The shouting caught his attention but it was the loud slam of a door that made him investigate. Dick left his room just in time to see Jason stomping down the front hall. Not good.
"Where're you going, Jay?"
"Fuck off." Jason snarled and slammed the front door behind him. A moment later there was the roar of a motorcycle ripping down the driveway. Dick heaved a sigh. Not the way he'd hoped this would've ended.
Tim poked his head out of a room, blaring headphones around his neck. "Did someone call my name?"
"Go back to your homework Timtam." Dick ruffled his hair. "Everything's fine." He knocked on the open door of Bruce's study, the source of the previous shouting. "Can I come in?"
"Hnn." Bruce was slouched against his desk, fingers pressed to his temples. Exhaustion pulled at his features.
Dick leaned on the back of an armchair. "What happened?"
"I don't know." Bruce heaved a sigh. "I really don't know. We were having a nice talk and then it suddenly went off the rails. Next thing I know he's…" Bruce looked off into the distance. "Guess I said the wrong thing."
Dick nodded solemnly. He'd had his fair share of conversations with Jason that had taken a hard turn out of seemingly nowhere. Especially in the early days. The days where the pit had been in the driver's seat. The days where he'd had nightmares about hurting one brother to protect another.
"At least you're making an effort."
"Should I be?" Bruce frowned. "It feels like he doesn't want this."
"He does. It's just that…" Dick chewed his lip. "Okay, he can never know I said this or he'll be livid but Jason is like...a wounded animal right now. He's been through hell and he's struggling to accept that the hands are trying to help him, not harm him. You just have to be patient B. I've been patient with him and it's taken time but we've gotten better. So don't stop trying." Dick stepped closer. "He needs us and we need to be there for him. Despite what he says or thinks or thinks we think."
Bruce nodded slowly. "I'm glad he at least has you." An undertone of sadness bled through the carefully neutral tone.
"You've got me too."
"And I'm glad chum." Bruce smiled as he wrapped an arm around Dick's shoulders.
The conversation hung over Bruce's head like the thick Gotham clouds for the rest of the week. Every night he heard Jason's parting words echoing through his head. They were riddled with pain.
Truthfully, he was starting to wonder if his involvement was helping Jason at all. There were some things Bruce wasn't sure they'd ever see eye to eye on. Things they didn't want to see eye to eye on. Maybe Jason only needed, or wanted, his brother. As much as the thought hurt, Bruce would step aside if it helped. But Dick had said to be patient so he would try that first.
"Oracle to Batman."
A private channel? "I'm here." Bruce said as he finished zip-tying a mugger.
"Hood needs help."
His heart dropped.
Barbara kept speaking. "Normally I would let him figure out his own messes because he hates when I 'spy' on him and 'butt in' but something isn't right. He's getting his ass handed to him."
"Location." Bruce growled, already moving. By the time Oracle rattled off the full address, he was flying through the air.
He wasn't going to be late this time.
He wasn't going to fail him again.
The sounds of fighting reached Bruce long before he saw the bright red helmet in the center of five goons. Two more lay sprawled in the alley. He’d seen Jason handle a crowd like this before with ease, making almost as many quips as Nightwing.
So when a hit to the gut had Jason dropping to his knees, Bruce's concern spiked to a new high. He hadn't been tailing Jason per se, but he'd looked over Barbara's tracking data for the past week since their blowout and had seen how active the Red Hood was each night.
Jason was pushing himself too hard. Working himself to the bone. Now it had finally caught up with him.
Batman landed on a thug before he could strike Jason's exposed back with a steel pipe. Then he stood, making himself look as intimidating as possible with the heavy cape draped around him, boot still planted firmly on the man's back.
"Oh shit, it's the Bat!"
"What's he doing here!?"
"I got this handled, old man." Jason complained as he staggered to his feet.
"It certainly looks that way." Bruce muttered. With an unhappy, synthesized sound, Jason lunged at one of the terrified men.
He didn't know what gang they were from and he didn't care. Batman neutralized their guns quickly, before they could get a shot in. Then he took them down methodically, using their own weapons against them. And when the last one was strung up by his ankles, dangling from a street lamp, he realized Jason was silent.
"Hood?" Batman turned to see him slumped against the brick wall. One gloved hand was pressed to his side. "You're hurt." Bruce rushed over.
" 'M fine." Jason tried to wave him off but the motion didn't seem quite right. Too sloppy.
"I’m not some Robin you can order around anymore!" Jason snapped but removed his helmet anyway and let Bruce flip his domino lenses up.
"Are you drunk?"
"Hah! Wish I was. This is like a hangover without any of the fun."
"You're exhausted Hood. You’re hurt and need rest."
"I need to clean up my mess. This was my territory." Jason pushed himself back into a standing position using the wall. "Why are you even here? Especially after what I said." He took one step and his knees buckled.
"Doesn’t matter." Batman growled. He grabbed Jason and pulled one of his arms around his shoulders. "Now I'm taking you back to the cave–"
"No." Jason protested even as he sagged in Bruce’s arms. "My safehouse. It's close. Or I’ll tase you and hobble off on my own."
Bruce gave in with a reluctant nod and roll of his eyes.
The safehouse turned out to be an old abandoned building attached to a warehouse. By the time Jason disabled the security and they made it inside, his face was pale and clammy.
He hadn't made a sound beyond heavy breathing as they’d grappled to the rooftops or as he’d limped across them. But his mouth stayed pressed in a tight line; a dead giveaway that he was in pain. The hiss he let out as he collapsed onto the ratty old sofa now confirmed it.
"This is it?" It consisted of a mini fridge, a locked metal chest, and a crate which Bruce assumed must be the table.
