Dick let his arms fall limply to his side as he watched Tim’s retreating figure in silence, regretting everything. Everything he had said, everything he had done since they had put Bruce’s body into a coffin and buried him in the ground.
Every fibre of his being wanted to reach out, to chase after Tim, plead with him to stay and tell him that it would be okay. But it was as if his feet were cemented to the ground, as if his mind were rebelling against him, as if time had stopped and everything was slow-motion, light-headed sickness around him. His chest was so full of that numb pain, the pressure, that it was all he could do just to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
‘Dammit,’ he swore at himself through gritted teeth and ran a hand through his hair.
‘Tt.’ Damian’s smug voice scoffed from behind him. ‘Well, I say good riddance.’
‘Go to your room, Damian,’ Dick snapped, his voice cold, harsher than he had intended. ‘And don’t say another word to Tim.’
He held his breath as the boy brushed past him with a scowl, and followed Tim up the stairs, his small hands balled up in fists; the small, wounded glance giving Dick yet another reason to hate himself. Yet another person he had hurt.
Dick slumped down at the computer, exhausted, massaging his forehead, and damned himself for not being able to do anything right.
He hadn’t known that Gotham would erupt like a volcano in the aftermath of Batman’s disappearance. He hadn’t expected that he would be forced to go against Bruce’s direct orders, and take up the cape and cowl. He hadn’t known that the job of training and raising Bruce’s ten-year-old son would fall to him, become his responsibility. He hadn’t known that Tim would be so torn-apart over the loss of his role as Robin…
But I should have.
Glancing over at the display cases, he found himself staring at Bruce’s first suit. Staring, like he had for hours before finally caving in and pulling that mask over his face, before Alfred had convinced him it was the right thing to do. It was a presence that haunted him every time he put on the suit now, every time he drove the batmobile, every night he swung above the Gotham skyscrapers and perched amongst the dark gargoyles. And he knew, that ghost would follow him to his own grave.
‘If you could only see us now, Bruce,’ he murmured into the dank emptiness of the cave.
‘He’d have a thing or two to say about me being here, that’s for sure.’
Dick reached out for his eskrima sticks instinctively, his body tense as he stood cautiously and glared at the intruder that stepped out of the shadows, their hands raised half-heartedly.
‘Jason,’ Dick breathed, unable to keep the surprise and uncertainty out of his tone. He drew back from his defensive stance, but kept his distance, unsure of how he should go about this.
It had been more than a year since the family had seen Jason, and as the artificial light of the cave illuminated his face, Dick couldn’t help but notice how much better he looked. Calmer. In control. There was still anger in his eyes, distrust, but that had always been there for Jason.
‘You handled that nicely,’ Jason observed cooly, walking over to the medical table and playing with one of the surgical blades absentmindedly. ‘The “passing” of the proverbial baton that’s really no longer yours to pass. But I’m sure Tim will forgive you… in a few years.’
‘Why are you here, Jason?’
Jason bristled at the bluntness of Dick’s tone, slamming the knife down into the table.
‘You know damn well why I'm here, Grayson,' he said, fiercely, his eyes burning with that all-too-familiar, latent anger. Only this time, the grief cut through; reaching out, in spite of everything, to bridge the wide gap that lay between them.
Dick hesitated. ‘I didn’t think… you’d want to see it. You didn’t come to the funeral.’
‘I didn’t think I was invited,’ Jason threw back, attempting lightness, but ending up with resentment.
The two of them looked away from each other, down to the floor, at their own hands, the unspoken reality of this family’s broken, untended state being left to fester in both their minds.
‘You’re right,’ Jason broke the silence, the softness of his voice catching Dick off-guard. ‘I didn’t want to see it. I wasn’t ready.’ He forced himself to face Dick again. ‘But I’m ready now.’
His eyes and heart hardened, Dick looked at Jason, trying to read him; to see beyond the tough-exterior Jason had always flaunted to hide his insecurities, his feelings. Trying to see more of that grief that had escaped through the cracks not a moment before.
Finally, he let out a deep, tired breath and nodded. Setting down his eskrima sticks, Dick touched Jason’s shoulder as he walked past him.
‘Come with me.’
They walked up to the cemetery gates in silence, trudging through muddy grass and stones. Gotham had been in mourning for the past week, with rain and clouds and grey skies that seemed to close in around you and press like a weight against your heart. The air was heavy with the scent of it, and small drops rolled of rain down the unimposing grave as Jason and Dick stood in front of it.
It seemed both fitting and yet so deeply insulting to his memory, that Bruce Wayne’s grave should be so plain, so normal. That it should be left nameless, with only a meaningless, common epitaph speaking of heroism and sacrifice and rest to mark where his body lay. That no one else should know the truth, of how truly great a man he was. How truly great his sacrifice was.
His face darkened, Jason he knelt in front of Bruce Wayne’s headstone in silence and touched the words of the epitaph lightly with trembling fingers, tracing over the grooves as if he couldn’t see the letters. And he laughed, an empty, mirthless laugh that mingled with tears; bent over the earth and cowering as the pain set in, his hands digging into soil.
