Disclaimers: Not mine. Not even close.
Spoilers: Major ones for various storylines, especially
"Underworld Unleashed," in an AU sort of way.
Summary: Bruce is in love, and all is fair.
Ratings Note/Warnings: R. Content some readers
may find disturbing. You should probably take that
seriously, this time.
Author's Note: Mary posted scans
Unleashed." Sarah asked for a certain story. Te
was only following orders.
Timeline: I fudged this a bit. For those of you
actually *familiar* with the storyline? I moved it
slightly forward in time. Slightly.
Acknowledgments: To LC and Jack for audiencing
"No," he says, in the firmest voice he can manage, in
the voice of a certainty he hasn't truly possessed for
a very long time. "No," and he dreams the sound of
breaking, he dreams darkness and the smell of
blood that had to be there before.
The smoke that comes after.
He dreams and wakes up with an aching jaw and
burning at the back of his throat.
"Yes," he says, "yes, *please*, anything, just
He dreams the bite of his teeth on the inside of his
lip, the reflex against begging, and then it's gone,
and there's silence.
A waiting, empty silence that he can't believe in.
He can't possibly *let* himself --
If there's nothing, if there's quiet, if it's over, after
Bruce isn't ready for it to be over.
He's restless, and somewhere beyond the edges of
sleep is his bedroom, and beyond that is a Gotham
washed with too much daylight. The light is always
silent, and always waiting.
A tease for the night to --
He kneels in sand, alone.
He kneels in blood.
Bruce dreams of footsteps, steady and unsubtle,
unconscious. The pace and tread of a healthy young
man with nothing in particular to do. His other
senses are deadened, if not absent entirely.
The footsteps are Jason's. The only one who moves
like that, so obviously, so carelessly. Jason only
moves silently when he has to. When *he* feels
he has to, no matter what Bruce has tried to say
about the usefulness of making it into a habit, and
from there an instinct.
He didn't try hard enough. He knows that,
No, Jason is moving, coming closer, and there's
nothing wrong. Because Jason's footsteps would
be entirely different if they were, if this was that
sort of --
It's not a dream, because his dreams are never
It's not a dream.
He wakes the way he always does, as quickly and
thoroughly as he can.
He'd pulled the curtains to the night before, a
mostly futile attempt to give himself deeper,
more peaceful sleep. The thought was a
particularly unhumorous joke years before. Now,
it's nothing more than (sand, bone, dust) habit.
And he is awake, and aware, and not alone.
He considers reaching for the lamp, but he'd long
since trained himself to remember every dream
he could, every clue, every hint.
The bite of (flesh) self-recrimination, the murk
of his own mind.
He remembers, and so he reaches for nothing but
his own strength and presses the button that will
pulls the curtains back, instead.
He remembers, and --
It's not enough. His heart knocks in his chest, at
the sight of him. The boy (Jason), the thing, so
still, so false, so *empty*.
The sun gleams on his bare cheek like the shine
on a waxen apple. His mouth has the illusory
softness of a statue. It's not real.
"No," he says, and everything changes at once.
"No, *what*?" the thing says in Jason's voice, a
mixture of idle curiosity and tease. It turns toward
the sunlight, eyes narrowing against the glare,
and Bruce remembers --
("I'm pretty sure I used to *like* sunrise.")
-- too much.
"*No*," he says, and the thing turns back to him
with a grin.
"Are you gonna tell me what *you* think is going
on, Bruce? Because I --"
"You're not real."
The smile falls off the thing's face with no more
sudden-ness than a simple, human mood swing,
and it toys with one edge of his cape.
Bruce can see the thin-ness of it, the egregious
lack of protection. The glare of it is nearly
baleful, even more than it had been within the
confines of his own thoughts when he'd
designed Tim's. Inexcusable, *reckless* --
"*Are* you awake, Bruce?" It takes a step closer
and reaches down, gauntleted fingers resting on
the coverlet bunched at the foot of the bed. "I
mean, you told me about your nightmares --"
("Every night? *Fuck*, Bruce --")
" -- nothing about..." It waves its other hand.
"Sleepwalking, without the walking." Narrow-eyed
head tilt. "Hey, if you *aren't* really awake, am
I gonna drive you crazy if I wake you up
suddenly?" A smirk. "Would anyone be able to
So much of him, *all* of him. So *close*. He
forces himself to take a breath, sacrificing silence
"Seriously, Bruce, you're --"
"Why. Are you here?"
