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The 51st Annual Gala for the Children’s Wing of Gotham General Hospital was being held, as it was every year, in Wayne Manor.  There had been decorators and caterers hanging around all week – thankfully, the big ballroom was in the guest wing, and they’d closed that off from the family wing years ago.

 

It had been the first party Bruce had attended when he’d come back to Gotham, restarting his father’s tradition to host the gala in Wayne Manor, and Tim knew that it held a special place in his heart.  Brucie Wayne act or not, everyone could tell that Bruce cared deeply about the cause.  Tim had caught Bruce agonizing over his speech four days ago, and had escaped before he was forced to be a sounding board.

 

The gala was always well-attended, but there were even more people this year – this was the first major gala since the whole media storm that had come with Jason’s abrupt return from the dead, and the sharks were circling for any sign of blood.  Tim could see the top of Jason’s head in the midst of a group all vying for his attention.

 

Jason had been vehemently against attending right up till Bruce had ordered his presence, making the valid point that Jason couldn’t stay secluded forever, at which point Jason subsided into a sulky grumble.  Tim had honestly expected him to keep arguing, Bruce’s favorite gala or not – Jason had never shied away from butting heads with Bruce until both of them were furious and frustrated – but he had been strangely subdued ever since his death certificate had been overturned.

 

Of course, that could also be the injuries – Jason had recovered enough to use crutches, but the fixed smile on his face made it clear that he wasn’t happy about the situation.  Tim caught his eye as he passed the group – all sharp-eyed heirs and heiresses, eyeing Jason with a distinctly predatory gaze – but Jason gave a small shake of his head as he answered someone’s question, tilting his head towards them while he stayed balanced on one leg.

 

Bruce meant well, but trapping an injured vigilante with magically-heightened rage issues inside a crowded ballroom was not a good idea, and Tim had worked out a signal if he needed to extract Jason.

 

Jason was doing much better than Tim had expected, though – Tim hadn’t actually envisioned Jason shooting people, but he expected more visible signs of displeasure and a slow depletion of patience.

 

“Tim,” Dick said, approaching him from the snacks table, “You know Bruce said phones away, right?”

 

“Bruce knows full well that I’m running his company,” Tim muttered, fiddling with his phone, “And it’s only six o’clock on the West Coast.”

 

“Fair point, little bro,” Dick draped an arm over his shoulders, “Worried about Jaybird?”

 

Tim realized that he was still staring at Jason.

 

“Concerned about how long his patience will last,” Tim admitted.

 

“Jason knows how to keep his temper,” Dick laughed, “As much as he doesn’t like to do it.”

 

Tim shot Dick a skeptical look.  Nothing about the guy that had nearly murdered him on top of Titans Tower had conveyed that he knew the definition of restraint.

 

“This isn’t Jay’s first gala, baby bird,” Dick ruffled the back of his hair, “And he knows he can slip out if it gets to be too much.  Come on, B wants us to mingle.”

 

Tim sighed and slipped his phone back into his pocket as he turned back to the party.  That was the double-edged sword of being the CEO – he had a ready-made excuse to step out and pretend to handle an emergency, but more people wanted to talk to him, and all of them wanted to talk business.

 

Tim lost count of how many times he’d said ‘that’s fascinating, you should set up a meeting so we can discuss that in further depth’ before he was afforded a small amount of breathing space.

 

Bruce was schmoozing at the far end of the ballroom, Dick was flitting between groups, charming as always, Jason had taken a seat to pick at a plate of hors d’oeuvres, the group of heirs replaced with Lucius Fox and one of the women on the Wayne Foundation board, and –

 

“Timothy Drake,” Sidney Cassamento smiled, stopping in front of Tim with his hand outstretched, “Well, it’s Wayne now, right?”

 

“Mr. Cassamento,” Tim shook his hand on autopilot, feeling his smile stretch his skin, “What a surprise.  I didn’t know you were back in Gotham.”

 

“Business called – you understand, of course.  I hear you’re frequently in San Francisco.”  Cassamento’s smile was charming, and Tim tried to suppress the shudder crawling down his spine.

 

“Yes, but I can’t stay away from Gotham for long.  I understand you were gone for quite some time,” Tim said blandly, as though he didn’t know exactly when Cassamento had left.

 

As though he hadn’t been the one to force that banishment.

 

“Almost six years,” Cassamento sighed, “So many things have changed since I was last here.  Your family, for example – it’s grown quite large.  I’ve met Richard and Jason before, of course, and you with your parents, but I don’t think I’ve been introduced to the others.  I hear Bruce adopted a daughter?”

 

“Cassandra,” Tim said, keeping his voice level, “Unfortunately she’s on vacation.”  Vacation meaning Clocktower, where she, Steph, and Babs had joyfully abandoned the party to patrol Gotham in their absence.  Tim may or may not have been checking his phone in hopes of getting an update of an Arkham breakout, or anything that would save him from this gala.

 

“And Bruce has a son now, right?”

 

One part of Tim burned – we’re all his children, you asshole – but the greater part paled at the glimpse of hunger in the older man’s eyes.

 

Damian.  The man was after Damian.

 

“I’m sure he’s around here somewhere,” Tim said, waving a hand at the crowd, “You know kids, they like to disappear into corners to play games on their phones.  I’ll be sure to introduce you if I can find him.”  He brought his phone up, “Oh, I’m sorry, I have to take this.”

 

He stalked away from the man, scanning the ballroom with increasing tension as he typed frantically into his phone.

 

Sidney Cassamento, he sent to Babs.

 

What about him? was the reply.

 

When did he get back to Gotham?  When Tim had first encountered the man, he hadn’t been Robin.  He hadn’t known Bruce.  He had done the best with the limited resources he had, all aimed at keeping the man away.  It had resulted in a series of small fires in the international branches of the man’s business, forcing Cassamento overseas to stamp out the problems.

 

Out of sight, out of mind.  Tim had forgotten about him, his thoughts steering towards villains closer to home.  It was clear now that that was a mistake.

 

A week ago, Babs replied, why?

 

There – a scowling, bored expression near the windows.  Need your help, Tim typed, can you access his private accounts?

 

Babs didn’t ask any more questions.  She responded with an acknowledgement, and Tim slipped his phone back in his pocket as he neared Damian, crooking a finger – not snagging his arm, that was a surefire way to lose some fingers – and heading to the small alcove created by a flower display.

 

What?” Damian snapped, having followed Tim behind the flowers, “I haven’t broken any of Father’s rules, I only insulted the ones too stupid to understand, and it’s hardly my fault if no one wants to talk to me –”

 

Thirteen years old or not, Damian definitely exuded a murderous aura, and while the other guests didn’t know that Damian had at least three knives on his person, some part of their instincts recognized that it was a bad idea to poke him.

 

“This isn’t about that,” Tim said levelly, “I need you to stick to a member of the family.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“You heard me,” Tim said, “I don’t care who, but you need to stay close to someone.”

 

“I don’t need a chaperone –”

 

“This is serious, Damian,” Tim hissed quietly, and motioned Damian to a gap between the flowers.  He searched the crowd until he found Cassamento and pointed him out, “You see the man in the dark blue suit, hair slicked back?  Sidney Cassamento.  He’s dangerous.  Do not talk to him.  Do not accept food or drink from him.  I can’t explain everything now –” his phone beeped with a text from Babs – “But you need to listen to me.  Stay with a member of the family.

