that’s only because - Jason will you slow down and just listen to me for a second?”

He felt a tug on the back of his jacket and barely resisted the urge to yank away, feeling the Pit rise to meet his still souring mood. He glanced out to where Stephanie was still throwing the ball for Titus and took a steadying breath. He stopped short, turning around and facing Tim who nearly bulldozed right into him, letting go of the back of his coat just in time to dribble coffee down the front of it.

“Shit, sorry-” He reached out like he was gonna try to brush away the beading drops but hesitated.

“Fine. Talk.” Jason ignored the drops even as they slowly started to soak into the wool of his coat. Tim looked up at him and Jason was struck by how short the kid was, even still. He looked nervous but he squared his shoulders, taking in a deep breath.

“Ok. So. Dick texted everyone, excluding Bruce by the way, asking where he could find you, because you were ignoring him, he said he upset you and he wanted to talk. He didn’t say anything else.” The kid was talking so fast he must have fully expected Jason to cut him off at any moment.

“Babs said he should just show up at your apartment, because it apparently worked for her, but at that point I thought that’s a terrible idea, and you never told any of us where you live, besides, you know, recently with Bruce and Damian, and they never passed that on, cause I’m sure they knew you wouldn’t want them to. So I messaged Dick privately to ask him what happened because I wasn’t sure you’d appreciate the unexpected visit if you were mad at him for something.” He drew in another deep breath, eyebrows slanting down in concentration, and switched the coffee cup into his other hand.

“It was Damian that actually helped find you, said you’d been taking Titus here since they left. In the meantime I convinced Dick not to show up at your doorstep-”

“Why?” Tim stumbled over his words, blinking up at him in confusion. “Why’d you convince him not to show up?”

Tim shrugged, mouth tugging down on one side in a knowing sort of way. “Because Dick can be a jerk sometimes, when he’s not thinking, and he doesn’t really get that not everybody is like him. Some people need space. Something he has little concept of.”

Jason snorted.

“Surprised to hear you say something negative about the golden boy.” The kid rolled his eyes, giving a soft laugh.

“I love Dick, but he’s not perfect. He has flaws just like the rest of us.” There was a wry bitterness to the words that Jason almost wanted to pick at, sensing a story, but he didn’t because he didn’t want to invite the same in return. He appreciated the kid’s efforts anyway, to a larger degree than he anticipated. He dropped the smile then and looked at Jason with a serious expression, that same pinch to his eyes from before.

“He didn’t tell anyone else what happened, all Dick said was that he said something stupid and he needed to apologize but you were ignoring him. I got the details but nobody else.”

The tension in Jason’s shoulders was slowly bleeding away, knowing that at least Dick hadn’t given that up to everyone, aired Jason’s dirty laundry to the world. That he hadn’t said a word to Bruce. But just bringing it up made him on edge, uncomfortable. Tim’s next words didn’t help.

“He never should have said that Jason,” the words were earnest, and almost gentle in tone and Tim’s eyebrows were drawn up in the middle, concern or sympathy Jason couldn’t parse but he didn’t like it. Hated how immediately embarrassed he felt, the need to downplay the whole thing surging through him because even though he felt wounded, he also just felt stupid.

Jason shrugged, looking away across the park again. “I was asking for it,” he mumbled back, “said some stupid shit of my own. And he already apologized, you didn’t-” Jason looked down, at the toes of his dirty boots, damp enough now that the water was leeching inside, soaking into his socks and freezing his already numb toes. He swallowed. “You didn’t need to come out here, I’m fine.”

He should have replied to Dick’s stupid message, said something at least, instead of ignoring him. Punishing him like the dysfunctional asshole he was.

Tim was staring at him, eyes scrutinizing in a careful way Jason didn’t like but he didn’t say anything, just looked down too and kicked a pebble across the snowy grass. They both turned toward Stephanie and Titus,who weren’t so far away anymore, watched her mock wrestling with him while his tail went crazy, barking loud enough to echo while she laughed in return.

“I’m not gonna say I get it,” Tim finally said, quietly, “because I don’t. But please don’t write Bruce off.”

Jason didn’t speak, because he couldn’t, because his tongue felt frozen in his mouth, numb just like his fingers and toes. “He’s trying he...it’s been different lately. He’s better now - than he was. It’s not perfect sure, but you can tell he’s trying.” He looked up and to the side again, staring at Jason who turned his head just enough that the hood blocked his eyes.

“I think that counts for something.”

Jason clenched his jaw again at the thought of Bruce’s stupid text messages, and the pictures, the gifts. Plural, even. But God it just hurt. He didn’t trust it. He remembered so many times edging back into Bruce’s life only to be hurt again.

Only to hurt Bruce again.

And that scared him. More than he had been willing to admit since he finally let himself see how tangled up he still was with the Pit. Maybe Bruce was being honest, maybe he’d changed.

But so had Jason, and not in a good way.

He took a deep breath, hating the way it shuddered on the way in, and let it out in a gust of white condensation.

“You’re lucky I even came here today,” Jason finally said, trying for casual, to erase the heavy atmosphere. “Barely stopped in yesterday.”

Tim moved his cup up to his mouth and then stopped. “Wait, you came yesterday?”

Jason glanced at him, confused for a moment. “Yeah, only for a little while, maybe twenty minutes. Why?”

“Because w-...when were you here?” Tim’s voice was almost upset and Jason was baffled.

“I don’t know, four-ish? Why?”

Tim let out a soft sigh and finally took another drink. “Figures.”

“What figures, you little asshole?”

Tim glanced at him, mouth corking up at the side at the insult, he stared at the top of his coffee cup for a moment before he answered. “We came by yesterday too, around five, waited around for like, three hours before we had to call it. About froze my toes off.”

Jason faltered, doing a double take. “You - wait, what?”

Tim shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like we were out here the entire time, there’s a coffee shop pretty close by, we’d go warm up every forty minutes or so.”

“You-” Jason was floored, “you didn’t just check the security cameras by my building? Set up an alert? Facial recognition?” Tim paused, tapping the side of his cup before closing his eyes for a moment, looking pained.

“Yeah that would’ve been smarter.”

Jason laughed. Sharp and loud, and it surprised even him. “I can’t believe you. You’re supposed to be the little genius.” But it was teasing, and Jason couldn’t ignore the little prick of warmth in his chest even though he wanted to.

“Yeah well, it’s called respecting privacy.”

“Sure, sure it is.” Tim started laughing too though, dragging a hand through his hair, forgetting the ear muffs and knocking them off center.

“Don’t tell Stephanie, she’ll murder me.”

“I think Batgirl probably should have thought of it too.”

Tim was smiling in earnest now, shaking his head. “Still, don’t say anything.”

Their sudden camaraderie must have been visibly apparent because Stephanie wandered over with Titus not a moment later.

“Alright, are you two idiots done? All good in the hood? Because I’m sooo ready for another coffee and Babs told me about this place not far from here. It’s like, some kind of pet cafe. We should take Titus!”

Jason swallowed, feeling abruptly uneasy. Tim glanced at him, eyes looking him up and down. It wasn’t that the invitation wasn’t appreciated, especially after finding out Blondie and Timbo waited outside in the disgusting rain and sleet for three hours the day before just on the off chance they might catch him - but it was just a lot. And he didn’t want to think about his conversation with Babs, at that very cafe because he’d been going back and forth in his head about the break thing.

Only he wasn’t sure he could trust her to keep her word that she wouldn’t tell anyone anymore and he didn’t want to expend the mental energy trying to figure it out. He was so tired, and his arm hurt, but he didn’t want to say no, especially to Stephanie’s hopeful smile.

“I don’t know,” Tim said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I kind of need to swing back by the office before five if I can.” Steph’s expression morphed instantly to a glare.

“Tim. No.”

“Steph-”

“No! It’s Friday! They will survive without you through the weekend. You’ve been working like sixty hours a week, you need to cool it.”

“I’m fine.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Well I drove us here and I’m not taking you.”

Tim gave Jason an exasperated look. “Well, I think Jason might be a little tired.” They both looked at him then, Tim apologetically and Stephanie newly alert, scanning him up and down with sharp eyes.

“Shit yeah, you look like death.”

“Steph.”

“What, he does.” Her eyes flicked to Tim and back again. “You do. You feeling ok?”

“Fine,” he said tightly, relieved and annoyed all in one. He unwound Titus’ leash that had been in his pocket. “But I should get back to my place. Titus just got over an ear infection, he shouldn’t be out for too long.” He steadfastly avoided both of their eyes as he knelt down to attach the leash.

“Aw, poor pup.” Stephanie knelt next to him, patting Titus on the neck, over the sleeve. She also jostled into his shoulder, very much on purpose. “I don’t know what all of this was about, but I hope you’re ok, and if you’re not, I will kick Dick’s ass myself. Just say the word,” she said it under her breath and Jason had no time to formulate a response, verbal or otherwise, before she pulled her phone up, camera open.

“Now. We have to get a selfie with Titus in that ridiculous outfit before anybody leaves.”

Tim snorted.

“Huh-uh, no complaints, I’m freezing my boobs off and I want this picture.” Jason snorted that time as Tim dropped his face in his unoccupied hand.

“We’ve talked about this Stephanie.”

“Yes, we have,” she said primly, pulling herself close to Titus and holding her right arm straight in front of her. “Now budge up Timothy, you’re getting in this picture.”

She reached back around Titus’ neck, grabbed Jason by the collar as she went down and yanked him closer in. “Shit Blondie.”

“We are not going to fit in this picture if everybody doesn’t learn to get a little cozy.” He saw the three of them in the camera app, Stephanie and Jason were squeezed in on either side of Titus‘ head while Tim bent over behind them, coffee cup in hand, mildly amused smirk in place. The sun was setting around them, casting their faces in deep shadow and giving the whole thing an orange glow. “Alright we’re gonna do one with flash and one without, now say cheese!”

Just before she tapped the photo button Jason felt something freezing cold insert into his ear with surprising force and jerked back. “What the fuck Blondie?!” He clamped a hand over his ear, laughing. “Tell me that was not a wet willy.”

“Nope, just my frozen finger.” She smirked. “Now that you’re actually smiling we can take the picture. Now lean in.” And he couldn’t stop in spite of himself when she snapped the photo, and then the second, seeing stars when the flash went off. Titus seemed enthused to have everyone crowded around him and kept turning his face back and forth, trying to lick them, but eventually Stephanie was pleased enough with the results.

“Alright, you are free to go,” she said absently, staring down at her phone as she stood up with a snort. “God, he looks like an alien worm. I’ll send these to you.” She waved her phone at Jason, as he too got up from the ground.

“Sounds good,” he drawled, feeling totally thrown. Jason had worked with Stephanie as Batgirl a few times, and enjoyed her more than most of the bats, but he’d never had much contact with her outside of the masks, if any. She didn’t seem to feel the separation like he did. Stephanie gave him a thumbs up and Tim followed with a helpless smile. She finally stuck her phone in her pocket and gave him a serious look.

“Now go get some rest. Don’t get sick.”

Jason gave a mock solute, ignoring the way his arm burned with the motion.

“See you around,” he said as he turned away, unable to wait for either of them to do the same. Titus seemed reluctant to leave but Jason tugged on his leash and he begrudgingly followed. It was turning dark outside and was pitch black by the time they made it back to Jason’s apartment. His arm was killing him, and he was glad Tim baled him out of getting coffee for more than one reason because he felt like all he wanted to do was sleep.

His brain was exhausted, his body fighting an infection, and kinda maybe losing. He took more antibiotics when they got back, ran himself a bath as hot as he could stand it and forced himself to stay mostly submerged for as long as he could manage, including the arm. It hurt like knives stabbing into his skin but short of a salt pack it was the only thing he could think to do for it. plus he’d been shivering and shaking since halfway through his walk with Tim and it took longer than expected for him to finally feel overheated. Long enough that the water itself wasn’t so warm anymore.

There was a text from Stephanie when he finally got out and pulled a set of sweats on. It was three pictures, the first photo, in the dim light, you could just barely make out their faces. Their teeth shone bright in contrast to everything else, but they were all clearly laughing. Titus had turned halfway sideways, tongue hanging out of his mouth.

The second was one with flash, and Jason couldn’t help by huff out a laugh when he looked at it. All three of them were squinting pretty dramatically and Tim had one eye shut completely, a pained look on his face while Titus’ eyes were both closed.

The third one was another with flash. Tim was mid word, face comically frozen with his mouth half open, snide look on his face. Stephanie looked annoyed and Titus had turned sideways and had his tongue hallway up the side of Jason’s face who was laughing with his lips and eyes pressed tightly closed. He didn’t remember taking that one, but he saved all three of them.

Along with the photos was a short message.

Stephanie:
I love the third one, you’re adorable.
Just let me know if there’s an ass I need to kick. 💪🏻

Jason sat on his couch, wrapped in the throw from his bed, the one Alfred had knitted him when he was a kid, and thumbed at the edge of his phone. Titus was passed out in his bed, exhausted from the extensive bout of fetch.

Jason:
I’m good Blondie, but thanks.

Her reply was nearly instant.

Stephanie:
Anytime, seriously

He swallowed against the lump in his throat and opened Dick’s last message, knowing perfectly well he’d been unfair to him.

Jason:
You can call off the hounds, I’m fine.

And because he knew it would invite all kinds of questions he sent a second text.

Jason:
I just don’t want to talk right now, so just leave it.

The three little dots telling him that Dick was writing a reply blinked back at him for so long he started to worry it wouldn’t matter but when the message came in it was short. Short enough Jason thought he probably wrote and erased it four times before sending it.

Dick:
Ok, thank you for texting.

Jason rolled his shoulders out, thinking he should probably eat something but not being particularly hungry. His stomach was a little uneasy and he didn’t know if it was from the antibiotics, the infection, or his shitty mental state, but he levered himself off the couch either way and forced down a bowl of cereal.

He took a minute to send the third photo from the park, the one where Titus was licking Jason to Damian, thinking he would get a kick out of Tim’s face. Then he climbed into bed with Titus and his book, ready to call it a night at seven pm. The reply came quickly, it would be midnight in London so Jason figured they were probably at their hotel, winding down. He knew from personal experience that it was hard to go to sleep at a normal hour when you were used to staying up until three every day. Even in a different time zone the circadian rhythm was strong.

Damian:
Glad to see things haven’t changed while we’ve been away, you are all still nincompoops.

Jason snorted so hard he choked, jostling Titus enough to get an annoyed grunt in return.

Jason:
You have the vocabulary of a 90 year old Englishman.

Damian:
Better than an American teenager.

“Titus, you believe this kid?” Jason adjusted his grip on his book and sent a thumbs down in return. “Insulting a whole generation.”

He read for an hour more maybe, right up until his stomach started feeling more than just uneasy.

“I am not gonna puke three times in one week,” he told himself. “I’m not even sick.” He put his book down, rolling over and shoving his face in his pillows, butting his back up against Titus next to him.

He was almost drifting off when his phone buzzed again. He was gonna ignore it, but it was barely eight and now that he knew what a freaking worry wort Damian was he still picked it up off his night stand to unlock it with bleary eyes.

Bruce:
I like the picture, you look happy. It’s good to see you all getting along.

Jason blinked at it for a moment, swallowing convulsively before he was throwing himself out of bed and fumbling for the toilet, heaving as hard as he could into the sink when he didn’t quite make it. Hot acid exploded out of him, milk and half digested cereal splattering against the freshly cleaned porcelain.

His knees gave out and he slid to the floor, resting his forehead against the vanity and cursing himself. He fumbled for a wad of toilet paper and wiped his mouth. Titus pattered into the doorway and Jason groaned, pressing both hands to his face, waiting for his stomach to ease. He felt dizzy.

Titus licked the side of his head and nosed at his ear, grumbling low in his throat. It hit him absurdly hard in that instant how much he was going to miss this stupid dog.

“Fuck,” he whispered. Titus sat next to him and Jason leaned on him, wrapping both arms around his neck and pressing his face into the soft fur. His stomach rolled and he tensed, but it passed slowly, leaving him breathing hard and sweating but feeling mildly better for it.

There were two more days before they got back. Day ten was just around the corner and there was this awful dread hitting him like a punch to the stomach.

He could get his own. It wasn’t like he hadn’t though about it - about going to the animal shelter and picking one out. But then he thought, it would probably be selfish. Jason was way too much of a disaster to be in charge of anything or anyone. He was barely managing ten days with Titus and it felt more like the dog was taking care of him than the other way around.

But Jason had never had a pet before beyond the strays in the alley who never really belonged to anyone and he didn’t realize how much...how nice it was to have this being that was always happy to see you. That had no idea how awful you were, that had no expectations of you. There was no pressure and even when you were a total disaster they didn’t care.

They just wanted food and scratches and some attention. It was addicting, the easy, unconditional love and Jason hated that he was such a wimp and how easy it was to see now, why the demon brat loved animals so much when it was so much harder to get along with people.

So much more complicated to deal with the ups and downs and whether or not you even deserved the effort.

Chapter Text

They were coming to pick up Titus the next day. Jason was trying not to think about it.

He woke up groggy and miserable. Checked his wound in the bathroom sink and found it hot to the touch, inflamed and incredibly tender. He thought he might have a fever but it was low and he forced down more antibiotics. When he attempted to eat a piece of toast he ended up gagging on the second bite.

Jason felt worse than the day before. A lot worse. The fatigue he’d been fighting for the last little bit was multiplied by ten. Staying out in the cold for too long probably hadn’t done him any favors even if he had gone to bed early. Not to mention he was sure he wasn’t eating enough, not when his last “meal” hadn’t stayed down longer than a couple hours.

It was all he could do that morning to just...focus on the necessities. Get Titus on his first walk, get down the damn stairs. By the time they reached the bottom he was already dreading going back up. His head was pounding, and his joints hurt and it was apparent that Jason had waited too long.

He shut his eyes briefly while Titus was sniffing around at the base of a stop sign and actually, honestly zoned out, blinked his eyes open he didn’t know how much later when Titus was pulling gently on the lead to keep on down the sidewalk. He should have called Alfred, or Leslie, he should have gone to the hospital.

Jason could still go to the hospital, technically. But every time he thought about it he imagined being crammed in an emergency room waiting area with all those people. Crying babies, crying adults, people arguing with the front desk, the questions they would ask, having to pretend and lie about who he was. It made his heart beat so hard it hurt and just the thought of it had his skin crawling, had the angry green of the Pit coming up through his pores like sweat.

It would be the grocery store all over again, except worse because he couldn’t take Titus with him and he’d be surrounded by people who were already hurt. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t risk it.

He just had to get a handle on it himself.

Before going back up to his apartment he took a second to check his mail in the lobby. He wasn’t the best about it, a chore he generally ignored unless he was expecting something. The identity he had his apartment under was that of a recovering gambling addict and his mailbox was usually just full of ads for casinos and Minimize Debt Faster! Call Today! flyers. This time was no different. He had to yank so hard on a stack of smashed cardboard flyers that he tore most of them in half trying to get them out. But it paid off in the end because his new router was shoved under the most recent stack of crumpled envelopes.

He tucked it under his arm and somehow managed to drag himself and Titus back up the steps. By the time they reached his floor Jason was breathing hard. Hard enough he had to pause at his door and rest his head against the peeling paint for a moment before he let himself in.

Somehow he convinced himself it would be an easy project he could tackle even while feeling like the walking dead. It didn’t go as well as he’d hoped though. Part of the problem was that Titus wouldn’t leave him alone. Tucked half behind his television with the tv cabinet pulled away from the wall he kept trying to wiggle in next to him. And while normally Jason would find it mostly amusing, the combination of his exhaustion, the pain in his arm, and the way the little numbers on the side of the router blurred in his vision it was enough to make him pause before he lost his temper and did something shitty like yell at the dog.

It wasn’t Titus’ fault that Jason was an idiot and an asshole and something about the way he was acting made Jason think...made him think that he was worried about him or something. Maybe that was reading a little too far into it though, maybe dogs didn’t have the capacity to worry but he seemed anxious, and Jason had no doubt whose fault that was.

He gave up on the router completely the third time his laptop alerted him that he had no internet connection and he felt a phantom thrum from the Pit. Nope. He wasn’t dealing with that. He actually laughed, when it happened, sitting back on his heels, crouched behind the tv. It was a choked, half hysterical thing Jason stifled as quickly as he could manage, pressing a hand to his mouth and breathing through his nose to try and calm the instant spike in his heart rate. God he was losing it.

Shaking his head, he stood up, leaving the tv pulled out from the wall and the new router abandoned on its side, wires hanging everywhere.

He should eat something. Jason knew he needed calories, that it was at least part of the reason he was feeling so shaky and unwell. He slumped back down on his couch and was trying to think of any food that didn’t send him into cold sweats but was mostly unsuccessful. Titus wandered over and sat on the floor, leaning into the side of Jason’s leg.

It was then that his phone buzzed. Bruce and Damian would be heading to the airport soon probably and Jason figured Damian would have some weirdly specific instructions for him. He tugged his phone out of his pocket with a sigh and unlocked the screen.

Bruce:
I can’t help but notice you haven’t replied to any of my recent messages, is everything alright?

Jason froze where he sat.

What was he supposed to say?

His phone buzzed again.

Bruce:
I’ve missed hearing from you. If I’ve upset you in any way, I’d like to work it out. We’re heading to the airport in a couple hours but I can call before we go.

Jason heaved out a shuddering exhale and pressed his fingers into his eyelids.

Unbidden tears welled up in his eyes instantly and he cursed himself as he swiped his sleeve over his face. Everything felt so close to the surface, like his emotions were wildly out of control. It was probably the infection, the fever, it could do the same shit to you as a concussion but knowing that didn’t help.

Jason sat there for a long time, staring down at Titus who sat patiently by his feet, looking up at him in return. His phone rang some minutes later, making Jason jump and stare at the Batman logo that lit up his screen. Bruce didn’t know he had that, would probably thoroughly disapprove.

He watched the pulsing green button that would answer the call and felt his heart seize in his chest. He couldn’t handle it. Jason couldn’t handle any of it because it wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t.

No matter how much Bruce wanted it to.

And Jason thought maybe, maybe he really did, really wanted things with Jason to get better. But they couldn’t.

Because Jason couldn’t even patrol anymore, couldn’t even go to the goddamned grocery store without nearly killing someone or possibly even worse, even though - even though he didn’t want to, even though it terrified him. He could feel the Pit inside him like a living breathing entity all its own, a constant drumming like a second heartbeat. Even if it wasn’t rearing up and hungry it was there, always watching and he was terrified of what it would do to him the longer he resisted.

He couldn’t fucking set up a router.

He couldn’t talk to Bruce, he couldn’t let him or any of the others see this, they couldn’t know. It would ruin everything. It would ruin the texts with Damian, the coffee with Babs, talking to Tim and Stephanie at the dog park, even his and Dick’s stupid conversation because at least Dick had tried. But especially with Bruce and calling him about Titus, leaving him a gift stashed somewhere in the manor he was too fucking repressed to give him, sending him pictures and messages about books.

Trying to call him when he thought Jason was upset. Twice now.

And it didn’t fix everything but they were all trying. For him. And he didn’t want to undo it all because Jason wouldn’t be able to take it when it all inevitably fell apart.

He sucked in a deep, wavering breath and watched the screen go blank, letting his hand fall forward and rubbing at Titus’ snout.

Jason spent the next three hours laying on his couch, swallowing every knotted up feeling trying to come up his throat and trying to force himself to get up and eat something. The very idea nearly made him gag. And maybe he was wrong before, because Titus kept laying down next to the couch and then getting up and sticking his face right up in Jason’s, sniffing at him like he was trying to figure something out. Maybe he was worried. Jason would be the last person to underestimate the emotional capacity of an animal at this point.

Eventually he got up and took another dose of the antibiotics, though at that point it felt like a wasted effort. Knowing how he felt on them though, he hated to think how he’d feel without them. He added a couple Tylenol on top of that, hoping it would bring his fever down and maybe he wouldn’t feel like quite as much shit.

Then he made himself some soup broth, thinking he could at least manage to keep that down, just heating it up straight from the container, adding some salt. Just standing at the stove top he felt dizzy. He stood against the kitchen counter, blowing on it and trying to find the smell appetizing for too long before he finally drank it. Barely a single cup in and he was puking it back into the kitchen sink, breathing hard, arms propped on the edge of the counter, clammy and burning up from the inside. It was at that point that Jason was struck by how off he felt. It wasn’t just the general malaise or the extreme nausea. Beyond how tired he was and how every little thing had him breathing like he’d just run a full mile at top speed. He just felt not right.

Everything in him felt off, like little short circuits sparking through his body, flares of anxiety and the Pit pulling every backwards urge up in his chest.

There was nothing left but to try salting the wound to draw out the infection. So that’s what he did. He brought the entire Morton’s container into the bathroom with him, shutting the door so Titus wouldn’t walk in.

Jason poured it on in a thick layer. It felt like holding an open flame to his skin. He almost puked again when he started rubbing it into the wound, unable to hold back from groaning aloud, hissing quick, shallow breaths through his teeth.

Bruce and Damian would be there the next morning to pick up Titus. He could not be this much of a disaster when they did. He had to at least be able to pretend like he was fine. He knew he should call Alfred, but at that point it would invite so many more questions.

Why didn’t you call sooner? How did you let it get this bad? You can’t stay here alone, I’m taking you back to the manor with me. And Jason couldn’t stand that. He couldn’t go back there, he couldn’t, not when he felt like he was going to explode, like he was a balloon stuck in a thorn bush - one false move from disappearing all together.

Jason wrapped up the wound, salt and all, and forced down a full glass of water. Titus sniffed at his arm suspiciously when he sat on the couch, laying at his feet. He felt like his batteries had run out. Like a little mechanical toy slowly losing power and he just wanted to sleep. He just wanted to go to sleep and wake up and for things to be different.

He laid down on the couch, pulling the throw over him and shoving his face into the pillow, trying with all his might to block out the fire in his left arm. He figured his dreams wouldn’t be good. Not with the fever and everything else but they surprised him still sometimes.

 



*



 

Jason was at the dog park, but Titus wasn’t there. It was dark and freezing outside. He was rubbing his hands up and down his arms trying to get warm.