The smile is secretive, sly, and perfect. So
The thing reaches up to rip off the mask, and
Bruce braces himself for the truth. Empty eye
sockets, decay, something.
Anything but those wide, deceptively soft blue
eyes, winced against the mild pain. Blinking at
Focused on him with that mercurial, constant
shift between suspicion and heat and endless,
faintly cruel amusement.
Jason, he says to himself. *Jay*, and it crowds
at the back of his throat.
"I'm here," Jason says, and shrugs. "As for the
why... well, *I* think you made some kind of
"No. I --" Refused, resisted -- *this*.
Jason crawls onto the bed, thighs flexing easily,
eyes dancing. "*Someone* thought you did," he
says, and keeps coming.
Relentlessly casual, heedless of the thousand
vulnerabilities of his position. Trusting. Hands on
Bruce's shoulders and knees bracketing Bruce's
hips, and everything in him that isn't screaming
warnings is screaming *demands*.
Jason leans in, fingers tight, strong on Bruce's
shoulders, kneading with absent attention to all
the tension Bruce can't possibly mask right now.
His mouth is a soft, breathy tease against Bruce's
cheek, and then it isn't at all.
He drags his lips over Bruce's stubble with a purr
that echoes in memory.
He smells like heat, like the old, inadequate armor,
"Wait," and Bruce can hear the desperation in his
Jason pauses, mouth pressed to the corner of
Bruce's eye. His tongue presses hot, *wet* there
for just a moment, and Bruce scrambles like the
rankest amateur for something, *anything*.
"Where. Where were you?"
Jason's fingers flex on his shoulders and he pulls
back, settling on his heels, and the smile on his
It's the first strangeness (no, remember the
*wax*, you have to --), the first real wrongness.
That isn't a smile Bruce knows for him. It's too...
"I was *dead*, Bruce," he says, and scrapes the
rough thumb-pad of the gauntlet over the edge
of Bruce's ear. "I was everywhere."
He can't breathe. He can't -- "Jay."
Jason sighs, deep and low, and leans in to kiss
him. His mouth tastes like nothing at all, the
mouth of someone who has never eaten, or
drunk, or slept. Bruce moans and kisses back
hard, too hard --
("Always, *always* --")
And tastes need, his own, and --
"And maybe..." Jason's laugh is breathless and
sharp. "Maybe nowhere, too."
Bruce gives up and grabs Jason by the waist,
clutches him and pulls him closer, until Jason
has to feel the pound of his heart, *has* to,
and when he strokes his way up Jason's back,
he presses, too.
Slides his hands into Jason's thick hair and
remembers the feel of it on his face the last
time, the only time he was ever supposed
The only smoke is memory.
The only blood is what spills into his mouth
when he bites Jason's lip.
"Yes," he whispers and holds on tighter.
In retrospect, the fact that Alfred had taken one
look at the boy and gone to retrieve his shotgun
was, perhaps, the best possible reaction Bruce
could've hoped for.
The gun is over Alfred's lap, now, casually pointed
toward the doorway of the study, which just
happens to be where Jason is standing.
Leaning, arms crossed and so...
It's difficult to focus on the details of the scene.
Jason is wearing one of Bruce's robes, and it does
nothing to hide the marks Bruce has left on his
When he shifts, Alfred does, too.
Bruce is entirely aware of this, but the knowledge
is vague compared to the long, scarred length of
Jason's thigh, and the way he scratches idly at the
He has never felt...
No. It's not true.
He used to feel like this all the *time*. And Jason
meets his eyes and sees it, sees everything, and
his own eyes widen. Sharpen.
"Master Bruce." Alfred's voice is clipped, even,
and edged as a blade.
"Yes, Alfred." He drags his attention back to the
gun, and to the way Alfred is slowly stroking the
trigger guard. "There's no need for that."
"Hm," Alfred says. "Theoretically, there is *also*
no need to state the obvious, and yet I feel it
distinctly *required* that I point out that Jason
Todd is dead."
"Was," Jason says, and the grin in his voice is...
Bruce clears his throat. "I... I did this."
"So you've mentioned. More than once. But,
Master Bruce --"
"*Jesus*, Al, are you going to chill out *anytime*
Bruce watches Alfred's hand, ready to move
should he have to, but the tension dissipates
after a long moment.
