The glittering ballroom chandeliers, a triplet scaled down set of the one in the Manor front foyer, were lit with golden light above the Christmas crowd. The air was rich with the scent of champagne and spices and the loamy smell of the towering Douglas fir at the far end of the room. Glass ornaments hung primly from the branches, the needles a dusky emerald in the light.
Bruce Wayne sipped from a flute of champagne for appearances. It had been surreptitiously watered down with liberal amounts of tonic water, courtesy of Alfred, and tasted fairly awful as a result. He barely noticed, because his sense that something was off was growing rapidly with every passing second. It was sharpening into an actual anxiety attack, far beyond the usual social reluctance he struggled with at every party.
“Gee whiz, B,” a voice from beside him said. “I thought Alfred said we had to at least pretend to like these gigs.”
The plate in Jason’s hand was packed with hors d'œuvres, probably more than was strictly polite for this sort of thing, but Bruce let it slide. The fact that the thirteen year old was even walking around and eating was a huge improvement from the last event they’d hosted.
“You’re still doing it,” Jason said, around a bite of apple tart.
“Doing what?” Bruce frowned.
“Looking like, well, you know who. Your mouth is like a flat line.”
Bruce forced a smile. “Better?”
“Mm. That’s more of a grimace, really.”
Bruce sipped tonic water champagne and tried again. “Now? Good vocabulary use, by the way.”
Jason nodded, beaming. “A little better. What’s got you so pissed off, anyway?”
“Language,” Bruce warned. “It’s nothing.”
There really was no reason to make Jason on edge when it might still be nothing, and Bruce could get him to flee the room quickly enough if it came to that.
He hoped he could get him to run.
Bruce looked down at the dark curls, slicked into place with gel, and admitted the truth to himself: there was no way he could count on Jason to run, not if there was danger to fight.
“Actually, Jay-lad, I–”
Across the room, there was a flash of a gun in the crowd. Bruce saw just the edge of the barrel, observed the other men at strategic points around the room giving each other nods. The hot feeling in his gut went ice cold and he knew within seconds, this was going to be a hostage situation.
They needed a reason to be out, and fast, and they had to buy some seconds because the first gunman was already—
“Jay, a diversion,” Bruce snapped, not knowing what he needed exactly but trusting implicitly in his Robin’s ability to think on his feet. It was, after all, Robin’s job. They needed a commotion, something to stall the men and get them to hold off for a few minutes.
Then he could escape the room, change into the suit, contact the police. He didn’t even know how anyone extra got in— didn’t they vet the guest list? He was fairly certain they did.
Jason was standing beside him with a bitten shortbread cookie. He looked up.
“Jay,” Bruce said again.
Jason’s throat made a noise.
Then he puked, everywhere. The plate in his hand tipped and snacks spilled across the floor. Vomit was all over the polished wood, spattering a few nearby gowns and tux legs. Jason was bent forward, wiping his mouth with his sleeve, and even gunmen vanished briefly from Bruce’s mind.
“Are you alright?” he asked, leaning close to his son’s head. The crowd around them had scooted back. “Jason, you could have told me you weren’t fee—”
The kid looked up at him with a baleful spark in his eyes. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “Don’t waste this.”
“What are you…” Bruce’s surprise seeped into his expression. And then, he moved. He grabbed Jason’s arm and gave an apologetic wave to the crowd, murmuring something about his soon return. He found the men in his rapid visual sweep and was relieved to see they had, in fact, hesitated. Service staff were already hurrying toward the mess.
Once they were in the hall, Bruce and Jason broke into a run together.
“What was that?” Bruce demanded, loosening his bow tie as he sprinted. Jason’s shorter legs stretched into long leaps so he could mostly keep place.
“What was what? You wanted a fucking diversion, I gave you a fucking diversion.” Jason wrestled his arms out of his tux as they skidded around the corner and struck out down another hallway toward the private parlor.
“Language. And I mean, how? How did you do that?” Bruce’s concern and anxiety were overridden by sheer curiosity.
“Can’t everybody?” Jason asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Not like that, they can’t,” Bruce said, spinning the clock hands.
“Huh,” Jason said, flying down the stairs three at a time, close on Bruce’s heels. “Huh.”
The glittering ballroom chandeliers, a triplet modern set installed during earthquake repairs, were lit with golden light above the Christmas crowd. The tall tree was decorated with large fabric bows and rounded bulb lights.
Bruce Wayne stood sipping a scotch, one he’d nurse all night instead of downing a dozen watered down drinks. His sense of unease, always sky high at these things, was compounded by sheer nerves. This was one of the first events Alfred had roped all the kids into attending after annulling Jason’s death certificate. That, and the accompanying cover story about a mistaken body identification and a disappearance and amnesia, had come on the heels of some reestablished ties and repairing relationships.
But things going better just meant they could go worse so much more quickly: having everyone present should have made him feel better, but he kept thinking they’d just concentrated all the people he didn’t want to lose into a situation notorious for turning sour.