There was barely enough light to see by, just the stars and moon illuminating the grounds around him. He was looking around for Titus, shouting his name but there was nothing, no response, no answering bark or the sound of his collar jingling when he walked. Not until he turned around and there was a different dog, the Rottweiler from before, and it was running - running right for him. Jason felt his heart lurch in his throat. He turned to escape but his feet felt like they were moving through sand, like he had cinderblocks tied to his ankles and there was laughing. Laughing coming from somewhere in the distance but all around him too. And then the dog hit him from behind. It knocked him over and clamped down on his arm with enough force to make him scream. His head hit the ground so hard he blacked out.

When he opened his eyes again it wasn’t to a grassy park.

It was dark, and Jason was running, the flesh of his left forearm was mangled, throbbing with every pounding footstep. He ducked into an alley and up a fire escape, throwing himself onto the roof and scrambling to his feet. Something was following him, and it was close. Jason’s heart was in his throat, beating so hard it sounded like a drum in the back of his head.

He slipped and slid over the roof, barely managing a leap between buildings, uncoordinated and sluggish. He was losing blood alarmingly fast, his arm gushed with every new wave of pain. When he looked down dread shot through him, because the blood...the blood wasn’t right, it was- it was green and it was running all over him, soaking into his clothes.

There was a low noise somewhere in the distance. The sound sparked a shiver of terror up Jason’s spine and he ran as fast as he could, feeling like he had no control of his body, like no matter how much he was telling his feet to move they just weren’t getting the signal.

A shadow moved in front of him and Jason faltered, tripping and falling to his hands and knees with a pained yelp . He heaved for air, feeling nauseas as the shadows grew and grew, and morphed around him, closing slowly in.

“Stop! Stop! Bruce! Somebody!” Jason scrambled back on his hands, but the shadows weren’t really shadows, they were smoke, permeating the air in thicker and thicker clouds.

“I-I-I-“ He stuttered, unable to form words as he pushed himself back.

Jason cradled his arm to his chest looking for somewhere to go, someplace he could escape to. He saw the facade of his own building just a block away, Titus was in the window of his apartment, barking and barking and oddly Jason could hear it. Hear it loud enough that it echoed.

Loud enough that when he looked back to the smoke, there was just the ceiling above his couch, water stain and all.

He was blinking in the dark, and flinched when that echoing bark came right by his ear.

Jason hissed, rolling away from the noise as a tongue accompanied it, licking insistently at the side of his face. “Stop it-“ Jason slurred, and his voice didn’t sound right and he didn’t feel right.

No, actually he felt very wrong. His head was spinning, dizzy enough that he closed his eyes only to snap them open when it just made it worse. He was freezing, shaking like he’d never stop. His mouth was so dry it hurt to swallow and Jason groaned, shoving his face in the pillow.

Titus whined from behind him and Jason blinked his eyes open.

Water, a glass of water would help. God he was thirsty, now that he thought about it. He shifted on the couch, attempting to prop himself up on his elbows only to black out and fall halfway to the floor when his infected arm pressed into the cushions.

“Shit, fuck.”

Titus barked again and Jason pressed his palms into his eyes, hissing through his teeth. The room was spinning. He felt like he was gonna puke.

Water, he was getting a glass of water. He managed, somehow, to get himself upright on the couch but he sat there shaking for long enough he must have faded out again because the next thing he knew Titus was sitting on the cushion next to him nosing at his cheek and whining.

He sat forward, leaning heavily on his right arm propped on the edge of the couch. Titus jumped down to the floor and woofed at him, low but insistent and Jason took a deep, shuddering breath through his nose to ride out a wave of nausea.

This was bad, he registered in the back of his mind. Very bad. He was so cold and he felt so not right he knew on a bone deep level that his temperature must be sky high. Every movement made his head throb but his mouth and throat were so dry and - and water was good, for a fever, he thought...yeah, that was right. He just had to....get off the couch.

He nearly gagged at the very idea but steadfastly shifted his weight so he could stand. In his addled state though, he forgot the blanket still half wrapped around him and caught his feet up in it when he tried to stand.

Stumbling, he knocked into the coffee table and fell hard on his right hip. Something hit the floor with him and Jason lay there, blinking into the dark of his living room and the lights from the city leaking in through his blinds, groaning and trying not to pass out from the pain. Titus stood over him, barking again, making him flinch.

He literally couldn’t move, and - for a minute there he...he forgot what he was doing. Why had he been trying to get up?

“Shit,” Jason slurred again, trying to halfheartedly push Titus face away from his own when he started licking him and whining. He was so weak he might as well be pushing on a brick wall. Titus shifted his feet and stepped on something. His claws clacked across it until he knocked it to the side, sending it sliding over the carpet until it hit Jason in the shoulder.

His cell phone. That’s right, he had knocked it off the coffee table when he fell. He fumbled a hand for it and squeezed his eyes shut tight against the glaring light of the screen. Jason should call - he needed to call someone. ‘Cause he wasn’t gettin’ off that floor.

God he...even through the vague haze his brain was in there was a deep dread slowly breaking the surface, and with it, an intense urgency to - he needed to talk to - to Bruce he...there was...he needed to talk to him.

Jason shifted onto his side, grunting the whole way and squinting painfully into the light of the screen. He could barely figure out how to navigate it, hands shaking so hard he missed the icon for his contacts three times. It was probably mostly luck, and the fact that B was early in the alphabet that he even made it to the right number. But somehow, the phone was ringing. He pressed it to his ear clumsily, nearly dropping it on his face.

There was a reason....he needed to talk to Bruce, he knew he did, but the more it rang the less Jason could remember about why he was calling him. When the voicemail picked up Jason rolled half over and pressed his face into the carpet, closing his eyes in frustration and some swirling mix of unidentifiable emotion.

He was on a plane, Jason remembered. He couldn’t answer. But Jason still had things to say, there was still-

“Bruce. I’m...” The words came out a little slurred and Jason trailed off, trying to get his mind together enough to say the things that had been bubbling up in his chest for days. “I’m still mad at you,” he blurted, half into the rug, breathing harder than he should for the little bit of effort it took.

Titus laid down on the floor in front of him, head on his paws as he watched Jason, ears down.

“I don’t know-“ He took a deep breath, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing.” His voice cracked with the pressure building in his throat and Jason closed his eyes, head swimming, dizzy and nauseas and lost.

“But I-uh...your pictures were nice.” With the dread there was this - this strange over arching sadness filling in all the cracks inside him. “That sunrise was nice.”

Titus suddenly stood up again, nosing at his face with a low whine and Jason tried to move back, shifted his left arm trying to adjust his position and hissed through his teeth at the spike of pain that whited out his already blurry vision. God there were tears in his eyes and he was so - he was so stupid. What was wrong with him?

“I fucked up,” he choked out, overwhelmed by - by everything he couldn’t even think. “Shit Bruce. I-” Jason swallowed convulsively, dropped his phone and managed to prop himself up just enough to vomit on the floor without getting it down his front.

But that was it, that was all the strength he had left and he collapsed back on his side, groaning loudly at the pain and then there was Titus whining and barking, frantic. It sent spikes through his already pounding head. Jason just wanted to- he didn’t know. The room was spinning and he felt like he was dying and there was a little thought in the back of his mind with a spark of alarm.

He knew what that felt like. This wasn’t good. But just as quickly as the thought processed he was gone. Blacked out on his living room floor, a soft ringing filling his ears until it covered over the barking, until there was nothing but static and then nothing at all.

 



*



 

He came in and out, for a while. A nudge from Titus’ nose, or a tongue up the side of his face rousing him just enough to be in pain before he passed out again.

There were dreams, quick and violent.

Slow and blurry and constantly changing.

But then there was one, one crystal clear moment from back when he was fourteen.

Bruce had woken him up in the middle of the night, dragging him out of bed. Jason had been confused, thinking it was some kind of surprise training exercise. Bruce had only laughed.

“No Jay, come on, put your coat on, we’re going outside.”

“Why? Bruce, what are we doing? I’m tired, it’s the middle of the friggin’ night. I was asleep.” Jason threw an arm dramatically over his eyes, sitting slumped on the edge of his bed. When he moved his arm to peak out, Bruce was standing there with his arms crossed, looking amused.

“You should try out for the next school play. Now, come on, there’s something I want to show you.”

Jason, in spite of himself, was curious, so he slipped out of bed, threw on a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt and his coat and followed Bruce through the dark manor, his boots slipping on his bare ankles. They went out the main back door onto the grounds and Jason had to jog a little to keep up with Bruce’s long strides, looking up at him from behind.

“Come on,” he huffed, “where are you taking me? Is this the part where I find out you’ve been burying Robins in the back yard? I always knew a guy who dressed up like a bat had to be deranged.”

Bruce choked on a laugh and stopped in his tracks, turning back to Jason with one raised eyebrow.

“I’ve taught you better than to give away the game so early. Now I have no reason to wait.” Suddenly he moved, snatching Jason around the waist and hauling him up to hang over his shoulder.

“What- Child abuse!” Jason pounded his fists on Bruce’s back, barely able to get the words out around his own laughter. Bruce remained unaffected by his struggling and marched through the grass, barely illuminated by a thin sliver of moon high in the sky. Right up until they reached some indeterminate location and he stopped, jarring a cough out of Jason before he let him slip back to the ground.

“Alright, sit down.” Bruce gestured to the grass where they stood on a small slope.

“What? Why?” As Jason asked Bruce was already lowering himself down.

“You’ll see, now come on.”

“Do you just enjoy keeping secrets? I think that’s what it is.” But Jason obediently folded to the ground, sitting cross legged in the damp grass, feeling the tickle of the green blades against his ankles. “Now what?”

“Now look up.” Bruce gestured to the sky, and tilted his head back as he spoke.

Jason glanced up, expecting to see the heavy clouds he was accustomed to, and then had to do a double take. The sky was clear. Not a cloud in site and a spattering of stars over inky black stared back at him. A little white streak shot across the sky as he was watching. “Whoa,” he breathed.

“There’s a meteor shower tonight. There was little hope it would be clear enough to see anything, but the clouds dispersed as soon as the sun went down.” Bruce leaned back, propping himself on his hands. Jason had no such compunctions and flopped fully backwards, laying flat in the grass.

“I’ve never seen this many stars.”

Bruce glanced at him, and it was dark enough Jason couldn’t get a good look at his face but he slowly lowered himself back to lay next to him in the grass. “That’s not surprising,” he said quietly, “there’s too much light pollution in the city. We’re still too close to get a good look even out here, but on a clear night like this...it’s worth looking.”

Jason scooted over on the lawn until he was shoulder to shoulder with Bruce, pulling his coat tighter around him at the chill of the night air. “There’s another one!” Jason shot a hand out, pointing to a bright line across the sky that faded just as fast as it appeared.

“Good eye, I missed that one.”

Jason shivered, a tremble running up his spine and through his shoulders. He was sure he blushed when Bruce looked over but it was too dark for him to see. Without a word he lifted an arm in invitation. Jason only hesitated for a second before scooting even further over, lifting his head just enough that Bruce could settle his arm underneath, wrapping fully around his shoulders and pulling him close.

“Better?” Bruce asked, rubbing a hand up and down his arm.

“Yeah,” Jason whispered, staring up into the sky.

They didn’t speak again for a long time. Jason just remembered the stars, and Bruce, holding him close, keeping him warm. He’d watched for a while, mesmerized by meteors, just like anything he’d never seen before. It wasn’t long before he was drifting again, his eyelids heavy with interrupted sleep and the solid frame of Bruce’s arm around him.

There were flashes of other things, Bruce’s whispered voice, words he couldn’t remember, the shift in weight when he was lifted off the ground. Steady footfalls jarring him just enough to press awareness into his sleepy brain.

All of it was dark, and soft, and full of something Jason couldn’t name.

But the memory slipped, and an insistent noise pulled him back to the dark living room.

He blinked his eyes open to dim light and a loud buzzing noise near his head. Jason didn’t know what it was, but it hurt his ears and if he had the strength or the coordination he would swat it away like an annoying insect. He couldn’t keep his eyes open, and the buzzing faded out just as quickly as it roused him.

There was nothing but dark then, just silent, coal-black swirling around him. He had no idea for how long.

And then abruptly, everything shifted.

The world felt like it tilted sideways. Jason lurched, trying to get his feet under him, disoriented and confused, lights blurring and colors shifting, sounds he couldn’t make any sense of, a flash of pain. But he couldn’t coordinate his limbs and then it was raining. It was raining and the water was freezing, and he was fumbling, clumsy, it hurt, God everything just hurt. He stumbled in the wet, squelching grass. It was dark, pitch black and there was nothing around, nothing but graves and the dead.

Jason stumbled, slipping sideways and catching himself with one hand in the grass, gasping at the pain that lanced through his arm. Somehow he managed to hobble back to his feet and keep going. There was...he had to get somewhere. There was somewhere he needed to be.

But he couldn’t, he couldn’t think-

“B...” His lips were stiff, cold and half numb.

“Bruce,” he whispered it, his throat raw from screaming, from spitting up dirt and mud. He was missing a fingernail, he couldn’t breathe. “Bruce.”

“I’m here.”

Jason jolted, spinning around in the dark. “Bruce.”

“You’re alright, I’m right here, I’ve got you.”

But that wasn’t right, that wasn’t right. The scene wavered, because Bruce wasn’t there when he crawled out of his grave. It was empty, and dark, and cold and wet and Jason was alone.

“Bruce.”

“I’m here, I’m right here Jay.” But that was his voice. That was him talking, even though he didn’t sound right, like something was lodged in his throat. There were arms around Jason, holding him tight even while the freezing rain poured down on hi- them. It was uncomfortable, it hurt, it hurt a lot.

“Hurts,” he gasped it, like a dying fish and the arms around him tightened.

“I know, I’m sorry, you’re going to be alright, we’ve got to get your fever down.”

“Mnf,” Jason tried to make words but they wouldn’t form in his mouth right. He thought he was sitting down, but the ground was hard, not soft and squishy like he remembered. And it was bright.

“Alfred says the cave will be ready whenever we get there. Is he...is he doing ok?” And that was - that was Dick. He sounded, his voice sounded small.

“He’ll be fine, once he’s more lucid we can go, I just need his temperature to come down before we move him.” There was shuffling around him and more words he didn’t quite catch. He wasn’t - outside he didn’t think. And it wasn’t-

“Bruce?” He was blinking his eyes open trying desperately to see, to remember. And he did see, there were lots of things around them, but for some reason it wasn’t - it didn’t make sense.

“I’ve got you, I’m right here.”

“‘s cold.”

“I know, I’m sorry, your temperature is too high.” There was a hand on his forehead, fingers combing through his hair. He was leaning back against something firm but soft, bracketed in on either side. There was water pounding down on them steadily, making him shake, shake so hard his teeth were chattering together.

“You have an infection Jay, a bad one. What were you thinking?” And the words were whispered right in his ear, right behind him, and Bruce sounded so upset. Choked up like Jason couldn’t remember hearing him ever.

“S-s-sorry.”

“Sshh.” He was staring up at the ceiling, and that’s what it was, his ceiling, the ceiling in his bathroom. Bruce was holding him, carding his fingers through his soaking hair, pulling it back so the water didn’t run in his eyes.

“We’re m-...m’ shower?” The words didn’t connect right, his tongue felt drunk, like it was trying to stand up and couldn’t keep its balance.

“We’re in your shower, you have a very high fever Jay, I’m trying to bring your temperature down.”

Right, right, that - he had had a fever. Jason shifted in the tub, knocking his right elbow into the side, he didn’t like leaning back like this, but Bruce put a hand on his chest and held him in place.

“Not yet, Jay.” There was a tiny flare of rebellion before it quickly dispersed, like a snuffed out flame. Jason couldn’t fight him even if he wanted to.

“Bite.”

“What was that, Jason?” Bruce shifted, letting one of his legs slide flat in the tub and Jason registered with an absence of feeling that they were both fully clothed, sitting in his bathtub, shower running.

“Bite, d-dog bite.”

“Your arm.” At that Bruce moved the hand from his head to grip high on his left forearm, lifting it in front of both of them. Jason stared at the exposed flesh, bright, angry red and purple bruised, swollen, little raised welts of white scattered over the skin.

“Bandage?” He still couldn’t quite seem to manage proper grammar.

“I removed it. You likely have a chemical burn from the salt.” Bruce lowered his arm back down, carefully, but it still jostled against Jason’s stomach when he let go and Jason let out an involuntary noise.

“Sorry.” Bruce started drawing his fingers through his hair again. “Do you know what day it is?”

Jason closed his eyes, feeling himself fading out, wanting nothing more than to go back to sleep.

“Day you g-get back.”

“The day of the week, Jay.”

“S-Sunday

“Good.”

“Titus,” he said, not really sure why the word came out until he was blinking his eyes open again, trying to sit forward.

“What about him, Jay?” Bruce locked his arms, not letting him up.

“He needs, Titus, he - been too long, needs to- to go out.”

“It’s alright, Damian’s taking care of him, it’s ok.” Jason fell back, groaning when a hard shiver racked through his frame.

“You’re ok, you’re alright.”

“‘m tired.” And cold, and more and more uncomfortably wet.

“I know, just stay awake a little longer and you can sleep. Dick is getting you some dry clothes.” Changing his clothes sounded like a monumental task when his limbs were shaking like his mom’s used to when she went too long without a fix. He closed his eyes again.

Jason registered a pressure on the crown of his head, arms tightening around him. “Don’t ever scare me like that again.” The words were muffled, spoken against his wet hair and Jason felt dread in his limbs, like lead, inexplicably bringing tears to his eyes.

“Sorry,” he whispered back, hoping somehow that it could cover his future sins too.

He felt so tired.

When Dick came back into the room, eyebrows pinched together in concentration, carrying a pile of Jason’s clothing and stacking it on the counter by the sink Jason was only vaguely aware, letting himself be lulled by the repetitive motion of fingers through his hair. There was so much.

There was so much between them and ahead of them, ahead of Jason. But it was too much to think about just then, too much to comprehend when he was feverish and shaking, when his dad was holding him. He should have pulled away, shouldn’t have let himself have this when it was only temporary because when things fell apart, like he knew they would, it would only hurt worse.

But he was so tired and sick and he couldn’t bring himself to fight Bruce when he was like this. He felt a deep seated relief overlay the dread for the future because now at least Jason didn’t have to think for a while. He could rest.

Bruce shifted him forward and Jason followed as best he could, feeling like a newborn deer trying to climb out of his tub.

“Alright we’re gonna get you up and into some dry clothes, ok Jay?” Dick was crouched at the side of the tub and Jason stared at the floor, remembering a little too clearly the last time they had spoken. He helped lift Jason’s feet over the edge while Bruce held his shoulders. Everything else was a blur, changing his clothes, moving through his apartment. He had no idea how they made it down his stairs except that Bruce must have carried him, because there was no way he did it by his own power.

The last thing he registered was laying in the back seat of Bruce’s car, damp cloth on his forehead, Dick hovering over him, a hand on his upper arm. There was a fumbling noise and a sharp call of “Titus!”

Jason blinked his eyes open to see the dog fold himself up in the floor of the backseat, barely able to fit. He rested his head on the seat in front of Jason and licked at his arm.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Dick tried to shoo him away but Jason grunted.

“No, ‘s fine. He’s ok.” He reached out with one heavy limb and ran it over Titus’ head. The dog whined a little, squirming closer until his nose was just bumping Dick’s leg. Jason carefully scratched behind his ears and closed his eyes, unable to resist the pull of sleep once the car was in motion.

Chapter Text

Bruce sat in first class of the plane, looking out the window as they landed, worrying, absently, about Jason. He kept telling himself nothing was wrong. It wasn’t even mildly out of character for Jason to ignore him if he was annoyed for some reason, or even just busy. But after the surprise of Jason’s mostly amicable texts throughout their trip, Bruce had begun to hope that this was working. That they were moving in the right direction, that his therapist’s suggestions were actually effective and maybe things with Jason weren’t as hopeless as they felt at times. That maybe Jason was willing to give things with Bruce another chance, outside the masks.

But then he had stopped responding. Without even an excuse to get Bruce to leave him alone or an angry snap like before. While he was still responding to Damian, and had apparently met up with Tim and Stephanie a couple days previously.

They had just been getting back to their hotel after dinner that night when Damian’s phone chimed. His youngest had been tied to it like a life line for the majority of their trip, checking it frequently as if he may have missed something in the twenty minutes since he’d last looked. He dug it quickly out of his pocket and glanced at the notification while Bruce was taking off his coat and hanging it by the door. Damian walked passed him, tossing his own jacket on the foot of his bed and sitting down, criss-cross, next to it.

The snorted laugh a second later snagged Bruce’s attention and he looked back at his son. Damian coughed to cover it up, snickering under his breath and covering his mouth with one hand. Bruce raised his eyebrows, mouth corking up at the side.

“What’s so funny?”

Damian scoffed, quickly swallowing his smile. Bruce had figured it was something from Dick. Some internet thing or a photo from patrol of one of the rogues doing something particularly stupid. “It’s nothing.”

But his eyes darted back down to the screen and his mouth twitched. Bruce eyed him for a moment, unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt. Damian glanced up with a scrutinizing expression and then sighed, holding out his phone as if Bruce were begging for it. He gave him an unimpressed look but took the couple steps to the bed to retrieve the phone.

He expected to see The Riddler hanging from a giant question mark or Penguin with his head stuck through the fabric of an umbrella. What he found instead was a photo of Jason, Tim, and Stephanie with Titus. Bruce blinked in surprise, eyes scanning each of their faces in turn. He could see why Damian had laughed, but Bruce’s eyes were stuck on Jason.

He looked over the picture with a foreign feeling of warmth in his chest. It had been...probably years, since he’d seen Jason smile like that.

But now, in the same way, it ached, and his nerves grew that it was him that was the problem. Jason was ignoring Bruce, not anyone else. Maybe he had misstepped, said the wrong thing. Perhaps the text about the bookshop had been too forward. Maybe Jason thought he was being fake again.

Bruce opened their previous texts and scrolled through them quickly before closing the app with a shake of his head and pocketing his phone. Damian was stirring from sleep in the seat next to him.

There was another absent concern weighing on his mind, Damian.

He hadn’t slept well throughout the trip, and Bruce worried it wasn’t new, but something that had only become apparent to him because they were in such close quarters for the last ten days. He was glad he at least fell asleep for a little while on the plane, though Bruce was sure it wasn’t deep. He was certain Damian was only able to doze because Bruce was there. Sleeping surrounded by strangers was not something Bruce could see him doing while alone. Bruce had barely coaxed him into it for the last two hours of the flight when his griping was beginning to get to him.

They waited patiently for the flight attendant to open the doors and Bruce held Damian back by the neck of his shirt while the rest of first class exited before following on their heels.

Bruce hated flying. Even with years of experience and even piloting under his belt, flying from one country to another was always uncomfortable in a very specific way. There was something unsettling about living a mostly full day in one place, boarding a plane and flying for eight hours and then exiting in the bright light of early morning.

Perhaps it was because he had time traveled before, it always made him a little on edge, a feeling like something wasn’t right. Not knowing the sort of reception they would receive from Jason when they came to pick up Titus certainly wasn’t helping.

Dick was meeting them at baggage claim, planned to take them out to breakfast and hear about their trip before driving to Jason’s since it was only just after six in the morning. Then it would be back to the manor and their regular routines.

The trip had gone well, minus a singular hiccup of a bad nightmare one night involving Titus. The fact that Bruce got that much out of his son was a miracle but he was glad to at least be reuniting the boy with his dog after all his concern. Bruce was considering talking to him about that... His worry over Titus seemed...unusual. Not that it wasn’t expected, but Bruce was concerned that it caused him so much anxiety to leave him when there was such a minor problem.

At least things seemed to have gone well while they were away. Jason was a much better sport about the photos and updates than Bruce had expected. But Jason had always had a soft spot for younger kids. Even with their volatile history Jason would indulge Damian.

Bruce didn’t know exactly why he was so uneasy as they walked through the airport. Jason was perfectly fine as of two days ago. The photo was proof. It was just...things had been going well, and now Bruce had no idea where he stood. He had thought the distance would be good to start with. Something easy, no pressure, a way to communicate without the tension of being in the same room together.

But the distance also meant Bruce couldn’t see Jason, couldn’t get a glimpse of his expression or body language when he read Bruce’s messages. He couldn’t gauge his mood, nor could he ask.

After the singular waspish message accusing him of being fake Bruce hadn’t been sure how to proceed. He knew he was walking a careful line and while the original tactic had been to be casual, that message made him question it. Jason was sensitive, whatever he might claim, and if he felt that Bruce wasn’t being honest, or worse, pretending there was no bad blood between them, Bruce wasn’t surprised he had reacted poorly.

He’d made a gamble with the phone call, breath short as he’d dialed. But he didn’t want to let what little ground he’d gained slip away. If it was the time for Jason to get upset and vent Bruce would let him. He knew it was coming. And though he hadn’t wanted to have any of their more serious conversations from afar, he would if it came down to it.

He’d talked to his therapist about it extensively. He had just been hoping they’d have sturdier ground to stand on before the earthquake it would be.

But Jason hadn’t answered, and had backtracked minutes later. Bruce wasn’t stupid. He knew Jason was lying when he said it was fine. But he couldn’t push. That was another thing he’d been advised against.

________

“You need to let him set the tone. If he wants to talk about the big issues, then you need to talk about them. If he’s not ready, then you wait, as long as he needs. Be available, be attentive, be gentle. If you want to open a conversation, then you do it carefully.”

________

Bruce had been trying. But perhaps he had misstepped somewhere. He had no way of knowing, and he might be spiraling a little over it. Bruce had been incredibly lucky in his efforts so far, with every one of them. He couldn’t help but think it was too much to ask that the same be true for Jason.

He shook the thought when Damian grumpily yanked on his sleeve and gave him a disgruntled look.

“I need to use the bathroom Father, it is the fourth time I’ve said it.”

“Sorry, Damian.” Bruce slowed and stood outside the restroom while Damian ducked in, holding his carryon bag for him. He needed to stop thinking about it, get it out of his mind and be more present for Dick and their breakfast.