"You," Alfred says, "will *not* address me."
Jason snorts. "And I thought you had a bad fucking
attitude when I got here the *first* time --"
"Jason," Bruce says, as clearly as he can, and rests
one hand over Alfred's. He listens to Jason take a
shuddery breath (and oh to hear it, to *hear* it --)
and waits for Alfred's own breathing to steady.
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jason
shifting again before he stills into a position
undoubtedly comfortable enough for him to retain
it for an extended period of time.
Jason. He catches himself before he can squeeze
Alfred's hand too hard, but when he looks up,
Alfred's expression is knowing and bleak.
"I did this," he said again. "I..." Didn't mean to. He
can't say that for so very many reasons. "It was
Alfred's eyes widen. Bruce can feel *Jason's* eyes
on him, but he can't quite predict what might be
The enormity of it, of what he has done...
The curious thing is that it feels distant and faintly
unreal against (his *breath*) everything else.
That used to be true all the time, too.
"Alfred," he says, and can't quite loathe himself for
the plea that must be perfectly, terribly audible. "I
thought my dreams were safe."
Alfred's exhale is ragged, low. Just this close to a
Alfred raises a hand -- the one that was on the
trigger, and turns to look at Jason. Bruce does, too,
feeling something very like the giddiness of a
wayward child with the perfect excuse.
Jason is making a show of studying his fingernails,
clipped in the same careless, uneven way as ever.
The scratches on Bruce's back burn so perfectly
"Master Jason," Alfred says. "Is it..." Bruce can
hear him swallow, and when Jason looks up his
smile is sardonic everywhere but his eyes.
"You could see me. Sometimes." And Jason nods
towards the curtains.
And Bruce doesn't know what Jason is talking
about, but Alfred --
"Dear Lord in heaven."
"Heh," Jason says, and this time is smile is only for
Bruce. "I guess we can *hope*."
"Oh, *damn* these are sweet, Bruce."
There's a thunk, followed by another three in
rapid succession. Jason's appreciation for the
birdarangs is --
"God, are these *sharper* than the batarangs?"
-- gratifying. The word sounds wrong and
incomplete in his mind, but is actually entirely
accurate. "Perhaps a little."
"'A little,' he says." Jason snorts and there's the
wet, deadly, and unmistakable sound of a finger
Followed by more thunks as Jason thoroughly
aerates one of the targets.
Bruce shifts on his work-stool and continues
modifying one of Tim's spare belts, lengthening
it to fit Jason's broader frame. Jason has always
been heavily muscled. Even as a child his body
had just seemed to be waiting for it, for the
thick, powerful layers of...
The only reason this work will be remotely close
to his standard is that it's necessary.
Jason grunts fiercely and, "fuck, ow."
More sucking sounds.
Bruce closes his eyes for a moment and forces
himself to remember Ethiopia, and the way Jason's
body had hung limp in his arms.
No, worse than limp.
Bruce had been forced to hold him very tightly,
very *carefully*, to keep his body from twisting
and slumping in ways even dead bodies shouldn't.
He had been broken inside.
"I'm gonna need at least ten of these."
*Thunk*. "No, fifteen. Per night."
He can feel Jason's eyes on him and nods. The
welding work is delicate, but familiar. He works
steadily, and forces himself to the same slow
care he'd used when designing Tim's suit in the
He'll have to modify at least three more, and
then replace them.
He suspects he's still being optimistic. Jason has
never been especially gentle with the uniforms.
The high, thin whistle of two birdarangs in flight
at once -- though not tossed at *precisely* the
same moment -- followed by a double-thunk,
followed immediately by the sharp crack of a
target losing its 'head.'
Jason has never been gentle with anything.
Bruce waits for the exclamation, the sweetly
obscene triumph, but... it doesn't come.
The lack is still another distraction, and he comes
very close to welding the belt *shut*. Perhaps
he should return his attention to the armor, or --
"Bruce?" Jason's voice is soft and hesitant.
"What is it?" he says, turning, and winces at the
way Jason does. His own tone had been much
too sharp. He swallows and makes an effort to
modify it. "What's wrong?"
Jason stares at the floor and strokes the flat of
a birdarang. "I just... I mean. The suits."
Jason shifts, obviously uncomfortable, and
Bruce... he can't. He sets the belt down entirely
and closes the distance between them, stroking
Jason's arms before squeezing.
