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Consciousness seeped into Jason's body slowly, gradually tugging away the blanket of sleep until the vestiges of it were no longer in his grasp. The brightening day was already piercing through his closed eyelids, and though the invading sunlight was an unwelcome intruder into his quiet oblivion, for once it didn't feel wholly unpleasant. It was the first time in what felt like ages that Jason emerged from the depths of a dreamless sleep without strangled screams or choked cries. His body felt sore and sluggish, but the pain was minimal—just a steady surfacing from unconsciousness into an uneventful awakening.

He kept his eyes closed, allowing the rhythms of his body to become naturally alert—his heartbeat ticked up to a gentle tempo, his breathing settled into an easy pace and he focused on letting himself sense the room around him.

All was quiet… except for the gentle gust of another's breathing, and judging by the weight and warmth tilting the edge of the mattress down ever so slightly, there was someone in the safehouse with him. Jason opened his eyes to see it was Bruce.

Bruce sat in a chair with his torso slumped over the ragged quilt at the foot of the bed and his head nestled in the crook of an arm. He blinked awake at the same time Jason sat up, then ran his hand through mussed hair as he pulled himself up to sit properly. They looked at each other, the moment pregnant with uncertainty—with Jason wondering if he should be readying for a fight, and Bruce uncharacteristically hesitant. There was a resignation in his body that was at odds with the attentiveness of his frown.

"Tim told me you left." Bruce's voice was tight, the words catching on gravel in his throat.

Jason nodded and fiddled with the edge of the sheets. He hadn't actually thought Tim would keep his departure the previous evening a secret from Bruce. It was pretty much a given since Tim made a point of following Jason here. He hadn't attempted to come in, but Jason had caught sight of him spying from an adjacent building before Jason drew all the curtains shut.

Bruce showing up was just a matter of time, but Jason had thought it would be in the form of an angry Batman bursting through the window at night to drag him into a holding cell in the cave, and not this disheveled looking Bruce who had silently sat by his bedside without waking him. It was weird. Bruce had taken his turns babysitting Jason back at the Manor at first, but it had fallen off eventually, leaving Alfred and a rotation of the others to keep an eye on him while Bruce did other more important things.

Now, as Bruce sat slumped in his chair, Jason couldn't help but notice how Bruce's eyes were red and dry, and how the dark shadows persisted under his eyes even when illuminated in the soft streams of morning sunlight.

He looked exhausted. He should have been back at the Manor sleeping after a night of patrol but instead, he was here in Jason’s safehouse. He'd been here at least a few hours if the crease marks that cut across where his cheek had been resting against his sleeve were any indication.

"Why are you here?" Jason ventured when Bruce failed to offer any explanation. "Are you going to make me go back?"

Bruce didn't respond at first. He just studied Jason like he was the most convoluted puzzle in the world. Eventually, he took in a long breath and then let it out in equally slow measure before he said, “It's not safe for you here.”

“It’s not safe anywhere,” Jason shrugged. “I haven’t been safe since I put on those stupid green panties as Robin.” Then, though he wasn’t sure why he admitted it, he added, “I don’t feel safe at the Manor.”

Bruce cringed as if Jason had just struck him with a physical blow. “Jason,” he started, then quickly shut his mouth, teeth clenched. He swallowed. Ground his teeth a few rotations. Jason watched in awkward confusion as Bruce then visibility forced himself to relax—released some invisible network of lines that had pulleyed his shoulders and pinched tight his jaw—until the vein pulsing at his temple abated, his expressions slackened, and his balled-up fists were settled limply in his lap.

“I didn’t know you felt that way.” Bruce actually sounded hurt.

“Of course you didn’t,” Jason replied, then immediately regretted it. He hadn’t said it to be hurtful, but Bruce had that gobsmacked look on his face again. Still, Jason didn’t want to let it go. “It’s always your way or the highway. You do things without considering whether that’s what anyone else wants. Keeping me at the Manor isn’t about me being safe. It’s about you being in control.”

