We are never fighting alone. Get up, get going. I'll meet you there.
Protocol. It was the Ten Commandments of the vigilante world. Rule. Law. Bruce enforced protocol above all else, more than Alfred enforced the “No Backflipping In The Kitchen” rule. When everything else failed, training and preparation and contingencies, protocol was there to catch them.
Which was why, when the world fell apart all around them, they were prepared.
Bruce wasn’t even sure what had happened. One moment, he’d been racing across the rooftops, Nightwing and Robin at one flank, Black Bat and Spoiler at the other, Red Robin and Red Hood at his heels. It had taken months for the others to get used to Jason hanging around the manor more, joining patrols every so often. But Bruce was glad to see him, glad to see all of his family together. Even if he had to make sure Damian and Jason weren’t jaunting off to behead Two Face or Black Mask or some other unlucky crime boss.
And then the ground rumbled deep beneath Bruce’s feet. There was a wave of heat, and Bruce was lifted off his feet and sent tumbling through the air. He didn’t know which way was up; he crashed into something hard with a metallic clang, and tumbled over what felt like a mile’s worth of roof before falling down into an alley, thudding onto fire escape after fire escape before finally flopping gracelessly onto the damp ground.
His very bones ached, and Bruce painfully hauled himself up once his ears stopped ringing. He was alone in the alley; his kids must have been sent in different directions by the blast. He pressed two fingers to his temple.
“Nightwing. Sound off.”
“Red Hood. Robin? Spoiler?”
Bruce swore under his breath. The explosion had taken out comms. Bruce found himself falling back to the safety net, the protocol. When the team got separated, the steps were simple: Assess. Locate. Fall back. Regroup.
Bruce cupped his hands around his mouth and made a high-pitched chittering call. Amplified by tech in his suit, the sound cut through the sirens and screams from the streets. For an agonizing moment, he waited, straining his ears for any sound.
Then, a soft, twittering chirp rose above the noise of the street, followed by a softer, melodic birdsong. Nightwing and Robin’s calls, respectively. Both sounds originated from somewhere off to Bruce’s left; clearly, they were together. Bruce felt some pressure in his gut ease, relief washing over him. Two of his sons were safe, and they would watch over each other. He knew they would.
Bruce let out another soft chirp, confirming that he’d heard them. Now that he knew their location, the sound amplifiers on his suit channeled the sound and funneled it toward Nightwing and Robin; only they would hear it.
Now that they’d made contact with Bruce, he knew Dick would make sure they got to the rendezvous point. He didn’t have to worry about them anymore; now his sole focus was on the rest of his kids.
A melodic, high-pitched whistling reached Bruce’s ears; Red Robin’s signal, followed by Spoiler’s: a repetitive chirp that sliced through the noise and chaos of the street. Both calls originated from somewhere behind Bruce.
Black Bat’s came next, a series of repetitive chatters that came in quick, rapid-fire succession. She was somewhere off to Bruce’s right.
He sent a confirmation chirp to all three, and listened intently for the final call. Jason.
Worry was beginning to clamber up into his throat. Bruce repeated the welfare call, listening to the bat-like chatter echo off the buildings and dissipate into nothing.
To his immense relief, an answer came this time: a soft, high-pitched call that pierced the chaos and noise like a hot knife. It came from somewhere in front of Bruce, but it sounded weaker than usual.
And so Bruce moved on from the assessing step, and went on to locating. He moved, like a pillar of shadow, swinging back up to the rooftops.
The entire roof where they had been running was engulfed in flame and choking black smoke churning into the sky. Bruce ran lightly along the fire’s perimeter, scanning for any signs of Red Hood in the blaze. He cupped his hands to his lips and made the chattering call again.
Red Hood’s answering chirp came from Bruce’s left; his head whipped around and his body followed, sprinting across the destroyed roof. His muscles clenched as he remembered another night like this, a lifetime ago, as he raced through fire and soot and rubble to reach the very person he searched for now, only to find–
Bruce forced the memories from his mind. It’s different this time, he told himself, forced himself to understand. I heard him answer. He’s alive this time.
But of course he had to plan for every contingency, everything that might go wrong. Of course he had to consider the fact that his son was dead again, and that his answering call had been simply a trick of Bruce’s own mind.
But then Bruce spotted a crumpled pile of brown and gray leather, red helmet,
tattered yellow cape, charred red uniform, body broken on the rocks. He was sprinting across the rooftop the pavement, inhaling smoke, listening for the Joker’s manic laughter. He was falling to his knees beside Red Hood Robin, his son, his son, and pressing a hand to his wrist to feel for a pulse. He was crying out in shock and despair, pulling Jason to his chest and holding him close, listening for a heartbeat that wasn’t there, he was sobbing, his heart was splitting in two, his vision was blurring, he couldn’t breathe—
Red Hood groaned, pulling his wrist away. “‘M fine,” he mumbled. “‘Tis but a flesh wound.”