"The better ones are for my eyes only. Besides, this is almost as nice as Dickie's place. Open concept and all that shit.” Jason began painstakingly pulling off his jacket. "Thanks for the assist Bats. See ya."
"I'm not leaving." Bruce pulled a first aid kit from a backpack next to the crate. "You're in no condition to be left alone."
"I'm just a little banged up." Jason insisted. But the dark circles under his eyes, bruised knuckles, and blood leaking through his armor gave him away. And while Jason was more than capable of taking care of himself Bruce wouldn't, no couldn’t , leave him.
Pulling the cowl down, Bruce knelt by the couch. Teal eyes watched warily but Jason made no move to escape or push him away. "Were you shot?"
"Stabbed. Two days ago. Blade slide between plates." Jason reluctantly admitted and let Bruce lift the armor. "Guess I pulled some stitches tonight. Definitely have some bruised ribs. Maybe a sprain or two."
"Ah, the classic multipurpose grunt." Jason joked in a tight voice as Bruce cleaned the wound. "Sounds like disapproval this time."
"You shouldn't let yourself get like this Jay." He began stitching the wound anew. "You could have been killed tonight. What were you thinking?"
Jason tensed under his hands.
Wrong thing. He said the wrong thing . Bruce braced himself.
"That I was angry. That it was better to direct my anger onto those drug pushers than onto…" Jason trailed off. As much as he wanted to, Bruce didn't look away from the stitches.
"I don't want to fight with you. With any of you. Or be angry all the time." Jason spoke haltingly, body stiff. "But it's all I came out of the pit knowing. Talia made sure as hell that I didn't forget it. And Dick puts on a good face but I know it gets to him. Hell, it gets to me. It feels like my default. To get angry about every little thing. Like I can't be more than–"
Jason winced, pressing a hand to his forehead as he squeezed his eyes shut. Bruce quickly put a bandage over the fresh stitches and sat next to him on the sofa. It creaked dangerously.
"Eyes." He said again but this time in a gentler tone.
"I didn't get hit in the head. Plus I have a cushioned helmet unlike the rest of you morons." Jason said as Bruce flashed a penlight in his eyes. "I'm just–"
"Tired." Bruce said. "I'll stay and keep watch so you can actually sleep with both eyes closed."
Jason raised one eyebrow, the corner of his mouth lifting ever-so-slightly. "I don't have a choice, do I?"
"It's either this or the manor."
Grumbling under his breath, Jason stretched out on the sofa, shoving his balled-up jacket half on Bruce's thigh as a pillow. "Fine but I'm making it uncomfortable for both of us."
"There's the classic stubbornness." Bruce sighed as he pulled off his gauntlets. He had his own headache building but he'd be fine. Nothing he couldn't endure.
"I'm sorry I... I'm sorry I said you aren't my dad." Jason's voice sounded small, smaller than Bruce ever expected. "I was just trying to...Of course you’re–course I didn't mean it."
He didn't know what to say. He didn't want to risk saying the wrong thing and shattering this fragile moment. So Bruce stayed silent.
Then he gently, almost hesitantly, lay a hand on Jason's broad shoulders. Shoulders he’d only just begun growing into five years ago.
It was like a dam bursting. Jason seized his hand, holding tight as words tumbled from him. "I'm trying Bruce, I swear I am. You can ask Dick. I know I can’t make up for before but I’m trying to be better. I haven't been killing. I switched to rubber bullets last week. You can even check my guns if you want. I swear–"
"I don't need to ask Dick or check your guns. I trust you." Jason looked up at him with pleading eyes. "I trust you." Bruce repeated.
"You're my son." He said honestly.
Jason’s shocked and uncharacteristically vulnerable expression slid into what looked disappointingly like disbelief as he quickly turned his face away. "God, you're as sappy as Dick now."
Dick was better with words than he was in situations like this, better at knowing what to say, when to be blunt or kind. Tim too. When Bruce felt like he had too much to say, it choked him into silence, unsure of how to voice everything swirling in his chest. Like now.
Bruce could kick himself, he really could. This was something he’d been working on for years dammit, ever since he’d brought Dick home. Sure he wasn’t perfect but now was not the time to freeze and mess up. Jason was looking pointedly away from him, shoulders tense, breathing a little too fast, muscles coiled as if he were preparing to run. He had to find a way to force the words out.
For his son's sake.
"I'm...trying too.” Bruce admitted. He carefully brushed Jason's damp hair off his forehead. The shock of white was softer than he expected. “I know I didn't make things easy at first when you came back. Everything was...but I am trying. I'm not giving up on you."
Nothing. And then, almost hesitantly, Jason squeezed his hand again. Bruce returned the gesture as Jason swallowed hard and in a thick voice said, "If you're staying the night, you should know I have nightmares."
"That's all right." His heart was aching because of what his boy has endured. Aching because he’d taken so long to say such simple words that Jason needed to hear. "I'll be here. Just rest, Jay."
Jason nodded against Bruce's thigh, shifting until he was comfortable. He didn’t let go of Bruce’s hand. Silence fell over the warehouse. Fifteen minutes passed, Jason must be asleep by now, but Bruce continued smoothing his hair anyway. A small act of comfort for both of them.
"B?" Jason mumbled, head rolling slightly to rest against Bruce’s armored stomach. "I really did enjoy talking at the Manor before I... you know. Maybe...we can try again?"
Bruce's heart soared . "Of course we can, Jaylad. Besides, Alfred pulled those books from the library for you."
"Can't disappoint Al." Jason said with a sleepy smile.
And as he spent the night watching over Jason, squeezing his hand when he began to move fitfully, Bruce knew he could be patient.
If it meant getting his son back, if it meant helping Jason find whatever healing he could, he would be patient.