 

Damian glowered at the crowd, “If there is a villain at this party, we should alert Father.”

 

“Not every criminal is a villain, and I don’t want to ruin Bruce’s night,” Tim said.  Not Bruce’s favorite gala.  Not while Tim was handling it.  He scrolled through Babs’ message, and tapped back a quick reply.  “Just promise me that you’ll stay close to Dick or Bruce.”

 

“A danger to me specifically, then,” Damian said slowly, and Tim was reminded that Damian wasn’t an idiot, no matter how often his biases blinded him.  “Not Grandfather’s – the League has standards.”

 

Damian –”

 

“You owe me a full explanation,” Damian said haughtily, “I am allowed to use violence if I’m attacked, and I’m borrowing the Redbird.”

 

“Done, non-lethal, and one night only.”

 

“One week.”

 

“Three nights, and that’s my final offer.”

 

“Very well,” Damian said, and stalked back out into the crowd.  Tim watched him until he reached Dick, and slipped out of the alcove, his attention back on his phone.

 

Tim, Babs had written, what the fuck.

 

Tim swallowed, and typed up a response.

 


 

He had stayed near the alcove, tapping away on his phone, continuing his conversation with Babs and occasionally sorting through the material she sent him.  He answered any guest’s probing queries with a tight smile and a pat response about work never ending, and, for the most part, was left alone.

 

Which was why he nearly startled out of his skin when an ex-assassin appeared at his elbow, expression in a default scowl.  “Father’s speech is starting,” Damian informed him, “And Richard is not pleased that you’re spending so much time on your phone.”

 

Tim raised his gaze – yes, Bruce was standing at the dais at the far corner of the room, tapping the microphone as he smiled at the crowd.

 

“Also,” Damian said, “Cassamento has left the room.”

 

What?” Tim choked, scanning the crowd – he couldn’t see any trace of the slicked-back hair and smug grin.

 

“He went through the doors to the east corridor twenty seconds ago,” Damian said, and Tim immediately made his way towards the doors, trying to keep his pace unhurried.

 

“Was he alone?” Tim asked, feeling shivers break down his arms as he kicked his pace up a notch.

 

“I didn’t see anyone with him,” Damian retorted, clearly struggling to keep up with Tim’s longer strides without resorting to jogging, “I thought you said he was after me.”

 

Tim ignored him, and tried to calculate how many families had come here with children, and how many of those fit into Cassamento’s preferred prey – kids who wouldn’t raise a huge fuss, or who wouldn’t be believed if they did.

 

Like, for example, a kid that spent ten months of the year with only a housekeeper because his parents were out of town.

 

Tim heard the low sound of voices almost as soon as he entered the east corridor – the conversation was coming from the far end, where the corridor opened into a balcony, and Tim hurried towards it, only to pause when he registered the voices.  Damian nearly stumbled into his back.

 

“– memory problems,” Jason said, “The doctors say I may never recover them.”

 

“Oh,” Cassamento said, “That’s a shame.”  Tim came to a full halt, extremely confused – Jason was about as far as you could get from Cassamento’s type.  “I met you, you know, back before…”

 

“My little tour away from home?” Jason laughed lightly.

 

“Ah, yes, forgive me.  I didn’t want to bring up any painful memories.”

 

“You’re good,” Jason hummed.

 

“So, you don’t remember me at all?” Cassamento asked casually, and Tim’s blood ran cold.

 

He was moving forward before he even made a conscious decision to, almost sprinting towards the end of the corridor, ignoring Damian’s shout.

 

“Nope,” Jason said, three seconds before Tim burst through the drapes.

 

Cassamento startled back against the balcony railing.  Jason, leaning against the other side, blinked at him.

 

“Timothy,” Cassamento said, “Hello again –”

 

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Tim said, snagging Jason’s elbow, “It’s just that Bruce gets a little antsy when he can’t see Jason, you understand of course, bad memories and all.”

 

“Of course,” Cassamento repeated, clearly confused.  Jason was frowning at him in a clear what-the-fuck expression, but let Tim drag him out of the balcony without protesting.

 

Damian was waiting for him in the corridor, scowl on the way to a full sulk, but Tim ignored him as he practically dragged Jason back to the ballroom.

 

“What’s the matter with you?” Jason murmured, before his voice dropped low, “Trouble?”

 

Yes, but not the way Jason was asking.

 

“No,” Tim said curtly, and managed to get Jason back through the doors before the older boy started protesting.

 

“Tim,” Jason said, his eyes narrowing, tugging his arm out of Tim’s grip as he straightened on his crutches, “What’s going on?”

 

“I demand to know that as well,” Damian scowled, “You have been behaving extremely uncharacteristically, and it’s clear that Cassamento is not after me.  I want an explanation now.”

 

“I’m sorry, what?” Jason asked, “Someone’s after Damian?”  Something in his eyes seemed to clear slightly, his body tensing to a more dangerous stance.

 

Tim exhaled slowly, and cast a glance around them.  Bruce was still talking, and the majority of the crowd was close to the dais or hovering near the snack table.  There was no one near eavesdropping range.

 

“Cassamento,” Tim whispered, “Has a thing for kids.  He hasn’t been in the country for six years, and I’m working on finding the evidence to lock him up.  In the meantime, stay away from him.”

 

“I can take care of myself,” Damian said, angry again, “And Todd is not a child.  You’re being hysterical, Drake.”  He stomped off with a haughty sniff – thankfully in the direction of Dick, who caught sight of his approach, his gaze drawing back to Jason and Tim.

 

Dick frowned, and made a shooing motion to indicate that they should get back to mingling.  On the stage, Bruce ended his speech to loud applause and the crowd began to disperse again.

 

Tim clutched his phone tightly and took a deep breath.

 

Jason was still standing next to him, staring distantly at the crowd.  Shit.  Tim had forgotten that Cassamento checked off all the boxes on Jason’s murder list – he needed to make sure Jason didn’t go after the guy.

 

“Jason?” Tim said quietly, drawing his brother’s gaze back to him – except Jason didn’t look angry.  He didn’t even look surprised.

 

Something in the pit of his stomach went cold.

 

“You knew about Cassamento,” Tim whispered.

 

Jason blinked, and raised an eyebrow with an unamused smile, “Half the people at this party are scum, Timbo.  You get used to it.”

 

He didn’t sound angry, or even resigned.  He sounded…blank.

 

“No,” Tim pressed, “You knew him.”

 

“So, you don’t remember me at all?”

 

Six years ago, Tim had been twelve.  Jason – Jason had been fifteen.

 

“I’ve met Richard and Jason before, of course.”

 

Jason was already turning to leave.

 

“Jason, wait.”  Tim’s throat was dry, his fingers cold.  “What did he do to you?”

 

Jason stilled for a half-second before he finished turning away, his expression twisting before it smoothed back out to the same polite mask Jason had been wearing all evening.

 

“Nothing he didn’t pay me for.”

 

Please, please let that not mean what Tim thought it meant.

 

But Jason vanished back into the crowd before Tim could stop him, surprisingly agile on his crutches, and Dick and Damian reached Tim before he could go after Jason.

 

“Did something happen?” Dick asked, concerned, “You’ve spent the whole evening on your phone – is it W.E. stuff, or Cass?”

 

“It’s fine,” Tim said, stepping away from Dick as a group surged forward – Dick narrowed his eyes, but he was caught up in a conversation as Tim slipped free.

