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Domestic dispute.  Batman could hear the shouts and screams, the sudden, terrified silence.  He swung over, slipping seamlessly through the window and hovering in a shadow.

 

Small apartment.  Threadbare couch, chipped coffee table, mismatched cushions.  A woman, hands covering her mouth, eyes wide and teary.  Bruise blooming on her temple.

 

A man, arm raised, belt folded in two.  Expression a rictus of anger, frozen eerily still.  He didn’t look like he was breathing.

 

The boy.  The boy, dressed in shabby clothes, bright red hoodie, edges of bruises peeking out from frayed hems.  The boy, lying on the floor, a mess of crumpled limbs, too small, too young.  The boy, a pool of blood growing from his head.

 

The boy, dead.

 

Batman stepped forward, past the frozen man, past the crying mother, past the evidence of a life of hardship and abuse, and knelt next to the boy.

 

His cheek was still warm.

 


 

A gang shooting.  He heard the shots first, then the screams.  By the time he got there, everyone had scattered, and he crept out of the alleyway to study the scene.

 

Trash blowing in the wind.  Locked doors up and down the street, windows firmly closed, the last streetlight flickering.

 

A man, fallen, arms outstretched.  Three bullets – two to the chest, one to the leg.  Blood gleaming sickly in the guttering orange light.

 

The boy, curled up next to him.  Two bullets – one to the stomach, one to the face.  Sightless blue eyes, staring up at him.

 

The red hoodie masked the sight of blood.

 


 

It was a hard day.  The hardest of days.  He pressed a hand to the brick wall of the alley his parents had been murdered in and pushed himself up from the crouch.

 

The Batmobile was waiting.  He wanted to go home and rinse off the memories of this awful night.  He reached the street and –

 

One tire was missing.  A tire jack had collapsed.  The car was tilted to one side, listing heavily.

 

An arm, in a fraying red hoodie.  Fingers closed around a tire iron.  Small fingers.  Too small.

 

He could see exactly where the rib cage had caved in.

 


 

Laughing, bright child.  So eager to learn, so fierce, so righteous.  A worthy partner on his crusade for justice.

 

Smiling, enthusiastic child.  So excited.  Too excited.

 

The gunshot rang in the room.  Robin flipped, just what he’d been taught, keep moving, don’t let them hit you, quick and fast and a flashy distraction –

 

The ricochet caught him in the spine.

 

Dead.

 


 

Bright, clever child.  Devouring knowledge like he was starving, coveting it like it was made of gold.  An amazing detective in his own right.

 

Intelligent, bold child.  So smart.  Too smart.

 

Patience, Batman had cautioned, check the facts.  And he had.  He’d looked at the evidence, he’d found the pattern, he’d connected the dots.

 

He just hadn’t waited.

 

Red and green and yellow, hanging from a hook.

 

Dead.

 


 

Clever, furious child.  Hungry for justice, desperate for it, and uncaring as it ate him up alive.  Ever more violent, ever more impatient, and Batman was terrified that one day he’d cross the line.

 

A woman, crying, bruises on her face.

 

A man walking out with a smile on his face.

 

A woman, hanging from the ceiling, neck snapped.

 

A man smoking a cigarette on a balcony.

 

Red and green and yellow, red and green and yellow, red and red and red.

 

“He slipped,” Felipe Garzonas said.

 

Red and red and dead.

 


 

“Stay here,” he instructed, “Jason, please, stay here.  Do not move.  Do not go with your mother.”

 

Jason nodded and smiled, “I’ll stay.  I promise.”

 

“I’ll come back as quickly as I can,” Batman said.  He sped through his mission, aware of the ticking clock underneath his heart.  Faster.  Faster.

 

When he came back, there was no warehouse in flames.  No bomb.  No bloody metal crowbar.  No laughter, no clown, nothing.

 

There was a boy on the ground, and a bullet hole in his head.

 

Too late.

 


 

“Go back to the hotel,” he instructed, “Jason, I know you want to help, but go back to the hotel, and stay there.  Please.”

 

Jason glowered, but spun around, “Fine.”

 

“I’ll come back as quickly as I can,” Batman said.  He sped through his mission, aware of the ticking clock underneath his heart.  Faster.  Faster.

 

When he came back, there was no one in the warehouse.  There was nothing in the warehouse.  No clown, no deceitful mother, no dead body.