“I hope that face isn’t for me,” Jason joked, a little uneasily, from beside him. “Because you can’t chase me off until I finish these crab cakes. I’ve fucking missed them.”
“Language, I know, I know, old man.” Jason waved dismissively. “Dick’s out at two o’clock.”
“Jason,” Bruce sighed. Dick was, in fact, approaching them with Damian dragging his feet beside him. The exhausted teen had given up trying to present his polite facade an hour ago and was now just slouching with a sullen frown. He looked more like an eight year old.
“Tim told me to tell you to stop glaring at people’s asses,” Dick said, taking a spot opposite Jason, so they were flanking Bruce. “His words.”
“Dickface doesn’t get a rating rebuke?” Jason asked. The tone was teasing with just the barest hint of bitterness. Bruce happily took a bare hint, considering what they’d had for the few years before. Bruce tried to relax his expression. When had he slept well last? He wasn’t sure.
“Dick was reporting Tim’s words, and verbatim delivery is something somebody claims to be strict about,” Dick retorted, with a cushioning grin. He nudged Bruce with an elbow.
“This would not happen if you simply introduced yourself as Richard,” Damian threw in, pinching the bridge of his nose. Bruce glanced down in surprise at the tone and posture. It was like staring at a miniature version of himself, except with hair still black and skin a warm brown.
“Hey, B, what’s worse on the scale? Dick jokes or the word ‘ass’ in polite company?”
“I don’t see why you need to rate them if we aren’t to be allowed to say either,” Damian pulled his hand back and the moment of dissonance passed.
“But he’s probably got them rated and I wanna know,” Jason insisted. “C’mon, B.”
“I don’t think he’s allowed to forbid either of us from saying anything we damn well want,” Dick added thoughtfully. “Sorry, Little D. We can’t spring you quite yet.”
Bruce would have sighed but he was too tense. He found Cassandra and Stephanie in the crowd. Duke, back from Princeton for the holidays, was sitting against one wall next to Tim and they both were letting their tuxes wrinkle to play some handheld game console together.
“I can say anything I want,” Damian threw back. “Father can’t stop me.”
“You know, when I first moved in, I got the ‘language’ reprimand so often I was afraid I was scandalizing him,” Jason said, a wistful smile tugging on his lips. He had another cookie in his hand. “Then I was doing homework one night when he got stabbed, and he didn’t know the comm was still on.”
“You never told me that,” Bruce said, startled out of his silence. “What time was that?”
“That’s ‘cause Al had it drilled out of him by the time you came along,” Dick commented. “The first time B said ‘fuck’ in front of me, I thought his head was going to roll. I saw the four horsemen in Alfred’s scowl, I swear. I think B cried.”
“That is an exaggeration,” Bruce defended.
“That time with the comm was…an education, that’s for sure,” Jason said, an eyebrow raised.
“Can you bond over this later?” Bruce asked, a slight pain in his voice. “Maybe not in front of your younger brother?”
“It’s alright, Father. I’ve heard you use plenty of ‘language’ at appropriate times.”
Bruce, tense or not, sighed.
Then he saw it. The dulled shine of gas canisters, across the room. Cassandra must have seen them, too, or maybe Stephanie; it was hard to tell who was dragging who along by the arm toward the patio doors. Tim and Duke were moving toward another door.
They had to get better at vetting the guest list.
“Jay,” he said, and the sharpness in his tone caused all three pairs of eyes to snap to him, their conversation clipped off in a breath.
“Big trouble, little China?” Dick asked, glancing around the crowd now. Jason’s gaze was still locked on Bruce’s and it gave him a small and joyful thrill to know that the tall, broad-shouldered son across from him understood. They’d lost so much, and to have this wordless communication, now, meant the world to him.
Jason gave him a flash of a grin and then puked.
He turned, to direct it away from them, and when it drew attention from the crowd, Bruce took off at a rapid walk.
“Bruce! Bruce, what the fuck?” he heard Dick demanding. “Jason, are you okay?”
“Disgusting,” Damian snarled.
“Go, go,” Jason snapped at the both of them. “Sorry, everybody,” he called in a loud, slurred voice. “Too much champagne.”
Bruce sprinted as soon as he cleared the doors, and judging by the noise behind him, the boys spilled through just seconds after him and rapidly caught up.
“What was that?” Dick demanded. “Are you sick?”
“That was a diversion,” Jason shot back. “And it was fucking beautiful, thank you.”
“You can just do that? Bruce, did you know? How long have you been able to just do that?”
“Disgusting,” Damian repeated. “You must teach me how.”
“No, no, he doesn’t,” Dick said, as they rounded a corner together. “Bruce, tell Jason he can’t teach Damian to—”
“It’s a good diversion,” Bruce said, as they poured into the parlor and Damian slammed the door. “Good work, Jay.”
Jason gave a sloppy salute and Damian’s face twisted with a wicked little grin. Dick just looked exasperated but after Bruce turned the clock hands, Dick exhaled.
“Okay, then you should teach me, too.”