The first time it just casually slips out, Bruce thinks that this must be it, that he’s going to get yelled at and then is going to get to reflect every day on how after so many years and so many mishaps along the way, this’ll be what ruined their entire relationship. At that moment, he finds that he absolutely hates those words.
They’re in the cave, monitoring everyone else who’s out on patrol tonight and it’s just the two of them.
Jason looks over at him and then at where the case his old costume had stood was (he’d taken the still bloody fabric with him on the day they took the display down together and Bruce hasn’t asked what he did with it) and then back at him and he smiles and he looks so happy and young.
Bruce’s stomach does a flip and before he even has the time to think anything, to worry about how it’s happening again, “I love you” has slipped out of his mouth.
The shocking part is that Jason doesn’t glare at him or offer any sort of pushback. He can’t exactly storm out given current circumstances, but he should be doing something.
He should be offering some sort of pushback.
After all, if he isn’t going to then why has Bruce waited so long to tell him? Why has Bruce made a million silent promises to himself about how Jason can never know?
Jason seems to take a moment to think about what he just heard. Bruce can almost see it sinking in as his son blinks owlishly, once and then once more.
After what has to be the longest moment of Bruce’s life, Jason seems to make a judgement call. He smiles at Bruce, even wider than before and says, “I love you too, dad,” right as Nightwing enters the cave with his usual flourish.
Dick and Jason chatter on about a case they’re working together, or more accurately had been working together before Jason had broken his leg. Bruce can’t help but think the way it broke, not by having it snapped by a goon or taking a bad fall from landing wrong after swinging through the air, but simply because he tripped on ice while walking Damian home from a trip to the library, reflects good things.
“That kid needs to be properly socialized,” Jason had said to Bruce literally the day prior to the accident and Bruce hadn’t been able to quite stop himself from thinking about how adorable it is that Jason is so good with Damian in response.
He can try to pretend it’s the same warm feeling he feels when he sees Damian and Dick interacting, just without the jealousy aspect. He can try to pretend it’s the same warm feeling he felt when he saw Tim on his knees so that he’d be Damian’s height, hugging him like that.
He can try to pretend he doesn’t know what it is that he’s feeling towards prodigal son, but the fact is that he does. He does know.
After hearing himself say it though, hearing the verbal confirmation that despite everything they’ve been through Jason still views him as a father, Bruce can feel his insides growing cold .
It’s clear that him and Jason are talking about very, very different things when talking about love.
He knows that if he were a good man, he wouldn’t follow up on it.
If he were a good man he wouldn’t be having these thoughts to start with, never would have had them. He can’t even pretend that they’re some new development brought upon by Jason bulking up and growing and learning and becoming someone new. They’re not.
They’re not new and Bruce tries to be a good man, he’s tried every day and every night for years and years and years, and shouldn’t he be allowed to be selfish just this one time? Can’t he let himself enjoy the presence of his son, who he’s seeing more than ever because he’s staying (stuck and can’t leave, even if he wanted to, an ugly voice inside of Bruce says) with him and the rest of the family at the manor for a little while?
He does enjoy it. He enjoys getting to relearn who Jason is, the kind of food he likes, the kind of books he reads, what things he’s neat about and what he just leaves laying around. Not as much about Jason has changed as he wants everyone to believe, Bruce knows as a result of all this leisurely time.
Jason begins telling Bruce that he loves him regularly. He’s sheepish at first, but as Bruce returns the sentiment and says it himself, he becomes casual about it.
It’ll be morning and his son will wheel himself into the kitchen and as Bruce is making himself breakfast he’ll feel someone looking over at him and he’ll look back and see Jason smiling and saying it, and it’ll be night and they’ll run into each other, both unable to sleep, and Bruce will play a movie and Jason will sit right next to him, leaning into him and he’ll say it as he drifts off into unconsciousness.
It’s too much and not enough all at once. Jason truly means it but he doesn’t mean it in the way Bruce needs him to.
Oddly enough, even though hearing it sometimes makes Bruce feel ill, everything else they do together doesn’t even though he knows it probably should.
Bruce holds Jason in his arms while they all watch a show as a family and he squirms around some and looks at Bruce with amusement in his eyes, but he doesn’t protest in any genuine way and Bruce doesn’t feel guilty at all.
Bruce runs his thumb over the back of Jason’s hand while they’re down in the batcave monitoring everyone (Barbara is out on a vacation with Steph, and Bruce has started staying home to spend more time with Jason unless it’s a situation that actually, truly requires Batman) and he feels nothing but giddy.
It’s because of the joy that he feels while getting to prod and hold and pet and hug Jason, who seems all the while to lean into the affection and completely miss any deeper meaning to it, that Bruce fails to pick up on when everyone else starts to notice.
He misses the way that Cass creeps into the batcave when he thinks it’s just him and Jason, misses the way she looks over at them and frowns before exiting. He misses the way that Damian suddenly seems withdrawn from him, as though he’s wrestling with some sort of inner issue.
It’s harder to miss the point when he comes upon Dick and Tim furiously whispering to each other in the kitchen one morning and they fall silent as soon as he’s within earshot. That's when he realizes something is wrong. He has a sinking feeling that he knows what they were talking about, and more than that he can tell that they know that he knows.
Bruce leaves before they can say anything, before they can decide to either make accusations or to try to treat him normally, to fail at doing so.