"I *can* be careful. I..." He twists out of Bruce's
grip with the same easy absence as always, the
Jason has never been intimidated by him. More
than that, Bruce has never had to work to *keep*
him from being intimidated.
Jason scrubs a hand through his hair and crosses
his arms over his chest, staring at nothing, or
perhaps the car. "I *learned* that lesson."
They all had. "That isn't the point."
Jason snorts and crosses to the Case, the one
Bruce has had neither the time nor the inspiration
to... remove it?
He still doesn't know. Jason raps on the glass with
his knuckles before glaring back over his shoulder.
"I never lost faith in you, or your abilities."
Jason's eyes widen for a moment, fixing Bruce in
place. The idea of looking away is far beyond
laughable, even when they narrow again and
Jason frowns. "Then... why?"
"I've had my back broken. I've been shot in the
chest more times than I can remember. In the
*head*. Killer Croc is even larger and stronger
than he was before you died. And he's come
close to *eating* Tim.
Jason blinks, and the look on his face is
indescribable, moving rapidly between disgust,
horror, amusement, and... excitement. "So
you're saying we *need* to be armored like
"Hmm." Jason tosses the birdarang straight into
the air and catches it with his other hand, barely
managing to avoid slicing his palm open. He
tosses it again, and again, and Bruce considers
teaching him some form of hypnosis less likely
to cause accidental maimings.
"Have you tried the new gauntlets?"
Jason grins at him and leans back against the
case as though it's nothing at all. "Yep." Another
toss, and then Jason pauses.
And deliberately slices the tips of his index and
middle fingers open.
"Yeah," he says, and drags his bloody fingers
across his mouth. And purses his lips. The illusion
of lipstick is surprisingly believable. Moreso,
somehow, with the clumsy streak trailing over
The light in the Case throws odd shadows over
Jason's face, shifting, impatient shadows.
If he listens closely, he can hear the slow patter
of blood falling to the floor.
He can *smell* it, and --
"Bruce. You'd better kiss me soon. This is gonna
be *nasty* when it --"
He drops to his knees and yanks until the button
on Jason's new jeans skitters across the floor --
And kisses him.
"Bruce, you -- yeah. Suck me. And --"
Thick in his mouth, salty. *Hot*. Bruce presses
his tongue against the vein, flexing at the pound
of Jason's pulse.
Jason laughs and thrusts and gasps. "And... heh.
Tim? Thought... thought it was Tom. I --
Swallowing, *needing*, and Jason gives it to
him, gives him *everything* --
"Fucking suck at -- oh *God* -- reading lips..."
Tim doesn't walk into the Cave so much as storm
it. He's still wearing his backpack and he's at
least two hours earlier than Bruce had expected.
He tosses the backpack toward the free weights
without looking and starts stripping in fast,
sharp motions. He isn't muttering to himself, but
the rage is obvious. *Palpable*. And... there's a
curious doubling in his mind.
A week ago, he would undoubtedly have sent
the boy directly to the rings. It's Tim's weakest
area, which means he'd be forced to concentrate
as well as work off excess energy.
Right now, he's incredibly tempted to just direct
Tim to the mats for a spar.
A smile is as good as splitting the difference.
"Should I assume the field trip was less than
Tim growls, brief and low in his throat, kicks off
his trainers, and shoves his jeans down and off.
"Now would be a good time to remind me why
I'm not allowed to give vicious beatings to my
classmates unless they commit actual crimes."
"Man, I *never* got that rule."
Tim freezes mid-stretch, blood draining from his
face as he watches Jason walk out from the
shadows, barbell in one hand and Tim's backpack
in the other.
Jason hefts it and whistles. "Took the library
home with you?"
"I --" Tim's teeth click shut audibly and he tenses,
shifts, and freezes again, midway into a defensive
position. "Bruce," he says, with quiet demand.
Jason smirks and tosses Tim's backpack at him.
Tim dodges reflexively, letting it fall. "*Bruce*,"
he says, and shifts a little closer to a ready
"It's Jason," Bruce says again. "Stand down."
Tim makes a small hissing sound between his
teeth but does it, moving backwards rapidly
until he can have both Bruce and Jason within
Jason smirks a little more and starts moving to
Tim narrows his eyes and compensates. "Bruce,
I could *really* use an explanation here."