He slipped his phone out of his pocket again while he waited on Damian and realized he hadn’t taken it off airplane mode yet. He felt sluggish as he swiped the setting back off and waited for any notifications. Damian came back out of the bathroom with a disgusted look on his face and quickly distracted him as they continued on to baggage claim.

“The sanitation in public restrooms in America is abhorrent. I will have to burn these shoes when we get home.”

Bruce nodded along, feeling absently amused as he watched a little notification pop up for a text from Dick and a missed call plus voicemail. Bruce blinked at them, thinking it would be odd for Dick to leave him a voice-message.

He opened the notification and nearly tripped when he read Jason’s name in bright red font. He swallowed when he looked at Damian who was still chattering, complaining about something.

“I will just say I am looking forward to sleeping in a civilized household again. I am sure that Titus will also be pleased to see us home.”

Bruce waited, though he wanted to listen to the message immediately. Instead he responded to Dick’s text that he was already at their carousel waiting for their bags and tried to continue paying attention to what Damian was saying until they met up with him.

Dick grinned as soon as he saw them and Damian stiffened, preparing for the inevitably crushing hug he wouldn’t be able to escape. He suffered through it admirably before kneeing Dick in the stomach when he refused to put him down. Dick wheezed and laughed it off before coming to hug Bruce.

He asked him, under his breath when he pulled him in, “what’s wrong?”

Bruce blinked at the luggage carousel as he wrapped his arms around his oldest. He thought he had a better poker face than that.

But it was Dick. He should know better.

Damian had quickly wandered off toward the carousel, searching for his bag and hoping to avoid being manhandled again.

“I...missed a call,” Bruce said as they drew back apart.

Dick gave him an amused look. “Oh, stressful.”

“From Jason.”

He looked shocked for all of a second before it smoothed out into something forcedly neutral.

“Oh...were you...expecting one?”

Something about Dick’s voice sparked even more concern in Bruce and he wasn’t sure why.

“Not really...he left a message.” Dick looked even more surprised and then they both looked down at his phone as he slipped it out of his pocket again.

“Were you going to...” Dick glanced between him and the phone and Bruce slowly nodded.

“I should.” He looked back up toward Damian and Dick followed his gaze.

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Dick said, shoving his hands in his coat pockets. “You should listen to it. Who knows what it is, but you’ll drive yourself crazy if you don’t, and if you show up to his place later without having heard it who knows how that will go, either.”

Bruce nodded in agreement and Dick stared at him for a moment before he gave a curt nod back and began to turn away. Then abruptly he stopped, eyes darting to Bruce, mouth a thin, worried line.

“Bruce. Just don’t...whatever he says...don’t take it too personally, if he’s upset.” Bruce frowned, clutching his phone tight, wondering what he was missing and wanting badly to ask but Dick had already turned back to Damian and quickly stepped out of earshot in the noisy, crowded area. Bruce took a deep breath. Later.

He stepped off to the side, standing next to a bank of seats out of the way of foot traffic. He tapped on the message and put his phone to his ear.

At first it was difficult to hear. Just muffled breathing, and then Jason’s voice.

“Bruce. I’m-...” His voice was soft and possibly a little slurred. Bruce swallowed, waiting.

There was more heavy breathing, like he’d just exerted himself somehow. There was a muffled groan and Bruce stiffened. “I’m still mad at you.” The words were louder, more strained and there was a crack in his voice that shot through Bruce like a bullet. Had he been drinking? He hadn’t looked at when the message was left, how long ago had it been?

“I don’t know- I don’t know what you think you’re doing.”

There was rustling in the background and Bruce strained his ears, plugging his uncovered one to block out the ambient sounds of the airport around him, trying with all his might to hear every possible detail.

“But I-uh...your pictures were nice.” He sounded...sad, was all that Bruce could think and his stomach felt sour and like there was no gravity suddenly, turning in repeated somersaults the longer the message went on. “That sunrise was nice.”

Bruce felt frozen to the floor as he listened to his labored breathing. There was more rustling and then the distinctive noise of a dog, whining near the phone’s audio intake. Jason hissed, and Bruce knew that sound, it meant he was in pain, significant pain. Bruce’s eyes bore into the tile floor flecked with glitter in the baggage claim as the rest of the room dissolved around him.

“I fucked up.” He sounded like he was crying and Bruce stopped breathing. “Shit Bruce. I-“ His voice choked off and then there was a clatter, loud enough it made Bruce flinch back from the phone before he pressed it even harder to his ear. From far away he could hear another groan and then a noise that sounded distinctly like retching followed by more whining and barking. Bruce absently recognized it as Titus.

That was all there was.

No more words, he couldn’t hear Jason breathing on the other line, just frantic barking and a high whine that went unresponded to. Bruce couldn’t breathe, and when he looked up Dick was staring at him with wide, anxious eyes from across the room.

The message cut off and Bruce took a single jolting step forward before he had to force himself to step into the role of Batman. He was in public, just outside of Gotham proper, it was a bigger risk than he would ever normally take but there was no other choice if he was going to move.

He took long strides to meet them and spoke in a rushed, clipped voice.

“We need to go. Now.” He pocketed his phone and turned away before either boy could respond.

“But our bags-” Bruce heard Damian behind him before Dick quickly cut him off.

“We’ll deal with it later, Little D.” A moment later Bruce felt Dick grab the sleeve of his coat as they reached the doors to the outside. “Bruce, where are you going? You don’t even know where the car is.”

He stopped, breath stuttering, and turned to him.

“Then take me, damnit.”

Dick blinked, an acute anxiety coming over his expression before he clenched his jaw and gave a curt nod.“This way.” He broke into a jog and Bruce followed, taking a split second to make sure Damian was still with them as they ran through the terminal towards the sky bridge out to the parking garage.

“I demand to know what is going on.”

“Later, D.”

“No, now.” Damian’s voice was laced with tension and Dick heaved a heavy breath as they rounded the end of a parking lane where Bruce recognized Dick’s car.

“Keys.”

“Bruce, I don’t-”

“Keys Dick. Now.”

“God, alright,” Dick growled and tore them out of his pocket, tossing them mid run. Bruce ripped the driver’s side door open and barely waited for both Dick and Damian to get in before he was pulling out and heading for the exit. It took an insane amount of self control not to speed down the spiraling ramp that led to street level.

“Dick, try to call Jason.”

“Ok,” he replied quickly, digging his phone out of his jean’s pocket. “What should I say if he answers?” He held the phone up to his ear and looked at Bruce with open worry.

“Just tell me if he does.” Bruce was gripping the wheel too tight. To the point that it hurt the skin around his knuckles. They reached the bottom of the ramp and shot out toward the pay booths, the last barrier before hitting actual street. There was slushy snow accumulated at the edges of all the barriers surrounding the area and an inch or so of standing water that turned to nothing but spray as they shot through it.

“What is going on Father? What is wrong with Todd?” Damian leaned forward, shoulders shoved between the two front seats as he leveled a glare straight at the side of Bruce’s face.

“I don’t know,” Bruce finally bit out as he pushed the car dangerously close to the vehicle in front of them in order to duck under the barrier arm that was lowering between their cars. Someone yelled at them from inside the booth and Dick gaped at him.

“Bruce, they can label you a security risk for shit like that.” Dick was turned around in his seat, staring back at the payment office while Bruce smoothly sped through the grouping traffic to get back onto the main road.

“I’m aware.” Their rear tires slipped just a fraction on the icy pavement and Bruce was forced to drop back a couple miles an hour to maintain traction in the weather.

Dick looked back at him, letting his phone drop away from his face for a moment. “Shit,” he breathed. “Ok, what the hell did he say in that message?”

“What message?” Damian demanded, still hanging his front half between their seats.

Something about getting on the freeway, where the roads were clear of any ice, and being able to drive at the speed his heart was pounding allowed him to settle. He was able to concentrate and center himself enough in the action of it that he could breathe around the stone lodged in his throat.

“Jason called during our flight. Something is wrong. I don’t know what.”

“Bruce.” Dick had the phone pressed to his ear still, or again, Bruce wasn’t sure. “He’s not picking up, it’s my fifth call but he’s been ignoring me for months I don’t know-”

“Damian, call him.”

“Yes father.” He quickly slid back into his seat.

Bruce was going to have to take him to the side and talk to him after this. He knew it wasn’t anything beyond his actions as Batman might extend but he tried to keep Batman out of his civilian life, even with his kids.

Almost especially with his kids.

“Should we call Alfred? Or Tim? Would they be able to get there faster?” Dick asked, fiddling nervously with his seatbelt.

“No, it will be faster to go in through Burnside than Bristol and with this weather it’s better to keep to the freeway as far as possible.”

“Right.” Dick gave a sharp nod and stared out the windshield with a clenched jaw. There was a small pocket of silence only broken by the gunning engine as Bruce weaved through traffic and the carhorns blaring after them.

“Bruce what did he say, exactly?” Dick finally interjected, the anxiety clear in his tone. Bruce took a breath and dug his cell out of his pocket, handing it to him. Dick took it without question and Bruce glanced at Damian in the back seat, head bent and eyebrows drawn together with his phone pressed to his ear.

“Anything Damian?”

“No, Father.”

Bruce held back the growl that wanted to escape and took a deep, measured breath. They had been through things like this before. There were close calls all the time. For all Bruce knew Jason could have gotten drunk and been throwing up from the alcohol and was now sleeping off a hangover.

Not great, Bruce hated to think why he felt the need to drink so much, but not life threatening.

Unless he had alcohol poisoning or- Bruce shook his head as he gunned it to slip in front of a semi truck and winced at the airhorn that went off as they sped away.

“Bruce,” Dick sounded desperate and Bruce looked at him for the split second he could afford to take his eyes off the road. He was pale and thin lipped, with Bruce’s cell pressed to his ear. “Was he throwing up?”

“That’s what it sounded like.” He put his blinker on as he shot across four lanes of traffic and Damian grunted in the back seat as they narrowly avoided a Fiat.

“B.”

“What Dick?”

“I uh.” He swallowed harshly, gripping the handle at the ceiling and setting Bruce’s phone down in the cup holder. “I talked to Jay a few days ago, and-” he cut off, letting out a shaky breath. Bruce opened his mouth but Damian cut in from the back.

“You upset him.”

“What?” Both Bruce and Dick asked at the same time.

“You told us all that you said something stupid and you needed to apologize. Did you?” Bruce was thrown, both by Damian’s accusatory tone and because he had no idea what he was referring to.

“I-” Bruce took a hard turn at the bottom of the freeway exit and thanked every deity he could think of that the roads were plowed and salted here. Damian grabbed the handle above his door to stay in place, fumbling his phone and dropping it to the floor. Dick knocked his head against the window and grimaced as they straightened out and shot across Dini bridge toward Old Gotham. “I tried to.” He rubbed the side of his head where it had hit the glass. “Tim and Stephanie talked to him, he wouldn’t - he didn’t want to talk to me. But they said he seemed ok.”

“Dick what did you say?” Bruce asked, incredulous.

“I-” he pulled a hand through his hair, tugging harshly at the roots. “I don’t want to say.” He looked sick to his stomach and Bruce clenched his jaw. He knew the two of them fought at times, just like all of the rest of them but the current situation what it was he found it difficult to keep a level head. Even while passing three cars on the wrong side of the road.

“What was it Dick?” He snapped. They all said things they didn’t mean, sometimes just to spite each other. Bruce was working on it and while not a common weakness of Dick’s Jason could be a particularly rough patch and if it had anything to do with why he may have suddenly spiraled into a drinking bought Bruce needed to know.

“I can’t tell you, alright?”

“No, not alright. Why not?” It was a struggle to keep his voice even.

“Because it was a mistake, for one. I didn’t- realize how it sounded until it came out of my mouth and two, he wouldn’t want me to tell you ok? And there’s- it would require way too much explanation. So just- can we just get to his apartment and make sure he’s not dead?”

Bruce swallowed against the nausea rising in his throat.

“Do we even know for sure that he’s at his apartment?” Damian cut in, “Would it not make more sense for something to have happened during a patrol? And why would you think he was dead? What was in that message?” He sounded furious, but Bruce knew it was his reflexive reaction to fear.

“He’s not dead,” Bruce bit out, not acknowledging the shiver that ran up his spine. “Titus was with him, he wasn’t on patrol. Most logical conclusion is he’s at his apartment.”

They were almost there. Bruce was sure the police had been called on him at least three times already when he took the Wagner street bridge into Somerset. He would have to call his lawyers later, make up a story.

“Dick, just tell me if it has anything to do with why Jason might have been drinking.”

Dick pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Maybe? I don’t know, ok. I didn’t meant to- they said he was ok. Tim and Stephanie said he seemed ok. Just tired.”

The genuine distress in his voice made Bruce’s frustration fade just a little but only ratcheted up his concern.

“Why do you think he had been drinking?” Damian asked, “that would be idiotic, he is supposed to be watching Titus which he cannot do if he is inebriated.”

“Dames.” Dick closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the headrest, sounding exhausted and overwhelmed.

“We don’t know anything yet,” Bruce tried to reassure. He knew his own anxiety was magnifying Dick and Damian’s but Bruce couldn’t shake an overpowering feeling that something was deeply wrong. Every twinge of concern over the past few days suddenly felt completely valid.

He was immediately sure he should have asked Alfred to check on him. He should have called more than once before they left for the airport. He should have asked Tim why they’d met up with Jason when Damian showed him the picture, even if he knew the answer would have been a lie.

Bruce had worried about Jason always, but especially since they had their last falling out. Jason worked on his own mostly, he didn’t have anyone to rely on.

At least Bruce was sure he felt that way. That he didn’t want to rely on their family and would resist it with every fiber of his being.

Even Roy and Kori had left to accomplish other things.

Bruce hated it. Even if he didn’t exactly approve of the Outlaws missions most of the time, the two of them looked out for Jason and it meant, at the very least, that if Bruce couldn’t someone was. Being able to have him on comms some of the time had been an improvement but there were so many things that could go wrong at any time. He wouldn’t put it past Jason to hide injuries, to pretend he was fine when he wasn’t, and Bruce just...

It hurt, to think of him struggling on his own with no one he felt he could go to. Bruce was trying. He was trying but it felt like not enough. Like never enough. It was so hard to strike a balance. He didn’t want to overstep with Jason. He knew it would do more damage than just about anything else, but what he was doing felt like so little. Especially now.

He took a breath and swallowed every overwhelming thought as they turned behind Jason’s building and parked in front of the back stairs, blocking the alley. “Dick, call Barbara and have her disable whatever security measures he has in place, we may need to break in.”

Dick nodded as they all sprung out of the car, phone to his ear before he even shut his door.

Bruce’s eyes scanned the stairwell as they went as if there might be a trail of blood or some sign of what had happened, but it looked plain, average as any other day. He didn’t hesitate to knock loudly when they reached his door, peeling gray paint fluttering off with each impact.

Immediately there was barking from the back of the apartment, quickly gaining volume as Titus ran to the door. Bruce waited for all of five seconds before Damian grabbed his arm.

“Father.” His voice was tense. “Titus does not bark like that for no reason.”

Bruce gave a nod and looked at Dick, phone still pressed to his ear.

“Two seconds,” he said, holding up a hand. Bruce clenched his fists, listening for anything through the door. But there was nothing but the same frantic barking that had been in Jason’s message.

Damian shouted through the door, “Titus, Back!”

“Ok she says go.” Dick shoved his phone into his pocket and Bruce grabbed the door knob and twisted as hard as he could, snapping the lock in one go. The deadbolt would be a different story and he backed up, raised his right leg and kicked the door hard enough to rattle his bones. It took one more blow for the door itself to bust around the lock, swinging open and slamming the knob into the opposing wall. Titus was standing back from the door, ears down, barking and whining. As soon as he saw Damian he ran to him.

Bruce and Dick both stepped around him through the door and were immediately met with a horrible smell. Titus had relieved himself on the kitchen floor and before Bruce could even call Jason’s name the dog was again rushing passed them back into the apartment, barking all the way.

Bruce reached the living room in four strides. His heart shot into his throat as soon as he saw beyond the couch.

“Shit, Jason!” Dick’s voice sounded distant behind him as Bruce fell to his knees in front of his second son where he was laying on his side, wrapped half in a blanket and loose pajamas, puddle of sick on the carpet and down his chin, completely unconscious.

He was pale with dark purple smudges under his eyes and a bright sheen of sweat over his skin. Titus barked again and Bruce flinched.

“What is wrong with him?” Damian asked, toneless and frozen in place just beyond the edge of the rug.

Bruce pressed his hand to Jason’s pulse point and found a thready, speeding beat. Beyond that, he was burning up. Bruce moved his palm to his forehead and hissed through his teeth.

“He has a fever, it’s high. Dick.”

“What, what should we do?” He was kneeling next to Bruce in an instant, shoving the coffee table clear out of the way. His hands hovered over Jason, mouth slanted and brows tight together.

“Help me get him-” Titus barked, loud and echoing in the small space and shoved over Bruce’s hands, nosing at Jason’s face with a whine.

“Damian-”

He was already there and hooking a finger under his collar. “Titus, back.”

“Take him outside please.”

“But-” his voice was tight with distress and that was half the reason it was necessary. It would get the dog outside so he wouldn’t get in the way, but it would also give Damian a task to keep him occupied so he didn’t have to see whatever this was.

“Please Damian, take him on a walk. Just calm him down.” Bruce could sense the argument on his son’s tongue by the taught line of his shoulders but he subsided just as quickly.

“Alright,” he clipped back, pulling a reluctant Titus toward the door.

“Take your phone with you.”

“Yes,” Damian dismissed, already grabbing the head sleeve from where it hung with the leash on the coat rack by the door.

Titus, though, had done one good thing because when Bruce looked down again Jason’s eyes were slitted open.

“Jason?” Bruce leaned over him, cupping his cheek and giving it a gentle pat. “Jay can you hear me?”

His eyes stuttered over the room before coming to rest on Bruce’s face and staying there. Bruce was holding his breath. “Jay, answer me.”

He blinked, eyes glassy and non comprehending, but he made a noise somewhere in the back of his throat. No recognizable words but it was something. It was better than unconscious was all Bruce could tell himself.

“We need to move him.” Bruce looked back at Dick.

“Get him into the tub? Cool him down?” Dick moved to Jason’s feet and was already untangling his legs from the blanket. Bruce gave a tight nod, unable to speak. His temperature was alarming, high enough to make Bruce worry about brain damage and seizures. How long had it been this high? Since he had called hours before?

“Do you think he’s just sick? Just really, really sick? Or what if he was poisoned? Should I see if-” While Dick was talking Bruce pulled the blanket away from Jason’s shoulders where it was tangled around his arms and found a bandage wrapped around his left forearm. The skin peeking out around it was veiny and red. Bruce swallowed, gingerly unwrapping it with a mounting dread. Jason let out a feint, pained noise and gave the slightest twitch.

The first thing that hit him when the bandage came off, again, was the smell. The unmistakable stench of infection that permeated a swollen, black and blue section of skin all the way around his arm. Little white crystals fell away from the wrappings as he unwound them and stuck to his skin in equal measure, leaving little, raised bumps in their wake. Salt, Bruce absently registered, a last ditch effort to kill an infection that hadn’t gone away like planned.

Dick gasped mid sentence when he held up his arm.

“What the hell happened?”

“Come on, let’s move him, he’s in sepsis.” Without having to say anything else Dick got into position, pushing Jason’s legs apart so he could squat between them and hook an elbow under each knee. Meanwhile Bruce propped him up and tried not to throw up at the way he was near boneless while wrapping his own arms around his chest just under the armpits.

They lifted in one swift movement, though it was still awkward. It always would be with someone of Jason’s size and stature. Even with both of them Jason was heavy. It was hard to forget how big he was now and Bruce was thankful for it in that moment. Thankful that it didn’t feel anything like holding him as a child after-

He sucked in a noisey breath as they gracelessly folded into his bathroom.

“Set him down on the toilet,” Bruce instructed, “get the water to a comfortable temperature. Then I need you to help us into the tub.” Dick was nodding as he helped prop Jason up against Bruce, so he wouldn’t slip to the floor.

Bruce knelt in front of the toilet, supporting Jason’s limp weight, his head and shoulders leaning against Bruce’s in a heavy slump. He made a noise again, something slightly louder but just as incomprehensible as before. Bruce felt his eyelashes blink against the side of his neck where Jason’s head was propped and he pressed two fingers to his pulse point, taking what little comfort he could in the manic beat of it while thinking about their next steps.

Dick held a hand under the spray of the shower, a look of concentration on his face until he finally nodded and turned back to them both. “Ok, let’s go. How do you wanna do this?”

“I’ll sit back to the base of the tub, he’ll sit in front of me so I can hold him up.”

Dick nodded again and they shuffled around each other, mimicking the same hold from earlier, his back to Bruce’s chest, arms wrapped under his armpits. It was more difficult in the cramped space but they managed to shift him to the tub.

Upon entering the water Jason became immediately more lively, uncoordinated limbs trying to pull away. He made a low noise of distress that had Dick hushing him like a little kid. The water was tepid but would feel like ice on Jason’s burning skin. Bruce carefully leaned his head back to rest against his shoulder so his face wasn’t getting too much overspray. He arranged himself around Jason, knowing the more physical contact they made the more insulated Jason would be and tried to leave space between them where he could.

“Dick, call Alfred and tell him to get the cave ready. Tell him to prepare an IV antibiotic, whatever’s best for a flesh wound, then go get some clothes for Jason and me to put on after this and pack him an overnight bag. Whatever you think he’ll want.”

Dick stood at the edge of the tub, hovering and seeping worry like a leaky pipe. “Right.” He hesitated only for a second, the concern in his eyes almost making them glow.

“I’ve got him Dick, he’s going to be fine,” Bruce said, knowing no such thing.

“He better be,” was all he said before he pulled out his phone again and left the bathroom.

Then it was just Bruce and Jason, his delirious son propped against his chest, sitting in the tub with the shower running, soaking their clothes to try to get Jason’s temperature down. The very fact that he was at all conscious was a good sign even if he wasn’t lucid. It would give Bruce a good gauge for where his temperature sat as the lower it got the more clearheaded he should become.

“Jason?” He asked, lifting a hand to press to his forehead again. He could tell just from the way they were pressed together that Jason was still incredibly warm. His temperature likely hovered about 104 degrees Fahrenheit by Bruce’s estimation. He shifted in the tub but didn’t acknowledge his name. Jason gave a quiet moan and turned his head toward Bruce’s throat.

“Jay, can you hear me?” Very carefully he brushed the hair out of his son’s eyes. He was beginning to shake and for a moment Bruce’s heart stuttered at the thought that he could be going into convulsions but it never went beyond a harsh shiver. And that was good, it meant the water was working and his body was trying to raise his temperature back up in order to fight the infection. But the little noises of distress were painful to hear.

“B...” Jason spoke, words still unintelligible, but Bruce could tell he was trying for actual words.

“Yes Jay, what is it?”

“Bruce,” he slurred his name, high and a little breathy in what sounded like panic.

“I’m right here, I’m right here Jay.” He ran a hand through his hair again, sweeping it off his forehead so water didn’t run in his eyes. Jason struggled for a moment, his legs kicking out in an uncoordinated play for freedom, likely from some imagined horror. He let out a noise like a gasping sob and Bruce’s heart twisted in his chest.

“Bruce,” he said it again, breathless and desperate. Bruce had to swallow against his own tight and painful throat, barely managing to respond.

“I’m here.”

Jason flinched, like it was the first time he’d heard him.

“Bruce.”

“You’re alright, I’m right here, I’ve got you,” Bruce whispered it back, continuing the soothing motion through his hair.

“Bruce.” His teeth were chattering and Bruce put his palm flat on his forehead, gauging his temperature again. It might have been a little lower, but not as much as he would’ve liked.

“I’m here, I’m right here Jay.” He didn’t know what else to do or say, he just wanted Jason to hear him. His breathing was ragged and wet, like he was crying and it was killing Bruce. Why hadn’t he told anyone about this? The wound on his arm couldn’t be fresh, not with the salt pack. You didn’t do that unless you were desperate.

“Hurts,” Jason gasped, a shiver wracking through his shoulders. Bruce shifted, gripping him a little tighter, trying to minimize his shaking and push down his own anxiety.

“I know, I’m sorry, you’re going to be alright. We’ve got to get your fever down.”

Jason mumbled something unintelligible back, shifting like he wanted to sit up but too weak to complete the motion. Bruce ran a gentle hand up the side of his right arm, trying to be soothing somehow. He was beginning to feel the chill himself of being soaked to the skin, even if the water was close to his body temperature.

Absently, Bruce registered the sound of footsteps just before Dick ducked back into the bathroom. He dropped a duffle bag on the floor in front of the vanity and stared at them both with wide, anxious eyes.

“Alfred says the cave will be ready whenever we get there. Is he...is he doing ok?”

“He’ll be fine,” Bruce assured, hoping to convince himself just as much as Dick. “Once he’s more lucid we can go, I just need his temperature to come down before we move him.”

Dick swallowed audibly and nodded, turning his attention back to the vanity. He picked up an orange prescription bottle off the counter and glanced at the label. “He’s been on antibiotics, looks like.”

“Bring them. I want Alfred to look at them.”

“Got it.” Dick dropped them in the top of the bag at his feet and plucked a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste off the counter to follow. Then he left the room again with the bag, setting it somewhere by the door Bruce imagined, and going about the rest of his tasks.

“Bruce?” Jason spoke again, around chattering teeth, but there was actually a questioning lilt to it that time, instead of the blank desperation of before. He shifted his feet again and lifted his head from Bruce’s shoulder briefly before dropping it back down with a groan.

“I’ve got you. I’m right here.”

“‘s cold.” The words were still slurred but identifiable this time and Bruce felt his next breath come just a fraction more easily.

“I know, I’m sorry, your temperature is too high.” A particularly harsh shiver wracked Jason’s frame and Bruce did his best to minimize any jarring movement, holding him firmly in place. His breath hitched on another groan and Bruce dropped his head, leaning his cheek against Jason’s wet hair. “You have an infection Jay, a bad one.” Bruce let out a shuddering breath and closed his eyes. “What were you thinking?”