 

Damian followed Tim, glaring as Tim scanned the crowd, searching for both Cassamento and Jason.

 

He found Jason first – he was near the wall leading to the west corridor, apparently listening intently to an old woman.  Even at this distance, Tim could see that his expression was glazed over.

 

“Damian,” Tim said softly, “I need you to get Jason out of here.”

 

“What?” Damian said sharply, “Father said that –”

 

“The situation’s changed,” Tim said, thinking they should’ve never made him come.  “Jason’s compromised.  You need to get him out.”

 

“Drake,” Damian said slowly, and Tim turned to see the brat looking at him like he’d lost his mind, “Todd is perfectly capable of taking care of himself.  He doesn’t need my protection – unless you mean that I’m supposed to stop him from killing your target, in which case, I definitely don’t care enough to go after him.”

 

Tim felt like his nerves were leaking out of his skin, his fingers silent and still and at odds with the way he felt like he was shaking apart.  Bits and pieces of a puzzle he didn’t want to complete were coming together in front of him, and he didn’t want to see.

 

He grabbed Damian’s shoulders, and pulled the boy forward, forcing him to face towards Jason.  Damian went very still, but Tim didn’t have the energy to worry about the structural integrity of his fingers.

 

“Look at him,” Tim hissed, “Look at him.  Do you seriously think that nothing’s wrong?”

 

Damian was silent for a full five seconds.  “He’s just bored,” Damian said flatly, “As am I.”

 

“No,” Tim said, cold and fierce, “He’s been acting strange the entire night.  When have you ever seen Jason keep his temper?”

 

“He’s managed to hold it together after he got injured,” Damian tutted lightly, “I don’t understand why you’re so concerned –”

 

Tim’s phone beeped, and he cursed.  “Look, you want the Redbird for a week?  Fine.  Get him out – without violence.”

 

“But Father –”

 

“I’ll take the blame, Damian, just get him out of here.”

 

Damian pulled out of Tim’s grip, giving him a strange glance, and Tim realized that he was actually frightening the younger boy.  “Fine,” Damian muttered, casting one last glance at Tim before striding towards Jason.

 

Tim pulled his phone out.  Babs had left fifteen messages, and Tim had to sit and reply to each of them – and then sort through a data dump and respond to a series of questions that were getting increasingly pointed.

 

The last one made his breath catch in his throat.

 

Tell B by tomorrow, Babs had written, or I will.

 

Tim scowled down at his phone and responded with a terse acknowledgement.

 

“Are you sure everything’s okay?” Dick asked, and Tim jumped, startled.  Dick gave him an odd look.  “You seem…tense.”

 

“I’m fine,” Tim stuttered, and Dick’s eyes narrowed.  Tim cursed inwardly, and backed up a step, scanning the crowd for a distraction – Bruce, in the distance, was frowning slightly, but the crowd had begun to disperse, several going through the doors to the gardens or standing around in small knots.

 

“You’re not fine,” Dick said levelly, and then he frowned, “I don’t see Damian or Jay anywhere – did something come up?”  He looked like he was already tensing to go down to the Cave and suit up.

 

“Nothing came up,” Tim murmured, “Everyone’s fine.  Jason and Damian…weren’t feeling well, so they left.”

 

“Weren’t feeling well?” Dick looked even more concerned, “What do you mean, weren’t feeling well?  What happened?”

 

“Nothing –”

 

“Tim,” Dick said, slowly and precisely, “What.  Happened?”

 

Tim took a deep breath.  “They’re fine,” he insisted, “Nothing happened.”

 

“Tim,” Dick said warningly.

 

“You wanted us to mingle, right?” Tim said, near desperately.

 

Dick’s eyes narrowed, fixing Tim with the expression that Nightwing usually reserved for recalcitrant criminals.  His mouth twisted, and then he spun on one heel and headed for the door.

 

“Wait,” Tim said, hurrying after him, “Where are you going?”

 

“If you won’t tell me what’s going on,” Dick said, low and tight, “I’ll find someone who will.”

 

“Dick, wait –” But Dick wasn’t stopped – he sidestepped any guest who got into his path, quickly leaving the ballroom and heading for the family wing.  Tim followed him, the knot in his stomach growing tighter and tighter as Dick unlocked the entrance to the family wing and continued on his path.

 

Dick headed straight for the study without talking, opening the clock and heading down the steps.  Tim followed him, miserable, trying to compose the explanation in his head – he was handling it, this whole thing was his mistake, if they could all just go back to the party and pretend they’d never seen Cassamento –

 

Wait.  Where’s Cassamento? he typed quickly to Babs.

 

The reply came a few seconds later – Left the party.  Headed home.

 

Tim felt one of the knots of tension ease inside his chest.

 

The tension in the Cave was clear before they left the last step – Damian was glaring, Jason looked incredibly confused, and the silence was like a string ready to snap.

 

“What’s going on?” Dick said, stalking forward, “Who’s not feeling well?”

 

“Not feeling well?” Jason repeated blankly.

 

“Tim said you left because you weren’t well,” Dick crossed his arms.

 

“I left because Damian dragged me out,” Jason frowned, turning to Damian.

 

“Drake told me to!” Damian said shrilly, “He’s been acting strangely this whole night –”

 

“Jason isn’t well,” Tim argued, a lump growing in his throat.

 

“I am perfectly fine –”

 

“Tim, what’s going on –”

 

“What,” Bruce’s voice cut through the growing clamor, “Are all of you doing down here?”  He walked closer, “Is this a Code Bat?”

 

“No,” Tim said, but his voice was quickly drowned out by Damian’s complaints and Jason insisting he was fine and Dick asking more questions.

 

Enough.”  Bruce eyed each one of them, “Someone explain to me what’s going on.  From the beginning.”

 

Dick looked at Jason.  Jason looked at Damian.  Damian looked at Tim.

 

Tim swallowed.  “It’s a long story,” he said slowly.

 

Bruce narrowed his eyes.  “I’m not leaving without an explanation,” he said firmly, sitting down in the Batcomputer chair.

 

Damian crossed his arms.  Dick brought Jason a chair to get him off the crutches.  Tim checked his phone again, but there were no new updates.  It was a waiting game now.

 

“Sidney Cassamento,” Tim started slowly, “He’s a businessman.  With a taste for kids.  He – he hasn’t been in Gotham for six years, and I didn’t know he was back.  I’m working with Babs to get evidence to the police – I just wanted Damian to stay out of his way.”

 

Dick looked like he’d swallowed something sour.  Bruce had narrowed his eyes a fraction.

 

“I’m perfectly capable of defending myself,” Damian muttered, and Dick reached out to tug him closer.

 

“We know, Dames, but sometimes you shouldn’t have to defend yourself,” Dick murmured, holding him close.  He looked up at Tim, “Is Cassamento still at the party?”

 

“No,” Tim shook his head, “He left.  Police should have a warrant in a half-hour.”

 

“Okay,” Bruce said slowly, “Thank you for taking care of it, Tim.  But I still don’t understand why you all left the party.”

 

“I was forced out,” Jason grumbled, “At knifepoint, the little brat –”

 

“Drake told me to!” Damian hissed, “I was just –”

 

Tim,” Bruce said sternly.

 

Tim swallowed, and said quietly, “Jason’s not well.”