Jason fakes a lunge, and Tim pulls the small
blade he keeps taped to the small of his back,
making Jason dance backwards and... laugh.
"Oh man, I *like* him."
"Bruce. I'm *going* to cut him. It."
"You're gonna *try*..."
The grin on Jason's face is feral, and Tim's holding
the blade ready, and... it's more than a little
difficult to concentrate. "Stand *down*."
"*Explain*," Tim says, and starts to circle.
Jason matches his pace. "Can't we just fight first?"
Tim's face hardens into a perfect, blank mask, and
that's all the warning Bruce could ever need.
Tim freezes again -- they both do.
And then Jason sighs and spares him a brief glare
before raising his hands in something faintly --
and sardonically -- resembling surrender to Tim.
"I was dead. Bruce had a fucked-up dream. As
near as I can tell, since *Bruce* hasn't really said
anything, there was a demon involved, and a
deal, and anyway..." Jason shrugs. "I'm not dead
anymore." Jason looks at him again, impatient.
"*Now* can we fight?"
"What *kind* of deal?" And Tim is still holding
the knife, but it will take him at least a beat,
perhaps two, to get it back into the proper
It's... an excellent question. Neron hasn't made
contact, and his patrols have been entirely
normal. He isn't sure.
Jason shrugs and reaches back to yank the
birdarang he has clipped to the back of his
jeans free. And starts tossing it from hand to
hand. He's done it enough that even the bandages
on his fingers don't make him clumsy, anymore.
"Fuck if I know," he says.
Tim watches Jason's eyes.
"But when I *do* wind up dead again? It won't
be from *boredom*. What about you, new kid?"
Bruce swallows around what he knows,
intellectually and pointlessly, isn't, actually, his
heart. And watches Tim deliberately shift his
attention back to him. Bruce searches for words
and finds nothing.
So he just nods.
And Tim turns back to Jason, and looks him up
and down. "So you want to spar."
Jason's grin is slow and wide. "Show me whatcha
got, new kid."
"Bring it... dead boy walking."
Batman steps back from the edge of the roof as the
Robins move to flank him. He loses some of his
sight-line, but it's worth it, on a number of levels.
In this position, he can see the way the Robins
move as a unit to compensate for the fact that
*he's* no longer watching the streets as perfectly
as he can. Jason on his left and Tim on his right,
and he isn't sure about his own effectiveness.
They both seem perfectly... sanguine about there
being two of them, though he's almost positive
their reasoning for it is entirely different.
"Too many cars in the lot," Jason says.
"Too many baggy jackets," and Tim shifts into a
crouch that will allow him to spring at a moment's
Jason rolls his head on his neck, and tugs at the
collar of his cape -- identical to Tim's own, save
in size. "Hate this thing."
"Keep you from getting your throat slit," Tim says,
and shifts beneath his own cape. He's almost
certainly tapping the hilt of his grapple.
"And this explains that giant fucking scar on yours,
how?" Jason's rocking on the ledge, heel to toe to
"Good knife." If Tim were another sort of person,
Batman would think the boy had forgotten his
presence entirely. And as for Jason...
"Dude. Serrated, or --"
"Now," Batman says, and they launch themselves
down simultaneously, Jason shooting his grapple
high enough that his swing is deep and only
just controlled enough to keep him from dislocating
He hits the largest crowd of gunmen -- the guns
are out as soon as Jason whoops -- and they fall
Most of them.
Tim catches two of the ones who remain standing
in the spine -- the crack of his staff is
unmistakable -- and Batman focuses on convincing
the ones who are down to remain so.
"Fucking *Christ*, Morrie, I *told* you there were
two -- *fuck* --"
Tim's staff clacks and flickers between Batman's
spread legs, a sweep made more final by the elbow
Jason lands on the man's jaw.
The gunman goes down groaning and Jason spins
to go after the others. The familiar tugging swing
of Tim's cape brushing against his own tells Batman
that he's done the same. The temptation to stand
there and watch them work is no more powerful
than the temptation to leave Tim to his own
"It's just a *stick*, Louie, don't fucking nut up --
-- and focus on Jason. His wild laughter, and the
blood on his gauntlets --
"Fucking *A* I love these new boots, Batman."
And his boots.
Batman centers and forces himself to walk.