The words were whispered and Bruce could recognize the dampness in his voice. He swallowed against it, clearing his throat in vain. He’d maintained control up to this point, a practiced compartmentalizing that was trying violently, in that moment, to collapse.

“S-s-sorry,” Jason stuttered back in a small, pained voice and Bruce lifted his head, continuing to card his fingers through Jason’s hair in an almost self soothing motion.

“Sshh.” Bruce didn’t know why he hushed him, just that there were no words he could form in return. He craned his neck, trying to get a glimpse of Jason’s face. He found him staring up at the ceiling, eyes bright and a little glazed but blinking slowly into awareness.

“We’re, m-...m’ shower?”

Bruce nodded to himself, relief very slowly inching its way down his spine with every lucid word. “We’re in your shower. You have a very high fever Jay, I’m trying to bring your temperature down.”

Jason made an affirmative sort of noise and shifted restlessly in the tub, right elbow knocking into the porcelain when he tried to push himself up.

“Not yet, Jay.” Bruce very carefully held him in place, one hand pressed flat to his chest. Jason let out a huffed breath like he was disappointed but didn’t try the move again.

“Bite,” he said a moment later.

“What was that, Jason?” Bruce shifted, letting one of his legs slide flat in the tub, the discomfort of his clothing clinging to his skin combined with the chill was beginning to chafe.

“Bite, d-dog bite.”

He was momentarily confused before glancing back to the wound on Jason’s left arm, sitting exposed and garish in the bright light of the bathroom. “Your arm.”

Bruce moved the hand still carding through Jason’s hair and carefully gripped the injured arm right at the elbow, lifting it to be more in Jason’s line of sight where his head was still tilted toward the ceiling. Jason stared at it for a moment, breathing loudly, even over the sound of the shower.

“Bandage?” He finally asked, still not making complete sentences, but he was apparently following the conversation, which was a good sign.

“I removed it. You likely have a chemical burn from the salt.” Bruce lowered the arm back down, carefully, but Jason still flinched when it settled back against his stomach and let out a pained noise that shot Bruce’s pulse to the ceiling.

“Sorry.” He quickly began brushing Jason’s hair back again. “Do you know what day it is?”

It took him a moment to respond and Bruce nearly jostled him for the answer, anxiety growing with every silent second.

“Day you g-get back.”

“The day of the week, Jay.”

He took a labored breath but replied readily enough, “S-Sunday.”

“Good.”

“Titus,” Jason suddenly said, the word snapping out much more clearly than any previous. He moved again, pushing against Bruce’s restraining hand.

“What about him, Jay?” Bruce moved his arm to span across the front of Jason’s shoulders, not letting him up.

“He needs, Titus, he-” The words sounded so honestly upset that Bruce frowned. “Been too long, needs to- to go out.”

Bruce closed his eyes, a swirl of affection and sympathy twisting in his chest. “It’s alright, Damian’s taking care of him, it’s ok.”

Jason stopped struggling then, groaning when a hard shiver wracked through him once again. “You’re ok, you’re alright,” Bruce said it like a mantra, unsure who he was trying to convince, Jason or himself.

“‘m tired,” Jason mumbled, sounding just as exhausted as the deep purple smudges below his eyes would suggest.

“I know, just stay awake a little longer and you can sleep. Dick is getting you some dry clothes.”

He nodded slowly in response, the back of his head scraping above Bruce’s collar bone in a way that, absurdly, reminded him of holding Jason as a boy when he was sick. They used to set up in the den, Jason propped up against him and bundled in a blanket, alternating between complaining dramatically and not saying a word when he was truly feeling ill. A lump rose in his throat at the thought, a twisting mess of emotions making him feel almost sick to his stomach. Finding Jason on the floor like they had-

Bruce pressed his mouth roughly to the crown of his head. “Don’t ever scare me like that again,” he whispered, barely able to push the words out through his painfully tight throat. He had to blink away sudden dampness in his eyes and take a deep breath.

There was a pause and then a very quiet whisper of, “sorry.”

Something about the flat tone put Bruce on edge, but before he could formulate a reply Dick came shuffling back into the room, a pile of clothes stacked in his arms. He looked extremely concerned, eyes snapping back and forth between the both of them.

“How is he?”

Bruce continued brushing his hair back, beginning to shiver himself. “Lucid, but fading fast. He’s exhausted.”

Dick nodded, looking at Jason with his eyebrows pinched tight together. “I got everything you asked for, plus Titus’ things and I already loaded them in the trunk of the car and texted Damian. He said Titus is good, they’re just looping the block until we’re ready to go.”

“Alright. Thank you, Dick. You can set those things on the counter, I think his temperature is low enough to move him. Help me get him up?” Dick nodded eagerly, setting the clothes to the side and leaning over with his hands on the edge of the tub. He was still looking at Jason with sharp edged concern.

Bruce nudged him, gently shifting them both forward.

“Alright, we’re gonna get you up and into some dry clothes, ok Jay?” Dick spoke directly to Jason for the first time and Bruce watched the interaction carefully for any sign of what had apparently gone on between them. Jason didn’t reject the help, or even grumble at Dick’s fussing. Though, if Bruce was right, he was avoiding his eyes the whole time.

Of course Jason was still so weak and tired from the infection and who knew what else. It was highly probable that what appeared like a normal interaction, or what passed as normal in this particular situation, would turn sour again as soon as Jason was back to himself. Bruce had no doubt the same would be true of Jason toward him. The earlier voice-message was proof enough that this amiable and relatively pliant version of his son was very temporary.

Bruce knew it wouldn’t be easy from here. Jason would likely want to leave the manor as soon as his fever was gone, regardless of anything else. He would probably fight them every step of the way when he was better. But Bruce was prepared for that. It wasn’t as if he expected some sort of miracle, and he didn’t want one. He had no desire for Jason to brush the things between them under the rug, like he apparently thought Bruce was doing. He knew everything wasn’t alright, he knew there were some very difficult conversations on the way.

But he wasn’t above taking advantage of the current circumstance to get Jason the help he needed. And he wasn’t above holding him and wanting to believe that at the very least, maybe this would open communication. Maybe everything he’d done so far at the advice of his therapist would pay off and they would be able to make this work. Maybe Jason would tell them why he let himself get so sick without asking for help.

The question was burrowing deeper and deeper into Bruce’s chest and not having an answer was killing him.

As quickly as possible Bruce scrubbed down with a towel and changed into a set of Jason’s sweats, marveling at the fact that they actually fit. Then he helped Dick carefully slip a t-shirt on Jason after they had already managed bottoms. He was sluggish and shivering still but responsive, if a little slow to answer.

Bruce dug through Jason’s medicine cabinet for some Tylenol to hopefully keep his temperature from rising back up and a glass of water. When he came back into the bathroom Jason was slumped on the toilet lid with his eyes closed while Dick crouched in front of him, talking about nothing while eyeing the still uncovered wound on his arm.

“Jaylad,” Bruce said, the old name slipping out before he managed to stop himself. He braced for some sort of negative response but Jason just blinked his eyes open and raised a hand for the glass and two pills. He swallowed without trouble, paused, and then downed the entire glass in a few large gulps. That was good, Bruce thought, he would have asked him to finish it anyway, though the quick consumption wasn’t great for the nausea he was probably already suppressing.

“Should we bandage it again?” Dick asked him.

“Yes. Just for the drive over. Alfred will want to look at it and probably need to debride the tissue.” Dick nodded, going for the bathroom mirror where a neat half roll of bandages still sat, a pair of medical scissors and tape lined up next to them. Bruce watched carefully as Dick wrapped the wound. Jason just stared the entire time, still out of it enough he was barely keeping his eyes open. Bruce grabbed a washcloth, ran it under cool water and handed it to Dick to bring down to the car with them.

Getting Jason down the stairs was another feat in itself. Bruce, unwilling to delay getting him back to the cave, simply hefted him into his arms in a bridal carry, leaning back so his full weight was centered over Bruce’s hips. He was heavy, and without Dick’s help it was murder on his already tight joints from flying. But there wasn’t room and it would be more dangerous for the two of them to manhandle him down the stairs so Bruce did it himself. Jason didn’t protest, again, and Bruce rushed all the more, going as quickly as he could without jarring him too much. It couldn’t be a good sign. In his right mind Jason would never allow it, he would drag himself down the stairs by his own power if it killed him.

Bruce shook the thought away.

Damian was waiting by the car when they made it down, Titus sitting calmly at his side. He looked alarmed at the sight of Jason sitting mostly limp in Bruce’s hold but quickly helped open the back door of the car. “Two people attempted to leave in this direction while I was here, I moved the car for them.” Bruce made eye contact with him briefly and suppressed a sigh.

“Later.”

Dick crawled in from the other side and helped duck Jason’s head forward so he didn’t hit it when Bruce lowered him into the back seat.

For his part, Jason tried to do it himself but Bruce still had to lift his feet enough to get him completely inside. He stood there for a moment, hesitating as Dick gently tugged Jason’s shoulder and helped him lower onto his right side, half curled up and laying across the seat with his head on Dick’s thigh. Dick settled the wet washcloth on his forehead and Jason closed his eyes. He was breathing hard, like it took an immense amount of effort and Bruce felt his lungs squeeze tight in concern before he forced himself to shut the door and climb behind the wheel.

Damian had moved to the front passenger seat, chair pushed all the way back with Titus sitting on the floor, head reaching above the dash still. It was cramped and Titus was whining, stretching over Damian’s lap and shoving his head between the front seat-backs. Damian was hushing him but was likewise turned around in his seat looking at both Dick and Jason.

Bruce started the car and just as he began to pull out of the alley Titus pushed himself up, front paws on Damian’s seat, and began to shove his way into the back.

“Titus!” Damian attempted to grab at his collar but it was already out of reach as the huge animal fumbled to the floor in the back of the car. Bruce stopped short at the mouth of the alley, turning himself to try to drag the dog back and away from Jason but Titus was already folded awkwardly down in front of the back seat, laying his head on the leather at Jason’s elbow and licking at the exposed skin.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Dick tried to shoo him away but Jason grunted.

“No, ‘s fine. He’s ok.” He lifted his injured arm, elbow resting on the leather cushion, and settled his hand on the top of Titus’ head. The dog squirmed closer, until his nose was just bumping Dick’s leg. Jason carefully scratched behind his ears and closed his eyes again, leaving his hand to rest there.

Bruce swallowed and glanced up at Dick who was running a hand over Jason’s upper arm and had glaringly obvious tears in his eyes. His gaze flicked up to Bruce’s just before he scrubbed a hand over his face.

“Father.” Bruce almost flinched at his youngest son’s voice he was so absorbed in the scene. When he looked Damian was pale, his mouth a thin, straight line and his eyes hard. “Should we not be leaving?”

Bruce turned fully back around, hands gripping the steering wheel as he finally pulled out of the alley. He drove just as quickly home as he had on their way to Jason’s apartment. It was only his extensive skill and training that got them safely back to the manor because Bruce had never been so distracted. He couldn’t keep his eyes from straying to the rear view mirror, tracking Jason’s breathing in the shallow movement of his chest. Couldn’t stop imagining him calling Bruce, half delirious with pain and fever.

Couldn’t stop wondering what all everyone had missed while they were gone. How had he been hurt? Why hadn’t he told anyone? Bruce knew Jason was still wary of him, of all of them. But the texts, and agreeing to take Titus...he’d thought things were improving. But here was all the evidence. Jason didn’t ask any of them for help. Maybe he felt like he couldn’t, or he simply didn’t want to.

There was even more to it than that though...more to it than Jason’s complicated relationship with all of them. Jason hadn’t gotten help from anyone. Not Alfred, not Dr. Thompkins, he hadn’t even taken himself to a hospital.

Something was very wrong. Something bad enough it had left Jason alone, desperately fighting an infection and losing. He nearly- nearly let himself-

Bruce shook his head as they rounded the drive to the manor. He couldn’t think it. It wasn’t- but how would Bruce know? He had been out of Jason’s life for months outside of vigilante work. There could be more going on than he could imagine.

What if the surprising amiability was just some sort of...farewell? Bruce felt sick, abruptly like he might throw up and his hands clenched on the wheel.

“I’ll talk to him,” came Dick’s voice from the back seat. Bruce glanced in the rear view mirror to find him staring back into it. One hand was pressed to the damp cloth on Jason’s forehead, the other clenched tightly in a fist and resting on his other leg. His face was hard, even with his red rimmed eyes, like he was ready for a fight.

Immediately something protectively possessive flared up in Bruce’s chest and he had to avert his gaze before he snapped something stupid back. Dick thought, Bruce was sure, that he wouldn’t be able to handle whatever conversation stemmed from this. And maybe he was right. Bruce was working on all of it, on...all the things he needed to resolve in himself and with Jason but what was this? It was something different. Not unrelated though, he was sure. There was a bitter twist in his stomach at the reminder of all of his faults.

He had contributed to this. He knew he had.

Perhaps it would be better if it wasn’t him that spoke to Jason. At least initially.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Bruce finally murmured, voice barely above a whisper as they pulled into the secret entrance to the cave.

His heart pounded so hard in his chest it made it hard to breathe, each inhale and exhale came sharp and jerky. There was no way he would lose his son again. Not to an injury, or a sickness, not to any villain or the fucking apocalypse but especially not to something like this. Whatever it was. He was done losing his kids.

He would do whatever it took, even if that meant deferring to someone else. He would not let Jason slip through his fingers again.

Never again.

Chapter Text

It was a clear night, the moon was high and the stars shone bright enough to see by. Jason was out on the manor grounds. It was cold, freezing really. Snow packed hard over the grass, enough that Jason had to be careful and watch his footing so he didn’t slip and brain himself on a rock hidden in this “white wonderland.”

He didn’t remember why he was out. What he was doing outside in the snow in the middle of the night. Only that he was going somewhere. That he had a destination in mind.

It was freezing and the wind whipped through his clothes like they were nothing. But he trudged on.

He saw them in the distance, the whole reason he came out here.

There were two matching headstones coming into view out in the middle of open land, overlooking a shining white expanse. He trudged up to them, feet dragging through deep snow, hearing his own puffing breaths through the cold, ice crystals floating through the air. It was almost bright, with the reflection of the moon off the snow. The names on the graves were clearly visible as he approached.

Jason knew he’d done this before, but his mind was foggy on why, or when. He didn’t know what he was doing here, only that he was pressed to go. Coming to a stop in front of them he looked on, staring at the graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.

It was so cold he was shaking and shivering in his boots, but there was a reason he was there, he just couldn’t remember it.

Bruce had asked him once, if he had ever visited his mother’s grave. If he’d wanted to. Jason hadn’t even known where it was back then, but Bruce had offered to take him. It was public record, apparently.

Jason had gone, but found he didn’t know what to say, and he’d wondered, idly, if when he died this was what other people would do. Come stand in front of his grave, empty headed and silent, if there would even be people to visit it. He thought he wouldn’t mind though, if they didn’t have anything to say. The company would still be nice.

And so he sat there in the grass, picking dandelions and daisies.

Now he looked up at the sky, bracing against a freezing wind, wondering what it was like to be gone.

But oh, he thought, I know this one.

When he looked back down it was just one grave there. Just one name carved into the stone. The wind picked up until it was howling, until the snow was whipping and whirling around him and stinging his face. The whiteness faded into dark, and the frozen into wet and he didn’t recognize the place around him anymore, didn’t remember how he got there or what he was doing.

He was wearing a suit, it was soaking wet. He hurt all over and all he knew was that he was terrified. There was mud under his fingernails and he could still hear bugs, still feel worms against his skin, in his hair. He coughed into the rain, choking on dirt and water, he couldn’t breathe through his nose.

“Bruce.”

It was the only thing he could think.

“Bruce.”

“I’m right here.”

Jason jolted, spinning in the rain. Hands caught him, wrapping tight around his arms and keeping him in place. He looked up into familiar blue eyes, water running down into his face, dripping off his chin.

“I’ve got you, I’m right here.” Jason stumbled, reached forward, but the rain was coming down so hard he couldn’t even see. He couldn’t see and the water was pooling at his feet, rising and rising and the hands were gone and no one was there and he was swimming in it, swimming in acid, in green and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe he couldn’t breathe-

He woke with a gasp.

He didn’t understand at first, where he was or what woke him. He blinked into the dark, long shadows stretching over the room he was in, the only light shining in from the moon through a tall slender window to the left of his bed.

He didn’t- He didn’t know where he was and he felt dizzy with adrenaline, heart pounding in his chest, the familiar pulsing ache at the base of his skull. He shivered, pressing his eyes closed tight.

“Master Jason.”

He flinched, gripping the sheets in clenched fists when his head whipped around, trying to see in the dark. “It’s alright. It’s just me.” Alfred’s silhouette stepped closer. The light from the moon hanging outside his window fell just right on the old man’s face and Jason stared up at him.

“I-” His voice was choked and he couldn’t seem to get anymore words out. The dream was still so close to the surface. Alfred moved again, shifting toward the bed as if to sit. Jason shrank back, his stomach in his throat. “Don’t-”

Alfred stopped, hovering just above the surface of the bed.

“My boy,” he spoke softly, “It was just a nightmare.” And then he sank fully onto the mattress.

Jason wanted to argue, wanted to slip out of the bed and vanish out the window, never to be heard from again.

“Didn’t - didn’t feel like one,” he croaked.

Alfred’s face was in shadow again, and Jason couldn’t tell what he was thinking when the butler reached out to put a hand on his arm. Couldn’t see his reaction when Jason jerked away from him. “Sorry- I’m sorry-” he choked out, feeling sharp, feeling dangerous.

“It’s quite alright.” Alfred soothed, voice quiet and insistent. “I should know better. You’re alright my boy, just breathe.” Jason tried to obey, pulling in a heaving breath like it was the last one he’d ever take.

“Slow down, I’m going to put my hand on your arm, you shake your head if it’s not alright.”

Jason almost did, going so tense his lungs seized for a brief second. But he managed to hold back from it when the man lowered his hand down. He squeezed gently over Jason’s right forearm and it felt so familiar, like years had disappeared and Jason was fourteen and sick in bed. Resisting every sort of comfort until Alfred talked to him in that gentle, patient voice.

“It was only a dream, my boy,” he said in that same tone. Jason wanted to fight it, wanted to rally against the way that it worked. The way it soothed away some of the trembling terror in his chest, but he didn’t. His arm hurt and everything felt fuzzy around the edges. He found the spike of energy draining out of him along with the fear and he swallowed against a dry throat.

“We-we’re in the manor?” He asked, keeping his voice low, matching Alfred’s.

“Yes.” He sounded apologetic in a way that Jason knew meant Alfred understood why he was asking. “I didn’t want to leave you in the cave when it would be much more comfortable upstairs.”

“It’s ok,” Jason reassured. It wasn’t. Not really, but there were just as many ghosts down there as there were up here and he knew it would have been easier for Alfred to take care of him upstairs instead of making constant trips to the cave.

Alfred patted at his arm, finally removing his hand. Jason found that he missed it, even when his skin prickled with unease. But the butler just reached over to a basin Jason hadn’t noticed, but could now see the bright sheen on the edge of. He heard the soft slosh of water and tried to follow the motions but it was very dark and he was having trouble focusing now that the adrenaline had faded.

He flinched, just a little, when something cold touched his forehead. There was a split second pause before Alfred continued to lower a wet cloth to his brow and Jason just caught the downward slant of his eyebrows in the shadows over his face. He pressed his hand over the cloth for a moment, easing it back until he was brushing Jason’s hair away from his face. It felt nice.

“You gave me something,” he rasped, eyes sliding closed. As he said it he finally registered the discomfort of an IV on the inside of his right elbow.

“Yes,” was Alfred’s only response.

“You know I hate being on pain meds.” It made everything hazy, out of focus. Back when he was younger it brought on memories of his mother, and the way her face used to go slack and her eyes vacant. Since he came back from the Pit it was the fear of himself. What he might say or do when he didn’t have all his faculties. He waited for the spike of fear at the thought but he just felt tired. Drained, like the Pit - where it lived somewhere in the back of his head - had gone subdued and quiet.

“I also know that you apparently cannot be trusted to make wise decisions regarding your health.”

That stung, a little, because Jason had been trying he just - didn’t have a lot of options and he hadn’t wanted this to be one of them. Still didn’t feel like a good idea even under the layer of pain medication and fevered infection. But sometimes Jason didn’t get a say, and he’d admit that there wasn’t really a better one at this point.

Alfred kept brushing his hair back from his face in smooth, gentle motions. It brought back the sensation of Bruce’s fingers carding through his hair as he sat in his own shower, shivering fit to fall apart and half delirious. There was a deep, expanding ache in the center of his chest. A swirling mix of want and fear.

“Next time, my boy,” Alfred whispered, just as Jason was letting go, unable to fight the drag of the drugs on top of the infection and Alfred smoothing his hair, “you must ask for help. You’ve had me worried half to death.”

 



*



 

The next time he woke it was to the sound of the latch on his door.

He opened his eyes to a dim room. The curtains were drawn but there was light shining in around the edges and when he looked toward the door he saw Alfred slipping in quietly with a breakfast tray. His face was composed like it always was until he glanced up and saw Jason looking at him. Then his eyes went soft in a way that made Jason swallow roughly.

“I’m glad to see you’re awake at a normal time of day for once.”

Jason huffed a breath through his nose, levering himself to a seated position, careful not to use his left arm. Alfred brought the tray in, unfolding a set of short legs on the bottom and setting it on the bed over Jason’s lap.

“How are you feeling?” He asked as Jason inspected the contents of the tray. There was a scone with butter and jam that had his mouth watering just looking at it. Which was a nice change from the way he’d felt the last two days. Along with the scone were two eggs, two pieces of sausage, a large glass of water, a folded up newspaper (probably more for Alfred than himself), and a little plastic cup with four little pills in it.

He ignored them for the moment, trying to figure out the answer to Alfred’s question as the butler moved to open his curtains. More than anything, he still felt tired, like there were weights hanging from his eyelids. His bones felt heavy. He flexed his left hand, testing out the muscles in his forearm. There was a sharp twinge that made him stop immediately, but it was nothing he hadn’t dealt with before. The IV line in his right arm was uncomfortable but they always were and Jason figured it was necessary or Alfred would have removed it already. Probably just fluids and antibiotics.

The rest of him was still in one piece, and he was starving.

“I feel ok. Mostly just tired.”

Alfred nodded as he turned away from the window, walking back to the bed. Jason picked up a piece of sausage first, taking a bite and groaning appreciatively. “Alfred you’re a saint.”

“So I’ve heard.” He watched Jason for a moment, until he glanced up, feeling oddly self conscious.

“There something on my face?”

“I can’t help but notice you are ignoring the medication.”

Jason frowned. “That’s not medication, it’s an opiate.” It sounded more snappish that he’d meant it to. Alfred frowned in return, looking as annoyed as he ever did, which wasn’t a lot, but Jason could recognize it easily.

“It is not an opiate. Or a narcotic. It is a prescription dosage of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. I understand your feelings on certain types of pain management and this is the compromise. I gave you something stronger last night because I had to do an emergency debridement of the wound and local anesthetic does not work well when there is infection present. And it was best that you sleep as much as possible.

“It’s still likely to be rather painful even with the pain of the infection fading.”

Jason swallowed his second piece of sausage and stared at the pills. They didn’t have any markings on them. Just four white pills, two round, two oblong.

“I would not lie,” Alfred said, sounding a little offended that Jason would consider it.

“Alright, ok, sorry.” He took the little plastic cup and downed them dry in one go. He didn’t really think he needed them either way but it would make Alfred happy so it was worth the added grogginess in the end.

“So,” Jason said as he started in on the eggs and Alfred had taken a seat in the chair by the bed, apparently intent on joining him for the meal, “what’s on the docket for the day? Feeding the bats? Waxing the Batmobile? Gonna give that giant penny a nice shine?”

Alfred closed his eyes as if the question pained him deeply but Jason could see the amusement in the tilted line of his mouth. “I believe the penny will survive another week without a shining. The t-Rex however could use some attention.”

Jason gave a soft snort.

Alfred continued, “I will start things off by relaxing here, enjoying my paper in good company.” Jason swallowed his bite of eggs and stared down at his plate, trying to suppress the twist in his stomach. He found that he felt...better.

Like, a lot better than he had in days. He felt stable, more himself. He hadn’t realized just how awful the infection was making him feel until it was going away. Jason eyed the IV pole where three different bags hung, one larger than the other two, both containing clear liquid.

“What’s in those?”

“A simple saline solution and a liquid vancomycin and ceftriaxone for the infection.”

“...Those some kind of super antibiotics?”

Alfred suppressed a smile, Jason could tell, even with the newspaper mostly blocking his face. He did lower the paper a little though, and when he looked at Jason the humor was gone from his face.

“They are antibiotics that work particularly well in cases of sepsis and animal bites.“ Jason swallowed, feeling oddly self conscious for some reason.

“So that why the antibiotics I was taking didn’t work? Not the right, uh...focus? I was on...amoxicillin I think.”

“Yes, Bruce brought back your prescription, which was over three years out of date.” His voice was flat and Jason paused. He hadn’t actually known that. Hadn’t even thought to check.

“Everybody knows those expiration dates are a hoax,” he said in spite of this. By the look on Alfred’s face it was the wrong thing to say.

“Well I am afraid everybody is incorrect as antibiotics, particularly those derived from penicillin, break down over time and will eventually become entirely ineffective.”

Jason stared at his eggs, feeling warmth bloom up the back of his neck. “Guess that’s why they didn’t work then.”

Alfred gave a barely audible sigh, almost entirely out of character, making Jason tense all over. “Indeed, though it isn’t unlikely you would have had complications regardless of the age of the prescription. Antibiotics are not all created equally and it’s likely for the severity of your wound and how you received it the dosage you started with was lower than would have been prescribed.

“Beyond that there are any number of things that could contribute to a stubborn infection that doesn’t respond to the treatment initially prescribed. Which is why you are always instructed to seek medical attention in cases such as this.”