"This has always been about keeping you safe." Bruce crossed his arms. "Wanting you back at the Manor is about making sure you stay out of harm's way. I’m not going to stand by and just let you put yourself in danger, which you've repeatedly done since you were on the Watchtower. The lack of self-preservation, the self-harm… the cutting… I know you’re trying to cope, but I won’t just look away again. I can't. Not this time."

To Jason’s surprise, Bruce's face crumpled with emotion. His mouth twisted into a grim downward turn as he touched a hand to his brow to momentarily shadow his eyes. It was the most emotion from Bruce that Jason had ever seen outside of anger … but what did he say? Not this time?

"What do you mean by not this time?" Jason keyed in on it. "Was there another time?"

Bruce shook his head and averted his gaze. "I'll never forgive myself for letting this happen to you."

"What are you talking about?" Jason was more confused than ever. "You didn't let this happen. I chose to put myself between Superman and Tim."

Except Bruce’s demeanor implied otherwise. His mouth was pressed into a thin line, his eyes wide and glassy. There was a hiss of breath before he spoke:

"I heard your distress call that night. I should have come, but I didn't. The interdimensional fissure had opened and the parademons were invading, so I left to gather our forces with the rest of the League instead. I didn't realize Dick had his hands full with Tim, and the rest of the family were battling the vines. I left you there. Alone. Screaming for help. And... I didn't come."

His last words broke. Bruce's face crumpled into an expression so afflicted with emotion Jason found him practically unrecognizable. Jason stared, mouth slightly agape, as he processed what he had just heard: Bruce had heard him call for help, but he had chosen not to come…

A lump had formed in Jason’s throat, and when he tried to swallow he could taste the bitterness of bile. He felt dizzy. His head seemed to swirl and swirl with thoughts that overwhelmed him—so much he couldn't make any sense of what he was feeling. Instinctively, he clutched at the blanket draped over the bed as he tried to regain a measure of grounding.

It wasn't that Jason hadn't already known that Bruce had been sucked into the battle to close the interdimensional fissure, and of course he never would have expected Bruce to choose Jason’s life over the sake of the world, but hearing it confirmed was another thing. Hearing that Bruce had deliberately chosen not to save him….

"What do you want, Bruce?" The words creaked like twisted metal in his throat.

"I want to make sure you don't get hurt again.” Before he could pull away, Bruce reached a hand out to grasp Jason’s arm, then ran his thumb gently along the red, puckered line where Jason had cut into his arm the other day. “I want to make sure you don't hurt yourself."

Something halfway between a snort and a sob escaped Jason’s lips. "You're too late. You're years too late." His voice was suddenly afflicted with an involuntary tremor that Jason was unable to suppress. "And if I want to hurt myself, you really think you can stop me?"

"Jason–," Bruce started, but Jason cut him off as the nebulous emotion flowing through him coalesced into fervor.

"You can keep me in the Manor, in the cave… even in Blackgate, but putting me away somewhere isn't going to make me stop hurting." Jason managed to extricate his arm from Bruce’s hold to cover the cut on his arm with his palm. "This is nothing, Bruce. This isn't even what hurts."

"Then what do you need me to do? What can I do to make this better?" Bruce sat stiffly in his chair. His fingers twitched in his lap as if he wanted to reach out and grab Jason.

Maybe Bruce wanted to shake him. Maybe he wanted to offer comfort. Regardless, Jason found himself pulling his knees to his chest—wrapping his arms around them, inexplicably feeling like he wanted to put some distance between himself and Bruce. It wasn't like Jason had ever been afraid of him, but somehow in that very moment, the thought of Bruce reaching for him made his skin crawl.

"Nothing," Jason choked out. "There's nothing you can do. Just leave me alone."

"If I leave you, you're going to go see him, aren't you?" It was obvious who he meant. Clark.

Jason’s answer was obvious too: Yes.

He didn't say it aloud. He couldn't. His throat was so tight it felt like it had been clamped with a vise. The silence that followed somehow articulated what Jason couldn't, and Bruce winced as if he'd just been hit by some unseen force. He got up out of his chair and leaned forward to reach for Jason this time.

Jason flinched away. "Don't!" The panic in his voice surprised him. It surprised Bruce too because he froze, half leaned over the bed.