"Man, Batman isn't even sticking around! We can
take -- *glrk* --"
He pauses on the second-to-top step, considers
the door, and kicks it in.
Even with the front door beneath his heels, the
sounds of battle fade quickly. This brownstone
was built in an era when walls were soundproofed
as a matter of course. He finds his target in the
kitchen, sipping coffee and looking toward the
front of his home with nothing more severe than
At least, until he walks out of the shadows.
"Jesus fucking *Christ* --"
"Mr. Levin. We saved your life tonight."
"What are you --"
Levin flinches, small in his chair. He's dressed in
greys and browns, and seems designed to fade
into the background. He's also next in line to be
consigliore for the Galantes. And...
"Listen very carefully, Mr. Levin. I'm going to tell
you how to *stay* alive."
In truth, the thought is more than a little
optimistic. The lives of informants are... perilous,
He thinks of Jason in flight in a world even more
ruthless, more *dangerous* than the one which
killed the boy the first time.
Than the one he'd been unable to see for what
He doesn't have that problem anymore.
He leaves Levin with plausible deniability in the
form of a handful of bruises and the need for
Outside, the street is quiet save for the moans
of the few remaining conscious Verraza soldiers.
The 'family' is small in Gotham, its toehold
tenuous. It will remain so for at least another
Jason is examining Tim's staff. Tim is visibly
restraining himself from correcting Jason's form.
"No, wait, that wasn't it -- damn. Show me."
And then he isn't.
They stand close, voices low. Tim's hands are
deft, precise on Jason's own, and Batman thinks
of the boy's work with Young Justice.
And Bruce thinks of...
Of knocking them aside, shoving between. Of
the way Tim's gaze would feel on his back, and
of the expression on Jason's face. It would be
a smirk. Whether it would be knowing or simply
*teasing* is a question he doesn't want
They work well together. They like each other,
and may very well come to care about each
It's a clenched fist in his chest and unstable
ground beneath his feet.
He moves out of the shadows and Tim looks up
first, sliding his hands away from Jason's to rest
on the staff itself.
Jason looks back over his shoulder and grins
openly, easily. "Next stop?"
I would do anything for you. "Your usual route," he
says to Tim. To Jason, "accompany him. I have
Tim raises an eyebrow at him, and fails to dodge
Jason's ungentle punch to his shoulder. "Let's hit
it, new kid."
He stays long enough to watch Tim's gaze slide
away, and the corner of his mouth turn upwards.
"Watch me work, dead boy."
And they move.
He waits until he can no longer trace the route
the two of them must be taking within his own
mind and pauses on a rooftop overlooking a
brothel. He hasn't yet decided whether this one
requires a visit.
If it does, it would probably be best to send the
It's... shocking to feel crowded within Gotham,
and terrifying to feel it even while being fully
aware of the feeling's irrationality. There aren't
enough of them, even with the network Oracle's
There never *could* be.
He isn't sure what he needs. Not anymore. He taps
"What can I do for you, B?"
"The Robins are working together tonight."
She sucks her teeth, and the sound is both strange
and somewhat precious through the scrambler.
"Without your watchful eye? I'm shocked."
"I have *your* watchful eye," he says, and
watches a woman with the unhealthy gauntness
of one addiction or another move rhythmically,
obviously through a third-story window. The
john is visible only as a shock of messy blond
hair, a gleam of sweat on a moving arm.
"Mm. And you expect me to *use* it, of course."
A brief pause. "I have their mask-cams on feed.
The audio is working perfectly. Anything else?"
"No. Batman out."
They couldn't be safer than that, not in this city
and not in this life.
He tries very hard not to think about the fact that
the camera feeds are also connected to his own
He tries very hard not to think about how very
much Tim has enjoyed working with Dick, in the
past. How much he might enjoy it *now*.
And then he simply continues his own patrol.
Every monitor is on, and every monitor offers a
different view of chaos. The recipients of Neron's
gifts use them eagerly, all over the world.
Jason paces behind him, suited up and ready.
A large amount of Gotham is burning, and...
It feels like a reckoning. It *is* a reckoning. He's
just not entirely sure if it's the one he's waiting for.
"Come *on*, Bruce, we need to be out there!"
"*Which* there, Jason?"
It's an absolutely honest question, and an
important one. Neither they nor the rest of the
world can afford anything but the most efficient
possible use of resources.