He was quiet, almost like he was speaking to himself more than Jason, lacking the scolding tone that he would normally expect. It was almost like he was just reciting the information to the general public but for his hushed tone. It was unnerving, coming from Alfred, who was staring at his newspaper like he wasn’t reading a word of it. He was squinting at the page, mouth and eyes both tight around the edges.

Jason felt like a monumental ignoramus, guilty, and incredibly embarrassed. He should have apologized or given some explanation, something. But Jason couldn’t speak. He could barely look at Alfred, knew the man was probably thinking all kinds of things he would never say. Jason couldn’t explain it, and he didn’t want to think about it or what could possibly be going through the butler’s head in that moment. And the longer the silence went on the more his mind started to wander to other things he didn’t want to think about.

Like how Bruce and Dick had found him passed out in his apartment, delirious with fever. The very idea made his face burn. After he hadn’t wanted them to see what a disaster he was they’d walked in on that. Damian was probably furious. He didn’t even know how long he was out for. How long Titus was trapped inside and hadn’t been able to wake him up.

He also remembered waking up to Bruce, fuzzy remnants of what happened that got stronger the longer he’d been under the cold flow of water.

Remembered, “Never scare me like that again,” pressed into the crown of his head like a prayer and abruptly felt tears pricking at his eyes.

He couldn’t be there. He had no idea where Bruce was in that moment but the idea of seeing him again after this had him nearly in a panic. He wanted to think Bruce wouldn’t say anything. That he was too damn repressed. But he remembered getting chewed out for being reckless as a kid and he also remembered the texts and phone calls.

Bruce reaching out.

He didn’t know, right now, after everything, if he could handle getting yelled at by Bruce.

Jason swallowed another bite of scone but it went down thick and dry in his throat. There was still an entire egg left and half his scone but his appetite waned almost instantly.

He picked at the scone for a moment but even while Alfred was staring at his paper he was attentive enough to notice. “Is anything the matter, Master Jason?”

All at once Jason wanted to ask him about the gift. Alfred was the one to get it to him after all. Did he know why Bruce bought it in the first place? Or where he stashed it any way? Why he hadn’t given it to him, why he’d scribbled out the card and crumpled it up? Had he been upset with Jason at the time? Was he meaning to give it to him, and then something had happened, something Jason had done to make him angry and he’d thrown away the card?

Jason wondered. Felt the deep seated fear. The certainty, in his belly, that this was all very temporary.

“Stomach’s a little upset,” Jason managed to get out, not having to pretend. Alfred frowned and folded his paper, tucking it under the edge of Jason’s plate and reaching for the tray.

“It could be the antibiotics, clearing the body of bacteria is not always a fun process. The ibuprofen and acetaminophen probably do not help...Perhaps I should leave you to it.” He frowned at Jason, just a little, concern shining in his eyes.

“I’m ok,” Jason grunted out. It was only for show, because he really didn’t feel ok and he knew Alfred could tell, even if he thought it was just stomach upset. Alfred stood, walking to the windows. “You should get some rest,” he said as he pulled the curtains closed, dimming the room significantly. “Sleep off the worst of it and hopefully you’ll feel better when you next wake.” He came back around the bed then, picking up Jason’s tray as he went and giving him a sympathetic look.

“We’re glad to have you with us, my boy. I’ll let you sleep.” Then he turned and let himself out of the room.

Jason felt abruptly awful again. Even with his brain no longer overheating, being in the manor, sitting alone in a guest bedroom in the place he grew up felt like a taunting sort of punishment. Like someone out there was watching and laughing. Waiting to see how, exactly, this would blow up in his face.

He tried to take Alfred’s advice, laying down in the bed, one hand pressed over his stomach, fuller than he’d been in days, trying to suppress the nausea that just kept rolling through him. He didn’t want to see Bruce. Or any of them. Alfred was one thing, separate in a way none of the others were from the things that Jason had done. From the things any of them have done.

He was also the only one of them that hadn’t seen or spoken to Jason between the disastrous day at the dog park and now. They were gonna question his ability to make rational decisions. He was gonna get lectured. They would all think he was a monumental idiot for the way he’d been acting. And he wouldn’t be able to argue, even if his reasons were...better than anyone would realize. Because he sure as hell wasn’t telling anyone.

Jason laid there, waiting for the adrenaline to fade, wondering if this was when he should just - cut the string. He knew it wasn’t gonna last, and wouldn’t it be easier? To cut ties in the midst of dumb drama before he got anymore tangled up in the family? It wasn’t...really what he wanted. He could admit that much to himself now, but it might hurt less than if he waited until it was out of his control.

It was dim in the room, lights out and curtains closed, but there was still a soft glow around the edges and Jason stared at them, wishing vaguely that Titus was there, laying in the bed next to him. Instead it was just a massive bed with empty sheets, his IV pole tucked up by the headboard.

Who was he kidding? Everything always felt out of his control.

 



*



 

Jason wasn’t sure at what point his brain quieted enough for sleep to drag him under, only that it must have happened because he woke up again in the evening.

It was dark in the room and outside but there was a lamp on, on the nightstand next to him. When he turned his head he found Dick sitting there, in the same chair Alfred had used at Breakfast.

His movement must have caught Dick’s eye because he looked up from the book he was reading and smiled. “Hey sleeping beauty. Wondered when you would rejoin the land of the living. It’s almost six. You slept the whole day away.”

Jason grunted in return, feeling thrown. He’d been expecting Bruce. There was no one better at giving self righteous lectures after all. “What are you doing here?”

Dick closed his book with a soft thud and set it on the nightstand behind him. “Oh you know, just here to help you through your invalid stage. You’re gonna have to be on an IV for a another week apparently.”

“What are you talking about?” Jason blurted, trying to sit up against the pillows at his back, an obvious thread of alarm in his voice. “Alfred never said anything about me staying that long. That was never part of-”

“Ok, whoa, relax.” Dick put up a hand, eyebrows drawing together as he hunched forward in his chair, elbows resting on his knees. There was a nervous look on his face Jason didn’t know how to interpret. He clenched the sheets in his hands and then grimaced at the sharp pain up his arm.

“They just want you to be on it for two more days. Just a joke, thought you’d groan about it.”

Jason flushed and then there was just this awful, awkward silence while they stared at each other. Dick looked concerned, no doubt over Jason’s vehement reaction to the idea of staying there for a few extra days and Jason felt embarrassed, self conscious, and trapped. His last conversation with Dick wasn’t far from his mind and he hated that it probably wasn’t far from Dick’s either.

Of all of them he was maybe the second to last person Jason had wanted to see.

“Jay,” Dick said in this stupidly soft voice. And Jason could feel the lead in to a serious conversation. Every alarm in his head was ringing, it was reflex more than anything that had him snapping back.

“What?” There was venom in his tone and Dick frowned at him while Jason looked anywhere but at his face. He could feel his hackles rising, the Pit trembling in response, while he scrambled to work up defenses in his head. It felt vaguely like panic and a thrill of terror shot through him at where this could go if Jason wasn’t careful. When he glanced over and saw Dick about to open his mouth he thought, nope, and he sat up, threw his blankets off, swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and stood.

“I gotta pee.”

He hadn’t counted on having been laying down for nearly forty eight hours though, or on the kind of havoc a bad infection could wreak on the rest of your body. His legs shook and he stumbled, grabbing at the bed and only succeeding in dragging the comforter half off before he regained his balance. The IV line tugged at the inside of his arm and he hissed at the sensation, blindly flinging his arm back to grab at the pole.

Dick was right there, already up and out of his seat, reaching out to catch him. Jason flinched back without meaning to, felt his face heat at the obvious tell and snarled, “Don’t touch me.”

Jason could see the muscle in Dick’s jaw jump as he pulled his hands back, eyebrows drawn low. “What is wrong with you?” But he grimaced after he said it, the bite in his voice sharp.

“Fuck you,” Jason said evenly while his stomach was turning flips a gymnast would be proud of. His whole body wanted to feed on the question, to hold it tight and work it over, let it fester with the rest of the bullshit in his head. The Lazarus was especially responsive and Jason had to swallow against the urge to strike out.

He needed to escape the room. He was staring at the bathroom door, some thirty feet away across open floor. He could make it if there were more things to hold onto on the way but there was nothing. All he had was the IV pole but Jason was nothing if not determined. He took a couple steps across the plush carpet before a dizzy spell hit him hard enough he swayed and there were hands grabbing firmly at his upper arms and yanking him back the few steps he’d managed, forcing him to sit on the end of the bed. Jason jerked out of Dick’s grip, his skin feeling hot, like everything was too close, too close.

“Jason quit it. I’m worried about you.” The heat in his voice was no surprise but the crack on the last word made it impossible to look up and see his face. Instead Jason stared at the floor, at his own bare feet and the little wheels on the IV stand, gripping the edge of the bed tight enough that his left arm throbbed under the bandage.

“I can take care of myself,” he forced out, wishing it were true with every fiber of his being. Dick took in a ragged breath and stepped away from him, hands on his hips.

“Oh? Can you?” And there was that bright, flaring temper. “Cause it doesn’t fucking seem like it.” This was exactly what Jason had been dreading. The lecture, the yelling, the scolding and the disappointment. But he also needed it.

He held onto it, let it bolster him when he straightened out his shoulders and gave Dick a challenging look, all while trying to keep hold on the Pit too, feeling it beating at the door to get out. Dick stood there in the half dark of the room, face flushed and eyes shining, expression tense even beyond what Jason expected.

“Do you actually need to pee? Because I can help you to the bathroom if you do. You should be steadier on your feet once you move around some more.” Dick’s voice was quieter, a little less angry though his face hadn’t changed. Jason heaved an irritated sigh. He did actually need to pee but more than anything he needed a moment to gather himself. He didn’t particularly want Dick’s help but if it gave him the option of pushing pause on this whole event he would take him up on it.

“Yes,” he finally bit out, feeling embarrassed to need the help.

“Alright, just let me...” Dick puzzled over the IV and Jason’s injury but eventually he just had Jason hold onto his arm for support instead of the IV pole and helped him shuffle into the on-suite. They went slowly and Dick kept a close, annoying eye on him. Even tried to walk into the bathroom with him before Jason stopped him.

“What the hell, no.”

“You could fall-“

“I’m not going to fall, I’m fine,” Jason snapped. Dick gave him a hard frown but took a step back.

“Just don’t lock the door.”

Jason resisted sighing again but only just barely. Instead he didn’t say a word as he shut the door in Dick’s face. He walked carefully to the bathroom sink and stood there for a moment, leaning on the edge of the counter.

He needed to figure out a story. Some kind of explanation for why he didn’t get help that didn’t sound pathetic, sad, or alarming. Only his mind was completely blank while he stood there looking in the mirror.

He looked awful. Like he hadn’t slept in a week and was dealing with a major infection. Dark purple smudges beneath his eyes, a pale, semi green tint to his skin and glassy eyes. Not to mention his greasy hair. Jason swallowed and turned the tap on, scooping a handful of water to his mouth for a drink. He spotted his toothbrush sitting on the counter. They must have brought it from his apartment.

His hand shook when he picked it up but he ignored it and went ahead and took a minute to brush his teeth. Jason knew from experience that the little things helped and having a mouth that didn’t feel like it was full of cotton would. If he thought he could get away with it he’d take a shower, but Dick would probably barge into the bathroom just to make sure he didn’t fall and hit his head. Not to mention, if he was being honest with himself he did feel a little light headed just standing at the sink for ninety seconds.

Jason had no idea how he was gonna explain this. None. He rinsed his mouth out and finally took a step to the toilet to pee, having to drag the IV pole a little closer when he did, and his mind was just as blank as always. There was no excuse that would be deemed good enough to get out of being yelled at. He could claim he just didn’t think it was that bad or that he thought he could get over it on his own. But they wouldn’t believe him, not after they found him on the floor like that.

Whatever was about to happen Jason didn’t think he could prepare for it. But he could at least keep a handle on the Pit. He had to. However upset he got he had to keep it in check. He was torn between trying for a big blow up - to just rip off the band aide - and trying to minimize the damage while he could.

While washing his hands he came to the conclusion that he was doomed. He scrubbed over his face with his still wet palms and tried to ruffle his hair up a little so it didn’t look so limp and sad. Then he turned back to the door and took a deep breath. He didn’t want to do this. His stomach was in knots over it but the longer he stood there the worse it got and he finally reached forward and yanked it open.

Dick startled, still standing right outside. He offered his arm without a word but Jason ignored it, pushing past him and making his way to the bed himself. He did feel steadier on his feet now that he’d been up a little, but somehow he was already exhausted. He didn’t miss the little sigh from Dick as he followed after him.

Abruptly Jason decided to sit at the end instead of getting back in. Not because his head was pounding from the short walk or he was afraid he’d embarrass himself again or anything. Just because.

Dick stopped in front of him, hands on his hips and an inscrutable look on his face. Jason looked up and made eye contact, trying to straighten out his posture. “Alright, what?”

“I just think we should talk,” Dick said in a forcedly neutral tone. Jason made a face and threw a dismissive hand out.

“Then talk Dick, no one’s stopping you.” He gripped the IV pole again, holding on tight. Dick looked peeved, nostril’s flaring and lips pressing thin.

“Fine. You wanna know why I’m in here Jay? Because I argued my way into being the one to get to talk to you about your...behavior.”

Jason shook his head, rolling his eyes at the obvious lead in, it was just what he was waiting for. It was easy to stoke a response. A little too easy, really.

“Please, like you care.”

Dick opened his mouth wide and coughed out a noise like the beginning of a word before he cut himself off, clamping his mouth shut with an audible clack and squinting his eyes closed.

“Jay-” his voice was tight and what followed was an unintelligible noise of frustration that had Jason’s toes curling in the carpet ready to stand again if he needed to. If whatever yelling match they were about to have called for it.

If his grip on the Pit slipped and he needed to get out before he did something he couldn’t live with.

Dick removed his hands from his hips, pressed both palms to his face and took a deep, slow breath. His whole body sagged on the exhale and when he dropped his hands he just looked tired and upset. His eyes were bright in the light of the lamp, but he didn’t look angry. When he spoke again his voice was low and even.

“Jay, look, before I- Before we even go into all of this-” he gestured to the IV, the pole still clutched tightly in Jason’s right fist, “can we, can we talk about why you’re upset with me?”

Jason felt himself flush all over again. He wanted to snap, I’m not, but considering the conversation they’d just had he didn’t think it would come across as very sincere. And maybe he was - a little - upset still. Even though he knew that was unfair. It was stupid. Dick had apologized. It wasn’t even - it was a misunderstanding. He shouldn’t still be mad or hurt or anything about it.

“I’m not- I’ll get over it Dick. You apologized, it’s fine.” He still sounded defensive and aggravated to his own ears and he rolled his shoulders, trying not to let go of the hot ball of anger in his belly. He would still probably need it. Especially if Dick insisted on having this conversation.

Dick was frowning at him, unconvinced with these big, sad eyes. “Jay, I said I was sorry but you never said anything.”

“Yes I did, I said I was fine.” He found himself staring at that bathroom door, avoiding looking at Dick. He stepped to the side, effectively blocking his view of it, arms crossing over his chest before he seemed to think better of it and dropped them, shoving his hands in the pocket of his sweatshirt.

“What you said was that you didn’t want to talk about it.”

“And I don’t,” Jason offered back, voice clipped, staring at the neck of Dick’s hoodie where there was a light spot in the fabric, a bleach stain from way back when he’d started doing his own laundry. “There’s nothing to talk about.” His voice was losing steam already, and he hated that, didn’t want to face this without that heat.

Dick gave him these flat, unimpressed brows and pressed thin lips and said, “ok, you don’t have to say anything, but I want to say something while I’ve got you in person and you can’t hang up on me, ok?”

Jason didn’t say anything back but his stomach was in knots, a deep, oily hurt dragging itself to the surface that he tried to push back down. He didn’t want to hear what Dick had to say.

He sort of, desperately did though.

Dick took a deep breath and shuffled forward, seating himself very carefully on the edge of the bed next to Jason, just on the other side of the IV pole.

“I need you to understand that I did not mean-”

“You already said-”

“Just let me finish Jay, please.” His voice was pleading more than frustrated and when Jason glanced over he looked determined and level.

“I need you to understand, that I did not mean I thought you were over what happened. I would never - I would never say that. I would never think it. Shit, I’d be a complete hypocrite if I did ‘cause I’m sure as hell not over it.”

Jason didn’t want to feel the way his chest tightened at Dick’s words but it was impossible to ignore when his breath caught even while his stomach rolled with nausea because this was just making everything worse.

He wanted to be angry and upset. If this was all going to boil over he wanted to storm out and have an excuse to feed the self righteous anger than had been harder and harder to stoke lately. But the apologies, and the concern, the care - Jason was selfish, he knew, but he didn’t want to feel like this was all his fault.

“I know,” he finally said, half whispered, “I’m sorry I said the stupid shit I did too.” He dropped his grip on the pole next to him, clasping his hands together between his knees and staring at his thumbs. When he finally looked over Dick was looking at him like he might cry and Jason felt so caught of guard he nearly toppled sideways off the bed.

“Please tell me,” Dick said, very quietly, “and don’t feel bad if it did, but...did our conversation...did it have anything to do with why you didn’t tell anybody...?” He nodded toward the IV, and there was such obvious pain on his face that any lingering resentment inside Jason melted away like it was never there and just left him feeling like shit.

He gave a guarded scoff and shook his head. “Not everything is about you Dick.” Jason thought of the way his hands shook, of the way he could see himself blowing up an entire grocery store, how he nearly killed two people in the last ten days and then stood by and watched while a man got mugged.

“Ok,” Dick said, but he didn’t sound relieved so much as worried. “Then can you tell me what it was about Jay? Because-” He looked, and sounded, a little sick as he continued, “because I’ll tell you why I fought off Bruce and Alfred both to be the one to talk to you about this.

“Alfred won’t say it, probably won’t let himself think it, and Bruce has come a long way in a short period of time but-” he shook his head then, leaning forward so he could look directly around the IV pole, right at Jason’s face. “You’ve got to see how this looks Jay,” he whispered it, like something dangerous.

Jason went very still, looked back down at his hands. Dick reached out, hesitated for only a split second, and then put his hand on Jason’s arm, squeezing tight.

“This wasn’t just a foolish mistake. Even if you took antibiotics that weren’t expired, and yeah, I heard about that too. You know better than to ever let an infection get like that without medical intervention. You could have died Jay, and you know that. By not getting h-”

The more Dick talked the more shame Jason felt crawling across his skin. Antsy and defensive, he couldn’t stop himself when he snapped, “I’m not fucking suicidal Dick.”

This wasn’t the conversation he had been expecting. The yelling, yeah, a lecture on responsibility, probably. Not this. It burned, to touch the things Dick was implying. They weren’t - he really hadn’t meant to-

Dick snapped his mouth shut, hand still gripping Jason’s wrist tight, still looking sick and he said, “Ok. Ok.” He swallowed, “So can you tell me, please, what’s going on? Because I’m telling you, Alfred’s not the only one who would miss you if you were gone.”

Jason felt so twisted up he was just one massive knot of tangled feelings. He wanted Dick to shut up. But mostly because his eyes were stinging and his throat felt hot and tight and he was cold all over.

He thought of what would happen if he admitted it. Of how Dick would look at him if he knew. Thought of him saying We all know now that you weren’t really yourself right after the pit, and snapping back at him.

He didn’t want him to know. God he didn’t want any of them to know.

He could still feel it, when he looked for it, the thrumming heartbeat, just off rhythm with his own, radiating out from the top of his spine. He wanted to spill his fucking guts.

There was a drawn out silence, and when Jason opened his mouth he didn’t even know what he was going to say when there was the sudden, thundering sound of footsteps down the hall and Damian’s voice came filtering through the walls.

“You cannot tell me what to do, Drake!” And the bedroom door was thrown open, making both Jason and Dick jump when it ricocheted off the door stop.

Damian stood there, face tight and a little red. Eyebrows pinched and with a sharp frown. He stepped into the room and his eyebrows immediately released their stranglehold on his nose. “See, he is awake. Grayson is already here.”

Tim rounded the door frame then, looking flustered and irritated. He made eye contact with Dick over Damian’s head and mouthed sorry, before his eyes flicked to Jason’s face and he went a little pink.

Damian didn’t stop once he was in the room. Instead he continued until he was standing at the end of the bed, facing both Jason and Dick with his arms crossed over his chest. Jason watched the kid, feeling weirdly apprehensive and guilty. Because it was obvious now that they had been trying to hide this conversation from him. Too young, Jason thought, Damian was too young.

“Hey kid,” Jason finally offered, feeling stupid and relieved that whatever he was about to say to Dick never had a chance to see the light of day.

“You have much explaining to do.”

“Damian,” Dick and Tim both said at once, clearly annoyed. Dick stood up from the bed, turning to face Jason and standing parallel to Damian.

Just then Titus came trotting into the room, pushing past Tim who was still blocking the doorway. Upon seeing Jason Titus leapt onto the bed, tail wagging, and rushed up to his back only to begin insistently licking at the side of his face.

“Geez, Titus, what-” He tried to shove him back, leaning his face away when Tim rushed in, grabbing at the dog’s collar and pulling him away.

“Do not touch him, Drake!” Damian snapped, making Tim flush an angry red from the base of his neck all the way up to meet the high color on his cheeks.

“Damian, let it go,” Dick said, voice harder and more clipped than the kid was apparently expecting by his startled frown. When Jason glanced back toward Tim to spy Titus, to see if he could get the pup to lay down at least, there was another presence in the room, standing quietly by the door.

Cassandra. Jason hadn’t spoken to her much, she tended to give him the heebie-jeebies, she always knew too much. As soon as he saw her he turned back away again, terrified somehow she would know what was wrong just by looking at him.

“What is going on here?”

Of course as soon as he looked away that happened. Jason went so stiff that both Dick and Damian gave him startled looks.

“I told all of you to stay out of this room until Jason came out on his own.” Bruce’s disgruntled voice got an immediately defensive scowl from Damian.

“I was trying to keep Damian out but he wouldn’t liste-” Tim’s voice came from behind him as he lead Titus down from the bed, cut off immediately by an irate Damian.

“You were trying to exclude me!” His voice was near a shout and a little shrill. Dick winced, putting a hand to the back of his neck.

“That isn’t true-”

“Then why did you both lie?” He was obviously upset, and Jason, with a squirming stomach, thought he knew why.

“Damian,” Bruce’s voice was softer now, more patient, and Jason knew Bruce got it too, tried as hard as he could to find something else to look at when Bruce rounded the end of the bed and pulled the kid right out of Dick’s grip and into a quick hug. “We told you Jason was fine, no one was lying. Dick just wanted to speak to him for a minute, that’s all.”

Damian pulled away an instant later, face flushed, shoulders taught and chin jutting high. Bruce kept a hand on his shoulder but he shook it off, reaching a hand out toward Titus, who Tim still had by the collar. Everyone had slowly migrated to crowd around the end of Jason’s bed. Damian didn’t say anything, but gave a quick, harsh motion with his hand and Tim let go, allowing the dog to trot to his owner where he sat at his side and looked up at him expectantly. Damian smoothed a hand over his head once and then crossed his arms back over his chest.

Jason watched the whole thing with his heart in his throat. Watched Bruce’s face carefully where he gazed at Damian with a pinched, worried expression, before his eyes flicked back toward Jason, who immediately looked away. Instead he looked at Damian, who had managed to regain some of his composure if the flat, haughty look on his face was anything to go by.

“You did not answer.”

“What?” Jason asked dumbly, still stuck on the face that this kid had been worried about him.

“I would like an explanation for what impossibly stupid thing you could have done to get yourself bitten by a dog.”

“Damian,” Dick sounded exasperated this time, coming up and wrapping both arms around his neck and shoulders and pulling him to lean against his front. “Would you stop? Jason’s not feeling good, give him a break.” He was surprised the kid didn’t immediately slip out of the loose hold but he stayed there, letting Dick hang all over him.

“He must have done something to deserve it, animals do not simply bite for no reason,” Damian defended, petting at Titus’ head once more. Tim and Bruce both drew a breath like they were going to jump to his defense or something, which, weird, but Jason was finally feeling like his tongue wasn’t glued to the roof of his mouth and he jumped in instead.

“It wasn’t the dog, but it wasn’t me either, kid.”

Damian continued to scowl while all other eyes turned to him. Cass was still somewhere behind him and he did his best not to think about it.

“There were these assholes at the dog park my first day, sicked a Rottweiler on Titus, I stepped in, that’s what happened.”

Dick looked flabbergasted and mildly horrified and Tim gave equally shocked wide eyes.

“Are you serious? I assumed it happened on patrol.” Jason didn’t deign to mention any of his patrols from the past week, just continued.

“It was at the park. I think they were trying to see how Titus would react. He looks big and tough and all.” He looked down at the monster of a dog, sitting on his butt next to Damian’s feet, tongue just poking out of the front of his mouth.

“But why would they do that?” Tim asked, still horrified. Bruce stood in the middle of them all, eyes centered on Jason who continued to stare at Damian whose eyes were hard and apprehensive all at once.

“Dog fights,” he hissed through clenched teeth. Jason nodded.

“They were looking for an audience probably, and fresh meat.”

Damian looked briefly murderous, clenching his fists in the front of his shirt while Dick squeezed his shoulders, brows drawn down in concern. Tim looked pretty damn upset too, go figure. When he chanced a glance at Bruce he couldn’t read him. It was just the blank expression he was used to, the same one he always saw when he had dreams with him in them.

“I broke one of their wrists if it makes you feel any better,” Jason threw out, ignoring the pang of unease when he easily recalled how it had happened. It hadn’t been a choice, or on purpose, it had been the Lazarus, hungry for something it wasn’t getting enough of. Bile rose in his throat and he forced it down, feeling all eyes on him like hot spotlights on a stage.

“And the dog?” Damian bit back.

“What?”

“What of the dog that bit you? Where is it?”

“Damian-” Bruce started, face pinched.

“You let them take it with them didn’t you? Do you have any idea-” Now he stepped forward, pulling out of Dick’s grip, looking pale and furious. His voice cracked and Jason felt suddenly sick again. Because he had. He’d let them take the dog back.

