Alfred says nothing when Bruce brings Jason home. Alfred hadn’t said anything when he’d brought him home the last time, either.
Jason had been very still in the Batmobile on the way back. Bruce had found himself checking, over and over, that he was still breathing. Jason still moves like a baby deer on wobbly legs. He shuts his eyes and flinches away from lights and noises. He stares at Alfred with huge dark eyes until Bruce leads him upstairs.
Jason’s room is neatly made up; it hasn’t been used in years. Alfred brings some of Dick’s old pajamas. Jason swims in them. He keeps touching the blank surfaces where he’d once kept his books, his pictures, all the trinkets of a fifteen-year-old boy pretending to be real.
“Where…?” he says finally, the first thing he’s said since he fell through the portal and into Bruce’s arms.
“They’re…they’re in storage,” Bruce answers, and frowns to hear the catch in his voice. “I can have Alfred fetch them.”
“No,” Jason says. “It was too long ago.”
He doesn’t know how time passes in the underworld. He’s no mystic; the only magic he knows is the tricks and illusions for the unwary that he learned from Zatara when he was young. He’s always kept himself firmly grounded in the world of the five senses. There are too many demons he might raise if it were otherwise. “I think you should go to bed, Jason.”
“I’m not tired.”
“I suspect you will be.” The boy is trembling where he stands, though he gazes levelly at Bruce through the shiver. It worries Bruce, but he can’t call Leslie. It would be too difficult to explain. He fears what will happen if the miracle is examined too closely. “You’ve had a long journey.”
Jason obediently goes to the bed, turns back the duvet, and climbs in. Bruce touches his forehead briefly. Checking his temperature, he tells himself, but there’s no unnatural warmth or chill. “Good night.”
“Good night, Bruce.”
“Would you rather I left the light on?”
“No. It’s all the same now.”
He walks slowly to the door. Just as he opens it, Jason says, “Bruce?”
He permits himself the faintest turn of his head back over his shoulder. “Yes?”
“What did you pay for me?”
“Where I was…no one gets out of there for free.”
He can’t even picture the face of Bill Sowerby, fence and smuggler, the criminal he’d let go in return for Ezra St. James’s sorcery. It’s simply a blur, a composite of the hundreds of his type Batman has brought to justice, and the hundreds more he’ll deal with in the future. He’ll have to consult his records, later tonight.
Jason’s face is watchful in the corner of his eye. “Don’t worry about it, Jason. Jay.”
He waits a minute longer, but Jason says nothing more. He shuts off the light and leaves.
Jason recovers with great speed over the next few days. Boys are very resilient, Bruce tells himself. He eats heartily (Alfred makes the chili dogs for him himself), talks quietly, and even laughs once. When Bruce catches him smoking a cigarette in one of the tool sheds, something loosens in his chest that he hadn’t even known was knotted there.
It is a raw early spring. Jason takes a drag on the cigarette, then tilts his head back to the sky to release the smoke, exposing his shivering throat, and everything at once is damp and grey and shining with uncertain life. Bruce can’t remember the number of times he’d mentally offered all he had for the chance to scold Jason again, and now the boy’s simple physical presence is almost too vivid to bear, like some luridly beautiful figure glimpsed in delirium. He waits a few minutes before letting Jason know he’s there. One cigarette hardly registers in the scale.
Bruce isn’t sure how to reintroduce him to the outside world. False identity papers are simple enough to obtain, but Jason still resembles Bruce Wayne’s murdered son too much to make matters straightforward. When Bruce is being perfectly honest with himself, he admits he is reluctant to send Jason back out into the world that battered and broke him. Jason doesn’t push, which Bruce attributes to his still being weaker than he wants to admit.
He tries to put Batman’s business on hold as much as he can, but a few matters simply cannot be postponed or handed off to others. He spends three or four hours a night away before hastening back. Jason says nothing about that, either. Bruce thinks he doesn’t want to be reminded.
So he’s startled to come into the Batcave on the fifth day and find Jason staring into the case that holds his old costume. The blood turns to ice in his veins, and he has to grit out the question.
“What are you doing down here?”
