Bruce wandered down to the Cave, expecting to see Tim already ready to go out. The kid hadn’t lost one bit of the enthusiasm that had made him hunt down Batman in the first place, and it made something in Bruce’s heart ache every time he saw it.
He passed by a glass case and a torn uniform and forced himself to look at it. A good soldier. He had to remember. He couldn’t fail again. It would break him completely.
Tim wasn’t anywhere in the Cave. Bemused, Bruce headed over to the Batcomputer—perhaps he was running late? Or maybe he was sick, he should ask Alfred if Tim had left a message.
There was a note sitting next to the Batcomputer, a ruled piece of paper folded sideways. Bruce picked it up and unfolded it, absently noting Tim’s handwriting before the contents of the note registered.
‘Bruce. I’m sorry, I can’t be Robin anymore. Thank you for everything. I promise I won’t tell anyone about Batman. —Tim.’
Bruce didn’t realize he was falling until he sank into the chair, the note fluttering in his shaking hands. No. Not again. Not again.
He pulled up the tracking system on the Batcomputer—all the trackers for the Robin suit were still in the Cave, the tracker for Tim’s phone showed him at his house. Okay. He was still in Gotham. Bruce hadn’t failed yet.
He ran out of the house in a rush, choosing the first car he laid eyes on to make the short drive over to Drake property, dialing Tim’s number as he went. It rang and rang and rang—and clicked to voicemail. Another time. Same result.
Bruce barely managed to turn the car off before he jumped out—he rang the doorbell, he pounded on the door, he called for Tim. No answer.
Dread was sinking into his gut, cold and terrible.
Bruce picked the lock and made his way inside, calling Tim’s phone for a third time. A faint sound of music accompanied the call and Bruce made his way through the house, following the sound—
And saw a phone vibrating on a desk right before the call cut to voicemail.
“Tim?” Bruce called out, his voice hoarse. There was no response.
Not again, his mind screamed.
Too late, another part hissed, always too late.
Bruce swallowed. He needed to tell Alfred. He needed to call Dick. They needed to find Tim before—before his nightmare came back to life.
“Master Bruce,” Alfred said, his voice wavering, “The phone—it’s Master Timothy.”
“Patch him through,” Bruce said, coming to a halt on the rooftop and turning away from the street, “Track the call.”
“I’m fine,” Tim’s voice crackled.
“Hi, Bruce,” he said. No signs of distress, no code words, nothing to indicate that anything was wrong.
“What happened?” Bruce growled, “Where are you?”
“I’m fine,” Tim repeated, sounding a bit confused. No environmental noise, so presumably he was inside somewhere. “I didn’t—I’m with J—” His voice cut out abruptly, and Bruce felt his stomach plummet.
“I—I’m with no one,” Tim said unconvincingly. Hostage? Someone was listening in on the call. “I borrowed a phone from someone to call.”
“Are you safe?” Bruce asked. They had to keep him on the line until the tracking could pinpoint his location. “Are you in Gotham?”
“Yes. I’m fine.” That was Tim’s typical irritation, but Bruce could tell he was hiding something. There was a prickle going down his spine.
J. J—what? Who? Bruce reminded himself that the Joker was in Arkham, locked up where he couldn’t hurt anyone, but the rising terror clawing at his throat didn’t quite let it stick.
“I’d like to talk to you when you get home,” Bruce said, keeping his voice level.
“Okay. Bye, Bruce.” The line cut out.
“We have a location,” Alfred said, “It appears to be in Park Row.”
Bruce felt his stomach clench. “I’ll meet you there,” Nightwing chimed in with the faint sound of a grapple firing. Bruce took out his own and turned to the part of the city that had taken his parents from him, that had given him a son only to tear it away.
He would not allow it to take Tim.
He thought that the kid would’ve left by now, but he made that wide-eyed pleading expression when Jason had started getting things ready for dinner and Jason had just given up. Tim had taken over cleaning the dishes—so someone had taught him manners, they just hadn’t taught him the concept of ‘overstaying your welcome’—and Jason went into his room to get changed into his armor and suit.
He was not going to fall for those eyes again, he was going to send the baby bird back to its nest and plan for this sudden rearrangement in his goals. Crime Alley still needed Red Hood to clean its act up, but he didn’t need to go after Robin to do it. In fact, if he could convince Tim to look the other way while he snuck into the Cave for some intelligence—
There was a thud and a muffled shout. Jason turned the corner of his apartment, helmet in hand, and froze.
Tim stared at him from the kitchen sink, hands dripping with suds, eyes wide and anxious. The dark patch of shadow next to him swiveled to face Jason, before going equally still. The black-and-blue vigilante easing through the window had frozen mid-step, gaze flickering around the scene.
Jason curled his hands into fists and exhaled through his nose. “I thought you said they couldn’t track you,” he said, keeping his voice deliberately light.
Batman took a step towards him, but Jason ignored him. This was his apartment, his home, it was supposed to be safe—
Breathe in, breathe out.
“I—I don’t think they tracked—” Right. The phone call. Jason should’ve sent the kid packing after that, he knew Bruce would’ve been frantic, it was obvious that he’d tracked the call.
“What’s going on?” Nightwing asked slowly, slipping fully inside, “B?”
Batman was still staring at him. Jason took a deep breath. “Get out,” he said, and was pleasantly surprised when the words came out level.
“I don’t understand—”
“This is my apartment.” Technically. But Jason Todd was dead, so everything he owned was prefaced with technically. “And you’re trespassing. Get out.”
Nightwing stared at him, stared at Batman, and finally swiveled his gaze to Tim. “Tim—”
“Tim was invited inside.” And then refused to leave. “You were not,” Jason said bitingly, “Get. Out.”