 

Everyone spun to look at Jason, who raised a confused eyebrow, “I have no idea what he’s talking about, I’m fine –”

 

“You’re not,” Tim shook his head, “You – you kept smiling and nodding, and you haven’t gotten angry all night, and you didn’t even make a single threat when I told you about Cassamento.”

 

“I’m fine,” Jason repeated, but the words were hollow.

 

Tim met the green-eyed gaze, watching as it didn’t quite focus on him.  “You’re looking through me right now,” Tim said softly.

 

Bruce surged out of his chair, stalking towards Jason with a worried expression.  Jason didn’t even flinch, which did more to raise the tension than anything Tim had said.

 

“Jay,” Bruce slowly reached out to cup a hand over Jason’s cheek.  Jason let him, his face still blank.

 

“What the hell,” Dick said softly.

 

“Did that vile piece of filth do something?” Damian glared, “Did you accept food or drink from him?”

 

“I’m not drugged,” Jason said, and now he sounded tired.

 

“You’re acting uncharacteristically,” Damian pressed.

 

“Wow,” Jason muttered, “Is it that hard to believe that I just didn’t want to spoil the party?”

 

“Did you drug yourself?” Dick asked, horrified.  Jason shot him a glare, but it was still weak.

 

“I,” Jason enunciated slowly, “Am not drugged.”

 

“Jay-lad,” Bruce said softly, “We can all see that something’s wrong.  Just tell us, please.”

 

“Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine, why are you all acting like I’ve been replaced with an alien just because I was polite for a few hours?” Jason asked, getting more agitated, “I know how to behave at these stupid parties, I did it before too!”

 

“Did what before?” Bruce asked.

 

“Just – just step away, so I don’t get angry, so I don’t punch anyone or – or snap out that several of your old buddies visit Crime Alley, and some of their tastes run to the young side, or let them realize that I recognized them –”

 

Dick had gone sheet white.  Damian was staring between all of them, face blank but eyes narrowed.  Tim – Tim felt like he was going to be sick.

 

“Jason,” Bruce murmured, his expression twisting to horror.

 

Jason buried his face in his hands.  “I don’t understand,” he said, muffled, his voice cracking, “I just did what you wanted.  I behaved!”

 

“Jay,” Bruce said, in a voice that was fracturing apart.  He crouched in front of Jason, one hand on his knee, staring desperately at his son.

 

“He touched you,” Dick said, in a voice that decreased the temperature in the room, “That piece of shit –”

 

“It was years ago,” Jason said, still muffled, “And I got compensated for my time –”

 

“That, Little Wing, does not matter,” Dick said, his tone forbidding, “Tim.  Where is he?”

 

Tim resisted the urge to step back when cold blue eyes landed on him.  “Babs is tracking him,” he said meekly.

 

“I’ll touch base with her, then,” Dick said, his voice frigid, already stalking towards the lockers.  Damian shot an uneasy glance at Tim.

 

“I – we left everyone at the party,” Tim said weakly, because there were choked sobs coming from Jason’s covered face and he didn’t think that them being here was helping.  Bruce gave him a nod, and Tim ushered Damian back to the stairs.

 

As they left, they could hear Bruce’s low, coaxing tone, “Jason.  Jay.  Can you please look at me?”

 


 

It took another three hours for the guests to leave.  Their short absence from the party had been noted, but easily explained – Tim mentioned something about Jason being on his crutches for too long, Dick leaving for a work issue, and Bruce having to deal with some logistics problems – and Tim kept Damian with him as they mingled with the remaining guests as the gala died down.

 

Bruce showed up two hours in, Brucie mask firmly on, but tenser than it had been at the start of the evening.  He gave a brief nod to Tim’s inquiring look, which Tim took to mean that his conversation with Jason hadn’t gone too badly.

 

In custody, Babs had sent an hour in, broken jaw courtesy of N.

 

The last major knot of tension eased.

 

Finally, the stragglers were politely but firmly shooed off, and the ballroom was left for the cleaning crew.  Tim followed Bruce and Damian back to the family wing, and Bruce bid goodnight to Damian and a waiting Dick before motioning Tim into his study.

 

Something curdled in his stomach as he took a seat.

 

“I’m sorry,” Tim blurted out as soon as Bruce closed the door, “I’m sorry – I should’ve kept better track of him, I should’ve found the evidence years ago, I should’ve flagged his name or something – I’m so sorry for letting him get an invite to gala, and upsetting Jason, and –”

 

“Tim,” Bruce said gently, cutting off his words.

 

Tim swallowed down the rest of his apologies and waited for the reprimand.  He knew that this was Bruce’s favorite cause, and the first time after he got Jason back, and he ended up ruining everything

 

“Tim, this is not your fault,” Bruce said softly.

 

Tim raised his head.  That was not what he’d been expecting.

 

“It is,” Tim countered, “I knew about him –”

 

“When?” Bruce asked.

 

Tim quailed again.  “Six years ago,” he said, quiet and miserable.  Six years, and he’d just forgotten, even after he became Robin, even when he had access to all the resources to lock Cassamento away.

 

“Six year ago,” Bruce repeated, “When you were twelve.”  There was something dark and seething in his tone.  “Tim.  How did you know about Cassamento?”

 

Oh.  That was why he was looking so upset.  “He didn’t – he didn’t touch me,” Tim shook his head, “He didn’t – it was just words –”

 

“Tim,” Bruce said, his tone quiet and barely restrained, “It’s not just words.  It’s harassment.  You were twelve, and it never should’ve happened.”

 

“I didn’t – but Jason –”

 

“It never should’ve happened to Jason, either,” Bruce said, his gaze intent on Tim, “But right now, we’re talking about you.”

 

Tim shook his head again, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them.  “It’s not the same,” Tim whispered, “I – I could’ve done anything – I could’ve called the police, or told you, or told my parents, or anything.”

 

“You were twelve,” Bruce said, gentle but firm, “The fact that you didn’t trust anyone enough to speak to them is not your fault.”

 

“I just made him go away,” Tim said quietly, “And then I forgot about him.  Like he couldn’t hurt people anywhere else.  Like he would’ve just stopped if he wasn’t in Gotham.  I – I just thought about myself, and no one else, and –”

 

“Tim,” Bruce said, cutting him off, “You were twelve.  You weren’t trained to deal with the situation.  You weren’t responsible for dealing with the situation.  You were a child, and you were supposed to be safe, and I’m so, so sorry that you weren’t.”

 

“It – it’s my fault,” Tim’s voice cracked, and even before the tears finally slipped free, he was encircled in a warm embrace, sobbing into a ten-thousand dollar suit jacket.

 

“No, bud, it’s not,” Bruce said softly.

 

“I – I couldn’t even – I ruined the party for you – for Jay – for everyone –”

 

“Tim,” Bruce said firmly, “I’m going to tell you the same thing I just told Jason.  Each and every one of you is more important than a party or a press conference or my reputation.  You didn’t ruin anything, kiddo.”

 

“I – I didn’t even – I just forgot about him, how could I –”

 

“Because you were trying to cope,” Bruce murmured, “It’s okay, Tim.”

 

“It’s not.”

 

“It is,” Bruce said decisively.

 

“You can’t just decide that.”

 

“Sure I can, bud,” Bruce said quietly into Tim’s hair, “I’m Batman.”

 

“That’s a stupid argument,” Tim mumbled.  There was a large wet spot on Bruce’s suit jacket, but Tim couldn’t bring himself to care.