"Don't," Jason said more resolutely. "Whatever it is you're trying to do, don't. I don't want it. If you can't respect that, then you're just like… like…." He trailed off. "You asked me what I need you to do? I need you to let me do this my way."

Bruce dropped his hands. Even though he let them fall at his sides, every muscle was still corded tight. Lines of tension ravaged his face, painting an expression of devastation—as if instead of Jason asking for control, he'd cut his lifeline and dropped himself off a cliff.

"Bruce," Jason continued, his voice a raspy whisper, "stop trying to fix this. Just stop."

Bruce sighed. He sat down in the chair again and covered his face with his hands before drawing them away again. "We're talking about you being in contact with the person who assaulted you so brutality you almost died. And now you’re asking me to just walk away and let it happen."

"Why not?" Jason shot back. "You walked away just fine when the Joker murdered me."

Bruce looked away at that. A score for once, Jason supposed, but the win only left him feeling angry and spiteful. He balled his fists tighter into the blanket he was holding, feeling the deeply rooted resentment he felt at Bruce’s hypocrisy boiling to the surface. With every second he spent in Bruce’s presence he was getting more and more agitated. He couldn't deal with this right now. He could barely deal with Bruce on the best of days, and today wasn’t one of those days.

"You can let yourself out." Jason turned his back and laid down on the bed, then waited to see what Bruce would do.

Minutes passed. Jason pointedly closed his eyes and huddled into himself, until finally, he heard a shuffling around the bed. There was a gentle dip at the edge, and then the weight of a blanket being dragged up and over his shoulders. Bruce remained silent the whole time.

Jason kept his eyes closed as he heard footsteps retreat. He heard the quiet click and latching of the safehouse door. He waited another several beats and then opened his eyes, noticing that dampness had saturated his pillow where his head had lain.

Bruce had left him alone. That was what he wanted, right?

It should have been a relief. He should have felt free. He should have been satisfied that Bruce wasn’t going to drag him kicking and screaming back to the Manor… but all he felt was empty, as if Bruce’s departure had somehow widened the chasm of despair in his soul.

His face felt wet again as he fumbled under the mattress for the knife he stowed there—a standard protocol he did in all his safehouses—then dragged the blade along the welted line already on his forearm. A quick flash of burning pain, and then blood beaded up to the surface. It welled and pooled until it seeped down to his fingers. He wrapped the wide hem of the flat sheet over the wound and tucked his arm against his chest.

He closed his eyes and laid down again, letting out a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding. True peace still felt immeasurably far away, but at least for the moment he could rest amidst the numbing quiet that only came with uncomplicated pain.

*******************

Jason laid low the next few days as he regathered the pieces of his life as the Red Hood. Helmet, body armor, and other field gear had to be dredged up and prepped for field readiness. Armories were unpacked, new pistols acquired, and the last leads on his cases tracked down. The latter was pretty straightforward because apparently one Bat or another had gone and closed his active cases while he was out of commission. That left him in the unusual position of having a clean slate when it came to tracking down new leads.

There was always the option of a simple patrol though. The most serious of his wounds had healed at this point. His arm still needed more conditioning after being in a cast for so long, but a light excursion on the rooftops probably wouldn’t strain it too much. Besides, he was feeling pretty restless at this point. He’d felt like a prisoner in the Manor, but now that he was no longer there, he wasn’t sure where to start living his life again.

And then there was the question of how he would eventually approach Superman again. He’d avoided talking to him in any capacity since he’d left the Manor, though it wasn't for lack of desire. He thought about Superman constantly, but he stalled when it came to approaching him again. Some part of it was to prove Bruce wrong—for at least a small measure of time—that he wasn't going to go half-cocked into Metropolis again to throw himself at the man who raped him. In hindsight, he couldn't deny that his last escapade was irrational and impulsive, though he’d never admit it aloud. It was just that if leaving the Manor really was about control, then at some point this would have to be less about thwarting Bruce and more about doing what Jason himself wanted.

