There was an old iPhone in a locked drawer of Bruce Wayne’s desk. It was protected by a gray shell case with a bird made of geometric orange and red shapes. The bird’s wings were spread in flight and the bottom left corner was slightly chipped, with a few scratches.
And that was it, that was all the visible damage on the exterior of the case. The screen was in nearly perfect condition. Jason had carried it for two years, after receiving it near his thirteenth birthday. It had not been a birthday gift; a brief discussion between Bruce and Alfred had decided that it might be too flashy for Jason to easily accept as a gift. It had been presented without ceremony, bluntly described as what it actually was: a safety device.
In nearly two years of carrying the phone for staying in touch with Bruce and Alfred and sometimes Dick, when away from the Manor or left home alone, Jason had been meticulously careful with it, as he was with anything he knew to be expensive.
When he ran away, he had left it in his room tucked in the bottom of a sock drawer. It had been found only when they searched for any clue as to where he had gone, once they grew desperate.
Bruce never remembered to ask him, it didn’t seem important until it was too late, Was it so I couldn’t use the GPS to find you? Or were you still afraid of breaking it?
Neither answer would have soothed him.
One meant Jason didn’t want to be found.
The other meant Jason had put a price on his own safety, and it was worth less in his estimation than a $700 electronic device.
If they had talked about it, Bruce would have argued and fought to reassure him, either way.
You’re my son. I’ll always come looking for you, and you’re worth more than a stupid phone.
But things got complicated and the next time Jason went missing, Bruce didn’t know to look. He thought he knew exactly where he was, six feet under where he’d never run again.
When he came back, Jason didn’t really care for Bruce’s words about how much he was worth. He’d put a price on their relationship and this time, it was a price Bruce couldn’t pay.
So most of the time, Bruce didn’t know where he was and Jason didn’t know how much that still mattered.
The phone, outdated but not forgotten, was not returned to Jason because there was a gaping chasm that kind of gesture could not cross.
But it was the phone that ended up bridging it.
Jason Todd fell across the couch, exhausted but not injured for once in his life. This safe house had been chosen purely because it was nearby and he was too beat to trek all the way back to his regular apartment, where his regular cell phone was plugged in. He had a cheaper back-up in his pocket and out of nothing more than the paranoia that he’d miss something, he called to check his voicemail.
He never could figure out where his mind had gone, that when he dialed the number and code on sleepy autopilot, that somehow his fingers punched in the sequence for the phone he had before, before he had died and come back. It had been years since he’d stood in the school office, using the secretary’s phone to check for messages on the phone he had to leave at home during school hours.
Sometimes, he had called just because he could, because he had his very own phone to check.
In the safe house, he swore and his heart dropped into his socks when the mechanical voice of the operator informed him that he had twenty-one messages.
He still didn’t realize.
For a long, panicked moment while the operator droned on with details of the first call— Alfred’s number, always the same— he did not register the date and timestamp. In those torturously long seconds, he berated himself for keeping so out of the loop, because obviously there had been some sort of emergency and somebody was dead or close to it and he didn’t even know who or where.
“Master Jason, I’ve found your note,” Alfred’s message played. Jason’s eyes narrowed in confusion. He hadn’t left a note and if this was code, he was definitely uninformed. “Please return my call promptly, and do not take any drastic action until you do so.”
Alfred sounded worried and stern all at once, that tone he used when Bruce was about to do something idiotic back when Jason had been younger.
That was when it clicked, when Alfred hesitated in the message, and Jason pieced together the tone and the words and understood: somehow, for some reason, his years-old voicemail was still active and there was no current family crisis. He had been the family crisis.
“Master Jason, I do hope you know,” Alfred went on, and it hurt Jason to hear the softening affection that followed the strict concern, “we would certainly help you with anything you needed. I am sorry the past week has been so difficult. Call me at once.”
Jason didn’t breathe, while he sat ramrod straight on the couch and stared blankly at the wall ahead with the cheap phone by his ear. He didn’t breathe for so long that the edges of his vision started to go black as the repeat, save, delete options played and the next message started.
“Jason,” Bruce said, across four years and into his skull. The phone jerked in his hand when Jason sucked in a sudden breath, like coming up out of ocean water into stormy air. He fumbled the phone and recovered it, pressing it against his cheek again. “—told me about the note. Call us back, Jason. I left work and I’m driving around. I’ll come get you wherever you are if you want, or you can have a few days to yourself, but I need to know where you are.”
Jason swallowed when he heard Bruce swallow.
“Jay-lad, I’m— I know I’ve made it hard on you recently. Call me back. It’s alright if you’re mad. Let’s sort it out at home, son.”
The cheap black phone cracked when it hit the far wall, leaving a dent in the drywall as the plastic pieces scattered on the floor.
Jason gasped for air while he tried to muster a scowl at the phone. He’d almost forgotten how kind Bruce could sound, how genuine and frank.
Then he thoroughly cursed himself out, picked up the fragments there was no point in salvaging, and dumped them into the trash can. He stared at them, black jagged edges against white bag, and then decided.
His exhaustion was chased away by mute shock and he hastily retied his boots and shrugged his arms back into his jacket sleeves. There was a handful of change in his pocket and it was tempting to stop at the first intact payphone he passed, on the chance that it still worked, but he shook his head to himself and quickened his pace.