 

You’re a stupid argument,” Bruce murmured back, and Tim dimly registered the room shifting around them as Bruce stood up, Tim still curled in his arms.

 

“That doesn’t even make any sense,” Tim grumbled.

 

“It doesn’t need to make any sense,” Bruce said, walking out of the study and towards the stairs, “You want to sleep in the master bedroom tonight?  Jay’s already there.”

 

Tempting.  Tim didn’t want to let go of Bruce right now.  But – “Jason needs you.”

 

“He won’t mind.”

 

Tim made a wordless, dissenting noise.

 

“We can ask him again, if you’d like.”

 

Tim made a sleepy protest and snuggled closer into Bruce’s embrace.

 

Bruce knocked softly on the bedroom door before he entered, and Tim raised his head at the muted grumble.  “Bruce?” Jason called out, almost slurring his words, “That the baby bird?”

 

“One little brother, delivered safely,” Bruce said, depositing Tim on the bed and tugging off his jacket.  Tim didn’t have the time to voice any of his protests before green eyes – significantly clearer than before, even half-asleep – latched on to him, and warm arms tugged him under the covers.

 

“My clothes are going to get wrinkled,” Tim pointed out as he was enveloped in warmth and bundled against a broad chest.

 

“Does it look like I care?” Jason muttered drowsily, “Dad’ll just buy you another.”

 

Bruce, halfway into the bed, froze, his eyes shining.  Tim extricated one arm from Jason’s death grip and beckoned Bruce closer.

 

Bruce slowly eased the rest of the way into the bed, and they all pretended not to notice his suspiciously wet cheeks as he ruffled Jason’s hair, and then Tim’s, before tucking the covers carefully around them both.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

There were tears snaking down his cheeks, and he didn’t even know why – he couldn’t stop them, he could only cover his face and shudder as they fell because his stomach was a roiling pit of emotions, he’d been forced back to reality too quickly to build up his walls again, and everything was too close, too bright, too real.

 

“Jason.  Jay.  Can you please look at me?”

 

He didn’t want to – he dimly noted footsteps receding, but Bruce was still there, a warm hand on his knee, and he didn’t want to meet the other man’s gaze.

 

“Jay, please.”

 

Fuck.  Jason let his hands drop, shivering even though he wasn’t cold, and reluctantly looked at Bruce.

 

Whose expression was too open, too pained, too heartbroken, and Jason wanted to curl back up and recede into the floaty detachment that let him manage a pinched smile at a racist comment and a brief flare of annoyance at an old man’s smarmy grin and nothing but a passing whisper of concern at his brothers’ plotting.

 

“Jason?” Bruce asked quietly.  His hand felt like stabbing hot pokers on Jason’s knee.

 

“Don’t touch me,” he said hoarsely.  The hand on his knee disappeared with alacrity, but Bruce didn’t recoil.  Contrarily, some part of Jason mourned the warmth.

 

“Jason?  Are you with me?”

 

No.  Yes.  Everything was too confusing.

 

Bruce took his lack of answer as a response.  “Stay here,” he instructed as he straightened and headed for the medbay.

 

Where am I going to go? Jason didn’t call sarcastically after him, yet another outburst blocked by the wall of paranoia and fear and dread.  His left hip ached and Jason slumped further in the chair, exhausted from an entire evening of hobbling around on his crutches and suppressing any trace of pain.

 

Bruce returned with a small, brightly colored packet – he shook out a few gummies and handed them to Jason.  “Eat,” Bruce ordered, “And describe the taste.”

 

Jason was too tired to argue with this ridiculous demand and mechanically chewed the gummies, waiting for the flavor to register.  “Sweet,” Jason said, “And spicy.  What the fuck did you give me, this is awful.”

 

“Eat,” Bruce said sternly.

 

Jason forced himself to swallow the disgusting two-taste gummies and made a face, eyeing the bag with trepidation, “Wait, are those Damian’s?  Did you seriously steal the brat’s candy?”

 

“Are you with me now?” Bruce asked, ignoring his questions entirely.  Jason slumped further in his chair and sighed.  Galas were exhausting.

 

“Are you hurting?” Bruce asked softly, “Do you want painkillers?”  Jason glared at him through his bangs – if Bruce gave him pills right now, Jason was going to have a breakdown.

 

Bruce’s expression spasmed for a second before he again crouched in front of Jason – an extremely unsubtle gesture of handing Jason the power position.  Jason, in turn, pretended that having Bruce kneeling instead of looming didn’t untwist something inside his chest.

 

“Jason,” Bruce said, and then stopped, his forehead furrowing as he frowned.  Jason held his breath, waiting for the lecture.  “Jay, what’s wrong?  Why are you so tense?”

 

“Just give it to me, old man,” Jason muttered, “I’m sorry for ruining your gala, I’m sorry for freaking out Tim, I’m sorry for not mentioning which of your business pals were pedophiles.”

 

“Jason,” Bruce said, and he looked lost, “Jason, I didn’t – you have nothing to be sorry for.”

 

“I really don’t want to play this game right now,” Jason said quietly, “Just tell me what I did wrong, I’ll apologize, we can go back to the party.”

 

“You’re not going back to the party,” Bruce said flatly.  Jason couldn’t hide the flinch.  “Jason, I am not sending you into an environment that you just spent two hours intentionally dissociating to deal with.”

 

“I wasn’t dissociating,” Jason automatically argued, “I was just –” detaching himself from paying conscious attention – “I’m fine, I didn’t – I just –” had to find a method where he could tolerate the bright lights and the crowds and the constant sensation of people watching him when he was used to that kind of scrutiny coming through a sniper scope.  “I did the same thing I always do in galas.”

 

Wrap himself in pleasant thoughts of grappling through the skyline, leaving just enough attention to respond to the conversations around him.  Because Jason had always had a temper, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to listen to the bullshit all those rich people spouted without punching someone, and then – then Bruce would be disappointed.

 

Jason ached to be Hood again.  As Hood, he only disappointed Batman – they’d all disappointed Batman at one point or another, he was Batman, no one could live up to his stupid rules – there was no chance of disappointing Bruce Wayne.

 

“Jason,” Bruce said, still frowning, “That – are you telling me that you used to dissociate during galas when you were a kid?”

 

“It’s not dissociation,” Jason argued weakly.

 

Bruce took a deep breath, squeezing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose before he exhaled slowly.  Jason felt something twist in his stomach – twenty-one years old, and one simple thing could catapult him back to the frightened twelve-year-old who was sure he was going to be thrown back onto the streets.

 

It was ridiculous.  Jason was an adult.  Jason had been fending for himself since he was seventeen.  He was perfectly capable of living on his own.

 

So why did the thought terrify him?

 

“Jay,” Bruce said softly, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

 

Jason stared at him blankly.  “Tell you what?” he asked.

 

Bruce covered his face with his hands this time, muttering something too low for Jason to hear.  His hands tightened on the arms of the chair and his healing injury gave a dull pang, as if to remind him that it was still there.

 

Like Jason was in any danger of forgetting – like it hadn’t thrown his life into a tailspin and forced him back into the family he’d spent four years trying to deny.

 

It was one of the first lessons any kid learned in Crime Alley – if they didn’t know what you wanted, they didn’t know where it hurt the most.  Protect your weaknesses – cover them in armor, or turn them into bullets, but never ever let them see the truth.