Bruce stepped forward, folding one large hand over Damian’s shoulder.

“Jason was injured,” Bruce said, quiet but firm. “And he had Titus with him.” At this Bruce looked up, making an instant of eye contact before Jason managed to divert his gaze. “Thank you again for watching him, and protecting him.” It was a pointed thing to say right in front of Damian, who went red in the face but didn’t say anything. Just drew circles in Titus’ fur, paying more attention to his dog than anyone else in the room.

“I told Babs about it, asked her to look into it. I didn’t just let it go.” It should have been easier than that, he knew, it should have been a simple phone call and a subsequent take down but Jason wondered now if it wasn’t better that he’d tossed the card instead of going after those men. He had no idea what he would have done had he stumbled on the scene with injured animals and the smell of blood.

Damian didn’t respond or even look up, just tugged on Titus’ collar until the dog leaned over, slumping into his side, head resting against the kid’s chest.

“I wondered where everyone had gotten to.” Of course, every single person in the entire manor would end up in Jason’s room. Unless Stephanie was somewhere, which was possible.

Everyone turned to look at Alfred, standing in the doorway with a tray in his hands just like the one he’d brought in at breakfast. “I believe it is dinner time for everyone? And that Master Jason has probably had enough excitement for the day, hm?”

“What’d you make Alfie?” Dick tossed out, sticking his hands back in his sweatshirt pocket, friendly but subdued. Probably unhappy with how he’d been irreversibly interrupted.

“Why not go find out, Master Richard?” It was hint enough, and Bruce squeezed Damian’s shoulder, pushing him gently toward the door. Dick and Bruce both hovered for a moment, giving Jason matching, indecipherable looks he avoided before they both followed.

Alfred brought the tray in, setting it on the nightstand by the chair Dick had been reading in, moving his book to the dresser near the door. “You could always join them in the dining room, if you are feeling up to it?” Alfred looked doubtful, but also like he was hoping the answer was yes. Jason only shook his head, watching Tim and Cass where they both still stood near the door, Cass making unclear gestures at Tim and frowning harshly.

“That’s quite alright, I fixed a nice beef stew in honor of the weather, I hope your stomach is doing better?” Jason shifted on the bed, pushing himself up, carefully this time, so he didn’t fall on his ass in front of Alfred, Tim, and Cass and he shuffled back to the head of the bed with his IV pole. He got back in, a little awkwardly, with Tim and Cass still arguing in the doorway. Alfred settled the tray over his legs before he had a chance to reach for it.

“Are you two idiots gonna stand there are all evening or what?” He finally bit out, while staring at a buttered piece of crusty bread and steaming soup. Skipping lunch and not quite finishing breakfast meant that his returning appetite was fierce. He felt close to faint looking the magnificence before him.

“Uh, we’re gonna watch a movie after dinner. In the den,” Tim finally blurted, sounding nervous. “Unless that’s stupid, in which case I never said anything.” Cass elbowed him in the ribs and he winced, glaring at her.

Alfred raised an eyebrow as he straightened Jason’s sheets where they were rumpled at the bottom.

“You’re invited, though, if you feel like joining. Stephanie’s coming. Anyway, rest up.” With that Tim turned and rushed out of the room, leaving Cass standing there looking thoroughly unimpressed.

Alfred just shook his head with a fond smile in place. “I must go attend to the dishes. I’ll return for your tray in a little while.”

“Thanks, Alfie,” Jason said, subdued as he reached for the bread.

Alfred left quietly, and there was a moment before Jason realized the room wasn’t actually empty. He paused halfway through taking a bite of bread and looked up to stare at Cassandra Wayne, who looked primly back at him, face impassive.

“You will come,” she said.

“Uh,” Jason managed, after forcing himself to swallow too quickly, a hard lump working its way down his throat. “If I’m-”

“You will come.” They stared at each other and she cocked her head to the side for a second, nodded, and then turned and walked out of the room.

Chapter Text

Jason had heavily debated not doing this. After he’d finished his food he’d sat on the bed, rubbing his palms over soft pajama bottoms telling himself it wouldn’t matter and he didn’t need to show up for the stupid movie. But then he thought of Cass, the one person in their little clan he knew the least, showing up and dragging him there by his ear and he’d given in.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to join them, it was just...it was more of everything he was trying not to want. It was part of the life he knew he couldn’t have and pretending for an evening sounded nice and also like the worst possible idea ever.

But Jason never did have very good judgement. So there he was, standing in the doorway to the den, leaning probably more than he should on his IV stand and watching Tim set up the movie. Cass was already curled up by the armrest of the couch and Stephanie sat on the floor in front of her. No one else was there yet. Jason shuffled in, feeling out of place and remarkably nervous. Cass didn’t even look at him but he saw her give a small smile at his entrance and felt uneasy about that too.

Tim and Stephanie though both glanced back at him. Tim with open shock on his face, Stephanie with a bright grin. “Jason, you came.”

“Nice observation,” he snapped back on reflex, regretting the hard edge of it immediately. But Tim just laughed good naturedly as he stood up from fiddling with the PlayStation.

“Something’s wrong with the wireless controller, it’s not holding a charge, so, wired it is.” He flicked the cord attached to the controller in his hand as he sat next to Cass, leaving easily enough space for two more people. “We’re just picking the movie, but we need to do it before Dick comes in or he’ll try to get us to watching something Pixar.”

“What’s wrong with Pixar?” Jason wondered aloud, taking the seat furthest from both of them, leaving his IV dangling next to the couch and leaning on the armrest. Stephanie made a face and Tim shrugged as he pulled up an on screen menu.

“Nothing, we’ve just watched them all thirty times. I don’t even think Dick really likes them, he’s just trying to instill morals in the gremlin.” Stephanie snorted, coughed, and then reached over and smacked Tim on the knee. He shoved her back with the side of his leg. “It doesn’t really matter though, you wanna pick?” Tim offered him the controller but Jason waved it off. There was a weird amount of pressure involved in picking a movie for a group of people, and especially this group. No, Jason wasn’t interested in that.

“Let Stephanie choose.” He said instead, to which she looked delighted, flipping her head around to stare up at Tim where he frowned.

“I told you it was my turn,” she said, holding her hand out.

“It is not. If it’s anyone’s turn it’s mine.” She gave him a long stare, eyebrows slowly rising, not moving her hand from where it hovered in front of him. Finally Tim heaved a heavy sigh and slapped it into her palm. She smiled and gave a tiny solute.

“Something easy, please. My brain is tired,” Tim requested as he slumped back into the cushions.

“Got you covered Tiny Tim. I think we’re all in need of a little comedy in our lives, don’t you?” She looked right at Jason when she asked but he just shrugged, looking at the screen where rows of movie covers were displayed. She eyed him for another second but didn’t say anything else as she began to scroll through titles.

It was strange to sit there while they acted so natural, like he wasn’t even there. Like they weren’t remotely concerned about his presence. Because Jason sort of was. His dream the night before still hovered in the back of his mind, bringing up the thrumming beat of the pit until it felt like a second pulse, staccato against the back of his skin.

He swallowed and concentrated on the screen, tucking his hands into his sweat pockets and trying to just ignore it.

“Really Steph?” Tim whined when she made a crow of satisfaction as she clicked on a title.

“It’s good. You’ll like it Tim.”

He gave a doubtful grumble in response.

“Cass likes it, don’t you Cass?” Stephanie leaned her head back until it rested against Cass’s knees, trying to look at her from the awkward angle.

“Yes, it’s good. You will like.”

“Bridesmaids?” Dick said from the doorway, massive bowl of popcorn in hand. “Solid choice.” He sat down between Tim and Jason on the couch. Setting the popcorn on the coffee table he then scooted toward Jason and sagged into him, slinging an arm around his shoulders in the same way Jason was used to seeing him with Damian. All possessive physicality, no hesitation whatsoever. Jason went stiff, felt that beat against his skin, felt it louder, wondered if Dick could feel it in his shoulders thrumming against the sensitive skin at his underarm.

Dick shifted minutely, looking at him out of the corner of his eye with a hesitant downturn of his mouth. “Too much?” He asked it under his breath, quiet enough that Tim wouldn’t hear it and Jason wanted to say fucking yes, but he didn’t want to wreck this and it wasn’t bad per say. It just wasn’t anything Jason was used to. He forced his body to unclench, pressing back into the cushions and giving a tiny shake of his head. Dick grinned. “I’m glad you came,” it was quiet again, just for Jason and he got the sense there was more he wanted to add but then he shifted, his body pointedly facing forward and concentrating on the movie.

Jason knew the conversation they were having earlier wasn’t really over but somehow he prayed he could weasel his way out of the manor before it resumed. Delay the inevitable, get a story straight somehow before Dick asked him anything again. He didn’t know what he was going to do about any of this. It felt like he was treading water in a storm, just waiting for the next wave to hit and hoping he could weather it.

He kept thinking there must be a way to get a handle on all of it. Maybe he could ask Zatanna? She was the only person he was really aware of who specialized in magic...there was John Constantine too, he supposed, but the guy was a prick and Jason had no idea how to get in contact with either of them. And even if he managed it on his own it would get back to Bruce and he just - it was all just versions of the same end. Either everyone found out and his life fell apart or he managed to keep it to himself long enough to really hurt, possibly kill somebody and then it felt apart anyway. Except worse, because maybe he killed someone.

There just didn’t seem like there was a right answer, or at least, not one that ended with Jason getting to keep - this. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t stop obsessively feeling for the Pit. Looking and finding it just where it always was, a spike of anxiety shooting through him every time.

About ten minutes into the movie the arm around his shoulders started to feel restraining. The third time he shifted position, trying to relieve the weight of it without brushing Dick off he removed his arm without a word or a sideways glance. Just leaned back into his side with his arms folded around his stomach. Jason swallowed, feeling the press of him there and reminding himself that this was what was at stake. He needed to figure this out.

Vaguely, Jason was aware that the movie was funny, but only because Cass, Dick, Steph, and Tim laughed at various parts. Jason was barely conscious of the character’s names. Dick nudged him at one point, giving him those same old Bambi eyes. Jason wasn’t sure what exactly he was telegraphing but he grunted in response and sunk a little further into the cushions, trying to play casual.

Damian wandered in about halfway through, arm slung over Titus’ back. The dog seemed just as delighted to have Damian back as the kid was to have his dog. Kept looking up at him and wagging his tail like he’d just remembered who it was that was touching him.

The kid stared at the tv a moment and rolled his eyes but still wandered over and sat on the floor, back to the couch, shoulders shoved between Jason and Dick’s knees when they both moved to make room for him. Titus laid down on the floor, curled up between Stephanie and Damian in front of the couch. Cass lowered a single foot and began to stroke it back and forth over his back and the dog laid his head in Damian’s lap. Jason was, maybe, kinda sorta jealous. Missing the way he could run a hand down the dog’s neck and focus on the movement, on the feeling of his soft fur.

But then minutes later a tuxedo printed cat wandered in. Jason watched it, realizing it must be Alfred. He’d met it once, way back when they’d all stormed the cave to help bring Damian back. He hadn’t known its name back then.

The cat did a loop around the couch, sniffed at Titus, jumped on Damian’s legs so it could rub itself across Titus’ face, accepted a few scratches from the kid, and then jumped up into Jason’s lap without so much as a flick of the tail. Jason startled so hard he jostled Dick into Tim and then blushed like the idiot he was.

“Sorry,” he grunted out, letting his hands fall vaguely on either side of the cat that turned circles in his lap and just - laid down. He was purring even, lazily flicking his tail back and forth.

Cass leaned forward over Stephanie so she could see and gave Jason an unhappy expression, arms crossed over her chest. Dick just grinned, leaning back into his side. “She’s totally jealous,” he whispered.

Damian looked at him, eyes suspicious, but after a moment he turned back to the movie, apparently not concerned enough to do anything about it. Jason waited for a minute, staring down at the cat, finally, hesitantly putting a hand on its back and stroking down towards the tail. The purring intensified in a way that made Jason’s mouth tick up in an involuntary smile. The cat half rolled over, exposing part of its stomach, eyes shut in little crescent shapes, tail lazily flicking back and forth.

It trusted him, it dawned on Jason a minute later as he carefully avoided the cat’s belly and scratched under his chin, running calloused fingers through the scruff on his neck.

The whole evening was...bewildering Jason thought was a good word. He paid zero attention to the movie, couldn’t even remember the title because he was hyper aware of Damian’s back touching his legs and Dick’s arm brushing against his. Tim fast asleep, head tilted back over the headrest and mouth gaping open. Cass propping a pillow on Tim’s lap near the end and laying down, hooking her legs over the armrest. Stephanie leaning over until she was practically laying on top of Titus, reaching out and smoothing a hand through Damian’s hair, just once before he ducked away.

It reminded Jason dimly of books he’d read in the past. Oddly, he thought of Little Women of all things. Of all the sisters sitting around in the main room of the house, just comfortable being there. It was like a spell was cast, and Jason thought that it couldn’t get any more bizarre until the credits were rolling and Bruce walked in.

He fought the way he wanted to tense, didn’t want Dick or Bruce himself to notice, but Jason was tracking his every move as he went around the room.

He grabbed a blanket out of a basket in the corner and draped it over Damian, who’d had his arms tucked around himself since he sat down. He tugged on a lock of Stephanie’s hair as he was standing back up and she gave him a narrow eyed look, not moving her head from where it was propped on her arms folded over Titus’ back. He tickled the bottom of Cass’s feet, where they stuck out over the armrest and she made this tiny little squeak and jut a kick toward his face that he dodged without even looking. He leaned down and planted a quick kiss to Tim’s head, ruffled Dick’s hair, and then he was standing behind Jason, just out of his sight, and Jason felt frozen solid. He was holding himself so tense he knew he was going to flinch if Bruce touched him but he didn’t know what to do and he was inexplicably so damn nervous.

Bruce hesitated behind him. He could hear him breathing, it lifted the hair on the back of his neck and then the tv screen went black at the end of the credits and Jason could see him. He could see Bruce standing behind him reflected in the mirror finish of the screen, hand raised, hovering just over his head and that same blank expression he always had no matter what he was thinking but for the flared nostrils. Which usually meant he was either angry or nervous.

Jason couldn’t take it.

He dislodged Alfred the cat, picking him up too fast, setting him in Dick’s lap who looked at him with a startled expression even while his hands automatically came up to smooth the ruffled fur. Jason was off the couch and standing the next instant, barely managing to keep his breathing in check and to not trip over Damian.

“Goodnight,” he clipped out, not looking at anyone, especially not at Bruce even though he still got a glimpse of wide, startled eyes as he rushed out of the room. There were a few questioning noises thrown out, a confused Tim waking from his nap and Dick swiping halfheartedly at his wrist, but not fast enough. Bruce called out to him, as he rounded the doorway.

“Goodnight Jay-” It was the last thing he heard before he was halfway down the hall, heart pounding in his throat and dizzy from the sudden movement.

He knew he made it weird, he just - shit.

Getting back to his room felt like escaping execution, like there were hounds at his ankles the whole way there and the click of the door latch sounded like a gunshot in his head, making him flinch. He stood there, back pressed against the door, hand still on the knob, for an unknown period of time just breathing hard. It took him all that time to notice there was something lying on his now made up bed.

Two something’s actually.

His feet shuffled forward of their own accord because Jason was eyeing them both warily. One was a small rectangular shape, gift wrapped in red and blue. The other was just a sheet of paper, laid out next to it. Jason picked it up with gentle hands, still feeling the slight tremor working through them.

It was a drawing. A pencil sketch on thick, sturdy paper. A large dog stood in the image, looking away from the viewer toward a man in the background, hands in his pockets. He stared at it for a long time, inspecting the face of the man where his features looked oddly familiar, familiar enough that it dawned on him slowly that it was him. It was a drawing of Jason and Titus, an unknown background of grass and trees. There was a tiny signature in the bottom right of the page that was largely illegible beyond the first letter, D.

Jason set it to the side, swallowing against a dry throat before he picked up the wrapped package. He ran a hand over it as he turned and sat on the edge of the bed. The paper was textured, smooth alternating to glossy, he tore it off without regard to the design of it, stared down at a copy of The Secret Garden. Hardback, leather cover with a scrolling design arching around an embossed image of a locked gate, vines growing through the bars.

Carefully he opened the cover, hands shaking more than they had been. A note slipped out, floating to the floor. Jason stretched to retrieve it, just a thin slip of paper, but the handwriting was unmistakable. Graceful but messy cursive, slanting dramatically to the left.

Jason,

I know this isn’t a rare find, it’s not an original printing or signed by the author or anything. But it is a beautiful copy and the illustrations are large and detailed. This story always reminded me of you as a boy in certain ways, that you always find a way to thrive, no matter the circumstance.

-Bruce

Jason tipped the cover closed, gripping the book so tight for a moment that the edges dug into his palms before he forced himself to set it on the nightstand.

It was everything he wanted and everything he was afraid of. That boy that Bruce knew, that’s all Jason could be of him anymore, a reminder.

He planted his face in his hands for a moment, pressing his palms against his eye sockets and seeing explosions in his head. There just wasn’t a way he could have this. There just...there was no version of Jason’s life where he got to keep this, and he didn’t want to think about it anymore.

He fell asleep fast, much more quickly even than earlier in the day, despite being unconscious for most of it. His body was drained and his mind even more so. The only thing he registered before losing himself to the dark was that soft thrumming beat, ever present, always there, the little reminder that his control of this situation was temporary, if that.

 



*



 

Jason was in the manor.

It was dark, and he was walking down the hall and it felt like it was just, never ending. Like it was a maze and Jason was stuck in the center, trying to reach the end, to find a way out. He’d been wandering for a long time he thought.

There were doors lining the walls every once in a while but Jason hadn’t tried any yet. None of them looked like a door out, and he didn’t want to get even more lost.

He pulled his IV stand with him, shuffling along in his pajama’s. He turned when the hall met another, but it looked just the same. Sconces lined the walls, glowing just light enough to see by. There were no windows, Jason could swear he’d passed the same little side table three times now and he was beginning to feel anxious.

There was light coming from beneath one of the doors as he approached. He heard gun fire and he flinched, hard, nearly falling into the opposite wall. He stood there for a long time, breathing hard, staring at the closed door. He watched the light leaking out at the bottom as shadows crossed over it, listened to feet shuffling over the carpet and then voices.

“You don’t want to do this, I know you don’t.” The words were slurred, like the speaker was concussed or something and it took Jason a minute to place the voice but as soon as he did he was stumbling to the door, slamming his shoulder into it and throwing it open.

The first thing he saw was the gun, held in a gloved hand that attached to an arm that attached to a torso that was covered in a brown leather jacket that led up to a bright, red helmet.

The room wasn’t...a room exactly. It was. Because there was furniture around, and a roof and they were still inside, but there were no walls in sight, just endless floor stretching out around them. Tim was laying on the carpet, breathing hard, wheezing, his nose was bloody all down his chin and one of his eyes was half swollen shut.

“This isn’t you,” he said, voice hoarse. Jason swallowed, standing frozen in the doorway and watching himself stand over Tim with a gun.

“This is exactly who I am,” he said, “it always has been.” His voice was grave, deep and grating and Jason could feel the words in his chest, the reverberation in his own vocal cords even though it wasn’t him, he hadn’t said that.

“Stop,” he tried to yell but it came out in a whisper. Both of them looked at Jason then, the blank, stark face of his own red helmet and Tim, eyes dark and hopeless.

There were other people in the room Jason realized, laid out across the floor. His eyes darted over them faster than he could register but for the bright white of Alfred’s starched shirt, stained red where it peaked through the torn shoulder of his sweater. He was sprawled on his side, facing away from them.

“Stop,” Jason rasped, eyes welling with tears when they fell on the bright yellow of Robin’s cape.

“No.”

The ‘POP’ that followed made Jason flinch, tripping backwards until he fell.

He never hit the floor, just kept going, falling and falling into blackness, the gunshot echoing again and again in his head. Heart pounding in his ears, the Lazarus clawing up his throat.

He came to with a jerk, dragging in a deep lungful of air like he’d never tasted it before. The Pit was pounding in his ears, above his own heartbeat, and his whole body trembled and he coughed, choked on nothing, forced himself to sit up, propped on his elbows and breathe.

Jason wanted to scream, he wanted to throw up, he wanted to wrap his hands around someone’s neck and squeeze.

His throat worked convulsively, swallowing around a lump as he curled forward in the bed, wrapping his arms around his knees and shaking his head, hard.

“No, no,” he whispered it to himself, pushed away the sensation, pushed down the urge to go looking for his guns somewhere in the cave. Anxiety rolled through him. He wasn’t safe. He shouldn’t be there, he could hurt someone, he wanted to hurt someone. Even after that.

Something scratched at his door and he started, hands gripping his knees so tight it hurt, sent that familiar twinge through his wounded arm. He blinked out into the dark and listened, trying to hear beyond his own whistling breaths.

A soft whine, and the scratching noise again.

Jason scrambled out of bed, hissing when his blankets wrapped up in the IV line and pulled on it. Carefully he extracted them and managed to stagger over to the door. Titus shoved in as soon as he opened it and Jason let himself slide to the floor, sitting on his knees where the dog let out a soft whine and licked his cheek, over his left eye, his nose. He focused on that, steadied his breathing.

He sat there with his hands in his lap, letting Titus lick over his ear and chin and focused on slowing his heart beat, on the sensation of a tongue running over the side of his face, a cold nose poking at his cheek. He brought a hand up, smoothing it down Titus’ neck, then his leg, repeated the motion.

Eventually there was a noise from down the hall. Jason jumped, fingers clutching at Titus’ fur as he listened, felt his heart rate kicking back up when soft footsteps padded on the carpet outside his room.

“Titus,” a young voice whispered harshly. Jason’s body didn’t know whether to relax or stiffen when he recognized it as Damian. He just paused, hand still resting on the dog’s shoulder when he stuck his nose near Jason’s ear and huffed out a breath right in it. It was enough to rattle him out of whatever trance he’d fallen into and he jerked his head back, rubbing at his ear and cursing under his breath. A second later the footsteps got louder and a small figure rounded Jason’s doorway and stopped short.

“Titus, what are you-” Jason rubbed at his ear, letting his other hand fall away from the dog when he turned his head toward Damian and wagged his tail.

There was light shining through his window again. Jason always liked to be able to see the sky at night and he could sleep through the brightest sunrise so his curtains generally stayed open. Alfred must have done it when he’d made the bed.

The moon was bright enough, with the snow on the ground, that Jason could just make out the kid’s face.

He didn’t know what he expected but the wrinkle of concern between Damian’s brows made his breath stutter.

Titus planted his tongue right over Jason’s mouth when he opened it to say something, making him sputter and draw back again, wiping the back of his hand over his lips.

“Gross Titus.” He could hear the tremor still in his voice and swallowed against it, clearing his throat. Titus whined again, nosing at his cheek, ears down. Jason patted at his chest, feeling intensely self conscious with the kid standing there. “I’m alright,” he whispered. “Go back to bed.” He pushed at him a little, back toward Damian who still just stood there, not saying a word, not moving an inch.

He looked tense, eyes flicking back and forth between the dog and Jason.

“Are you hurt?” Damian suddenly blurted, loud in the silence of the room, not even lowering his voice.

“What? No,” Jason whispered back.

“You are on the floor.” The little scowl on his face only deepened. Standing there ramrod straight, his eyes roamed Jason and the IV and then the dog. Jason cleared his throat.

“I’m fine. Just petting Titus.” He tried to sit up a little straighter but his shoulders felt heavy. Damian looked unconvinced, scowl deepening.

“I should retrieve Pennyworth.”

“No, nope. I’m fine.” Jason, with more effort than it should take, pushed himself to his knees and then used the IV pole to drag himself fully to his feet. “See? I’m good.”

Damian huffed a breath and rolled his eyes. “Sit down before you fall down, Todd.” Stepping forward, he pushed Jason toward the bed, wrapping a hand around the pole just below his, the other pressing on his bicep. Firm but careful, not too fast.

It was Jason’s turn to huff and roll his eyes then but he still let himself be pushed, shuffling back to the bed and sitting down. It was possible his head was pounding from the change in blood pressure. Titus followed him, and as soon as he was sitting rested his chin on Jason’s knee. He put a hand on the dog’s head, scratching behind his ears, taking a breath.

It was good Damian was there, in the flesh, it helped with the blinking image in the back of his mind of that stupid cape, always so bright.

“What are you doing up?” Jason asked when the kid’s intense look was getting to him. He crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his chin up.

“I am doing research for a case. Father has not been in the field since we returned.” Damian, somehow, didn’t seem upset about this and it surprised Jason but not as much as what he had actually said. “I went out with Grayson earlier tonight and I do not wish to leave him all the work when I can easily accomplish it without him.”

“He hasn’t?” Jason hated the way his voice was small and hated it even more when Damian looked at him with this unidentifiable expression, lips pressed thin.

“He never does, when one of us is badly injured,” he said it like it was just a fact of life and Jason figured yeah, that made sense. But he wasn’t used to being included in the us and he had no idea what to say back.

Damian stood there, looking at Titus for a drawn out moment, head still a comfortable weight on Jason’s knee.

“Would you like Titus to stay with you.” It didn’t sound like a question at all and it took Jason a moment to even understand what was being asked and when he did he was so surprised it took him a moment to respond.

“No, I-I’m fine.” He was definitely lying, but he wasn’t taking the kid’s dog away. Not when they’d just barely been back. “You should go to bed though.”

Damian frowned, arms tightening over his chest before he said, “you should go to bed. I am not the one who recently almost died.”

Jason huffed, looking down at Titus just to avoid the glare of a twelve year old. There was an awkward silence before Jason cleared his throat, glancing up at the kid. “I am planning on it, eventually.” If this moment lasted any longer Jason was liable to think he was still dreaming.

Damian scowled, and if Jason wasn’t mistaken, went a little red in the face. It was hard to tell in the dark of the room but he dropped his arms to his sides, hands in fists. “Tt. I was just leaving,” He spun on his heel, walking to the door.

“Titus, come.” The dog lifted his head and turned to him standing in the doorway, dislodging Jason’s hand. He got up and moved toward Damian but looked back at Jason like he hoped he might follow.