Or rather, what his pollen-fueled emotional programming wanted—which translated to Jason’s ongoing fixation on Superman. To hear him and feel him and be nowhere but near him. To bear the weight of his extraordinary and terrifying presence at the same time. The thought of not going to see him someday made life seem meaningless. There was no question that he was going to Metropolis, but when Jason talked to him again, what would he say? What would he do? Showing up out of the blue hadn’t gone too well last time, and a simple, ‘Hey, you wanna hang out?’ was far too awkward given their situation.

He wondered how much the effects of the pollen continued to draw Superman’s thoughts to Jason from day to day? Bruce must have told him that he’d left the Manor, right? Or maybe Bruce had purposefully kept the other man in the dark for good reason. Either way, all Superman would have had to do to find out was to listen. Had he heard the conversation with Bruce? Did he already know?

‘I can hear your heartbeat,’ Superman had said when Jason had shown up in Metropolis. ‘That's how I knew you came here. I can hear it when you're sleeping. I can hear it every time you wake up terrified.’

The night terrors hadn’t stopped. So even if he’d only been half listening, he probably knew….

Jason got to his feet, dragging on his boots and armor. He had to get out of the safehouse sooner or later. Might as well be now. The thought of a simple patrol seemed frivolous now because there was only one thing he wanted to do. Why deny himself any longer? So instead of heading up to the rooftops, he headed down to the alley behind the safehouse where he’d parked a bike. The familiar creak of leather was comforting as he mounted the seat. The engine felt solid and steady beneath him. He pulled his helmet on, heard the click of the locking mechanism and the quiet beep as AI systems engaged, then he revved the engine of the bike and sped off.

He soon found himself leaving the city and heading north, hopping onto the Interstate highway that ran from the heart of Gotham into the outskirts of Metropolis. A tension that had been coiled around his core seems to slowly release—riding through the chill of the nighttime air, the smell of the salty sea, the sound of the waves buffeting against the cliffside rocks so loud it could be heard over the roar of the motorcycle engine—he was starting to feel the freedom he sought overpower the plague of constant desperation.

It was short-lived however, because anxiety returned as he rumbled up to where the Metropolis skyline erupted out of the suburbs. Great spires cut into the sky. The sweeping deco-style geometries with the dotted lights of the corporate cathedrals almost blended seamlessly into the starry heavens. Last time he had come it had been during the day, reaching into the twilight by the time Bruce had arrived. It was getting on past midnight now, but the city was no less impressive. Jason wasn't sure how Metropolis managed to be so consistently bright and beautiful even in the dark of night, while a city like Gotham seemed damned to be forever cast in dreary and foreboding shadows. Now, even in the dead of night, the city seemed to sparkle. Metropolis was pristine, untouchable… magnificent. Much like Superman himself.

Jason rolled into the city, feeling suddenly like a fish out of water in his vigilante gear. This city didn't need someone like him. The Red Hood rooted out the worst of the worst of a city's underbelly and put an end to the criminals once and for all, but as he cut through quiet streets, passing clean curbs lit softly with a warm sodium glow, it didn't feel like Metropolis had an underbelly at all. Intellectually Jason knew that was unlikely. Every city had a dark side, even Metropolis, but it didn't stop him from feeling out of place.

Jason continued toward the center of the city, keeping to the less trafficked roads as best he could until he found a darkened alleyway to stow his bike. There weren’t nearly enough shadows in Metropolis that Jason felt reasonably secure in, but once it was stashed, he climbed up the fire escape of a smaller stonework building until he could hop onto the rooftop.

It was only a midrise building, but he could still get a good vantage point of Metropolis' city center from there. He spotted Lexcorp Tower (probably better to avoid that one if he wanted to lay low), the Stagg Enterprises building, the S.T.A.R. Labs facility, a WayneTech R&D high-rise, and there… the massive globe atop the intrepid bastion of journalism that was the Daily Planet skyscraper.

It was one of the tallest buildings on the skyline, and looking at it from where he stood now, Jason could imagine how he must have looked—a tiny speck, like a bird in the sky, that had teetered over the edge before plummeting at a hundred miles an hour toward the pavement—then Superman had caught him because he’d heard Lois call out. If Jason went up there now, without Lois to yell and scream for him, would he come?