 

The hotel was on fire.

 

Too late.

 


 

“Jason, please don’t go anywhere,” he instructed, “You can’t trust your mother.  Stay here.”

 

Jason frowned, confused, “Okay.”

 

“I’ll come back as quickly as I can,” Batman said.  He sped through his mission, aware of the ticking clock underneath his heart.  Faster.  Faster.

 

When he came back, the warehouse wasn’t on fire.  The bomb was ticking down – a full fifteen seconds left.  He grabbed the broken, bleeding boy, and ran.

 

The warehouse exploded behind him.

 

“Knew you’d come,” the boy said, red painting his mouth.  His chest heaved in uncertain, jagged breaths.  “Knew you’d come.”

 

His eyes slid shut.

 

Too late.

 


 

An empty warehouse.  A clown tied to a chair, laughing maniacally.  A bloody crowbar in the corner.

 

Red helmet, leather jacket, body armor, guns.  Anger lashing out, a fury beyond words, an aching grief set to frantic movements.

 

A gun, sliding to his feet.

 

“Kill him,” Jason said, “Or kill me.  Because you can’t stop me any other way.”  He raised the gun and set it to a pale forehead.

 

Batman did not pick up the gun.

 

Another bomb, another trigger, another explosion.

 

He dug the Joker out.

 

The police found the other body.

 


 

An empty warehouse.  A clown tied to a chair, laughing maniacally.  A bloody crowbar in the corner.

 

Red helmet, leather jacket, body armor, guns.  Anger lashing out, a fury beyond words, an aching grief set to frantic movements.

 

A gun, sliding to his feet.

 

“Kill him,” Jason said, “Or kill me.  Because you can’t stop me any other way.”  He raised the gun and set it to a pale forehead.

 

Batman picked up the gun.

 

Flashes of memory bombarded him as he curled his finger around the trigger – the mugger, the alley, the bats, the pearls skidding across the road.  The bang.

 

The Joker laughed.

 

The Red Hood stared at him for one long moment, before he collapsed.

 


 

An empty warehouse.  A clown tied to a chair, laughing maniacally.  A bloody crowbar in the corner.

 

Red helmet, leather jacket, body armor, guns.  Anger lashing out, a fury beyond words, an aching grief set to frantic movements.

 

A gun, sliding to his feet.

 

“Kill him,” Jason said, “Or kill me.  Because you can’t stop me any other way.”  He raised the gun and set it to a pale forehead.

 

Batman picked up the gun.

 

The gun that had killed his parents.  The gun that could save his son.  The gun.

 

Bang.

 

Pale forehead jerked back, expression frozen into a too wide smile.  A leather-clad arm dropped slowly, shocked.  The helmet swiveled towards him.

 

“Dad,” Jason said, awed, and –

 

There wasn’t only one set of bombs in that warehouse.

 

Dead man’s trigger.

 

Even body armor couldn’t stop shrapnel.

 


 

The red always hid the blood.

 


 

Bruce woke up.  For a long moment, he stared at the ceiling, at the interplay of shadows.  He used to watch it as he waited for hiccupping breaths to ease and quiet after a nightmare, a small head resting on his arm and curled against his side.  He used to watch it and hope that bad dreams never plagued his children again.

 

His son was dead.

 

His bright, amazing, fierce child.  Bruce had seen so much of himself in that kid – so much tragedy, so much potential, raging at the world and demanding it to change.  Refusing to accept anything else.

 

And the world had cut him down for it.

 

And it hadn’t even had the courtesy to stop there.

 

His son was alive.

 

No longer laughing and smiling with eyes full of wonder.  Those eyes had seen too much.  Hands stained permanently red, a burden that would forever rest on his shoulders.  And somewhere between there and here, Bruce had lost him.

 

His son was alive…right?

 

Bruce scrambled out of bed.  He tried to pull up the tracking system, but the connection fizzled out – Jason had apparently found the tracker and destroyed it.

 

Or he could be dead, an insidious voice whispered.

 

He ignored it.  He got dressed hurriedly – it was almost four in the morning, the Manor was dead silent, the Cave echoing with his footsteps – and went for the Batmobile.  He had a list of probable locations of Jason’s safehouses.  He’d start there.

 

The first was empty.  Completely empty.  No gear, nothing.  Not even an alarm on the door.