Damian paused where he stood, one hand on the doorframe. “Goodnight,” he offered, near silently. And then he was slipping back into the hallway, beyond where the light from Jason’s window reached. After a stretched pause, Titus followed after him, leaving the room empty but for Jason.

He tried to go back to sleep. He truly did, but his head was buzzing now. Too many things shooting through it all at once, too many memories, too much of his dream. He remembered Tim, laying on the floor, looking at him with that flat expression, the sound of the gun. The low grade hum of the Pit under everything like the background noise from an old air conditioner. Damian, offering to let Titus stay with him for the rest of the night.

Jason should definitely go back to sleep.

Jason sucked in a deep breath and threw his blankets off.

It was pitch dark when he made it into the hall but even after years away he still had a perfect mental map of the manor. He could nearly count his steps to where he was going. Right turn, another corridor, left turn, another, up a flight of stairs. Dimly lit once more by a small window to the side, opening up to a wide landing, large double doors to his right. One was left propped open like it always had been when Jason lived there.

The lights came on automatically when he walked in, though they were set to the lowest level, giving the whole place a dim glow. Enough to navigate by but not much else.

The library, as Jason had known it, had never changed. Though new books were added periodically, the shelves and furniture had stayed in the same places they’d always been.

Just being there was like wrapping a blanket around his shoulders. It always had been, even when him and Bruce had been completely at odds this room had been a comfort. There were memories associated with it that were painful still. Like coming in here with Bruce after a nightmare, being read to until he fell asleep again and then being carried back to bed.

Those one’s hurt, but for a constantly fluctuating reason. Sometimes he felt betrayed by them. Sometimes they were all he wanted.

Now he didn’t know, it all just sort of hovered there, existing in the back of his mind, floating untethered to his feelings. He wandered down the aisles, one of the IV stand wheels squeaking softly where it rolled next to him, looking up at shelves three times his height. He remembered climbing them when no one was there to look for a new book instead of using one of the ladders. There was something very strange about walking through them at night, a hushed feeling of doing something that wasn’t allowed. He’d reveled in it as a kid, used to pretend that he broke into a book store after hours so he could have the whole place to himself.

He browsed the shelves idly, not sure if he intended to pick something and actually read for a while or just keep doing loops through the room, taking in the comfort of having so many stories at hand. So many safe places to escape to.

At some point he found himself in the fantasy section, running his finger down different spines until he came to rest on one specific copy of a book he remembered with startling clarity. It was Howl’s Moving Castle.

The thing was it wasn’t just any copy of the book. Jason recognized the faded and cracked spine, the small tear up the back from him leaving it open and face down to save his place. He slipped his finger over the top and began to tip it back when there was a noise by the door and he stopped.

There were quiet footsteps, interrupted suddenly by a stumble and then a man’s deep timbre, swearing softly under his breath, “damnit Alfred.”

Jason recognized Bruce’s voice instantly and froze where he stood, book half tipped out of the shelf. He was two rows in, completely out of sight of the door, and his brain scrambled for a way to get out without being seen. As soon as he started to pull his hand away from the shelf though, the book went with it, falling gracelessly down. Jason scrambled to catch it on reflex, paper and stiff binding flapping noisily before he managed to get it clutched in both hands, eyes squinting shut and shoulders drawn up to his ears in a silent grimace.

There were no more footsteps but a second later the cat came trotting around the end of the aisle and Jason wasn’t surprised when Bruce followed on practiced, silent feet.

Bruce however, did seem surprised. He stopped in his tracks and blinked at Jason with wide eyes that looked almost comical on his normally stony face before he managed to shutter his expression.

“Jason,” he said in a hushed, flat tone. “I thought - I figured it was Damian. The cat finds him wherever he is.” Said cat happily approached Jason, rubbing the side of his body against his leg, winding around his feet and purring softly. Jason swallowed and awkwardly bent down, scratching at the cat’s head just for something to do that didn’t involve looking at Bruce.

Bruce took a few steps forward, no longer silent but quietly shuffling. “Trouble sleeping?” his voice was hesitant, like he was talking to a frightened animal and Jason reflexively stiffened before he finally stood back up and shrugged. Stared down at the book in his hands feeling like he’d swallowed his tongue.

Somehow he had successfully managed to avoid being alone with Bruce since coming to the manor and now, standing here in the middle of the night holding one of his favorite books from childhood he knew exactly why. Because he had no idea what to say or do. Bruce may have had an inkling that things between them weren’t as simple as he’d tried to make them in the ten days they were gone, but he had no idea the scope of what had been going through Jason’s head.

And Jason - he really didn’t want him to. In fact, he’d nearly died for how much he really didn’t want him to.

But this was fine, he told himself, it wasn’t anything. Being in the same room with Bruce, alone, in the middle of the night didn’t mean they had to talk about anything important. Hell the Bruce Jason knew would never dream of bringing up anything uncomfortable. Only if one or both of them could be dying.

He tried not to wince.

When the silence dragged on long enough it was beginning to feel honestly stifling Jason finally gave in. “You?” He asked quietly, reaching up and gripping the IV pole, turning his face up and trying to affect something close to casual.

Bruce didn’t answer for a long moment, seeming hesitant. And When Jason really looked he could see deep circles under his eyes.

“It’s been a bit of a rough night, yes,” he finally said, glancing at the book in Jason’s hands. “What did you pick out?”

He looked back down at it, wondering if Bruce would recognize it the way Jason had. It wasn’t like he hadn’t dragged it around with him everywhere for days at a time.

He could have said ‘nothing’ and Bruce would probably have dropped it but for some reason he told him the truth instead. If Bruce remembered it he didn’t say, just nodded slowly.

They were standing like fifteen feet apart and it was almost funny except that it felt like a neutral zone. Bruce hadn’t brought up the unanswered messages, or phone calls, hadn’t made any reference to Jason nearly getting himself killed. If he crossed to the other side he didn’t know if that would stand or if Bruce would somehow take it as an invitation. It felt vaguely like navigating a minefield and - Jason’s track record with explosives was not great.

Chapter Text

“I liked that one,” Bruce finally offered, standing there like a statue. Alfred purred insistently at Jason’s feet, rubbing his face against his sweats, leaving a slew of little white hairs behind. “Would you - um,” Bruce shifted his weight, face impassive, nostrils flaring, “would you like to read it?”

It was so awkwardly delivered Jason almost expected the man to pull off a mask and reveal some other person underneath. Because Bruce could be awkward, certainly, but only in silence.

“I mean...I guess,” Jason hedged. He could take it back to his room, that would be an easy escape and if it left Bruce feeling like he’d offered him something that Jason accepted it might not be all bad.

Bruce cleared his throat though, stepping forward again. “I mean...I meant...together, if you-” He seemed to realize what was coming out of his mouth about halfway through and swallowed like he wished his tongue would go down with it. “Of course I didn’t mean to interrupt-”

“It’s fine,” Jason cut him off, palms feeling alarmingly sweaty all of a sudden. He took his hand off the IV pole, wiping it on his shirt before gripping it with even more force. It was a terrible idea. A monumentally stupid one. But there was this ridiculous pulsing in his chest that felt achey and warm and tender all at once. A phantom memory of a hand in his hair.

“We could. If you wanted.”

Bruce seemed frozen in place for an instant before he looked at Jason like he’d never seen him before. It made a flair of unease cut through the stupidly eager jumping in his chest but Bruce gave a quick nod. “Of course,” he said, like there was anything of course about any part of this. The man turned away from him, walking away without so much as a gesture. Jason rolled his eyes but knew where he’d be heading, to the reading area by the fireplace toward the front of the room, closest to the door.

There were a few lone chairs with tables and lamps strewn throughout the library if you wanted to be left alone. But, there was one grouping of a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table by the fireplace in case you felt like company. Jason always used to read there, happy if Bruce found him and offered to read to him, or if they just sat quietly in the same space, reading their own stories.

He found him there, fiddling with the fireplace. The cat followed him, trailing behind the IV pole. He took a seat on the couch without thinking before it even occurred to him that a chair might be a better idea, it was too late to change though, it would be too obvious, make it weird. Weirder than it already was anyway. He clasped the book in his lap and watched the cat jump up onto the coffee table, sitting and beginning to give itself an impromptu bath.

“Hn,” Bruce grunted from the fireplace, “there we go.” Flames suddenly licked up from the fake wood, a full on fire in an instant.

“That’s new,” Jason said before he could stop himself.

“Yes.” Bruce turned to face him, stepping over the edge of the large area rug and sitting on the other side of the couch, a single cushion between them. “I insisted on it when Alfred sprained his knee two years back, he couldn’t kneel to clean it. Of course, I volunteered to help but I spilled ash all over the rug and spent the next two weeks hearing snide comments about it.”

Jason huffed a laugh. “Sounds about right.” He didn’t know what he was doing.

There was more than one voice screaming in the back of his head that he shouldn’t be doing this.

It was even beyond all his issues with the Pit and everything that might mean for him. For his relationship with Bruce. Whether Jason wanted the man back in his life or not, it wasn’t just something they could slip back into. As much as Jason would have liked it to be that simple and easy, it never could be. There was too much there, too many things they’d swept under the rug on both sides without ever dealing with them.

He’d think Bruce was just a moron really, pretending for the sake of it because he thought he could just have Jason back the same way he was. Like because he wasn’t killing people anymore it meant he’d regressed back to the innocent boy Bruce had taken in.

He’d think it, except that Jason was eagerly playing along. It was that same frantic desperation that kept him from admitting any of the things he’d come to realize over the last few months. Because it wasn’t just the last ten days. Jason wasn’t stupid, all the signs had been there, he’d just been steadfastly ignoring them for as long as humanly possible.

It was the same tug at his heart that had him joining in on family movie night. Because he kept thinking, if this was the last he was gonna get he might as well enjoy it.

Bruce held out a hand and Jason almost jumped, forgetting he had the book tucked in his lap. He handed it over and watched Bruce carefully. Eyeing the way he inspected the cover. He still couldn’t tell if he recognized it.

“Start at the beginning or-?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jason said as Bruce reached over and clicked on the lamp on his side of the couch. “I’ve read it a hundred times.”

Bruce nodded and opened to the first page.

It was really a good thing that Jason knew the story so well, because he didn’t listen to any of the words. As soon as Bruce started reading it was like he’d been transported back in time. He was caught up in the moment of it. He remembered being a kid and sitting on this same couch, listening to this same voice rumble softly through the words. It felt like a life he could have had, if things had been different. Like one he knew he’d never have again.

He couldn’t think about it, not really, so he just closed his eyes and listened, not caring what the words were. It was easily apparent that the infection was still taking its toll on him, even if it was mostly gone now. Because even after sleeping most of the day and night it was easy to fade out while Bruce was reading.

He let his head fall to the back of the couch, feeling the lulling warmth of the fire, the low constant of a deep voice and he let himself relax. It was a one time thing, and if everything went to hell the next morning or a week from then, he’d hold onto this moment. Even if it was just to remind himself that there could be pockets of good in the bad.

Even if it would feel like a lie months from then.

It might have been thirty minutes or an hour that he read with Jason fading in and out. He was so intensely relaxed that he didn’t have any idea how long it took him to realize that Bruce had stopped.

He blinked his eyes open, shifted his head just enough to see the man on the other side of the couch and found Bruce staring back at him. The book was closed and set on the side table next to him. His lips parted when he saw Jason looking but no words came out.

He felt a knot in his stomach that only grew tighter when Bruce didn’t speak. He swallowed, lifting his head off the back of the couch, feeling like the fragile moment couldn’t last. It was the movie all over again. The spell was running out, this was Jason’s midnight tolling of the bell. His chariot was gonna turn into a pumpkin any second.

Then Bruce closed his mouth for a moment, rubbed at the back of his neck. Jason remembered Tim saying, he’s trying...and that counts for something, I think.

“Thank you, again, for watching Titus.” Jason blinked back at him, shifting in discomfort. It was about the fourth time Bruce had thanked him. He’d never found a good response.

Bruce sat forward a little, one hand gripping the front of the armrest. “Why...can I ask, why didn’t you tell anyone about the men at the dog park when it happened?”

Jason didn’t tense up, even though he wanted to, even though the memory of the Pit had the base of his skull throbbing like he’d called for it. He didn’t want to have this conversation but if he jumped up now Bruce would only think the worst. Not that there was much that could be worse.

“I...told Babs,” he hedged instead. Bruce looked at him with narrowed eyes though, seeing through the lie for what it was.

“Did you actually? Or did you just tell her about the dog fights?”

Jason didn’t answer, didn’t think he could find the perfect blend of words to change the subject and so he shrugged.

Bruce was all frown when he continued, “why not tell Damian? He asked after Titus multiple times a day.”

Jason sighed, trying not to read into the apparent concern in his voice. “I didn’t want to upset the kid,” he admitted, fiddling with a snagged thread in the upholstery of the couch. “I remember being him, tagging along on your trips. Didn’t want to get him all worked up over something he couldn’t do anything about anyway. Figured I’d let him enjoy the trip.”

Across the couch, Bruce stared at him, a long moment drawing out between them before he spoke.

“You’re good for him.”

Jason was so startled by the comment he couldn’t stop himself from looking up and making eye contact.

“He reminds me of you a lot. I think you could...I think you could be a good influence on him.”

“A good influence...” Jason half whispered. It was this, of all things, that threw the entire night off. He felt abruptly like someone had swapped Bruce for a body double, felt all the hard edges of his attitude shifting back into place. Because he didn’t - he didn’t get it. “Where is this coming from?”

And his voice was a little more confrontational than he meant it to be but really, what did Bruce expect from him?

“You’ve barely spoken to me in months and now this?” He couldn’t stop the question from spilling out, one he’d been holding back since Bruce showed up on his doorstep with an angry pre-teen and a dog.

Bruce shifted again, turning his body to the side to better face Jason, giving him this steady look, eyes pinched like he was in pain. “Jay, I found you passed out in your living room with a fever so high you didn’t know where you were. You had vomited all over the floor. I thought - I thought you were going to die - again.” He voice cracked loudly on the last word and Jason couldn’t help but stare at him, wide eyed, at the way his eyes shone in the dim light with unshed tears.

So many things surged through Jason at once, panic tantamount among them, and he just - he stumbled to his feet. “I can’t do this,” he hissed, “I can’t fucking do this.” He made to leave, grabbed the IV pole to storm off but Bruce was faster, lurching across the couch and snagging his wrist in a firm grip.

“Jaylad wait-”

“Don’t fucking call me that,” Jason snarled, the hostility in his voice was so intense it cracked and Jason felt a lurch of anxiety. It was too much, it was more than him.

“Jason please-” Jason ripped his hand out of Bruce’s grip.

“I am not the kid that you buried!” It was loud enough to echo in the room and Jason nearly startled himself with it, the pounding in his head so intense it hurt. The cat bolted from the room and Bruce froze, drawing back slowly, “I am not the kid that you miss, ok? He’s gone, forever, you’re never getting him back so you can just give up on me already and let go of the fucking guilt.”

Bruce gripped the edge of the couch cushion, pried his hands away and slowly rose to his full height. He looked somewhere between sick and furious and this was bad, this was bad.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

For the life of him, Jason couldn’t stop the flood of words, driven out in a rush of suppressed anger and hurt, amplified in tinges of green he couldn’t stamp out.

“You heard me,” he snapped, “the kid you miss is gone - I’m not him!”

Bruce just stared at him, face made of stone. “Of course you’re not him. Jason you were fifteen.” His voice cracked again and Jason’s gut clenched, swirling up in a hurricane of jumbled emotion, but Bruce wasn’t finished.

“Dick’s not the same person he was then either, I am not the same person I was at fifteen.”

“That is not the same thing and you know it!” He was insulted by the very suggestion and the Lazarus lurched in his chest at it, jaws snapping at empty air. He tried to take a deep breath.

He couldn’t lose it, he couldn’t let it control him, not like this, not ever. “You miss him, not me.”

“Jason, Jason you’re right. It’s not the same thing but it still applies.” Bruce stepped forward, hands out in front of him like he wanted to reach out. Jason slipped back another step. “I miss the kid Dick used to be too, you know. And Tim, when he was just starting out. Cass and Stephanie too, and I’ll miss Damian at this age when he’s older. But I still love them now.

“Loving who you were does not erase how I feel about you now Jay.”

Jason flinched, jerking away when Bruce made another step forward, heart slamming against his ribs like it was trying to break out of a cage.

“You don’t even know me anymore!” He felt so hot under the skin and behind his eyes and there was a fury swelling up in him that he couldn’t name, couldn’t tell whether it was his own or something else and he hated himself for feeling like this.

“But I want to.” He stayed where he was, letting his hands fall and clench into fists at his sides, face tense, eyebrows drawn low over wounded eyes. “Jay, I’m sorry, for everything. I know I’ve screwed up, but I’m trying - I’m trying to be better. I want you in my life. Just give me one more chance and I promise I won’t fuck it up.”

Jason tried to get a handle on his breathing. Tried to separate his real feelings from the exaggerated influence of the Lazarus but it was a hopeless tangle. And what even was he supposed to say back? What could he possibly say back to something he had wanted to hear for so long, that he told himself not to even hope for?

He screwed his eyes shut because it didn’t matter. It was all ruined anyway, the thumping of the pit in his ears was proof enough of that.

“You don’t get it,” he hissed, gripping the damn pole tight enough to creak.

“Then please Jay, explain it to me.” Bruce made an aborted movement forward, another stuttered reach that he drew back when Jason tensed.

“Oh, so you wanna talk now?” Jason didn’t know what he was doing. Of all the times he had just wanted Bruce to listen and here he was, offering, apologizing, when Jason least wanted it. When he didn’t know if he could take it. It was all so screwed up. What right did he have anyway? After all the time he ignored Jason, made him feel like shit, manipulated him? Where did he get off?

His fingernails were digging into his palms, the dog bite was throbbing under the bandage and Jason’s train of thought stuttered, because - was that him? Was it Jason or-? He couldn’t even tell anymore.

“Yes, I do.” Bruce held his palms face up, like he was offering evidence of his good intentions and irritation ground at Jason, his whole body felt like a nest of fire ants crawling over his skin.

“You can’t just start talking to me again and acting like everything’s fine you know. It’s bullshit,” Jason spat the last word, feeling a pulse run up his spine.

Bruce just looked pained. He was quiet for a long time and Jason tried to be patient, tried to suppress the scorching fire in his veins but the longer he looked at Bruce the more he couldn’t stand this.

“I’m not - I know, Jason. I know everything is not fine. I know there’s a hundred things you’re angry with me for and you have every right to be-”

“Then what the fuck has this all been? The stupid texts and the pictures? The books? You can’t just ignore everything and expect me to play along!” Jason threw a hand out to the side, movements spasmodic, uncontrolled.

“I was not ignoring-” For the first time in their conversation Bruce raised his voice and it set every alarm in Jason’s head ringing before Bruce cut himself off with a grunt. “That was not - my intention,” he spoke carefully, purposely quiet. His hands fell back into fists. He rolled his shoulders and the motion made Jason tense, like he was readying for a fight even though Bruce was not. He needed to get a grip.

“Then what are you doing?” He bit back, heart pounding so hard he could feel a vein jumping in his neck.

Bruce heaved a sigh, juddering on the way out, looked to the side and back again. “What would you have done, if I had come to you and said ‘I want to work out our issues Jay, let’s talk.’?” He turned his hands out in question, face pleading.

“I would have told you to fuck off, like I want to right now.”

“Exactly.” Bruce finally took that step, closer into Jason’s space. He forced himself not to move, not to jolt back or surge forward like his body somehow wanted to. “I just wanted - I just figured. If we could start talking again, about the mundane, about things that didn’t matter, then maybe we could get there. To the things that do.

“I want to talk to you. I know I-“ He swallowed, throat clicking and finished in a whisper, “I’ve been a bad father.” Jason barely stopped himself from flinching, staring wide eyed at the man before him. The admission seemed to cost him, he took a deep breath and cleared his throat, blinking rapidly before he continued.

“I know you’re angry with me, if you need to yell at me, to explain to me every reason you’re upset - I understand. And I will listen and I will not say a word, and I will do better. Just please don’t leave Jay.”

Something wound around Jason’s heart just then. A thready sort of panic and something else that felt cold and angry and suspicious. This was everything Jason had been wanting to hear and it was not the Bruce he knew.

“This isn’t you, this isn’t real.” He needed to get out of there, the panic shot through his head, cutting through the fog of everything else. It was like a flash of clarity, he was about to lose it. He was so close.

Bruce looked wounded, like Jason had stabbed him and all that did was stoke the fire. He hated him.

He didn’t though. That flighty sort of panic hit him again, softer, easier to ignore.

“Just talk to me, please, explain it to me. What don’t I get?” He moved again, not stopping himself from reaching out to grasp at Jason’s bent elbow where he still gripped the IV pole.

The sensation of fingertips grazing his skin was like fireworks.

And that was it, that was all it took.

Every modicum of self control, every inkling of doubt in the poisonous, acidic feelings - gone - like a bug bursting on a windshield it was instant and nearly unnoticeable.

“Don’t touch me!” He roared.

Bruce pulled back like he’d been burned and Jason didn’t care. His chest was heaving, burning, the Pit washed over him like a wave in the ocean. He picked up his IV pole and swung it, right at Bruce’s head. The man ducked away, shock in his eyes quickly switching to concentration.

Jason felt the IV line snap in an absent way, the sharp, searing pain of the port tearing out of his arm felt dull and barely there. Jason threw the pole, hard enough to send it clattering into the nearest bookshelf.

“Shut up! Just-” Bruce was looking at him like he’d gone insane and Jason wanted nothing more than to wrap his hands around that fat neck and-

He gasped for breath, felt ice pouring over his head and shoulders and he spun way in one last lurching pull for control. There was fire in his veins and as soon as he turned away he went for the first thing he saw. He marched up to the fireplace and slammed his fist into the marble mantle.

There was so much anger in him, and there was so much terror. And somewhere in the very back of his mind where reason and logic were hiding he knew it was the Lazarus but that didn’t make it stop.

“AUUUUUGH!” His screams were incomprehensible even to himself and he slammed his fist into the stone again, felt something break in his hand and went to swing once more when suddenly there was an iron grip around his wrist.

“Jason!” An arm wrapped firmly around his chest, pulling him away from the mantle and Jason bucked, slamming his head back, making solid contact with Bruce’s chin. The man grunted but didn’t loosen his grip. “You need to calm down!”

Jason reached his left hand back, scrambling, clawing, grazing skin with frantic, jolting movements.

“LET ME GO!”

“NOT UNTIL YOU CALM DOWN!” Bruce’s voice was deafening, spiking right into his ear and he couldn’t breathe. It felt like there was a dragon breathing down his neck, coming up his throat. He thrashed against Bruce, kicking back with bare feet. His movements were uncoordinated, clumsy, and even if he threw them with enough force to hurt he wasn’t escaping Batman. “Jason!”

Bruce sounded frantic, frightened, and it didn’t help, it didn’t help, the Pit wanted it. He swung his left arm back again, but Bruce shifted like lightning, grabbing his final, flailing arm and pulling it to his chest, hooking a leg around his ankles and yanking him sideways.

They went down hard, falling to the ground in a heap. There was a brief struggle before Bruce’s arms wrapped fully around his torso like iron bands, pinning his arms to his chest, a fist clenched around each wrist, legs twisted in his own. He was on his back, pressed tightly to Bruce’s chest, laying mostly on top of him. It was a fucking safety hold.

“Let me up!” He pulled against the grip, shooting pain spiking up his left arm where it was pinned.

“You have to calm down.” Bruce’s voice was firm and steady. “I will let you up when I can trust you not to hurt yourself or me.”

He let out another indecipherable yell, trying to throw his head back into Bruce’s chin but he was prepared for it now and the back of his skull just ricocheted off his collar bone. It was still painful by Bruce’s grunt but not nearly as satisfying.

Jason couldn’t be still if he wanted it. His legs kicked out, slamming his heels into the carpet with whatever movement he could still exercise. The fire was right there, just a couple feet away from them and Jason had the horrible, fleeting image of plunging his hand into it, if he could just get free.

“Jason, you’re having a panic attack - or, I don’t know. You need to breathe. Concentrate on slowing your heart beat, I know you know how.” Bruce’s voice was low but fast as he continued, “you can calm down, but you need to concentrate, listen to my breathing, feel my chest expanding and move with me.”

Bruce took a slow, deep breath and measured exhale. Jason barely heard it but Bruce kept going. “Come on, just breathe with me Jay, you’re upset, you’re worked up, but you can calm down.”

The all encompassing hammering in his ears slowed just enough for Jason to suck in one deep breath.

“There we go, good, now just slow down.” His voice was soothing, like he was trying to coax a frightened animal out in the open and Jason threw in one last angry growl before the energy was gone all at once, out of him like his batteries had run dry.

“Just breathe with me.” Jason let his head fall back, dragged in another shuddering gulp of air, felt the expansion of Bruce’s chest under him in slow, steady pressure.

The Pit faded just as fast, pulsed hard and then went out like a flame. His mind felt like someone took a white board eraser to his thoughts. It was all he could manage then, to try to steady his breathing, get it under something close to control. Every initial one sounded frantic, halting and gasping until Bruce released his left arm.

It fell boneless to the side, like he’d lost all strength and Bruce put his hand on the side of Jason’s face, swiped a thumb just under his ear. Back and forth, steady and slow. “There you go, you’ve got it.” Soft and steady and slow.

“I’m - I’m ok.” He finally croaked out when he’d gotten four steady breaths.

Bruce didn’t move for a moment but finally seemed to decide Jason was telling the truth and released his other arm and legs, rolling them both to the side. Jason fumbled to his hands and knees and Bruce sat up and shifted to kneel next to him, planting one hand firmly on his back while he continued to breathe, and breathe, and breathe.

There was blood running down the inside of his right arm where the port had been and it hurt, throbbed gently in time with the dog bite and the now slowing beat of his heart.

“Can you stand?” Bruce asked. Jason flinched at the sound but jerked a nod in response, managed somehow to lumber to his feet and let Bruce guide him back to the couch. He fell more than sat on the cushions, sagging back and letting his arms rest across his stomach.