Jason was going to find out.

He had no intention of throwing himself off buildings unequipped this time though. He’d come packed with grappling gear and emergency anchors to spare. All he needed to do was map out the trajectory up and across the buildings. He raised his arm—grapple aimed and ready as he finished mentally calculating the angle of his swing—and fired.

The grappling hook shot off with a muffled pop and Jason sailed into the darkened sky. He swung progressively higher, his arms straining with the recoil of the line to climb several hundred feet in elevation with each successive building. He paused a few seconds to take a breath after he’d traversed a few landings. Almost dying had definitely taken its toll, but he only had to get a few more buildings further…. Jason aimed his grapple upward and shot out the line for the next anchor point, except the hook was suddenly intercepted by a flash of red and blue.

In the blink of an eye, Superman was beside him, the grapple line coiled in hand as he reached up slowly, deliberately, to disarm the launcher from Jason’s hold.

Jason let him take it, dropping his hands to his sides as he instinctively backed up a step. He could hear the hastening crescendo of his pulse rise into his ears as he waited to see what Superman would do next.

Superman’s expression remained calm but serious as he studied Jason. He was tense, fists clenched rigidly as he hovered several inches off the ground. Jason had to tilt his head to look up at him, mustering up as much poise as he could even though there was no hiding how much his heart was racing—if Jason could hear it, then Superman could too.

Red Hood,” Superman finally said, “what are you doing here?”

It wasn’t as if Jason was expecting Superman to welcome him with open arms, but the guarded tone had him taken aback.

Jason fumbled for a response. "I’m, uh… sightseeing." His words sounded ridiculous through the modulator in his helmet, which only served to reinforce how awkward and out of place he felt creeping into the city in his vigilante gear. The Red Hood was known for being ruthless and brutal, often leaving a trail of cold bodies in his wake. What the hell was he doing bringing that sort of baggage into Superman’s immaculate city?

“I highly doubt that, Jason," Superman responded. The muscles along his jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth. He seemed to struggle for words too, but at last he followed on with, "Tell me why you're really here."

"I just… I wanted to see you," Jason admitted.

Superman shook his head. “The Red Hood can’t come here. Not to Metropolis.”

“Oh. Um…,” Jason’s voice cracked, even through the modulator. His heart felt like it was sinking down through the pit in his stomach to the floor. Superman didn't want to see him. Somehow he hadn't prepared for that, but hearing those words—being rejected—it was devastating.

“I guess I should go then.” Jason took another step back, forcing himself to turn away slowly even though everything in him wanted to make a break for it—to find some hole far away to hide away forever in misery. Except before he'd fully pivoted on his heel, Superman reached out and caught his shoulder.

“Jason, wait. I'm sorry. I should have explained what I mean.” Superman gripped him firmly as he brought his other hand to Jason’s opposite side and rotated him around. “I mean it when I say the Red Hood can’t come here. Whether you want to or not, the Red Hood invites a sort of vigilantism I don’t want in my city.” He moved his hands up Jason’s shoulders until they were nestled along Jason’s neck, stroking his thumbs along the pulse of Jason’s throat.

Jason sucked in a sharp breath and froze. The gesture was intimate and insistent, though falling just short of being aggressive. He wasn't sure how to react, but his heart had now sprung back up from the floor and was now hammering away in his chest.

Superman took notice. His brow twisted into a frown and he gentled his touch, though he didn't draw his hands away. Instead, he skirted his fingers under the edge of Jason’s helmet until he found the latch. It opened easily to him with a click, and he slowly lifted the helmet from Jason’s head. Then, in a motion that was terrifyingly reminiscent of their first pollen-induced encounter, Superman caught the edge of Jason’s domino mask under his nail and slowly peeled it away to reveal his face.

Jason held his breath and remained motionless. If the effects of the pollen somehow resurged—if Superman lost control of himself and succumbed to the mind-numbing lust once more—then there was nothing Jason could do to stop him. There was nothing he could do now but wait and trust that the frenzy of uncontrolled desire had truly given way to something more like… like love.