Even in his boots, he wasn’t a heavy walker. He didn’t stomp along the concrete. That had been trained out of him more than once.
It took him forty minutes, with a bus ride, to get back to his apartment and to his regular phone. He punched in the numbers with shaky fingers, marveling that this information remained in his head when he’d lost so much else. He worked fast, before he could change his mind.
There was one more message from Alfred and three more from Bruce, all demanding or asking him to call, to just let them know where he was, to give them the relief of knowing that he was safe.
Jason drank them in, furious and needy all at once, for this thing he hadn’t known he’d needed. He let it play on, too stunned to guess which of them had tried again next. His palm sweated all over the phone while he sat on the floor in his kitchen, mere feet from the charging cord he’d torn out of the battery port.
The next one was dated, too, but for weeks later and Jason’s mind was too sluggish and stupid to grasp why in the half-beat before it played.
“Jason,” Bruce’s voice said, and Jason felt himself turned inside out by how raw it was. “I can’t, I can’t…I won’t talk to Alfred. He doesn’t need…I know it’s not you, but I had to…”
On the other end of the line, the words were punctuated not with pauses but with panicky gasps.
“I needed to hear your voice. I’m sorry, Jay, I’m so…I’m so…the son of a bitch is dead, Jay. Clark and I searched for hours and he’s gone. The helicopter went down in the water and I wish to god I’d gone with it. This is so fucking stupid, it’s not even you, just the damn inbox. I love you, Jason. It should have been me, I should have—”
The words cut off into a sob and the message ended with an abrupt click. Jason hung up on the monotone operator, dropped the phone from limp fingers, and cried with his forehead against the vinyl floor until he fell asleep.
He didn’t call the voicemail again for six weeks.
It was a week with the words ringing in his ears before Jason could even bring himself to investigate what the hell Bruce had meant by that, the son of a bitch is dead.
Asking Bruce directly felt too tricky, because it meant approaching him and initiating a conversation he had limited control over and also he suspected that Bruce would eventually, maybe (knowing him), figure out why Jason was asking. Jason needed to know but he also did not need to have that conversation yet.
And really, once he started poking around in case files and newspaper articles, there was only a short line from what he already knew about the Joker’s activities after the warehouse to the helicopter crash that had supposedly killed the monster. The case files for that crash were terse and brief and at times, nearly incoherent, but clear enough: Batman had been on that helicopter.
Batman had jumped without the Joker.
There was the sticky detail that the Joker was still alive, but Jason experienced a rather wildly contradictory swarm of emotions about the helicopter crash details.
For one, the feeling of profound relief that Bruce had, at one point, either been willing to kill the Joker or leave him to die.
Then there was a surge of roiling anger, which he had not expected, at the fact that they’d last fought over Jason’s murderous tendencies and that Bruce had, even passively, broken his own damn rules. And it infuriated Jason what a fucking hypocrite it made Bruce.
After that, there was more chest-crushing hurt that at some point it had become clear the helicopter wasn’t a real ending and Bruce’s earlier actions had not been repeated.
So, Jason had mattered to him once— while he was alive or in the immediate wake of his death— and over time that had faded. He had faded, his memory and his importance had faded.
This left him feeling so drained that he closed the case files and removed, as best he could, any digital trail of him accessing them, and left the whole mess entirely alone for over a month.
He didn’t talk about it, he tried not to think about it.
But it haunted him in a new way than older hurts.
I mattered once, he kept thinking, and it was a fresh wound that it had stopped being true but a balm that it was true at all. And those messages had been left by someone, by two people, who wanted him.
He didn’t call Bruce to talk about it, he didn’t stop by to visit Alfred. He avoided it and the voicemail until he was in an alleyway arguing with Batman, again, about a man they had both independently been after. Jason wanted to blow his brains out; Batman, predictably, did not want him to do so.
They fought about it, with low growling words and then with shouting. Jason waved his gun in the air, punctuating his points and ignoring the nearly imperceptible way Batman— Bruce— flinched every time. He didn’t remember half of what he said, he didn’t remember half of what Batman said.
But he did remember how it ended.
“You’re just as bad as them,” he accused, kicking at the human trash in the alley. He didn’t really mean it, not completely, but in his forcibly aborted rage it felt true.
“And you’re turning yourself into one of them!” Batman roared back. Maybe there was love there once, but it was gone now. Dick had tried to tell him months ago that Bruce’s explosive reactions were love, poorly utilized, but the product of worst-fears and his own lack of control. Dick had also backpedaled, saying he meant that Bruce wanted to keep Jason safe.
That conversation had not gone well.
And this one didn’t either.
Jason, white-knuckled and thin-lipped and shaking like a fragile leaf inside, left the alley without another word.
He went home and showered in water that ran too hot and crawled into bed, curled under a thick blanket, and fumbled his way through dialing. He wanted the kind of hurt that came from remembering he had been cared about, instead of this hurt that felt like the opposite.
There were new fourteen messages left.
The blanket was cool against his damp skin, only gradually warming to match and exceed his body temperature, as he listened. He was braced for it to not go well, but it was the sort of going badly that he craved and not the kind he had to fight back against.