 

The second was stocked – food and weapons – but everything was covered with dust.

 

The third wasn’t a safehouse at all, it was just an old garage.  Bruce scanned every inch of it for a hidden passage, and found nothing.

 

The fourth was also not a safehouse – it was being rented by a family, and Bruce slipped out silently after confirming that none of the sleeping bodies was Jason.

 

The fifth – the fifth was trashed.  Broken furniture.  Shards of glass.  Blood.  It looked like a tornado had torn through the apartment.

 

Bruce bagged a piece of bloody glass.  Check the other three places on the list, or go back home and analyze the blood?  If it was Jason’s…

 

No.  Three more options.  Three more opportunities to find his son, alive and well and whole.

 

He could see sightless blue eyes every time he closed his eyes.  And red, always red – why did Jason have to choose a color that hid the bloodstains so easily?

 

The sixth had been stripped almost completely.  There was a box of ration bars, a clip of ammunition, a collection of zip ties, a lone wooden chair.  It had taken him five minutes to break through the security, and he looked at the empty apartment in churning disappointment.

 

The seventh had a trip wire on the window.  Shock alarm linked to the sill.  Slipping past both of them caused a silent alarm to tick down, and Bruce had to disable that in less than thirty seconds.

 

There was furniture.  A coat on the hook near the door.  Boots neatly lined up.  A paperback on the coffee table.

 

Bruce eased the bedroom door open slowly.

 

There was a body on the bed.  He pulled his cowl off to see better.  Dark hair, a curl of white.  Soft, whistling breaths.  Sleeping on his stomach, head turned to one side, blanket tucked in around him.

 

Alive.  Alive.

 

Bruce tugged off a glove and indulged the desire to run a hand through the dark hair, trembling fingers sweeping a curl away from the sleeping face.

 

His knees felt weak.

 

Another stroke, and the nose scrunched up, closed eyes drawing into a frown.  They fluttered open, and Bruce froze.  Jason blinked, looking up blearily.  “Dad?” he mumbled, and something in Bruce’s heart cracked straight down the middle.

 

He collapsed onto the bed, heart pounding, eyes prickling, lump swelling in his throat.  His son was alive.

 

Jason blinked again, alertness snapping into place as he sat up.  “B?” he asked, eyes wide and confused, but not antagonistic.  Not yet.  “What happened?”

 

Bruce dared to dream a little more, and reached out, enveloping his second son in a hug.  Jason went with it, no quips or taunts or sneers, and Bruce held his child for the first time since he’d died.

 

“Jay,” he murmured, and that was enough to break the dam.

 

Tears seeped into his son’s hair, muffled sobs echoing in the room as Bruce clutched him close, one arm wrapping around his back – no broken ribs, no caved-in chest – and the other hand sank into his hair – no blood, no bumps, alive, alive, alive.

 

“Bruce?” Jason said, now sounding distinctly alarmed, “Bruce, what happened?”

 

Bruce didn’t answer.  Bruce couldn’t answer.  Bruce could only hold on and enjoy every precious moment before Jason shoved him off and shot him.  Bruce could only cry, tears as silent as he could make them, as he remembered holding his son’s broken, bleeding, burnt corpse in his arms.

 

“Bruce?” Jason lowered his voice to a whisper, “Bruce, is everyone okay?”

 

You, Bruce wanted to shout, you died, you’re not okay, how can you ask me to be okay after I lost my son.

 

Jason cursed, and twisted – Bruce hung on for a second before reluctantly letting go – but he only reached for the phone on the nightstand before leaning back into Bruce’s grip.  Bruce tightened his grasp, and pressed his face to his son’s hair.

 

The line rang.  And rang.  And rang.  Finally, it clicked, a hoarse, bleary voice grumbling, “It’s four-thirty in the morning, this better be important.”

 

“Who died?” Jason snapped.

 

A long, stretching period of silence.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“You’re excused, Dickhead, who died?  And why did no one bother to tell me?”

 

Dick’s confusion was palpable through the phone line.  “Jay?” he asked warily, “What are you talking about?”

 

“I’m talking about Bruce having a meltdown, so who was it?  What happened?”

 

“Bruce is having a meltdown?” Dick repeated, his tone too tired to be incredulous.

 

Jason cursed, and hung up the phone.  Bruce could hear him dialing again.  This time, the line clicked after two rings.