 

“Okay,” Bruce said finally, “One thing at a time.  You said – you said you recognized several of the other guests.  Besides Cassamento –”

 

“Dead,” Jason answered, “All of them.”  It had been one of the first things he’d done when he got back to Gotham.  He’d been careful about it too, making the deaths as natural as possible, hiding any trace of his involvement.  They hadn’t been a part of his game with the Bats.

 

“All of – are you sure?”

 

Jason raised an eyebrow, incredulous.  What, like he would’ve forgotten any name on the list?  He’d missed only four – two had been sent to jail and died there, one had died in a Rogue attack, and the final one had been out of town.

 

“Okay.  Why – why didn’t you tell me?” Bruce asked quietly.

 

“I haven’t exactly hidden the whole killing-rapists-and-anyone-who-touches-kids thing.”

 

“No, Jason,” Bruce said, shaking his head, “I meant, why didn’t you tell me then?”

 

Jason froze.  “I didn’t have any proof,” he said lowly, “What the hell was I supposed to say – hey, B, we need to go after these guys, only I won’t tell you why or how I know they’re scum?”

 

“You did have proof,” Bruce said.

 

“You – I – are you really asking me why I didn’t tell you I recognized a bunch of your associates from my time spent on street corners?” Jason asked, disbelieving, “I realize we didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things back then, Bruce, but I was not going to jeopardize a roof over my head and three square meals a day because I couldn’t handle some comments from assholes who wanted a back-alley blowjob!”

 

Bruce looked furious again, and Jason swallowed against a dry throat, keenly aware that he was lacking the metaphorical comfort the Red Hood helmet offered him.

 

“Jason,” Bruce said, each word terse like he was fighting the effort to yell, “I wouldn’t have kicked you out if you’d told me.”

 

Jason made a show of rolling his eyes, “A street kid was barely skirting the edge of acceptable, but a whore?”

 

“Jason –”

 

“Jesus Christ, B, the papers were bad enough when you took in Dick, they would’ve had a field day if it had gotten out that you’d adopted a prostitute –”

 

“A child,” Bruce snapped, cutting him off, “I adopted a child.  A child that had been forced to go through things that no one should’ve had to go through.”

 

“Don’t make this into one of your sob stories,” Jason groaned, “Nobody forced me –”

 

“They did,” Bruce said implacably, “Every single person who took your other options off the table forced you.  Every single person who decided to take the offer forced you.  You were a child, and you couldn’t consent.”

 

There were tears prickling at the corners of Jason’s eyes again, and he didn’t even know why.  He wanted to argue against Bruce – but he hadn’t let any kid on the street corners when he was patrolling as Hood, and he put a bullet in the head of anyone who’d tried to get them to.  But he didn’t – he wasn’t –

 

Fuck this whole goddamn family.

 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Jason said through gritted teeth – usually a good retort, because Bruce never wanted to talk about anything.  “It happened years ago, I’m over it, I have no idea why you’re bringing this up now.”

 

One of those things was definitely a lie, but Jason preferred not to confront his feelings when he was confined to a chair and away from his weapons.

 

“Okay,” Bruce said, but his eyes had shuttered, “I’m sorry for not listening to you.”

 

“…What.”

 

“I’m sorry for not listening to you,” Bruce repeated patiently, “You told me you didn’t want to go to the gala.  I forced you to go anyway.  I’m sorry for not respecting your wishes.”

 

Jason stared at him, flabbergasted.  What the fuck.  Jason was tempted to call Alfred and ask him to check Bruce for hallucinogens.

 

“Since when have you cared about respecting my wishes?” Jason asked – he’d intended it to sound incredulous, but it ended up hoarse.

 

Bruce winced like Jason had reached out and slapped him.

 

“I know I’ve made mistakes,” he said softly, “And I’m so sorry, Jason.  I’m trying to do better.  I should’ve listened when you said you didn’t want to go.  I should’ve asked why you didn’t want to go, instead of assuming I knew the reason.  I should’ve realized how uncomfortable you are in the spotlight, even as a child.”

 

Dread grew in Jason’s stomach – this whole conversation seemed like it was winding to a ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ and some part of his heart cracked at the thought of the past few months being torn away from him.

 

“It’s just a party,” Jason half-shrugged casually, his heart beating in his throat, “I can handle a few hours of schmoozing for your favorite cause.”

 

Bruce didn’t look convinced, “But you shouldn’t have to.”

 

“Yeah, I do!” Jason growled, “Did you think I’d have come if you didn’t have a point?  There are still paparazzi at our gates, waiting for a glimpse of my face, and no one believes that stupid story about trafficking that you sold to the press.  Half of Gotham thinks that you were torturing me in the basement, and the injuries don’t exactly help your case.  I can rub elbows with some rich bastards and smile for some fucking pictures if that’s what it takes to let the story die.”

 

Bruce stared steadily back at him, his eyes flickering with an emotion Jason couldn’t name.  Jason ducked his head, his fingers clutching the armrests so hard they were nearly white, and stared at the floor.

 

He still couldn’t believe that this evening – Bruce’s favorite goddamn gala, the one he’d held in Wayne Manor for nearly twenty years now – had gone to shit so quickly.

 

Coming back to the Manor, recuperating here – because Jason was stubborn, but even he could admit that living alone in a safehouse with the kind of injuries he had would only be suicidal – forced out of anonymity and stuck at home while all the other Bats and Birds went out, had shoved Jason back into memories he’d done a great job of pretending didn’t exist.

 

Memories of the best three years of his life.

 

And the aching reminder of how easily it had all been torn away.

 

“Jason.  Look at me, please.”

 

And why, why could Jason refuse every one of Batman’s commands with a sneer but capitulate to Bruce’s whims every time?

 

He met the steely, blue-eyed gaze.

 

“You are my son,” Bruce said, firm and implacable, “You are more important than any gala I’ve ever attended.  You are worth more than the consequences of any press conference I hold.  And I would throw away my reputation in a heartbeat to keep you safe.”

 

Jason – Jason couldn’t – he couldn’t

 

He surged out of his chair, twisting past Bruce and hobbling forward – something in his left leg wrenched, but he wasn’t going back for his crutches, he was the goddamn Red Hood, he struck fear into the hearts of Gotham, he was – he was crying.

 

Jason scrubbed at his face, but they kept coming, silent and relentless.

 

“Jason,” Bruce started, but Jason cut him off.

 

“Shut up,” he snapped, his voice rasping and cracked, “Just – just don’t.”

 

Bruce stayed silent, but Jason could feel the man’s presence, a heavy stare boring into his back.

 

Jason clutched the edge of a computer table, and took a deep breath.  He could do this.  Like ripping off a bandaid.  It would hurt like a bitch, but at least it would be done.  No more jerking around.  No more painful hope.

 

It figured that Jason would sabotage himself every time, but it was better this way – better for it to be his fault, rather than trying and trying and trying and still falling short.

 

“You don’t have to give me the whole spiel, Bruce,” Jason said quietly, “If you want me gone, just say it.  I’ll be out of your hair in an hour.”

 

A sharp inhale.  “Why in the world would I want you gone, Jason?” Bruce asked, anger bleeding back into his words, “I finally, finally got you back!”

 

“No,” Jason said, still turned away from Bruce, because he couldn’t stop the tears but he sure could hide them.  “You didn’t.”  It ached, but it was the truth.  “Robin died.”  And nothing of that boy had crawled out of the grave.  “Red Hood disappeared.”  It would be months before he was back on his feet, months before he could patrol again, and he’d have to start from scratch to build his territory back up.  “And you’re clearly building up to tell me that Jason Wayne is useless.”  The one last chance he’d had, because if he wasn’t useful to Batman, he could still be useful to Bruce Wayne.