“Jay,” the first began. It was Bruce again, this time his voice so flat and hollow that it sent shivers up Jason’s spine. There was a long, long silence— so long Jason began waiting for the recorded operator instead. But then there was the sound of a deep sigh and Jason pressed the phone close to his ear.
“We buried you today. Yesterday. It’s late. I know you won’t hear this, but I needed to apologize.” There was still minimal inflection in the tone, and the volume was so low Jason would have had to press the phone closer if he hadn’t already. “I’m not sure I made the right decision. You’re not at the Manor, Jay. I thought— I wanted you there. But I thought you’d want to be with your moth– with Catherine. From the moment I made the arrangements, it felt like the wrong choice. But changing things didn’t seem any better. I think it’s always going to feel wrong, either way. And it’s asinine, because I don’t think you can hear me or care about things like this anymore, but I’ve spent all afternoon and evening after the fune– the…after. Worried you’d take it the wrong way, that you’d rather be here near the house. But if it makes any difference, know it wasn’t easy.”
There was a slight whine and it took Jason a few seconds to place it as the sound of a fingertip being dragged around a glass. There was the muted gulp of swallowing and then the hard and bitter clink of glass hitting a table surface.
“I’m sorry, Jason. I should know what to do, but I don’t.”
The line clicked and Jason hung up before the next message could play. If the words had been pleading, rising and falling and tear-filled, maybe it would have made him just as angry as they left him reassured. But the emptiness and bleak flatness, like a winter landscape, struck him with terror. He had to remind himself, face shoved into the pillow, that it had been years and that they had argued hours ago, because his first impulse was to call Bruce.
He couldn’t be glad at the brokenness, though he thought he had wanted it. He felt perversely comforted by it and selfish for that, so the fact that it was bitter to swallow seemed like a fitting balance.
Jason had not expected that the cost of knowing Bruce had grieved him, after all, would be his own pangs of grief.
He kept himself from calling, he let it wash over him again and again, and this time he didn’t cry. He fell asleep with the phone in his hand.
Jason might have lasted longer before calling the inbox again, as shaken as he was, if he hadn’t come down with the flu. It needed time to settle inside him, this contradiction of what he’d so steadfastly believed about Bruce in the wake of his own death. He didn’t know how long any of it had remained true, but it was the seed of something hopeful and damning.
Because it meant that maybe, just maybe, Jason had been wrong about some things. And not just ordinary wrong, but in the way where he was now responsible for a laundry list of violent and retributive actions based on those errors.
It was such a Jason way to fuck everything up that he reactively avoided the voicemail, wary of any confirmation. There was the chance that he hadn’t been wrong after all. He found himself wanting both things, because one absolved him and the other meant that those years with Bruce and Alfred before hadn’t been a waste. Even if they were left with something irreparable now, he felt like he’d give his right arm to be able to remember his life before without the shadow of futility over everything.
He resolved a hundred times in a week to never call it again, whenever he found himself thinking about it, but then he went two days trying to convince himself he wasn’t sick.
Since he gave in about that, admitting he had a fever and ached all over and couldn’t keep anything down, when he was on the upswing and managing cups of broth and staying close to his bed, he gave in about the voicemail, too.
There were thirteen messages left.
He listened to seven of them in one sitting, sprawled on the couch and feeling gross in the t-shirt he’d been wearing for two days.
“Little Wing, it’s Dick,” Dick’s voice began.
“No shit,” Jason answered to the empty apartment. He felt chaotic and reckless, just listening.
There were a series of sniffles. “I don’t know why I called. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, that I made it hard. Nobody knows how to handle this. Kori and Donna want me to take a week off, but…I mean, you know. It’s better to keep moving. I wish I could make it up to you, Jay. I’ve been a shit brother, if that’s what we were. I’ll try to take care of them, B and Alfred. I don’t really want to right now but I feel like you probably would have wanted someone to watch out for them. We’ll see how that goes.
“Reporters keep asking me stupid questions whenever I go out in public and I’m just hiding at this point. I might sucker punch the next one. They’re all idiots and you’d punch one too, if you were me. Say hi to my mom and dad for me, will you? I really, really,” there was a broken-off sob and Jason could just see Dick biting his knuckles. “I hope you’re happy. That you’re okay. I hope it makes up for everything.”
The operator carried into the options and the next time and date stamp and Jason’s sprawl had turned into something stiff.
There was a voicemail that was just brief silence and then a dial tone.
“Young Master Jason,” the older gentleman’s calm, clipped tone began. “I’ll confess I’ve been rather off today. I was out running errands and happened to notice the time, and you know, I drove all the way to the school parking lot before I quite realized my mistake. I suppose the phone service will end with the month and this is all for naught, but I’m not sure I ever quite properly told you…how dear you are to me.”
If Alfred stumbled in his words or fought back audible crying, Jason didn’t hear it.
“We rather miss you, my boy. We all do. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for letting you give me the slip. I ought to drive home, but I think I’ll sit a few more minutes.”
The message trailed off before it ended and Jason scrubbed furiously at his eyes and clapped a hand over his mouth to hold back the hiccup of a whimper.
It only vaguely registered that the next two timestamps were months apart, both leading to voicemails with no words. Just more silence and dial tones.