Bruce was snapped back into the present, the burning fires all around them, the choking smoke in his lungs, the boy right in front of him, alive alive alive.
“Can you stand?” His voice wavered slightly; he wondered if Jason was feeling it too, the memories. He hoped he wasn’t. Bruce was barely able to stay upright from the crushing force of them all.
Jason grunted, wobbling to his feet. A piece of shrapnel had grazed his side, leaving a deep cut that was seeping blood through his fingers. He reluctantly took the arm Bruce offered and leaned on him as they moved away from the fire.
A questioning chirp reached Bruce’s ears, high and inquisitive. Nightwing was wondering where he was; the others must have already gathered at the rendezvous point.
Bruce sent a call back, two quick chirps followed by a string of longer chatter. Got the straggler. On our way.
Dick’s confirming chirp answered a moment later, and Bruce felt something inside him uncoil. Everyone was safe. This time was different.
By the time they reached the others, firefighters had taken control of the blaze, the others had found and captured the man responsible, and Jason was only half-conscious. Bruce was supporting nearly all of his weight, which was an impressive feat considering that Jason had a few inches on him and was nearly his equal in muscle mass.
Nightwing and Robin were waiting alone at the rendezvous point when Bruce and Jason finally arrived; both of their uniforms were singed, and Dick was covered in small cuts and burns; he must have shielded Damian from most of the blast, because Damian looked relatively unharmed.
“I sent everyone back home,” Dick explained. “They’re all tired, and the fight’s over.”
“Should’ve…left some for me,” Jason slurred. “Needed a workout tonight.”
Dick’s brows furrowed when he saw the blood, and Bruce pressed a button on his wrist that summoned the Batmobile. It would reach them in a matter of minutes.
“Why is Robin still here?” Bruce asked, glancing at Damian.
His youngest crossed his arms with a telltale scowl. “I wanted to ensure that Nightwing could adequately provide protection in the event of you being unable to fend for yourself,” he said coldly.
Bruce almost smiled. In Damian–Speak, that meant “I was worried and I didn’t want to leave you out here alone.”
The Batmobile roared to a stop outside the alleyway, and Bruce half-carried Jason to the passenger seat. Dick and Damian clambered into the backseat, and Bruce peeled away from the curb in a screech of tires.
He glanced worriedly at Jason as he drove; his head was dipping lower and lower, his eyelids fluttering shut before springing open again. Dick was leaning over the seat, applied pressure to Jason’s wound with both his hands, jaw clenched and shoulders tight with tension. Behind him, Damian looked on in silence, his wide eyes and clenched jaw the only outward signs of his fear.
It seemed like hours before Bruce was pulling into the Batcave, the roaring waterfall breaking over the windshield in a thunderous downpour before receding completely as the Batmobile moved farther within the confines of the Cave.
They pulled to a stop, and then Bruce was helping Jason out of the car. In a flash, Dick was at Jason’s other side, helping him hobble to the infirmary sequestered away in the corner, separated from the rest of the Cave by a clean, pale blue curtain.
The rest of the family was gathered in the Cave, in various states of anxiety. Tim had been pacing back and forth, his cape fluttering behind him, his mask being crumpled into a mess of fabric between his fingers. Steph was sitting in the massive chair with her legs crossed, and Cass was perched on the arm like a bird poised for flight. Duke was there, too; when the explosion had gone off, Alfred’s worried tizzy had woken him up and driven him to the Batcave, where he’d prepared to go out and help. But before Duke could suit up and leave, Tim, Cass, and Steph had returned bearing the news that almost everyone was alive and accounted for. For now, Duke and Alfred stood side-by-side, watchfully eyeing the computer monitors for signs of their lost family members.
With Jason’s arrival, Tim halted in place, one foot hovering in front of the other; Stephanie and Cassandra straightened in their seats, with Cass sliding off the arm of the chair and stepping closer to the Batmobile as they disembarked. Alfred took one look at Jason’s singed, bloodied uniform and hastened to the infirmary, snapping supplies up into his arms as he went.
Dick helped Jason settle onto the cot before Damian snagged his arm and sat him down in a chair. Dick tried to rise again, but Damian stopped him with a small but firm hand on his shoulder.
“Tt. You’re no use to anyone if you’re injured, Grayson,” Damian muttered. “I suppose I shall take care of your wounds so you don’t get yourself killed.”
Dick’s lips tilted upward in an amused smile as he removed his mask. “All right, Dami. Fix me up.”