 

“What’s left?”

 

“Jason, I don’t – you’re not – you don’t have to be useful!  I don’t care about being Robin or Red Hood or the heir the media wants you to be – I just want my son.  Jay-lad, I’m not kicking you out.  I could never kick you out.  I don’t want you gone.  You are my son, no matter what.”

 

Something abruptly snapped inside of him, a knot he never even knew existed.  A part of him whispered that it was a trick, a trap, manipulation – but the greater part of him was filling with hope, fierce and wild.

 

“Really?” Jason asked, a sardonic edge to his tone, because he couldn’t stop shooting himself in the foot, “Even if I argue with everything you say?  Even if I’m contrary just because I feel like it?  Even I scream and yell and –”

 

“Jason,” Bruce cut him off, sounding…tired.  Tired and sad.  “Jay.  How long have you been worried that I would disown you for saying something wrong?”

 

Jason kept his mouth shut.  Answering ‘ever since I woke up in the hospital with my real name on the door’ would be too revealing.

 

Judging by Bruce’s sigh, he didn’t need Jason to say it out loud.

 

“Jason,” Bruce said softly, “I’m not going to disown you.  You’re my son.”

 

Jason raised his head, until he could see the empty space along the far wall where he knew there was once a glass case with a bloody, ripped uniform and a plaque that read ‘A Good Soldier’.  “Yeah,” Jason said wetly, “That’s what you said the last time too.”

 

Silence.  Bruce didn’t say a word.  Jason swallowed as the tension stretched, and finally twisted to look at Bruce, peering at him over a shoulder.

 

Bruce looked like Jason had carved out his heart with a rusty spoon and then set it on fire.

 

Jason turned fully, something clenching in his stomach as Bruce opened his mouth, his voice cracking, “Jason.  Did you think I adopted you because you were Robin?”

 

Jason kept his mouth shut.  He could sense that ‘yes’ was the wrong answer, but he was too wrung out to come up with a believable lie.

 

Bruce’s face crumpled.

 

Jason took a wavering step forward, unsure of what he was doing, and his legs chose that moment to remind him that they were nowhere near healed and had been supporting his weight all evening.

 

Bruce automatically caught him, grabbing his arms to ensure he didn’t collapse into an ungainly heap, and, this close, Jason could smell the woodsy scent of cologne that Bruce hadn’t changed in nine years.

 

The scent that had always promised warmth and home and safe.

 

Jason unconsciously reached forward, dropping his forehead against Bruce’s shoulder to inhale deeply and finally, finally quiet the jitters trembling through his limbs.  The prickling in his eyes swelled to burning and he could feel that he was soaking the jacket under his nose, but he couldn’t stop.

 

His legs were still weak and shaky, but Bruce’s grasp was steadier than the crutches had been, and he knew he wasn’t going to fall.

 

“Jason,” Bruce said quietly, his voice rumbling against Jason’s forehead.  He was shaking slightly.  “Was that why you left?”

 

Fifteen and furious, fifteen and upset, fifteen and watching in rapidly paling shock because Bruce was kicking him out – because Dick had had until eighteen but Jason had screwed it all up – and he needed to leave before Bruce forced him to, he needed to find someplace to stay, someone who wanted him –

 

And Dick wasn’t picking up his phone.

 

And he went back to his old apartment.

 

And he found a birth certificate that did not say Catherine Todd.

 

Jason tried to take a deep breath, but it hitched halfway through, cracking straight down to his heart, and he clutched Bruce’s suit jacket with trembling fingers and refused to let go.  “I’m sorry,” he gasped, feeling fresh tears pool in his eyes, “I’m so sorry –”

 

“No, Jay, no – none of this is your fault,” Bruce murmured, his grip shifting until his arms wrapped around Jason, holding him close, letting him sob into a ten-thousand-dollar jacket like he was a child again, like he wasn’t twenty-one years old and a goddamn crime lord and – and –

 

“Jay-lad,” Bruce said softly, and nothing else in the world mattered, as long as Bruce kept saying his name in that tone.

 


 

Jason had a room at the Manor.  Had three rooms actually – his old bedroom, which had been left untouched, even Jason avoiding it in fear of ghosts, the guest bedroom that Jason had used on extremely rare occasions when he’d still been Hood, and the new one they’d set up to be closer to the elevator and other accessibility features.

 

And yet he was snuggled in Bruce’s expensive silk sheets, eyes half-lidded as a gentle hand combed through his hair, drowsily observing that the paintings on the walls hadn’t changed at all since the last time he’d been here.

 

“You can go back to the party,” Jason said quietly, relaxing further into the gentle stroking, “I’m fine.”

 

“I’m happy where I am,” Bruce hummed, tucking a lock of hair behind Jason’s ear.

 

Jason rolled his eyes, “It’s your party, at your own house.  The host can’t disappear without everyone asking inconvenient questions.”

 

“You are not an inconvenience,” Bruce said firmly, “And I have spent more than half my life dodging questions, I’ll be fine.  Tim is playing host for now, and Damian is there as his backup.”

 

Jason sighed.  They’d be lucky if the demon brat didn’t skewer someone by the end of the night, and Tim had looked remarkably stressed…all…evening…

 

Jason jolted upright, catching Bruce’s wrist when the man immediately moved to lean back.  “Tim,” he said hoarsely, turning his frantic gaze on Bruce.

 

“What about Tim?” Bruce frowned, “What’s wrong?”

 

“Tim knew who Cassamento was,” Jason said numbly – his mind already dragging bits and pieces of the evening from the fog.  Tim’s pallor.  His pinched face.  His clear anxiety.

 

“He – he hasn’t been in Gotham for six years, and I didn’t know he was back.”

 

Oh, god.  Jason was going to hurl.

 

Bruce’s face was a storm cloud.

 

“Go,” Jason said, pushing him, “Find him.  Make sure he –” Sure he what?  Didn’t have Jason’s nightmares playing behind his eyes?  Bruce couldn’t promise that.

 

Jason swallowed.  “Bring him back here,” he entreated quietly.  He needed to see, with his own two eyes, that Tim was okay.

 

“I’ll be back,” Bruce promised, easing off the bed.  Jason slumped back against the pillows with a groan.

 

If he had just told Bruce back then, then Tim wouldn’t have – Tim would never have – his little brother should never had even known

 

He intended to stay awake, but minutes bled into an hour, and Jason was half-asleep when a knock on the door startled him back to consciousness.  Tim’s eyes were red-rimmed and his face was splotchy, and Jason wasted no time in getting him under the covers and bundled up in warmth.

 

He turned a questing glance on Bruce, something churning in his stomach, and only relaxed at Bruce’s slight shake of the head.  Jason clutched his brother closer and dropped his chin on top of the long, wavy hair, hearing Tim’s quiet sniffles slowly ease out into sleep.

 

“M’sorry,” Jason said quietly, his words half-muffled by Tim’s hair.

 

“Not your fault,” Bruce said, sweeping that white lock of hair off his face, “And I will repeat that as many times as it takes to sink in.”

 

Jason had no doubt he would.  Bruce was stubborn like that.  He grumbled in mock protest before letting his eyes drift shut again.

 

Bruce was here, and he was safe.