He's in constant communication with Superman,
and so far the man is doing an excellent job
coordinating the League and its affiliates. He just
needs a little more *information*.
"What the fuck are you *talking* about?" Jason
bangs on the monitor with the feed from
Nightwing's mask cam. "Dick and Tim and
Huntress and Canary are up against a jacked-up
Metallo and *Blockbuster*!"
And Grodd, or some other metahuman of his
type, considering the behavior of some of the
bystanders. That isn't important, but if he
doesn't make a decision now, he'll have to
drug and restrain Jason to keep him from
leaving without him. He takes a breath. "There
are four of them. Arsenal is down. Green Arrow
can't fight -- *that*, alone."
He only has suspicions about who -- what --
Oliver's appointment *used* to be.
And Jason's looking at him like he's insane. The
fondness he has for that look is no less
pathetically irrational than it is real.
"Make it fast, Batman."
"I'm sending you the coordinates."
"How many to teleport?"
"Two," he says, and plants his hand firmly on
Jason's shoulder. The necessity is more about Jason
than it is about the teleporter's capabilities.
And Jason tenses under his hand. "Wait, what --"
The 'landing' is no worse than it ever is. He swallows
back bile and checks the perimeter while Jason
shakes off the moment's dizziness. "Where --"
"The bystanders, Robin. *Now*."
"I --" Jason's eyes are wild and mutinous for a
moment before he flips the lenses down on his mask
and takes off. They've drilled this a hundred times,
He knows Jason can get the bystanders out of range
and protect himself.
He *knows* it.
The metahuman is backing Green Arrow up
steadily, toward Arsenal's -- probably -- unconscious
body. No time for that, either. The meta hasn't
noticed *him* yet, and he knows precisely how to
take advantage of that.
He pulls two of the explosive batarangs, reconsiders,
and pulls another two. The thing's leg appears to be
made of shifting metal, but the batarangs lodge
precisely the way they should.
The meta spins and belches a stream of molten
metal at the space where he was three seconds
before. The heat makes him sweat beneath the suit,
and his cape starts to melt.
He tosses his last three explosive batarangs just in
time for the first four to blow. Green Arrow ducks
and twists instinctively to avoid the flash, and
Batman pulls his grenades, tossing them into the
smoke and tackling Green Arrow out of range.
His cape is burning now, but Green Arrow uses the
head of an arrow to cut it free before he can rip it
"Nice to see you. Get me Arsenal's guns and we
might just survive."
He dives for them against the scream of rage and
pain from the meta, against the pure wall of sound
and *heat*. The trickle from his ear only feels like
sweat. No time.
Green Arrow catches the guns on the first toss,
and Arsenal is breathing. He looks up to find Robin
sweeping to the ground with a child in his arms.
The building he's leaving groans and starts to
crumble in on itself.
The far end of his grapple is burning, but he lands
before it snaps. Batman gestures towards Arsenal's
body and doesn't bother to wait for the nod.
The meta has a noticeable limp, but it's still
coming, and when the wind shifts Batman can
smell the sickly-sweet stink of burnt flesh. Green
Arrow's left leg.
"Hold your fire."
"Suck my *dick*, Batman, we're getting --"
"I have a *plan*."
He pauses -- long enough.
The 'grenades' are awkward, unwieldy. A first design
-- a whim Tim had decided to *build* on.
He hits with three, the fourth goes wild --
"*More* fucking grenades?"
-- just in time for the liquid nitrogen to flash freeze
most of the creature's chest.
"Well, hell-o, *nurse*."
The creature's scream is choked, shocked, and the
blood fills the bottom of his cowl. "*Now*,
"Teach your grandma to suck eggs," Green Arrow
says, and fires both guns at once.
The sound, this time, is less that of glass being
shattered than of glass being *crushed*. The
meta -- whichever it was -- topples like brick.
And Jason's footsteps are absolutely recognizable,
despite the rubble and the fact that his JLA
communicator is currently lodged in several points
of his right ear. He's almost positive the damage
will be minimal.
And Jason is safe. Blackened with soot, bleeding
from several cuts where his right gauntlet
*should* be, but safe.
Green Arrow grabs Jason's shoulder and yanks
him in to face him. "Arsenal."
Jason rears back, but recovers quickly. "Mercy
General -- they took him --"
"Fine," Green Arrow says and starts limping east.
Batman unclenches his fist.