Bruce stood there, looking down at him and Jason couldn’t bring himself to look up because the only feeling that was filtering back in was a slow, climbing shame.

“Your arm,” Bruce said, hands twitching at his sides. Jason looked down at it, at the blood still leaking sluggishly all over his clothes, all over the rug and probably the couch now too, Bruce’s clothes.

“It’s fine,” Jason croaked back, pressing his left hand into the crook of his elbow, putting pressure on the wound, blood wet against his fingers . Something crunched in his knuckles, bone shards grinding together with a spike of pain. They were already swelling.

“Hn,” Bruce made an unhappy sound, stood there another minute like he was deliberating what to do and then unceremoniously reached down and tore a long chunk off the hem off his t-shirt.

“What-” Jason made to sit up but Bruce kneeled down and reached for him, hesitated just above his wrist and Jason’s whole face flushed before he offered it, laying it face up in Bruce’s hand. He was trembling, slightly, as Bruce guided it forward, straightening it over his knee and wrapping the fabric around the wound.

He didn’t clean it, obviously. There was no peroxide, no gauze, no medical tape, he just tied a neat little knot behind his elbow, keeping the flat of the fabric over the tear in his skin.

“Tell me if it’s too tight.”

Jason just shook his head, finally forcing a glance up, just to see his face.

His chin was red, probably gonna bruise in the morning, and there were smears of blood on the left side of his face from where Jason had swiped at him. He was looking at the impromptu bandage, pulling it flat where the fabric bunched, and then he just stayed there, hands gently cupping Jason’s elbow and staring at the blood down his arm and over his hands.

Jason swallowed wetly and closed his eyes.

What if it had been Tim or Damian? God what if it had been Alfred?

“I’m sorry.”

It was a whisper, barely loud enough to hear but Jason had to say it, even if it was meaningless and stupid and would never be nearly enough.

“It’s alright.”

Jason’s eyes snapped open, looking at Bruce incredulously. The man stared back at him, eyes searching, mouth a flat line, brows creased in what was obviously concern and Jason snapped at him, feeling worn and raw and completely fucked.

“It’s not alright!”

Bruce didn’t flinch but his eyes flicked over Jason’s face in mounting worry and Jason couldn’t handle it. He sat up, shifted forward, pulling his arm away from Bruce. Who, instead of standing up just pulled back, still kneeling on the ground in front of him.

“Jay, it’s ok.”

“It’s not-”

“It was a panic attack-”

“It was not a panic attack!” Jason dragged in a heaving breath and planted his face in his hands, unable to look at Bruce for this.

He knew everything would go to hell but somehow he didn’t think it would happen so spectacularly. He was dreading it, dreading every part of this but he kept thinking of that horrific dream, and being here, and what if he’d hurt somebody for real? What if it had been Alfred?

Jason was lucky it was Bruce, knew that even if the man could never look at him the same again at least he could stop him, when it came down to it.

“It wasn’t a panic attack Bruce.” He pressed his fingers into his eyelids, watching the color explode into static.

He felt a hand, feather light, on his knee. “What’s going on Jay?” It was the gentle concern in his voice that finally tipped the scale.

It all came rushing up out of him like vomit.

“It’s the Pit Bruce. It’s the fucking Pit. Something’s wrong, I can’t - it keeps - ever since I stopped - killing - it’s like it’s hungry and I’m not - I’m losing. I’m losing and I can’t do that. I can’t lose everything again.” The last word came out on a sob, muffled into the heels of his hands.

There was a hushed silence, only broken by Jason’s harsh breathing, the feeling of the hand on his knee didn’t leave.

“Jay-” Bruce’s voice was quiet and Jason’s head snapped up, a rush of primal fear surging through him. Bruce was looking at him with such deep concern that Jason couldn’t stop from spilling more, pushing everything out. If he was going to ruin things he needed it over with.

“You wanna know why I was ignoring your messages? Because I almost fucking killed a guy! Might as well have!” He spit the words like they would somehow save him, be sharp enough to drive off whatever reproach was waiting. “And I didn’t- I didn’t know it was like - it was like I was a different person and I couldn’t even - I couldn’t even tell until it was over! And it keeps happening, anytime I’m upset, it’s there, and even when I’m not I can feel it now, I can feel it all the time. And I thought, I thought I could get it under control but it’s just getting worse.

“I’m almost out of money and I can’t go out- I can’t get more when I’m like this. And I’m nobody! I’m nobody without Red Hood.”

His voice was wrecked, dragged-over-concrete rough and wet and there were heavy, fat teardrops carving down his face. He looked anywhere but at Bruce, staring at the hand still resting on his leg, waiting for him to retreat, to find out Bruce had been waiting for something like this to happen, that he had some damn cage in the batcave ready for him, to keep him locked away from all the normal people while he slowly lost his mind.

The hand on his leg drew back and Jason squeezed his eyes closed, pushing more stupid tears out. He had to get it together, he didn’t want to be a blubbering mess for this. But when he reached up to wipe his face Bruce’s hand got in the way, where it moved to cup his cheek, thumb brushing away the tears as they came.

“Jay, Sweetheart, look at me please.”

Jason let out a low, strangled noise, barely managing to shake his head against Bruce’s hand.

“Jay.” Another hand pressed on the other side of his face, gently tilting his chin up. Right up until he was forced to stare at the ceiling to avoid Bruce’s gaze, his hands clenched in the soft material of his sweats.

Bruce didn’t speak. He waited, holding Jason’s face in his hands and gently wiping away his tears that showed no signs of slowing until he sucked in a gasping breath and finally caved. He looked into dark, fierce blue eyes.

“Thank you for for telling me.” Bruce’s voice was low and rough, barely above a whisper. “We will figure this out.” Jason’s heart jumped in his chest but he resisted, trying in vain to pull back, but Bruce held on.

“There’s nothing to figure out. I know why this is happening, and sometimes I can’t tell anymore what’s me and what’s the Pit and I can’t. Bruce I can’t-” He choked, a wet strangled noise coming up from his chest.

“We will figure it out.” Bruce said, strong and steady, hands holding him in place, eyes dark and intense.

“You don’t get it!” Jason finally jerked back, wiping his broken fist over his cheeks and sniffing hard. Bruce didn’t try to grab him again, just planted both hands on either side of his knees, framing him in and gripping the edge of the couch.

“I know. I know I don’t, but listen to me. You were able to calm down, just now. You got a handle on it, you barely grazed me Jay, I’m fine.”

“Only because it was you!” He felt like a little kid, Bruce crouching down in front of him, making him look at him, making him talk, looking at him like he was - like he was sad, about what Jason was saying.

“Then I’ll be here. I will be with you, and we will figure it out.”

“Shut up,” Jason croaked, but it was barely audible, his mouth trembling in the effort to suppress his tears, digging his fingers into his legs and staring at his cracked and bleeding knuckles, throat working to hold in a sob.

“We will not let it win. And the money, Jay, of course you don’t need to worry about that.” And then, a little angrily. “And you are not nobody, do you hear me?”

“Bruce.” His voice was small and wavering and it was all he could do to tip forward, intent on nothing more than hiding his face in his knees. But Bruce rose to meet him, intercepting the fall and guiding Jason’s head to his shoulder, gripping the back of his neck, fingers splayed in his hair. He felt like every knot of thread that had been holding him together was unspooling, like all his stuffing was bleeding out onto the floor.

“It’ll be ok, Jaylad.” Bruce whispered it, and Jason said the one thing that had been lurking around inside him for as long as he could remember. The one thing he hated the most about himself.

“I’m scared.” It was a barely there gasp of breath, thin and trembling and Bruce made a low, pained noise, fingers tensing in Jason’s hair before he pulled himself back and up from the floor only to drop into the seat next to him and drag him into his arms.

“It’ll be ok. We’ll work on it, you’re gonna be ok Sweetheart.” His voice was choked, pressed into his temple and Jason registered in a blank sort of way, his face pressed to Bruce’s shoulder, that no one had called him that since he’d died.

None of it was anything like what Jason expected. It wasn’t even close to all the scenarios his brain had worked up to prepare himself for the inevitable let down. It was the sort of reaction he wouldn’t even let himself dream of. It was all Jason had wanted since he came screaming out of that Pit and planted a bomb on the batmobile. It was too much.

It was everything.

The wail that tore out of Jason’s chest was the kind he only ever voiced in his worst nightmares. It was agony, flooding out of him. It was relief and heartache and fear and he couldn’t hold it back anymore. He was torn at the seams, he was sobbing. And Bruce just held him, arms tight around him, one hand buried in his hair, pressing him close, the other wrapped around his quaking shoulders. Just holding him. Jason’s hands were clenched in Bruce’s shirt, pulling tight enough to tear it even more but he felt like he was shaking apart, like the only thing keeping his limbs attached to his body were Bruce’s arms around him.

His chest heaved so hard it hurt and he found himself gibbering nonsense, half formed apologies for he didn’t even know what.

“I-I’m s-sor-ry.”

“Shhh, it’s ok, it’s ok.” Bruce’s voice was strangled, “it’ll be ok, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

It felt like hours that he was sobbing into Bruce’s shoulder even if it could only have been minutes. Minutes of gasping choked off breaths until his throat and lungs both felt half crushed, until his tears slowly drained and he was just leaning against him, limp, sniffling, and shivering in waves. He felt cold all over.

Bruce took slow, even breaths, rubbing his hand up and down the full bow of Jason’s back. He thought, at one point, they’d probably gotten blood all over the room.

It wasn’t until Jason pulled back that Bruce made any hint of moving, opening his arms just enough to let him.

“I’m ok,” Jason rasped, suddenly embarrassed, swiping a hand over his face. Part of him knew that Bruce wasn’t judging him but he felt so tender and sore he couldn’t help trying to pull back together some form of composure. A shiver racked through his shoulders and he wrapped his arms around his stomach, feeling like he was holding in his guts.

Bruce’s hands still held his shoulders and he stared at him for a long moment, eyes roaming him up and down, serious and contemplating.

“Let’s get you cleaned up, hm?” He finally asked, soft and gentle. Jason swallowed.

“I-I can do it. Just need a shower and-”

“Hush.” Bruce squeezed his shoulders. “I have some first aide supplies in my bathroom. You can take a shower and then I’ll handle it.”

Jason thought he should probably resist, but found himself too exhausted. He just nodded and stood on shaky knees to follow Bruce out of the library.

He couldn’t remember the last time he was in Bruce’s room and it was surreal how much it hadn’t changed when Bruce flicked on the light. The only thing that seemed vaguely out of place were the obviously rumpled sheets, thrown half across the bed from when he’d at least attempted sleep earlier in the night.

Bruce went ahead of him into the bathroom without a word, leaving Jason standing in the doorway to watch him. He dug a towel out of the cabinet by the door and set it on the counter by the sink, then he turned on the shower head and held is hand under the water, eyes turned down as if he was deep in concentration. Jason looked on, a little numb.

“Bruce.”

He glanced up, eyes like a hawk on Jason instantly. “I can handle setting the water temp.”

Bruce blinked, looking back at the shower as if he just registered what he was doing. He dropped his hand out of the water and took a step back. “Of course, I...” he swallowed, “I’ll grab you something to change into.”

Jason shuffled in after him, eyeing the bottles on the counter as Bruce ducked out. He glanced at the mirror and had to do a double take. It was no wonder Bruce was running around like Jason might fall over dead at any moment. There was blood smeared all over his face, especially around his eyes and mouth, a thick streak across his forehead, a brown tint through the white streak in his hair.

He jumped when Bruce came back in the room with a stack of pajamas, turning abruptly to face him and suddenly self conscious of the blood everywhere.

Bruce laid the clothes on top of the towel already on the counter. He walked back to the door and hesitated, hovering just inside the room. He turned back to Jason, eyes intense, flitting over him quickly like he thought Jason wouldn’t notice.

“Use whatever you like...I’ll be right outside, if you need anything.”

Jason swallowed, feeling awkward. He rubbed his hands on his pants and gave a short nod. Another ten seconds of awkward hovering and Bruce gave a nod of his own and finally ducked out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

At first all Jason could do was stand there, staring at his feet and Bruce’s shining marble floors. But he was still freezing and the thought of the hot water pushed him to finally strip. The knuckles on his right hand were already swelling, giving them a comical, cartoony sort of shape. The skin split and was scabbing over but still wet. He fumbled briefly at the t-shirt bandage around his elbow before he just tugged it down until it was loose enough to slip off over his hand and throw in the trash.

Jason was still surprised, even after catching sight of himself, how much blood rinsed away while he stood under the spray of the shower, watching the orange tinted water drain out of the tub. He let it run over his face, holding his breath and closing his eyes as he turned the water hot enough to sting.

The shower was too long. Though Jason had no idea how long. He scrubbed his hair with some fancy shampoo that smelled like cologne, hissing when it stung the cuts on his knuckles. Then he lathered his entire body with old fashioned bar soap, being careful of the waterproof bandage over the bite and the stinging cut where the IV had been. It was the kind of soap that Alfred bought for himself but that Bruce would pilfer. It just smelled clean, the sharp scent of it was probably the only thing that kept Jason awake. It was definitely too long, long enough that his fingers and palms went pruny with water and he’d long since been rinsed clean. It wasn’t until he was just standing under the hot water, blinking his eyes open with concerted effort that he finally turned it off and grabbed the towel on the vanity.

Putting Bruce’s pajama’s on felt weird, because they basically fit him. They were only a little long, and the t-shirt’s shoulders were just slightly too wide. Jason remembered being so small, barely coming up to Bruce’s chest, how huge the man used to seem to him. Now they were nearly eye to eye. It was jarring sometimes to Jason. He wondered what it was like for Bruce.

When he opened the door to the bedroom, after standing in front of it like the knob was gonna bite him if he touched it, he found the man sitting on the edge of his bed. Feet planted on the ground and hunched over, face in his hands. Jason felt a sharp pang of guilt at being the reason he was still awake, he was obviously exhausted. Just like Jason. And here he was demanding even more attention.

But Bruce snapped up straight nearly as soon as Jason saw him, standing from the bed like he’d set off some kind of alarm. Bruce looked him up and down like he was searching for other hidden injuries and Jason just stood there awkwardly under his scrutiny.

“Really, I can take care of it myself,” he finally said, voice rasping like he’d been smoking.

“No, no. Not with your hand like that. Come on, I’ll do it.” And so he joined Jason in the room again, gestured for him to sit on the edge of the tub while he dug under the sink, pulling out one thing after another. Hydrogen peroxide, cotton balls, a roll of bandages, antibacterial ointment, some more antibiotics, Another waterproof bandage.

First thing he did was fill a glass with water from the tap and shake a capsule out into his hands. “Here. Take this, we won’t be able to get you back on IV without going down to the cave and I’d rather not tonight. You’re not due for the ceftriaxone until the morning but until your blood cultures come back I want you on this one.”

Jason didn’t ask what it was when he took it from Bruce, downing it without protest.

“You were close enough to being off the IV Alfred may give you the all clear to transition to oral antibiotics in the morning. We’ll have to ask. At any rate I don’t think you need the saline drip anymore.”

“You suddenly a doctor?” Jason blurted, unable to think of anything worth saying and falling back on old habits. He could feel his face go pink though when Bruce leveled him with a look.

“I’ve been over your treatment with Alfred. Thoroughly.”

With that Bruce took a deep breath and his focus changed to Jason’s now multiple injuries.

He washed his hands first, then sat down on the closed toilet just across from him and reached first for his left arm. Jason supplied it without protest, feeling like his bones were made of lead. Bruce gingerly peeled away the old bandage and dropped it in the trash and gave a short inspection of the wound. Jason hadn’t gotten to look at it since he’d been in the manor but he felt something like relief when he saw it now. There were neat stitches where before there had been torn and abraded skin, stretched tight and extremely tender but a healthy, pale pink with no hint of inflammation. Bruce very carefully dabbed over the stitches with antibacterial ointment on the tip of his index finger and covered the whole thing with another waterproof bandage.

Then came the torn skin at his inner right elbow. He dabbed it with hydrogen peroxide, which burned, but not as bad as he expected. Jason eyed the angry red skin around the cut and knew from experience that it was going to bruise and look awful the next morning. Bruce planted a dry cotton ball directly on the wound where a large, dark scab was barely formed. Then he taped it down with a stretch bandage wrapped fully around his elbow.

Next were his knuckles. There was significantly more damage there, torn and swollen skin, and Bruce tilted his fingers open and closed slowly, feeling for any drag or difficulty in movement. He glanced up and met Jason’s eyes briefly. “Does it feel like anything’s broken?”

Jason hedged, “don’t think so...” The answer was maybe, but he didn’t think it was too terrible and if he could get away without being hauled down to the cave like Bruce also seemed to want to avoid then he would. A cast on his hand was the last thing he needed and Jason was sure he could get by without one while whatever was wrong healed.

“Hn,” Bruce gave an unhappy noise when he looked back down, leaned over with his elbows resting on his knees. He was gentle, eyes serious and full of concentration as he worked. It reminded Jason of patrols from years before, when they’d gotten back in and Bruce had insisted on taking care of all of his bumps and bruises instead of Alfred. It kind of made him want to leave, immediately.

But he sat there, still as a statue instead and let Bruce work. There was still blood smeared across his cheek in recognizable, macabre, little fingerprints.

“You still...” Jason blurted out. Bruce looked up at him quickly, as if he was waiting for an emergency or some vital information but Jason just pointed to his cheek and said, “blood,” like the bookworm articulate he was.

“Hn,” Bruce grunted again, dismissive. He looked back down. “I’ll clean it later.”

He kept dabbing away at Jason’s knuckles, like he was trying to soak up the injury itself, carefully swiping peroxide over mangled skin before he finally tossed the cotton balls in the trash and switched it for antibacterial cream. It got a similarly thorough but gentle treatment. Bruce’s hands were warm and dry and Jason remembered that too, from when he was small, getting patched up.

Bruce expertly covered his knuckles in gauze and wrapped it all in a thin but sturdy bandage. Jason’s face burned at the memory while Bruce tugged the fabric flat, fussing with it in an almost compulsive way.

When Jason glanced up at Bruce’s face he looked to be deep in thought and Jason breathed carefully, so his body wouldn’t move because he didn’t want to disrupt it. Whatever was building inside of him.

Finally his hands stopped and he sat there, holding Jason’s bandaged one in both of his own, completely still.

“I...” Bruce’s voice in the silence of the bathroom was almost startling enough to make him flinch. His face tensed, drawing in at the edges where his brows pulled down and his eyes squinted, mouth a pressed thin line. Jason watched his Adam’s apple bob for a moment. He was obviously planning on saying something, but the quiet dragged on for so long Jason started to resign himself to it. Started to think he should just pull his hand out of Bruce’s grip and end the awkward moment before it got any worse when Bruce finally spoke up.

“I love you.”

The words were low, and gravelly, almost with the Batman inflection and this - this did make Jason flinch, and then flush deeply. His stomach flipped over like he’d reached the top of some stupid amusement park ride.

Bruce noticed of course, and he frowned, both hands still cradling Jason’s injured one, still staring down at it. “More than you can know.”

Jason swallowed but Bruce didn’t stop there. His voice was just as deep and gravelly as he went on. “I know things are complicated between us. I know that - I’ve hurt you, in the past, and you telling me what’s been going on doesn’t mean that it’s all fixed. But I’m glad you told me. I want to help you, and to - to mend things between us. To work on them.”

Without warning Jason felt tears pricking at his eyes all over again. He just barely managed to give a jerky nod in response, sniffling and wiping his uninjured wrist under his nose. He should have said something back, anything but it was like every word he’d ever known was out of reach.

Bruce finally released his hand, eyes flicking to his face as he reached up and cupped Jason’s cheek, brushing his thumb just under his eye, making him blink. And then he abruptly leaned back and dropped both his hands to his lap.

“I want you to try to get some sleep, and we’ll start working on this tomorrow.”

Jason swallowed, stomach dropping at the very thought of facing this, for what it was, for real. But it was tempered by the idea that Bruce would be there. Bruce would take charge, he’d handle things, he would give Jason direction, something to focus on. Just like he did way back when Jason was just a kid and he didn’t know what to do with all his anger at the world.

“Ok,” he finally offered, forcing himself to his feet before the sensation of concrete drying in his veins had a chance to set in. Bruce stood with him, followed him out of the bathroom and all the way to the bedroom door. Probably would have kept on with him as he headed out into the hall, back down to the guest room they’d set him up in. Jason knew he needed to go, that he needed to sleep almost as much as he ever had but he hesitated in the doorway, nerves crawling up over his shoulders. The Pit was there when he cautiously reached out for it, thrumming on steadily like always and it was just-

“Jason?” Bruce’s hand hovered over his shoulder, like he was afraid of what would happen if he touched him right at that moment. Jason let out a deep, heavy breath while he stared at the doorknob like somehow it would help him.

“I had this dream, where I-” He swallowed, breathing hard again, “I hurt- I hurt Tim, and Damian-” His voice shook the smallest amount and he tried to clear his throat of it but it just felt thick and uncomfortable. Bruce’s hand settle then, on his shoulder, gentle, “I can still feel it, right now I-”

The hand shifted to his elbow, tugging him close before wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pressing a kiss to his temple. He turned them both around and Jason went easily, like a puppet on strings.

“Stay with me. I’ll make sure nothing happens.” And Jason thought he was done with crying but it all felt so close to the surface and there was so much relief in what Bruce was offering. He rubbed at his eyes like a little kid, screwing the heels of both hands into his eyelids with another harsh sniffle and he nodded. Bruce pushed him toward the bed.

“Get in, I’ll be right there.”

He disappeared back into the bathroom and Jason stared at the massive bed for a brief moment before crawling on top of it and flopping down face first. the pillow smelled like the same detergent that all the sheets in the manor smelled like, mixed with the faintest scent of leather and Kevlar. Bruce the way Jason had always remembered it. They all showered after patrols unless they were badly injured or in danger of passing out under the water, but even so they weren’t always enough to destroy the heavy scents of layers of leather and body armor. Your skin soaked them up.

Jason used to have nightmares as a kid, relatively often.

Not as much as he did now, pathetically enough, but often. Going to Bruce about them had been a fight he’d warred with himself for months before he finally took his first steps into the man’s room after dark. It was only because of Alfred he’d even considered it, when the man noticed how tired he seemed and quietly tried to push him in the right direction.

Jason had been beyond nervous the first time, waiting to be turned away and sent back to bed with a scowl and a sarcastic comment about crying and nightmares being for little girls. The words were familiar enough before he’d learned how to deal with the dreams and everything to go with them on his own. But Bruce had been telling him, over and over, that he didn’t have to deal with things on his own.

In the end he’d stood on the other side of the door just staring at it long enough that his toes went cold before he’d managed to work up enough anger at himself to just stop stalling and make a move. He’d thrown open the door with enough force to bounce it off the door jam and send Bruce shooting up in bed with Batman’s scowl on his face.

Bruce had been startled and prepared for an emergency. But faced with his guardian looking like that, when he already had nerves crawling under his skin and memory after memory telling him this was a bad idea, after startling the man awake, every life preserving instinct in Jason had told him to run.

And so he had, turned heel and gone pounding down the dark hall with Bruce shouting after him. He caught up to him before he reached the stairs thankfully or Jason knew he probably would have fallen face first in his panic.

“Jason, Jason stop, what’s happened, what’s wrong?”

“N-nothing, I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“It’s alright, shh, Jaybird calm down. It’s ok, will you tell me what’s wrong please?”

“Nothing! It’s nothing. I’ll go back to bed.”

Bruce had practically had to pry it out of him, then drag him back to his room with an arm wrapped around his shoulders telling him it was ok, it was fine, he was glad Jason woke him up, he wasn’t angry.

He’d never felt more like that little kid in his life.

It was enough to make his chest hurt.

A shiver wracked through him and he finally rolled over and tugged the blankets loose from under him, slipping into the sheets and staring up at the ceiling. His hair was still wet and he maybe didn’t dry off as well as he should have before he put the pajama’s on. Jason was so exhausted.

The shower shut off in the bathroom, though he didn’t remember hearing it start up. A minute later the door opened and Bruce stood there wearing a t-shirt, minus the torn hem, his hair damp and messy and his face clean of blood smears. He flicked the bathroom light off and Jason watched his silhouette move through the room and slip into the bed without hesitation.

He settled in, propped up on his pillows and reached for something on his nightstand. “Would you...” he started in a soft voice, clearing his throat in the middle, “like me to read something?”

Jason exhaled and nodded. “Sure,” he whispered back, feeling relieved all together because despite how tired he felt there were a thousand different things running through his mind and he wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to sleep. Not without something to help it along. So Bruce reached over and switched on a lamp on its dim setting, took a deep breath through his nose and began to read in a low, steady tone.

He was only a few sentences in and Jason shivered again, trying to tug the blanket a little higher. But Bruce’s voice paused and when Jason glanced over he was looking at him.

“I’m fi-“ he started to say, before Bruce let go of the book with his left hand and raised his arm out, leaving a space, a wordless invitation. Jason stared at it for a drawn out moment, mind totally blank. Until he looked at Bruce’s face and could see the little crease between his eyebrows and the flare of his nostril’s in the glow of the lamp. He was nervous.

Jason pushed himself, awkwardly, on his elbows, trying to avoid grazing or putting pressure on his now multiple wounds and shuffled over the mattress. It was a huge bed, and it was a few feet of space he had to traverse, bunching up the blankets awkwardly until he finally was tucked under Bruce’s arm and he let it drape around him.

Jason settled into his side, head resting on Bruce’s shoulder with a flighty sort of feeling in his stomach, almost like he wanted to laugh, or probably cry. Bruce brought his hand up and brushed it through his damp hair, snagging on his ear once and making him twitch. Then he rested his cheek on the crown of Jason’s head and took a deep breath through his nose. Jason felt the little gust of his exhale.

“Better?” He asked in a whisper, hand still carding through his hair. Jason let out a ghost of a breath and closed his eyes.

“Yeah.”

Bruce gave a low hum and started reading again, in the same, soft tone Jason remembered. The one that always used to put him to sleep.