Nightwing turned back towards him. “Jason?” he said softly, hands raising, taking a step forward—
Jason stumbled back, his fingers white from how hard he was gripping his helmet. He started to shake—the fog that had once muted his emotions disappeared like it’d never been there, and he couldn’t stand still under the force of Nightwing’s stunned surprise, under the weight of Batman’s heavy stare, he was buckling and they hadn’t even thrown a punch.
“Leave,” Jason snarled, and winced when his voice cracked.
Nightwing took another step forward and Jason jerked back, forgetting that there was a wall behind him and painfully cracking his head against the corner. Jason hissed, lurching away from the wall, and then staggered back three steps because Batman was suddenly in front of him.
“Leave,” Jason said, no longer trying to keep his voice steady, “You’re—breaking and entering—get out—”
“Don’t,” Jason hissed, whirling on him, “Don’t you dare call me that, not after—don’t you fucking dare, Dick, you weren’t there, you—”
Nightwing stumbled back a step like he’d been shot. Batman—Batman eased his cowl off and for the first time in three years, Jason was looking at Bruce, at unfamiliar lines on a familiar face, at narrowed blue-gray eyes and a blank expression.
“Jay?” And it wasn’t a Batman growl, it was the voice of the man that had tucked him into bed and argued about literature and smiled when Jason cracked a joke—and Jason couldn’t do this, couldn’t be here—the helmet slipped from nerveless fingers as he stumbled back another step, shaking—he had a finger on the trigger of the bomb and he saw Batman and he couldn’t do it—his knees hit the floor, sharp bursts of pain—
“Stop it!” A warm body, standing between him and the cape that signified safety, security, home—that signified danger, threat, terror—and Jason clutched at the lifeline he’d been offered. “Stop crowding him.”
“You knew? Tim, how long—”
“A couple of days.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?!”
“Because he didn’t want you to know.”
Jason squeezed his eyes shut, burying his face in something soft and warm, the hem of a shirt twisting underneath his fingers.
“Tim, it’s not—it can’t be—how?”
“I don’t know. The Lazarus Pit?”
Jason shook his head silently from where it was still hidden in Tim’s shirt, because he’d been alive before acid green had eaten up all his senses.
“Not the Lazarus Pit?”
“I don’t understand—”
“You need to go,” Tim said, resolute, “He doesn’t want you here. If he wanted to talk to you, he knows where you are.”
“He’s my son.” And that was the Batman growl, that was too close, that was angry and hurt and Jason had nowhere to run—
“You’re scaring him.”
A sudden, hushed silence. Jason knew he was breathing too fast and too shallow, but he couldn’t figure out how to stop. The green was far out of reach, anger locked away by fear and shame and the sick curl of disappointment because he’d failed again and Batman didn’t want him and Bruce didn’t want him and—
“Jason?” Quieter, softer, further away. Jason cracked open his eyes and peered out from behind Tim—Bruce was sitting on the floor, staring at him and—
Those were tears in his eyes.
Bruce was crying.
Nightwing—Dick, he’d taken off his mask—was pressed against the far wall, looking at Jason like a desert traveler looked at an oasis. Hopeful and desperate and terrified.
“Jay,” Bruce said quietly, “You’re alive.” His voice broke on the words, his hand raising before faltering, like he was trying to reach out to Jason.
I’m a monster, Jason remembered distinctly, I came back wrong. When Bruce realized that, he would leave. He would turn his back and walk away. And it would hurt all the more for it.
“Jason?” Tim said quietly. Dick and Bruce weren’t getting any closer, but they also weren’t leaving. And there was no way a kid, Robin or not, was going to be able to move Batman if he didn’t want to be moved.
There were stress lines around Bruce’s face. The tension and anxiety—he’d come for Tim, he’d been worried about Tim, he had—why was he staring at Jason?
“Jason,” Tim twisted in Jason’s grip, until he was crouched on the floor facing him. His shoulders blocked out Bruce and Dick, and Jason focused on the kid. “Jason, they’re not going to hurt you,” Tim said softly.
And how did Tim know that?
“They miss you very much,” Tim whispered. Jason leaned forward, until his forehead hit the kid’s collarbone, and exhaled shakily, focusing on the soft heartbeat pulsing under his head. “I wasn’t—Jason, I know you said—I’m not your replacement. Not for Robin. And certainly not as—not—Jason, you’ll always be a part of the family.”
There was a soft, choked sound. “Jaybird?” Dick said tremulously.
“I’m not his son,” Tim said into Jason’s ear, barely audible, “You are. You always will be.”
Sincerity. Ringing of truth. And there was a wealth of hurt in those words—Jason tightened his grip on the baby bird and raised his gaze. Both Bruce and Dick were watching him, identical heartbroken expressions on their faces.
Maybe—maybe he could—if he just—maybe they didn’t—maybe—
Jason raised a single hand and they took the invitation.
He thought Bruce would be the first one to move, but Dick crashed into them, arms wrapping so tightly that Jason was momentarily unable to breathe. “Jason,” Dick breathed out, his voice choked, and Jason didn’t have the time to recover before another set of arms wrapped around them, warm and secure.
“Jay-lad,” Bruce rumbled, and Jason finally let the building tears drop.
Tim squirmed in his grasp, apparently intending to extricate himself, but Jason held on tighter, suddenly aware of exactly why Batman had taken one look at the kid swinging a tire iron at him and took him home.
“Baby bird,” Jason said softly, not letting go. He was enveloped in family and it felt like home. “Little brother.”
Tim stopped breathing, but Jason didn’t move and Dick didn’t move and Bruce didn’t move and Tim finally relaxed, inch by inch, his tears dripping into Jason’s hair.
“Thank you,” the kid said, hoarse and choked, like Jason wasn’t the one supposed to be thanking him.
Home. Family. And at least for this moment, nothing else mattered.