"Batman, get them to teleport us back to Gotham
The clap of soundless thunder nearly knocks Jason
off his feet, but it isn't the first time Bruce has
heard it. The smoke is green, and Neron is smiling
at both of them in a sick parody of benign pride.
Batman grabs Jason's shoulder and squeezes, too
Neron's smile gets wider.
"No," Batman says, and out of the corner of his eye
he can see Jason pulling a birdarang.
"No? Are you sure you don't mean 'yes, please,
anything, just don't --'"
"What do you want?"
Neron's laugh is low and entirely inhuman. "Oh,
you've already *paid* your debt. But my new
friends all seemed so *enthusiastic* about the joys
of gloating. I had to give it a try."
"Batman, what's he --"
Another clap, the stink of sulfur, and Neron is
Bruce swallows, takes the extra communicator out
of his belt, and places it in his left ear.
"-- *in*, dammit, are you listening --"
"Night --" His own voice is choked and low. He
tries again. "Nightwing."
"Batman, you have to get here. You."
Jason grabs his arm. "What is it? What's --"
"I -- oh God." Nightwing takes a deep, shuddering
breath. "It's Robin. It's -- the crowd -- the fucking
"Fell on him like... like... we didn't see Grodd until
it was too late. I didn't see -- and I --"
"What's he *saying*, Bruce?"
"Batman, oh God, I'm so sorry --"
"Nightwing. Contact Superman. Have him... we
have to. Have him get us there."
"Y-yes. I --"
He swallows, and breathes in the stink of smoke
The Case is old. The suit is new.
He hasn't finished the plate, yet.
It has to be... it has to be right.
He pulls the goggles over his eyes and bends over
the engraving machine, the same one he'd used
He pulls off the goggles again, and listens to Jason,
instead. The birdarangs hit with solid perfection,
one after the other. Precision.
Jason was throwing them when he and Alfred had
left to attend the funeral. The one Jason couldn't
attend, because there were far too many people
there who remembered him. It seems strange, now,
how little Bruce had thought of the fact that Jason
never left this house during the day, and never
without a mask. It had felt right, and entirely
The fact that it still does...
"Was it worth it?"
Bruce blinks and looks up, and Jason is holding the
last of his birdarangs. It's smudged, the gleam lost
under several hours worth of the oils from his skin,
and drying blood.
"What do you want me to say, Jason?"
The boy's face crumples, twists hard on itself
before settling into the blank, even lines that Tim
had taught him.
*Without* Bruce's suggestion, much less...
"I want you to say that you know it. That I was
supposed to be the dead one. The one in that
fucking -- in that *case*."
Dead boy walking. Bruce swallows back bile.
"Survivor's guilt is --"
The birdarang lodges in the console, perhaps two
inches from Bruce's hand, and Jason is watching
him with a blankness that never comes close to
Bruce nods, mostly to himself. "I love you."
"And that's supposed to be -- what *is* that?
Some kind of fucking *excuse*?"
"No." There isn't one.
Jason's hand snap closed into fists, and Bruce waits
for the attack. *Hungers* for it.
It doesn't come. "Jay --"
"Then what *is* it, Bruce? What is it supposed to
"The truth," he says, and watches Jason swallow
back a sob, and another.
Jason's fists are clenched so tightly that blood
drops from both of them, pattering and pooling on
He starts to stand.
"You knew they weren't safe."
He sits back down. "Jason --"
"You knew your dreams weren't safe. You're the
one who *told* me that nothing was ever safe,
not even in your -- your fucking *sleep* --"
("Well, *that's* fucking paranoid.") Bruce closes
his eyes. "Yes."
"You knew and you did it *anyway*. God, Bruce,
what the fuck did you think would *happen*?
His eyes are wide and wet, and Bruce thinks of
telling him about the first time he'd seen them
that way, about the first secret he'd ever kept --
tried to keep -- from the boy, and the way he
never could again.
"Was it *worth* it to you, Bruce?"
It's a curious sensation to know the exact nature
of your damnation.
It's a lot... like being light. "God fucking *dammit*,
"Yes," he says, and watches Jason tense, all over.
Watches him walk away, up the stairs and into the
Alfred will keep him from leaving. Alfred will...
Bruce squeezes his eyes shut for just a moment,
just long enough to catch his own breath.
And then he turns back to the engraver, and
slips the goggles back over his eyes.