The sixth message almost made him slam the phone down on the coffee table, but weak muscles and protesting joints kept him from acting.
“Oh, um…oh,” Tim Drake’s voice came out of the speaker. “I didn’t know this was still…I guess, uh, hi. This isn’t what I was expecting. Um, so, Bruce keeps calling this number and then hanging up? Like not all the time, but sometimes after bad nights or whatever, and he was acting so guilty about it, I wanted to make sure he was…I mean, I don’t know who I thought he was calling? But it’s been on his phone bill a lot, I…uh, I checked, but I guess you won’t tell anyone.”
Jason felt like the message was holding him in place, fettered by warring emotions.
“It feels like a huge imposition to call so I probably won’t do this again, it’s sort of Bruce’s thing maybe. I’ll just keep talking to the suit, it’s not a big deal. But you, you kind of left some big shoes to fill, you know? Like, I wish you were here so I could ask you about stuff, but I don’t even know if we would have gotten along and if you were here I wouldn’t be, but it probably would have been better. For Bruce? Well, for Alfred and Dick, too, but they’re like…they’re kind of okay, I think. He pretends like he is but, well, you know how he is. Anyway. I’m glad he’s calling…you, I guess. I mean I know it’s just a phone, I’m not stupid, but it’s good, right? It means he’s coping a little, or processing or something. And again, I know he’s not…I mean, you’re not going to tell him, like that’d just be stupid, but I’ve started to think he’s never really gonna…he’s not getting over it. I hope I didn’t eat up all the minutes on this, it was a bad idea. Actually, I’m going to try to add some data storage maybe, if I can do it without him noticing. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.”
Jason breathed in and out as slowly as he dared. His head hurt and he kept his fingers pressed hard into the back of his neck anyway, his elbow bent so he could hold his forearm firm against his cheekbone. It felt a bit like holding himself together, and he had the sudden hysterical thought that he was like that girl with the ribboned neck in the story that drifted around elementary school the year he had half-decent attendance. If he pulled his arm away, his skull would topple to the floor and that would be the end of it.
“Jason,” Bruce said in the next message, his voice hoarse. “Happy birthday. I’m in Hong Kong tonight and it’s morning in Gotham. I was supposed to head home this afternoon but I’m staying another day to salvage this tech acquisition. I couldn’t focus today to begin with, and then the lunch meeting went sour. There was a green 430 Scuderia parked right outside the restaurant and I couldn’t stop staring at it. You would have loved it. I’ve been thinking all day that if you were here, you’d have driven everything in the garage by now. I miss you, Jay. I’ve tried calling a couple times this past year, but the words aren’t enough. Alfred worries and I can’t tell him he’s wrong, but I just want to be left alone. I hate being in the house now and I’ve thought about moving into one of the penthouses, but it’s too much like leaving you behind. I’m not ready. Maybe in a couple of years. Happy birthday, Jay-lad.”
The line clicked off and Jason hung up, listlessly tossed the phone onto the table, and sank into the couch. He sat in the gathering dark of the apartment for so long he lost track of time and then he turned the TV on, just to have some noise that wasn’t his own breathing. He watched without comprehension, not even always sure what was a commercial and what was show, until the sun came up.
Then, with the company of daylight, he slept.
Instead of the avoidance-pattern he’d fallen into, Jason woke in late evening wanting to call again immediately. He made himself climb up off the couch and eat something instead, Alfred’s concerned prodding like a secondary conscience in his head. He ate standing up, enjoying the returning strength in his limbs and the fact that it didn’t completely drain him.
He didn’t call. He went out, in his jacket and helmet, with his guns in side holsters and another tucked in the small of his back. Another was strapped to his thigh, one above his boot. There were half a dozen knives hidden in sheaths all over him and while it usually made him feel safer to be surrounded by weapons, tonight he felt like every inch of the walking armory he’d become. It stung him, what a danger he was, and he tried to focus it on what he was good at: stopping people.
Four hours later, he limped into a safe house with a bullet (not his own) in his arm and an abrasion that had shredded through his pants and into his calf. He considered, very briefly, calling Dick or Alfred or even Leslie Thompkins, but ended up bandaging himself as well as he could with shaking hands.
There were six voicemails left. He knew this before he found a burner phone in a safehouse drawer to use. The flu-ish ache of earlier had returned on top of all the throbbing wounds and he wanted distraction as much as he wanted resolution.
The first was silence, again, so he thought probably Bruce. He hadn’t noted the timestamp.
The second was a telemarketer, the first in all of the messages, telling him he’d won a cruise if only he…he skipped and deleted it.
The third was another telemarketer, offering estimates on new roofing. He jammed the seven and then the nine buttons with swelling disappointment, swirled with relief. Maybe it was over. Maybe he’d been right after all, maybe it had just been delayed.
He knew even before Dick’s voice started the fourth message that it was a lie.
“Hey, uh, Timmy…Timmy mentioned that this line was still active and I didn’t really believe him. It’s taken me a while to convince myself to call and check, and whaddaya know, he was right. You know, you two would have either been best friends or hated each other, maybe both. He tells Bruce no all the time and won’t listen to a word he says. It’s gotten crazy since you left, Little Wing. Remember when sometimes, working with B when you were little, you’d be right there in the middle of it and still feel safe? It’s not like that anymore, maybe it’s just because I’m older. Anyway. I’m heading out for the night and just thought…thought I’d finally just check. Oh, I saw the last Hobbit movie, and Jay, be glad you missed it. You would have hated it, and I don’t know if anyone but Alfred would have had the patience to listen to all your reasons why. Still miss you, Little Wing.”