Damian’s scowl remained, deep lines between his eyebrows and his mouth set in a frown, as he set out burn cream, stitches for the deeper cuts, and bandages. Bruce watched as Damian began to sew together Dick’s cuts with surprisingly gentle hands; his long fingers were graceful as a swan as he cut the thread, tied it off, and moved on to the next. As he worked, the crease between Damian’s brows gradually smoothed over and his expression turned more peaceful than annoyed.
Bruce couldn’t help but be a little jealous. He’d managed to make Damian feel relaxed enough to drop his barriers only a few times, but Dick seemed to be able to lower the boy’s defenses as easily as breathing.
Then Dick met Bruce’s eyes above Damian’s head, and his expression melted into a soft, shared smile as he darted his eyes to Damian and back. Bruce’s lips ticked upward in a tiny smile.
He turned his attention to Jason, laying back on the table. Alfred was stitching up his side, and Jason was clearly feeling better already. His eyes were clear of the haze that had been settled over him since Bruce found him, and he had enough strength to scowl at Bruce when he caught him looking.
“You’re staring, old man.”
Bruce couldn’t help it. The memories were still boiling beneath the surface, the memories of the long trek home with nothing but a coffin and a corpse to accompany him; the memories of the tiny funeral, the fall leaves tumbling over the ground, the chill of the autumn air biting into Bruce’s bones through his coat as he stood over the headstone that housed the body of his son.
Jason seemed to read his thoughts; his expression softened just a fraction, and he tapped Bruce’s wrist with two fingers. “I’m not dead, B. Enough of the long face,” he said, not unkindly.
Bruce tapped Jason’s wrist back, a sequence of shorter and longer taps. I love you. Jason batted Bruce’s hand away with a huff of disgust, but Bruce could see his smile as he turned to Alfred and started talking about some recent additions to the family library.
Bruce stepped out of the infirmary to check in on the rest of his kids. Tim and Dick, who’d obviously been deemed mended enough by his (very short) doctor, were standing near the monitors, talking in hushed tones as they jotted down notes from the night’s patrol. Cassandra and Duke were braiding Stephanie’s hair as she talked to Damian, the boy sitting cross-legged on the floor.. Alfred the Cat was curled in Damian’s lap, purring as he kneaded his paws into Damian’s thigh.
“Listen up,” Bruce said in his Batman voice. Immediately, everyone in the room straightened. Dick and Tim looked over from where they stood over the computers, Damian and Steph looked up, and Cass and Duke reluctantly let Stephanie’s blonde hair slip between their fingers as they also looked over.
Bruce removed his cowl, breathing a sigh as the heavy cape came with it, a literal weight off his shoulders. “You did well out there tonight,” he said as he hung up his cape. He glanced through the curtain to where Jason was perched on the edge of the table, Alfred busily wrapping bandages around his middle. “I’m proud of you all,” Bruce finished, and his kids all looked at each other in awe.
“Jot it down, jot it down,” Tim whispered furiously to Dick, who whipped a notepad from his pocket and scratched in a tally mark. Damian scrambled to his feet, Alfred the Cat curled up in his arms, and darted over to see, standing on his toes to peer over Dick’s forearm. Dick lowered the pad a fraction to make it easier for him to see.
“What’s that?” Bruce asked, raising a brow.
“It’s the ‘B Was Kind and Open to his Kids’ sheet,” Dick explained. “We’re keeping score of how many times you tell one of us that we did a good job or you’re proud of us.” He showed Bruce a page of tally marks in thin, spidery ink.
“You just set a new record,” Jason piped up from behind him.
Duke rolled his eyes with a grin. “He sets a new record every time he gets another tally, Jay. That’s how it works.”
Jason snorted. “Well, I think he should set a new record. ‘Local Dad Maybe Isn’t That Much of a Deadbeat. More at Ten.’”
Stephanie burst out laughing until she snorted, and Cass patted her back, lips tilted into an amused grin.
Alfred stepped out of the infirmary, staying by Jason’s side in case he collapsed. “I think you have all earned cookies,” he said brightly, eyes twinkling. “Even Master Bruce, since he’s received a new tally.”
Bruce watched his kids and Stephanie leap up and charge for the stairs, hooting and hollering and practically climbing over each other. Jason trailed behind with an annoyed scowl; he looked like he wanted to be right in the thick of it, elbowing Dick in the gut and holding Damian or Tim back by the forehead, but he couldn’t risk tearing his stitches, so he walked beside Alfred with a disappointed frown.
Bruce overheard Alfred quietly promise him an extra cookie, and tried not to smile.
They were all here with him. They were all safe. And Bruce found that it was easier to breathe with them there, alive and safe and raucous as always. He glanced back at the infirmary, at the strips of bandages left on the table, the drops of blood. Then Bruce forced himself to look away and focus on the smiles of his children, legal, biological, or otherwise.
They were all safe. And Bruce carried that knowledge with him all through the night.