He cradled Jason’s face in his hands, running a thumb over the rim of Jason’s bottom lip. “The Red Hood can't come here," his voice was low and breathy as he repeated his earlier assertion, then added, "but if Jason Todd wants to come see me, then… that’s different.”

Jason finally let out his breath. “Oh,” he said. If there was a better word with which to respond, for the life of him he couldn't find it.

"I promised him I wouldn't seek you out." Superman leaned in close. His face was mere inches away from Jason’s. His blue eyes shone brightly even in the moonlight. "I agreed because I didn't want to force anything on you, but if you came to me again, knowing what the pollen has done to us and knowing that Bruce didn't want you to, then I could be reasonably sure that this is what you wanted. It’s been hard staying away from you, but I waited, and you finally came."

Fingers were suddenly in Jason's hair, and he was being pulled forward into a kiss. Superman pressed his lips to Jason's, and after a brief moment in which Jason gasped in surprise, Jason gave in. He opened up and Superman pushed inside, sweeping his tongue into Jason's mouth.

Jason expected to feel terror. He expected himself to freeze up. He expected the kiss to be rough given Superman’s strength, but he found himself melting into the other man's embrace. It was as if nothing had ever felt so right. He felt so warm and safe for the first time in ages, even though he knew that made absolutely no sense.

His rational mind had long lost the war with his heart at this point. The only thing that seemed to matter was being held like this even if it was by the man who had unwittingly raped him. Letting himself be kissed and caressed and coveted was the only thing that provided Jason any relief from all the pain he'd endured.

Strong arms wrapped around him, pressing him flush against the length of Superman’s body. The heat of him seemed to permeate through Jason’s armor as the other man licked and suckled and teased Jason’s lips with his teeth—until the fluttering excitement in Jason’s stomach converged into a driving ache that spiraled down between his legs.

Jason’s arms were pinned at his sides with Superman wrapped around him, but he managed to squirrel his hands up to clutch at Superman’s lower back. He gasped as they broke momentarily for air, "I've wanted this so much. Even when I didn't know, I wanted this."

"I know, Jason," Superman's voice was husky and low with desire. "I haven't stopped wanting you. I tried, but it hasn't changed. I don't think I want it to."

"Superman," Jason whined as the kisses resumed. Superman moved down to suck at the sensitive spot along Jason’s neck, right below his ear and Jason moaned as a sensation of pleasure shot through his spine.

A breathy murmur was the response, "I told you to call me Clark." Superman pulled back to fix his eyes on Jason, his vivid blue gaze roving across Jason’s features as if he were the most interesting thing in the world.

"Clark…." Jason turned away at the intensity of the stare.

The next thing Superman—Clark—said had Jason snapping back to attention though: "Have dinner with me."

"What?" Jason blinked.

Superman loosened his hold on Jason. “This… attraction we feel, it's not something that happened naturally. I'm asking that the Red Hood stays out of my city, but I want to get to know you. The real you.”

Oh. That sounded like Superman was asking him on... a date? That seemed… logical, though Jason hadn’t thought that far in advance to consider how this—whatever this was—would work.

“You can say no," Superman added. "If any of this doesn’t feel right, just tell me. I’ll understand.”

“Yes." Jason blurted it out without pausing to think. "I want to, but I guess… I’ve never really done this before.”

Superman cocked his head. The corner of his mouth twitched, though it looked too sad for it to be a smile. “You’ve never dated anyone?”

Jason had been on a date. Maybe two. Sort of. He said as much, and clarified, “I'm not sure how this works."

Superman responded by leaning in and placing a soft kiss on Jason’s forehead. "We’re going to figure it out. Together. Go home for now. Leave your gear. Come back tomorrow at seven and meet me at the corner of Centennial Park."

He placed a final kiss on Jason’s lips, lingering long enough that Jason wanted to open his mouth and draw him in again, but Superman pulled away before he could. He hovered up into the air, watching Jason with eyes half-lidded and full of something that made him want to call Clark back to his side.

Jason didn’t. His voice was caught in his throat as Superman turned and zipped off into the skies. Jason felt the chill of the night without the other’s warmth. The night skies in Metropolis felt so lonely now that Superman had gone.