Jason tried to tell himself it was numbness from the morphine that kept his expression level and his eyes dry, but he’d barely given himself half the dose for his weight. It was more that it almost made him happy, a weight off his shoulders, that even after all that time, Dick was still thinking about him, too.
The fifth message was Bruce, his voice steady but quiet.
“I blacked out today, Jason. I don’t think I’m going to mention it to Alfred, but he’ll find out somehow, I’m sure. I was in the company jet flying from Bucharest to Rome. There was a storm front over the Adriatic and the pilot wanted to wait it out. We would have stopped at the airport in Sarajevo. I panicked, Jay. I’ve been, I’ve been in Sarajevo since, once, but I was busy then. Just thinking about sitting in the plane on the tarmac, or in the airport, with nothing to do…I blacked out in the jet’s bathroom. Nobody even noticed. By the time I came to, they’d decided the storm was moving fast enough and kept going. I’m in Rome now, trying to keep myself awake; I think I hit my head pretty hard. I…keep waiting for this to get easier, Jason. I don’t know if it does. It’s been almost two years and it’s not…I still wake up some mornings and it’s like it just happened. Leslie thinks I should talk to someone, but what is there to say? Nobody can fix this. It’s harder tonight. Some of it might be the headache, but I don’t think so. I should have brought you to Rome, just to visit. So many museums, Jay, and buildings older than most countries. I’m getting dizzy and I have a meeting soon. I should get ready. I love you, Jay.”
The message ended and the morphine was definitely not helping the misery in his ribcage. In the few seconds he had between voicemails, Jason nearly ended the call to save the last for…sometime. But he was too slow, and it started, Bruce’s voice again. He let it play.
Bruce didn’t sound okay exactly, but he didn’t sound as shaky as he had in some of the earlier messages.
“Today would have been six years since I adopted you, Jason. I spend more time than I should thinking about things I would have done differently, but that isn’t one of them. I’d do it again. I miss you, son. I’m proud of you. I should have told you more often. I don’t know if you’d look up to me anymore, but I’m trying.”
The operator told him the inbox was empty.
It offered to replay the last message, like it did at the end of every voicemail.
Jason hit four to replay it.
The timestamp registered as a day mere weeks before he’d stormed back into Gotham with all his loud and angry plans.
He replayed it three more times before he hung up.
Jason’s chest heaved once, then twice, and he hauled himself up on his stinging leg.
He pulled his stitches trashing the safehouse, throwing anything he could get his hands on, and the morphine wasn’t enough and the bloodied stitches weren’t why his face was wet the entire fucking time.
Aside from the telemarketer calls and maybe one of the silent messages (he couldn’t quite remember), he hadn’t deleted any of the voicemails. He could have listened to any of them again, at any time, but he didn’t.
Jason cleaned the safehouse two days later, with a sore arm and scabbing calf. A part of him wanted to go straight to the Manor and…he didn’t know what. Talk, yell, pretend nothing had ever happened or changed and just eat dinner and go to bed in his old room. For the first time in years, he felt young again. It wasn’t the carelessness of youth, but the bewilderment, the secret desire for someone else to tell him what to do. He wanted someone else to be responsible for this, for his next move– somebody not him.
Another part of him wanted to skip town, disappear for as long as he could stand it. Maybe until they thought he was dead again, so he could come back and try the whole reunion from scratch. Three or four years at a minimum, enough time for him to figure out life somewhere else where he didn’t have all this shit baggage. Somewhere with friends and groceries and a normal job, so he could knock on the Manor door in decent clothes and apologize but be better. Better at all of it.
Dying he could do easy, first time around.
It was coming back he felt he needed more practice at, like losing a sparring match and hearing Bruce say, Get up, Jay-lad. Try again. Watch your shoulder this time.
The more days he let slip by without driving out to the Manor, or tracking Batman down at night, or just picking up the phone to call him instead of the inbox, the closer Jason got to the latter of his options.
Then June 26th rolled around and even as disconnected as he’d been from family life, it wasn’t the sort of date one forgot easily: It was the day the ghosts of Martha and Thomas Wayne had watched him stand on the same pavement that soaked up their blood, on the anniversary of their murders, while he slammed a tire iron into the stomach of their son.
And when he’d done it, he hadn’t known it was probably the weirdest first step toward being a son anybody had ever taken.
He meant to avoid everything and everybody, he left the airline website up with his false ID info filled in on his laptop for hours, the destination blank because he couldn’t just pick somewhere. It was ten at night before he admitted to himself he wasn’t bailing, at least not right then, and went out in his mask instead.
The comm he could use, part of an uneasy concession on Babs’ part as long as he was mostly following the rules. He wasn’t sure if it was a gesture of welcome back to the fold or a potential way to track him down if he really, really screwed up. It hadn’t mattered much for a long time, as long as it was a way to make sure he steered clear of wherever others were patrolling.