 


 

Jason couldn’t entirely suppress the groan when he hobbled into the kitchen – it turned out that spending nearly an hour on crutches and then refusing painkillers was not a wise combination – to see that it was occupied.  And he’d been hoping to get a sandwich without running into any members of the family.

 

Sure, all of them had left before he and Bruce had really started talking, but by that time, the damage had already been done.  Tim could barely look him in the eye this morning – but that could’ve also been because Jason woke up to the kid drooling on his shirt.

 

But the person that Jason had especially not wanted to see was lounging on top of the kitchen table, eating an apple and looking up from his phone at Jason’s entrance.  “Jay,” Dick’s face split into a smile – small and sad – as he leapt off the table, “Come on, sit, I’ll make you something to eat.”  He drew a chair out for Jason before flitting to the kitchen counter.

 

“Excuse me?” Jason wearily eased himself into the chair – it was better to go along than to get hit in the face with Dick Grayson’s relentless enthusiasm.  “I’m not in the mood for cereal, and I’d rather not be poisoned, thanks.”

 

“Okay, one, there’s nothing wrong with cereal,” Dick called over his shoulder as he turned the stove on, “And two, just because I like cereal doesn’t mean I’m incapable of making other things.”  He was getting out bread, cheese, tomatoes, and chilies, and Jason warily conceded that if he messed up a sandwich, it would be easy to tell.

 

Dick worked in complete silence, staring at the stove as he waited for the bread to toast, and Jason got tired of the prickling tension dancing along his spine.  “Just say it,” he grumbled, glowering at Dick’s back.

 

“Say what?” the older boy had the audacity to ask, turning to fix Jason with a guileless expression.

 

Jason glared, and Dick’s expression spasmed, twisting into something sadder.

 

“How are you feeling?” Dick asked, soft.

 

“Tired,” Jason replied, clipped.

 

Jason had been terrified of Bruce finding out, but his worst nightmare had been Dick finding out – perfect, golden boy Richard fucking Grayson, Robin and Nightwing and leader of the Titans and darling of the whole caped community, sneering at him in disgust.

 

Rationally, logically, he’d known that Dick wasn’t that kind of person, that he wouldn’t accuse Jason of sleeping his way into the position, that he wasn’t going to think that Jason was tainted, but insecurities were never logical, and he had been terrified of watching begrudging respect turn into cold, hard disappointment.

 

“Okay,” Dick said.  He was still looking at Jason like he’d disappear if he blinked.  “Cassamento’s in custody.”

 

Jason had figured – once Tim and Babs had a target locked in their sights, they never let go.

 

“Broke his jaw for you,” Dick said lightly.

 

“Thanks,” Jason said, instead of going for the ‘pity you didn’t kill him’, or any other barb lying in easy reach.  It didn’t matter.  Cassamento wasn’t going to be eating solid food for a while, and Jason could always kill him later, assuming that prison didn’t get him first.

 

Dick finished the sandwiches and cut them neatly into triangles.  “Food preparation is half the battle of getting children to eat,” he said in response to Jason’s raised eyebrow, clearly quoting Alfred.

 

“I’m not a child,” Jason retorted, an easy path for Dick to start teasing.  Instead, his brother’s face shuttered.

 

The sandwich was thick and heavy as he attempted to swallow.

 

Jason set the plate down, the silence a tangible weight as Dick took the seat opposite him.  He stared at Dick.  Dick stared back, forehead furrowed and eyes shining suspiciously.

 

“I’m sorry,” Dick rasped out after what felt like a minute.

 

“For what?” Jason asked, his fingers clenching into a fist.  If he heard one more meaningless platitude, he was going to deck someone.

 

Dick’s face twisted, and his gaze dropped to the table as he swallowed.  “It was – it was your first gala,” Dick said softly, “I was back because B said something about presenting a united front.  I – I didn’t want to be there.  I didn’t want to smile and pretend like everything was happy.  And you –”

 

Jason remembered.  Remembered his stomach twisting into anxious knots as he edged through the house – not Bruce, he couldn’t disappoint Bruce, the man had agreed to let him stay in the big house, but Dick was back, and Bruce said they were brothers, and Jason didn’t know a whole lot about brothers, but they were supposed to help.

 

“You came to my room,” Dick said softly, “And you said you didn’t want to go to the party.”  A tear slipped down his cheek.  “And I told you to suck it up.”

 

And Jason had pasted a smile on his face and let his mind drift, untethering it with ease, wading through the weight of sneers and aside comments and leers of recognition.  Dick’s smile had grown more and more pinched throughout the night, and he had forced Bruce to stop the car halfway on their way back before storming out.

 

Jason had stayed silent in the backseat, silent and still and perfectly behaved, even as his heart jumped at the thought of being forced to walk back home in the middle of the night.

 

“I’m sorry, Little Wing,” Dick said, his voice cracking in the middle.

 

Jason looked at Dick, remembering the echoes of the painful moments that had set the tone for their relationship – before Dick thawed, before he let him join the Titans, before he took Jason train-surfing and taught him flips and handed him a phone number and told him to call if anything was wrong.

 

“Apology accepted,” Jason said easily.

 

“Jay –”

 

“Dick,” Jason said flatly, “I’m not pretending that you weren’t an asshole at the start, because you were.  But you changed.  You grew up.  Yeah, it hurt when you said that.  But I forgive you.”

 

“Jason,” Dick said, quiet and small, looking at him with a fractured expression, “You don’t have –”

 

“You don’t get to tell me how I should feel,” Jason said, an edge entering his tone.  Dick’s expression twisted, but he backed off.

 

“Okay, Little Wing,” Dick said softly, “Thank you.”  After a beat, “So, how’s the sandwich?”

 

“You do realize you completely burnt one side, right?”

 


 

Jason looked up from his book at the sound of the library doors opening.  He’d expected it to be Bruce, who had checked up on him every half-hour while trying to not make it obvious that he was checking up on him, but the scowling figure stalking inside was about a foot too short to be Bruce.

 

“Todd,” Damian greeted, his tone, as always, on the edge of barely civil.

 

“Brat,” Jason responded in kind.

 

Damian sniffed at him and disappeared somewhere in the library stacks.  Jason watched him go, glancing over the top of his book – Damian had been in the most danger last night, even if it had revisited painful memories for Jason and Tim, and Jason wasn’t sure if the kid had just suppressed it, or if he genuinely didn’t care.

 

Jason imagined Talia’s version of ‘stranger danger’, and shuddered.  The kid had no doubt been taught exactly where to aim his knives for maximum psychological damage.

 

Damian returned holding a book, and gave him another passing nod.  Jason only realized that the whole thing had been an excuse when Damian paused at the doors, glancing at Jason over one shoulder.

 

“Todd,” Damian said flatly.

 

Jason raised an eyebrow.

 

Damian hesitated for a brief moment, before his expression firmed.  “Father is not in the habit of repealing his decisions,” he said haughtily.

 

It took Jason a moment to parse through that one.

 

“Thanks, baby bat,” he said, his tone fonder than he’d been going for.  Damian made a face at this display of emotion, and disappeared before it could infect him – more than it already had.

 

Jason chuckled and turned back to his book.

 

Damian was right.  Bruce was one of the most stubborn idiots Jason had ever met.  And he’d made the choice to adopt Jason.

 

Maybe he didn’t have to be Jason Wayne.  Maybe he could just be Bruce’s son.