 

“Hello?” Tim answered, sounding far too awake for this hour of the morning.

 

“Who died?” Jason demanded again.

 

Tim was silent for a moment.  “…Is this a trick question?”

 

“What – no, it’s not a fucking trick question, Replacement, I want to know what the fuck happened.”

 

“You’re not making much sense, Jason.”

 

“It’s a simple goddamn question,” Jason seethed – and Bruce could hear barely restrained panic in his tone, “Who died?”

 

Another period of silence, before Tim apparently decided to play along.  “Today?” he ventured.

 

“No, six years ago – of course today!”

 

A pause, punctuated by keys tapping, “No one in the hero community, as far as I’m aware.”  More tapping.  “No one among villains.”  More tapping.  “Is there a specific category I’m looking for, or are you asking me to count every dead body in the last twenty-four hours?”

 

“I am asking you,” Jason growled, “To give me a fucking reason why Bruce showed up in the middle of the night and is now crying on my shoulder.”

 

A long, extended silence.

 

“What,” Tim said flatly.

 

“So if you could perhaps use that brain of yours to figure out what happened to cause the old man to have a breakdown, that would be fantastic.”

 

Bruce could just do it.  Open his mouth and say that nothing was wrong.  That everyone was fine.  No reason to panic.

 

But then Jason would make him leave.  Would force him out.  Would tear himself out of Bruce’s arms and give him that cold, betrayed gaze that Bruce saw every time he closed his eyes.

 

“Okay,” Tim said quietly, “I’ll call you back in five minutes.”  The line ended.

 

Jason muttered uncharitable things about Tim under his breath, but he stayed in the hug, absently petting Bruce’s shoulder as he rested his head against his collarbone.  “It’s okay,” Jason said softly, “Whatever it is, it’s going to be okay.”

 

Bruce tried to hold onto the lie.

 

Jason answered the phone on the first ring.  “Well?” he barked.

 

“Everyone on Team Bat is fine,” Tim responded, “Steph made several detailed death threats for waking her up this early, and the demon brat threw a knife at me when I poked my head into his room, so I’m demanding hazard pay.  The Justice League has no new updates.  Also whatever you said to Dick completely freaked him out, so congratulations, he’ll be in Gotham in forty minutes.”

 

“None of that answers my fucking question –”

 

“I checked the security tapes – Bruce woke forty minutes ago and headed out.  He didn’t receive any outside communication.  He visited seven locations that are listed as your probable safehouses.”

 

“You have a list of – never mind.  So what the hell is wrong with him?”

 

“Have you tried asking him?” Tim said waspishly, and cut the call.

 

Bruce let out a slow exhale.  That was it.  This was as far as he could stretch it.  He took a moment to memorize it – the warmth, the beating heart, broad shoulders hunched in, the weight against his shoulder – as he waited for Jason to shove him away.

 

Jason didn’t shove him away.  But he did stretch and twist himself out of Bruce’s grasp, enough for him to look Bruce in the face.

 

Bruce was dimly aware that he was still crying.

 

“What happened?” Jason asked softly.  Probably the last time he’d ask softly.

 

Bruce took a hitched breath, and wiped his eyes.  The tears would chafe against his cowl when he had to pull it back on.  It took three stuttering tries, but he finally managed to force the words out.

 

“Bad dream.”

 

Jason’s expression shifted from concern to shock and finally settled on incredulity before his eyes narrowed into suspicion.  He crossed his hands – his twenty-year old son, dressed in a faded Wonder Woman tee and sweatpants, hair sleep-mussed, green eyes glowing faintly, still half-twisted in the blankets, and yet managing to look every inch of the sharp, ruthless vigilante that had carved out a territory in Gotham in spite of Batman.

 

“Bad dream,” Jason said flatly, “You hunted me down in the middle of the night because you had a bad dream.”

 

Put it like that, it sounded ridiculous.

 

Jason rolled his eyes, “What could you possibly dream about that was –”

 

“You.”

 

Jason’s lips firmed into a thin line.  “Me,” he said, clipped, “Me, what?  Killing people?  Torturing your family?  Killing the Joker?  I mean, half of what I do is nightmare fuel, right?  So what was it this –”

 

“Dying,” Bruce whispered, “You dying.”