Steering clear was the opposite of what he ended up doing, because he’d only been on for about forty minutes listening to mostly silence— the usual banter was cut down by about ninety percent and he figured the others must have been just as acutely aware as he was— when even the voices of the others cut off.
“Hood,” Oracle said, her tone hushed and quick. He didn’t answer. “Hood, I know you’re online. Listen, B disabled his comm about an hour ago. He was in Crime Alley when it dropped out. I gave him some time but I’m started to get worried, he’s been acting weird all night. More than usual weird.”
“The fuck do I care?” Jason shot back, out of habit and a little bit of fear.
“You’re the closest to him right now, physically. I’m not asking you to do anything except a visual check. That’s all. If something’s wrong, you can get your damn panties out of a knot and just tell me. I’ll send someone else over to actually deal with it.”
“Fine,” Jason growled, knowing he sounded far more pissed than he actually was, which was about none. He was feeling about none pissed, but very antsy and now carrying the burden of dread along with it.
Babs was right. He wasn’t that far from Crime Alley and it didn’t take long to get there, to find an empty Batmobile parked in its usual spot and a side door in one of the buildings forced open. It was propped with a brick, the lock crooked.
Ominous foreboding filled him as he pressed the door open and slipped inside. It was an old cinema, long abandoned, and the first staircase to the left led up to a narrow walkway. He went up on instinct and found himself climbing past the dim, dusty, locked projection booth and up toward the roof access.
Before he stepped out from the stuffy, mildewed air into the muggy night, he could hear pacing steps and hard breathing. It was loud, too loud to be Batman with his years of training. Jason peered around the roof from the shadows of the access door.
It was Batman.
It was Bruce.
He was pacing and staggering or stumbling every few steps, his breath erratic and strangled.
“O,” Jason said in a low whisper to the comm. “I found him. I’ll take care of it.”
He went offline before she could argue or protest.
For another minute, he watched, weighing how he’d step forward and intervene. It was automatic now, to come up with a plan, even just a rough sketch of one. It overrode the ache in his heart.
Batman began muttering to himself. Jason couldn’t make it out, so he moved closer— just a stride or two. He expected Bruce to notice, to freeze and spin to face him. But it didn’t make a difference.
“B,” Jason said softly, uncertain why he was being quiet.
At that, Bruce did whirl around. It was so sudden that it threw him off balance, and he staggered sideways. Jason leapt forward, one hand outstretched, in case he needed to catch him.
Bruce righted himself but stumbled back, closer to the edge of the roof. His breathing quickened even more, near hyperventilating now, and Jason’s lungs stung with the memory of what that kind of blind panic felt like.
“B, it’s just me,” Jason said. “You gotta calm down.”
And just in case, just because it was Gotham and it was the two of them and Bruce didn’t just fall apart like this, Jason scanned the roof around them for any source of toxin or evil or poison. But it was empty, aside from them.
When he turned back, Bruce was still shuffling backward, his boots dragging on the roof. He was getting closer to the edge.
“B, stop,” Jason said, half-commanding and half-pleading. He didn’t know what he wanted or needed to be. Bruce didn’t stop.
When he knew it’d be stupid to wait any longer, to try to preserve this without startling him and whatever the hell was going on even more, Jason sprinted. The rapid movement didn’t seem to affect Bruce until Jason was right next to him, when he started and swung an arm so wildly that Jason ducked it with ease. What wasn’t as easy was shoving Bruce from the edge, and there was one confused moment where Batman was wrenching his jacket while Jason had fistfuls of cape and they were spinning right on the lip of the roof.
Jason fell, as hard as he could, with all his weight toward the safety of the middle of the roof. Closer to the access door. Bruce, after another crazed push of resistance, fell with him.
The jacket protected Jason’s elbow from the fall onto his side. Bruce fell onto his knees and worked hard on trying to get back up, panting ragged and broken attempts at getting air.
“I can’t…” Bruce groaned, an arm against his chest. “I can’t…I don’t want…”
Jason scrambled up and tugged Bruce after him, his own heart thudding wildly. Before they could do anything else, he needed to get him off the roof. This time, the punch connected with Jason’s back but it barely hurt through the armor. It lacked Bruce’s usual strength and seemed desperate rather than strategic.
“C’mon,” Jason said, hauling Bruce with him amid the weak attempts at fighting.
“No,” Bruce moaned, trying to tear away. Jason had never been so glad for his added inches and muscle. “I’m not… I can’t do this.”
The door was swinging on its hinges and Jason forced Bruce through the doorway and slammed it shut behind them. Bruce slipped down a few steps and stopped, sitting and leaning against the railing.
Jason wasn’t sure if he was aware they were alone or just sensed they were inside, because Bruce tore off the cowl and hurled it down the staircase. He was weeping now, a low keening sound in his throat that terrified Jason.
With careful steps on the narrow stairs, the tread of his boots grabbing the slick surface, Jason slipped by and knelt in front of him. Because he didn’t know what else to do, he shook Bruce’s shoulders. A far-back part of his brain wondered if slapping him would help, and in the midst of their mutual panic it struck Jason as hysterical how ironic it was that now given the opportunity he didn’t even want to strike him.