He thinks that he’ll be able to ignore it all, knows that his attraction isn’t going to go anywhere. Bruce isn’t going to tell Jason about how he feels, and for as long as his son is oblivious and oddly lacking his typical frustration with everything Bruce and Batman related, he’s going to bask in his attention as much as possible.
Bruce figures that any scrutiny he’s facing from his family will fade once they realize he would never do anything inappropriate with Jason, not without his full consent.
It’s walking in on Dick trying to warn Jason to stay away from Bruce, warning without actually saying what he thinks, just talking around the topic, warning as though Bruce were a predator, a bad guy that truly saddens Bruce.
Hearing Jason’s response, his confused giggle and stern, “I don’t know what you think you saw, but that’s just how Bruce is. The guy never learned how to talk about his emotions and so he shows them by being all touchy-feely,” almost makes up for the sense of betrayal Bruce feels.
It’s as a result of walking in on his oldest trying to throw him under the bus, and the unexplainable sense of heaviness he feels because of it, he thinks, that leads him to go out as Batman that night.
There are other reasons too, of course. He needs to be spotted being present so that Gotham knows that she hasn’t lost her protector.
The puppy dog eyes thrown his way by Jason, who is now moving around on his own with crutches and refusing any help, when he announces his intention to go out almost make him reconsider.
He doesn’t though. He needs to go out and punch someone who deserves it before he can’t stop himself and takes it out on the actual subject of his anger.
Damian is staying with the Kents for the weekend, Tim is out with the Titans doing god knows what, and Bruce is purposely avoiding Nightwing, which means that even when he could use the backup while going up against The Riddler, who has apparently teamed up with Poison Ivy, he doesn’t get it.
As Bruce sits in the hard chair, tied up and unable to reach his arm up to turn on his emergency signal, he regrets having turned off the coms earlier in the night. He had been enjoying the constant stream of chatter coming in from Jason, who’s apparently using his time in the cave to catch up on a show he’d begun and died before finishing the first time around.
He’d been enjoying talking to Jay, but it hadn’t been what he’d gone out to do tonight. It wasn’t getting to take his anger out those who actually deserved it, who were looking to do harm.
Instead, he was now getting a typical Ridder experience, complete with nervous laughter, a dumb, question-mark shaped novelty cane being waved around and of course, a riddle. Not a very good one though.
“Tell me, do you know what animal always tells the truth?”
Bruce doesn’t answer, knowing that there isn't a point in doing so given that he doesn’t know what the Riddler is looking for as an answer.
He waits and frowns and the Riddler rolls his eyes before saying, voice grandiose as always, “now that we’re using this on you, it’s a bat!”
There’s a spray in the air, coming from the hose that the Riddler has apparently had behind him this whole time. It’s almost clear and looks a little like water vapor. Bruce takes a deep breath in and tries to hold his breath, but it just keeps coming and coming and eventually he finds himself unable to refrain from gasping and inhaling it.
And then, all he knows is blackness.
He misses Dick bursting into through the glass ceiling of the empty building Bruce is being held in by just a second, misses the glass shards which go flying, misses his son, who’s wearing a air filtration mask, taking down the Riddler and shutting off the flow of the chemical substance. He remains unconscious during the time it takes Dick to return the Riddler to Arkham.
By the time Dick comes back for him, Bruce is barely awake, stretching his body. He’s also pissed.
Seeing Dick reentering the building, Bruce glares and growls out, “You shouldn’t have left me alone. Didn’t even cut the cords binding me. I thought I’d taught you better then to leave someone who had been exposed to an unknown substance like that.” He surprises himself with how angry he sounds. To be fair, he is angry, but he also usually has better control of himself.
Dick rolls his eyes, “It’s not exactly unknown. Ivy and Riddler have been testing it up in Bludhaven all week. Something you’d know if you hadn't been spending all your time with Jason.”
He says this reproachfully. Bruce wants to tell him to knock it off, to remind him that Jason being back with them is an honest to god miracle, to tell him to stop being jealous and just come out and say what it is that he thinks, but if Dick doesn’t want to face the issue head on, like hell is Bruce going to be the first to bring it up.
Instead he just makes a low groaning sound and nods. Bruce takes a deep breath in and says, “Do I need an antidote? What’s it going to do? I’d hope nothing too serious, considering it would have already progressed. Although, I wouldn't be surprised if you had left me on purpose to let it do so. You know, these past few weeks remind me a lot of right after you left, the first time around I mean. Because of being alone with Jay so much and you hating me for it.”
Huh. Once again, he hadn’t meant to share that.
Thinking back to what the Riddler had said, Bruce finds that he suddenly thinks he knows what the purpose of the spray was.
Dick confirms his suspicions when he replies, “You’ll be fine. It’s just a typical inhibitions reducer but with something in it that specifically targets verbal responses. I don’t know how much of it you were exposed to, but it’ll be out of your system...eventually.”
Bruce is still a little out of it, and Dick must see that reflected in his face, because after a moment he relents and simplifies, saying, “You basically got hit with a truth serum. Your health isn’t in danger. I can drive you back to the cave if you have the batmobile nearby?”
Bruce sighs a little and forces the world back into focus, standing up from the chair he just realized he’s been sitting in this whole time. “I’m fine. I don’t really want to talk with you right now and I would rather drive myself back. Alone.”
Dick looks annoyed with that, but all he says as he turns around to leave is “ ‘kay. Be careful though. I’ve heard the truth can be a dangerous thing when you have secrets.”