 

Jason broke off, his expression roiling, shifting too fast for Bruce to pin down.  He wanted to squeeze his eyes shut, he wanted to curl away and close his heart and pull his cowl back on, but every second Jason allowed him to stay in his presence was another second that reassured him that his son was still alive.

 

“I kept watching you die,” Bruce said hoarsely, “And I couldn’t save you.  I was always too late.  And I just needed –” to break into your house and watch you while you were sleeping because I can’t, Jay, I need to see the things I love to make sure they’re okay.  “I just wanted to make sure that you were –” alive – “fine.”

 

Jason stared at him, his expression completely shut off.

 

Bruce suppressed all the other things he wanted to say – how much he’d missed Jason, how much he loved him, how much the thought of losing him again cut him to the bone, how desperately he wished he could make amends – and instead choked out, “I’m sorry.”

 

He should get up and go.  If he wanted any chance of salvaging a relationship with his son after this train wreck, he should leave before Jason had to force him out.  He’d snuck into the apartment, he’d watched him while he was sleeping, he needed to leave because he’d already overstayed his welcome.

 

He didn’t get up.  Until Jason kicked him out, he wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Jason took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “It’s too early for this,” he muttered, twisting free of the blankets and slipping off of the bed.  Bruce watched him go to his closet – was he getting his gun?  A different weapon?  Did he think he’d have to fight Bruce to leave?

 

A wad of cloth came flying at his face.  Bruce caught it, startled, and the cloth resolved itself into a Batman T-shirt and plain dark sweatpants.  He looked up, and saw Jason crawling back into the bed, yawning.

 

“Your armor’s too pointy,” Jason grumbled, “And I’m tired and going back to sleep.”  He yanked the blankets up and curled up, tucking himself firmly into a cocoon.

 

Bruce stared at the barely visible head of dark hair, and then at the clothes, and then back up again.  The lump in his throat swelled.

 

Jason made no comment when Bruce pulled back the covers, or when he gingerly eased himself on the bed.  He only made a sleepy mumble as Bruce cautiously stroked his hair, and stretched his neck to push his head further into Bruce’s hand.

 

This time, the tears were silent as he softly combed through his son’s hair.

 


 

“I don’t understand, he wasn’t like this before –”

 

“Before you died?  No, Little Wing, he wasn’t.”

 

The voices were quiet, barely enough to stir him into consciousness, especially with the fingers curled into his, warm and present.

 

“You can’t expect me to believe it affected him that much –”

 

“Jaybird, you have no idea – this?  This running around the city because he desperately needs to know you’re safe?  It was even worse back then.  He had to go check up on everyone he cared about, and you can imagine how that went down.”

 

A soft hum of silence.

 

“Oh god, I remember breaking my phone once – I was out of contact for two hours, and B nearly called in the Justice League to scour Bludhaven to find me.”

 

“You can’t be serious.”

 

“I am, Little Wing.  He refused to let me out of his sight for the next day, which was fun trying to explain to the BPD.”

 

A contemplative huff.

 

“I’m sorry that he scared you.”

 

An immediate snarl.  “He didn’t – I wasn’t – fuck you, Dickhead.”

 

A quiet chuckle.  “Oh, Jaybird, you’re going have to try harder than that to convince me.  Especially since you still haven’t let go of Bruce’s hand.”

 

“I will shoot you.”

 

Another tinkling laugh.  An annoyed grumble.

 

“Alright.  Shoo.”

 

“What?”

 

Shoo.  I didn’t invite you over, Dickhead.  Go flap your way to the Manor – apparently the demon brat tried to murder the Replacement again, go fix that.”

 

“You’re – you’re kicking me out?”

 

“Fuck you, that isn’t going to work on me.  Go.”

 

“Little Wing?”

 

“I hate that nickname, that’s definitely not going to work on me.”

 

“Jaybird?”

 

“You fucking asshole, leave –”

 

A quiet sniffle.

 

Silence.

 

“You know what, I can’t deal with you morons.  I need sleep.”

 

The sheets rustled, and the hand in his twisted, a head fitting under his jaw as heat pressed close.  Another hand landed on his side with a soft sigh of happiness as fingers ghosted near his jaw, running through dark strands of hair as the warmth leaned into the strokes.

 

Alive, something in his mind hummed happily as sleep beckoned, alive and safe and warm.

 

He didn’t dream.