It took Bruce too long, his skin flushed and eyes wild, to focus on Jason. The weeping stopped with a scratchy breath but he looked so frightened and young, weirdly childlike with fear, that for a moment Jason thought he was going to turn and bolt back to the roof or try to kick him down the stairs after the cowl.
The cowl made it click, and Jason yanked his helmet off and then tore off the domino.
“Bruce,” Jason said. “Bruce, calm down, it’s me.”
“Jason?” Bruce asked, small and slowly calming. He slumped against the railing and let his head thunk against it when he leaned. “Jay.”
“Yeah, you big oaf,” Jason said, willing his hands to just stop shaking. “What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce answered, his voice still little. It was less frenzied and a bit gravelly, but nothing like Batman. Jason didn’t know what it was like. “I…I don’t…” He closed his eyes and Jason was having doubts that the shaky metal railing would actually hold anything for long.
“Can you walk?” Jason asked. “We gotta get you home. Or out of here at least. C’mon, up.”
Jason tugged on his arm, now far less resistant, and realized Bruce was shaking worse than he was. Jason had almost completely stilled his fingers, now that he had something specific to do, and a tiny hunch made him press his wrist against Bruce’s forehead before the older man stood up.
“Shit. You’re burning up,” he exclaimed, biting the fingertips of his glove and pulling it off with his teeth. His other hand was still on Bruce’s arm. He tucked the glove into his pocket and checked Bruce’s neck, right above the suit, like he’d seen Alfred do to one of them of them he didn’t know how many times.
“M’sick,” Bruce mumbled. “I think. Thought allergies but, not.”
“No fucking kidding!” Jason snapped. Bruce tensed, his face a sudden blank. Jason didn’t even have to force himself to drop the fury; his concern drowned it out and when he spoke again, it was with a gentler tone. He tucked his helmet under his free arm. “Hey. B. It’s probably the flu. I just got over it a few weeks ago. It’s been going around.”
The blankness edged away from Bruce’s features and he studied Jason’s face, even though he didn’t seem to be completely present. He let Jason tug him down the stairs, managing his own feet at least.
“You okay?” he asked, finally, as if putting the question together took effort.
Jason laughed, without much humor. He snagged the cowl as they passed it, bundling it with the helmet. “Yeah. I’m fine. We’re almost to the car.”
Once they were on level ground again, he paused at the door.
“What’s wrong?” Bruce asked, his voice with that same hoarse quality.
“Want your mask or wanna make a break for the Batmobile?” Jason asked.
Bruce eyed the cowl wearily and shook his head. “I don’t know if…hell, my head hurts.”
“We’re going,” Jason decided, kicking open the door. “Tell your fancy car to open up.”
Less than a minute later, they were inside the Batmobile. Bruce didn’t even fight Jason on being shoved into the passenger seat, but sank back against the flame-retardant upholstery. They sat in the dark car and Jason waited, not eager to drive off until he was sure Bruce wasn’t going to freak out halfway to the Cave or something.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked, as a way of stalling a bit and giving himself time to assess Bruce not that they didn’t feel so out in the open.
Bruce was staring at the pavement outside the windshield.
“B,” Jason said softly. “Hey, Bruce.”
“Jason,” Bruce said, like he just realized again that Jason was there. He gave him something like the flash of a real smile and then shivered and wrapped his arms around himself, tugging the cape a bit with his hands. “This is what being hit by a truck feels like.”
“Are you speaking from experience?” Jason asked, relaxing a little. Bruce was starting to seem and sound more like himself, and Bruce in pain he could handle more easily than Bruce falling apart on him.
This time, the half-smile was definitely real and a little wry. “Yes. Unfortunately. Look, Jay, I don’t…I don’t know what happened back there. Everything is fuzzy.”
“Hit your head again? Like on your way to Rome?” Jason teased casually, thinking it would make a good segue into things he didn’t know how to talk about, but wanted to be able to talk about later if they had a chance. If he left himself a chance.
Bruce looked at him with an expression close to horror, his eyes still uncannily lit with fever but definitely lucid.
A dense block of fear settled in Jason’s gut and he felt like he’d intruded onto something private, never meant for him.
“I checked my voicemail,” he said lamely. Except it wasn’t his, it was the voicemail of a dead boy, a boy he’d been reminded over and over again wasn’t him.
“It’s your phone,” Bruce said mildly, unaccusing, turning back to look at the pavement. “I didn’t hit my head. I shouldn’t have come out this ill. But…it’s…it’s hard to let go of traditions. Feels too much like betrayal.”
If fever made Bruce this open, Jason almost, almost wished he was sick more often. It had been a long time since he’d heard Bruce speak openly about much, and he supposed any small opportunities Bruce might have taken were the ones where Jason was already leaving or didn’t want to hear. And the concern was compounded by guilt, again, that he’d kept trying to sneak away from. It made him want to keep Bruce there, pounding through every hard and impossible question until they’d sorted it all, even if Bruce was sick, just because at least Jason was there and ready.
“Was…was finding me as bad…was it almost as bad as this?” Jason asked, feeling oddly detached from the question. He gestured out the windshield at the alley. He knew even when asking that it was a horrible thing to voice, to make Bruce choose when Jason didn’t even want him to choose, he just wanted something he couldn’t put his finger on.