Dick stood there beside him, expressionless, the old wounds throbbing as he watched Jason break down just as he had. Just as they all had, in their own way. They were all hurting, broken. Missing something that had been an irreplaceable foundation for all their lives.
‘You know the worst thing about all of this?’ Jason asked no one, asked the wind, asked the grave. ‘I never got the chance to make things right between us. And I know this is fucking selfish... to wish he was still alive just so I could ease my conscience. But the last memory Bruce has of me, the very last thing he remembered, is that I tried to kill him. I’ll never know how he felt about me, in the end.’
‘He loved you Jason. That never changed, no matter what.’
Jason didn't respond. He let out a shaky breath and, just like that, the moment was over, passed. Dick averted his eyes as Jason stood and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, hiding any trace of sorrow, of weakness.
‘Are you sure the body is his?'
‘We ran all the tests… He—‘ Dick’s voice caught in his throat. ‘He’s gone for good this time.’
‘So was I,’ Jason returned, his voice level, bitter. ‘Until some disruption of the space-time continuum brought me back to life and I got thrown into a Lazarus Pit.’
‘Tim said the same thing,’ Dick conceded, suddenly tired, weary of having to question things that had been so certain before, things that had been final, absolute. Things like death.
They both stared at the grave, as if giving Bruce the chance to break out of it with his scowl and gruff voice.
‘Does he think Bruce is still alive?’ Jason asked quietly, probing.
Dick did not respond immediately, mulling over their conversations, how quiet and withdrawn Tim had become, how his frustration had seemed to go deeper than the simple fact that Dick had taken away his identity as Robin.
He had assumed it had all been conjectural, their conversations about Bruce. It made sense, especially after what had happened to Clark Kent and Jason, and others in the superhero community, to ask these questions. To be absolutely certain that Bruce was, in fact, dead.
But what if it had been more for Tim? What if, in spite of all the evidence, the body, the deep set conviction that everyone else seemed to share, Tim was in denial of Bruce’s death?
Tim had continued to press the issue, to the point where even Dick had felt he couldn’t take it anymore.
He’s gone, Tim, he had said, right before Tim had stormed off. You have to accept it.
‘I don’t know,’ Dick finally told Jason, looking up at the bare trees against the grey sky and watching as a bird land on one of the branches, singing mournfully into the wind. ‘All I know is that I have a duty to Gotham now, and part of that duty involves Damian. I need to keep an eye on him, to keep him near me at all times, give him an outlet for his… his, tendencies. His upbringing has left him with a lot of anger, a lot of trauma that needs to be weeded out and replaced with something more than fear and respect. He needs to be Robin. He needs it, more than Tim does.’
Jason considered this, a brooding look crossing his face. ‘I don’t disagree with you, Dick. But it’s almost as if you’ve suddenly pulled the rug out from under Tim’s feet by doing this.’
‘I know... I’ll need to make it up to him when he’s not as angry with me. But, right now,’ he braced himself for the inevitable place this was going to take them, but he could avoid it no longer, ‘we need to talk about you, Jason.’
A wry smile crossed Jason’s face as he looked back towards the Manor. ‘Are you going to turn me in, Dick?’ he asked, his voice masked with calm, but Dick could hear the dangerous undertone that lay beneath it, noticed as Jason’s body grew tense.
‘No. I’m not going to turn you in... not unless you give me good reason too. I’m not Bruce, but I will honour his legacy, Jason. I won’t let you run around Gotham, dealing your version of justice out to everyone you feel deserves it.’
Jason nodded, and Dick knew he had been expecting this conversation to happen. ‘Well, you don’t have to worry about me and my "version of justice.” I’m not staying in Gotham, I know when I’m not welcome.’
Dick opened his mouth to respond, but Jason held up his hand with a frustrated sigh, stopping him.
‘Look. You have no idea where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing this past year. I don’t blame you for not trusting me. But I’ve had time to work through some things; with myself, with the world… hell, with the fact that I’m alive when I’m supposed to be dead. I’ll never be “better” again, and I’ll never agree with Bruce’s way of doing things, but I’m not the same person I was a year ago.’
As he listened to Jason, Dick found himself wondering what Bruce would do, what he would say in this situation. Would he ask Jason to stay? To keep a close eye on him, to try and lead him down the right path again? Would he forgive the past, give Jason the benefit of the doubt, give him a second chance... or would he leave that to the law, to the court, the system?
No. he reminded himself firmly. I'm not Bruce. Jason is not my responsibility. Not now. I need to deal with this in my own way.
‘I want to believe you, Jason,’ he said, his voice measured. ‘Please don’t give me a reason to doubt that instinct.’
With one last pointed glance at Bruce’s grave, Jason turned away from Dick and started back down the path that wound its way through the gravestones, throwing up a hand in farewell.
‘Take care of Gotham, Batman,’ he whispered, quickly shoving his shaking hands in the pockets of his leather jacket as he thought of the headstone, the engraving, the coffin…
The image of Bruce, in his burial suit, frantically yelling, clawing his way out of the wood and earth and slow decay of death, seared into his mind.