“No,” Bruce said thickly. Jason felt his heart skip a beat and drop like lead. “No, Jay…finding you…knowing I was too late. It was worse.”
With the cape still clutched around him like a blanket, Bruce shifted from leaning back in the seat to bending forward, his forehead against the reinforced dash of the Batmobile. There was a panel of touchscreen options, still black and turned off, beneath his face.
“This is cold,” he said, but he didn’t move away. “Feels good.”
“We should go,” Jason said, his hands on the wheel. “I should get you into a bed or something.”
“Bed sounds nice,” Bruce said faintly. “You listened to them, then?”
At first, Jason thought he was slipping back into incoherent nonsense. Then, “Oh. The voicemails. Yeah. I did.”
“Hm,” Bruce said. “I didn’t mean to…for you to…”
Jason couldn’t tell if he was drifting, his eyes half shut, or unable to find the right words. So, he cut him off.
“I think I was wrong about…a lot,” Jason said, and he could feel the tears swelling along with the tightness in his throat. “I think I really fu– messed up. Coming back.”
He gripped the steering wheel like he was bracing himself, absorbing the shock of his own admission, as much to himself as to Bruce.
When he did work up the nerve to glance over instead of straight ahead, half-hoping Bruce was asleep, he found that Bruce was watching him steadily. Bruce was still leaning on the dash, but he wasn’t asleep or close to it.
“How were you supposed to come back?” Bruce asked quietly.
Jason pressed his lips tight but it did nothing to slow the spill of tears, over his lower lashes and trailing down his cheeks.
“You weren’t the only one who made mistakes,” Bruce said, his words rasping over dry lips. He sat up, haggard and bent, but upright enough to put a tentative hand on the back of Jason’s neck. “Jay, son, I’m still just glad you’re alive.”
Jason’s chest heaved in a sob and he turned, pressing his face into Bruce’s arm. “Your hand is clammy,” he complained, crying. “I’m supposed to be taking care of you, getting your ass home to Al. What the hell even happened up there?”
The arm Jason was leaning against held steady for just another few seconds, and Jason pulled away to scoot closer to the driver side window. He rubbed his face with the heels of his palms and then frowned at Bruce.
“I think I fell asleep sitting in the car,” Bruce said, using his arm to pull the cape around him once more. “Some kind of nightmare. Probably the fever. I woke up disoriented, already panicking. I think I went up to get some air.”
“You are shit at taking care of yourself,” Jason said bluntly, his voice still more trembly than he liked.
Bruce pulled his legs up on the seat, curled up with his knees near his chin. He was too big to have any right to make himself look so small, but he’d managed it for years— Jason had even watched him fold into himself on gargoyles or jutting cornices before. “Yeah,” he agreed. Whatever energy he had summoned to be coherent and attentive was clearly draining fast.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said, before Bruce drifted all the way off. “For not being better at this.”
“My father,” Bruce said, swallowing. He was looking toward the windshield but his gaze and voice were both distant. “He was good at caring for people, especially at work, but bad at showing it to his family. I didn’t doubt that he loved me, or mother, but he expected a lot of us. Appearances were…important to him. Rules were important to him. I think he thought it was a way of loving us.”
Jason stared at him. Thomas Wayne had been a presence of memory in the Manor but Bruce never really talked about him, much less criticized the long-dead man. Bruce sighed.
“I’m too much like him, Jay-lad. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault for not knowing what to do, or how to handle how you feel. I don’t care anymore. I just don’t want to lose you again.”
Jason started the car, the engine rumbling a little as it turned. He reached over and felt Bruce’s forehead one more time. Bruce sighed again, exhausted and pained.
“My head hurts. Everything hurts,” he said. “It kills me that you deal with this alone. I want you to come home.”
The plea, plaintive and soft, sounded not like the imperative Jason might have heard it as before. With the fever and in the shadow of the voicemails, it sounded a lot more like just an earnest request.
“You need to get home,” Jason said sternly. “Before your thick skull overheats.”
“I am under duress,” Bruce protested, a slight strain of humor in it. He was nearly asleep. “And I want to be in bed.”
“You’re such a fricking whiner,” Jason teased, as he pressed the gas. Bruce’s eyes were closed and he was breathing evenly, the noise a little rattling in the silence of the car.
When they pulled into the Batcave, Alfred’s eyebrow raised at Jason’s exit from the car. Bruce roused enough to peel off the suit and stagger upstairs with the butler’s worried and chiding words chasing him.
Bruce was not even trying to stand on his own in the elevator, slumped against the wall, when Jason stepped in with them and offered an arm for Bruce to lean on instead.
“I’m prickly but more comfy than stainless steel,” he said.
“Not as cold,” Bruce retorted, moving anyway.
“May I insist you stay for dinner, before you go? If you are going, I presume?” Alfred asked, when the elevator was halfway up.
“Don’t talk about food,” Bruce ordered, but it came out as more of a moan.
Jason, with the too-warm weight of Bruce on his shoulder, tried to grin rakishly at Alfred but failed and his expression grew serious. His heart felt like a punching bag and he wanted, needed, Alfred to know he wasn’t joking, to know the way Alfred used to know things about him before Jason fully processed them himself.
“No,” he said, rooted even though the door was sliding open. “I’ll stay.”