Jason turns and looks back at Bruce. Behind him, his reflection distorts in the glass. Bruce thinks he must have sounded too harsh. ”’A good soldier,’” he says slowly. “Is that what I was to you, Bruce? All I was?”
“Jay…” So many things that he never found the right moment to say. He’s heart-sick with the fear that to speak them now will shatter the spell, cause the boy to be swept away again. He knows how sparing the world is with second chances.
Jason straightens. “I want to be Robin again.”
“No,” Bruce says immediately, strongly. “It’s too dangerous, Jason. You know you don’t…don’t have to be Robin to stay here.”
Jason’s answering smile has a disturbingly cynical tinge to it. “But what if I want to matter to you?”
“You do matter. That’s why I don’t want to bury you again.”
“I died for my mistakes, Bruce. Don’t you think I deserve a second chance?”
To retrieve the fallen soldier as well as the lost son…Bruce knows that he is being greedy even to entertain the thought. He should keep Jason at home, shelter him from dangers, give him a normal life. But a normal life will separate him from Bruce almost as much as death did. Batman’s work consumes every minute of his day except the few given up to wearing the mask of Bruce Wayne. To leave Jason out of it means leaving him out of his life altogether.
He keeps his voice stern. “You’ll have to earn your way back. Any breach in discipline will end your training.”
Jason nods. “I’m ready.”
Alfred has been discreetly absent for most of Jason’s stay, but Bruce finds him in the formal dining room, dusting the table under the watchful eye of Waynes past. He raises an eyebrow a full half an inch when Bruce tells him to prepare new uniforms for Robin, and he knows there are going to be difficulties.
“Forgive me, Master Bruce, but do you feel that it’s wise to begin again with him? At least, so soon?”
“You’ve seen how quickly he’s recovered physically.”
“To the degree necessary to play Robin?”
“I’m not sending him out onto the streets right away, Alfred. He’s going to have to undergo the revised training regimen first. Or most of it.”
“But what he’s been through–”
“Makes it all the more important for him to find some way to get back to normal,” Bruce cuts him off harshly. Despite everything, Alfred will never truly understand the necessity at the heart of the mission. “It’s what’s best for him.”
Alfred pauses a fraction of a second, then nods. “Of course, Master Bruce.”
“Three uniforms will be enough for now.”
“Very well.” Another pause. “I have meant to ask, Master Bruce. I assume you wish Master Dick notified?”
“No,” he says immediately.
“But Master Dick, as you know, regarded Jason–”
“Regards him. Regards.”
Alfred is unflustered by the interruption. “Regards him in the light of a younger brother. Perhaps they were not always friends, but surely he would be deeply affected to know that Jason is still alive.”
Of course, Dick would want to know, but it’s better that he doesn’t. He’s too impulsive, too emotional; he’d overreact. It’s too early. “Not yet, Alfred.”
“And Master Tim?”
“His mission in Tibet is too delicate. He shouldn’t be distracted.”
Alfred bows his head slightly. “Yes, Master Bruce.”
He sees he will have to keep Alfred busy.
Jason is better, faster, stronger.
Bruce can hardly keep up with him. Jason masters every task Bruce sets him, rises to every challenge. He tumbles through the air with economy and sturdy grace, shoots batarangs with deadly accuracy, and dodges blows with ease. He anticipates Bruce’s moves in a way that would hardly have seemed possible in the bitter days before his death, when he always managed to be at least six inches out of position at any given moment. He seems to have forgotten nothing, and to have learned things he never could have known.
Perhaps more impressive than his physical facility is the new dedication he brings to his training. Bruce can never remember him so diligent, even in the earliest days. He approaches the most routine of tasks with an intensity that outshines even Tim’s.
Bent over the microscope, he still senses Bruce watching him. He looks up from beneath the fan of black hair. “What is it?”
“You weren’t so committed in the past.”
“That was before I learned that life isn’t a game.” He goes back to his study.
After a month, it becomes impossible to pretend that Jason isn’t ready. Bruce hasn’t been able to offer him any of the useful fictions he’s always employed with the Robins; with every gaze from his dark eyes, Jason reminds him that he’s experienced truths Bruce knows nothing of. Despite Bruce’s continuing fears, it seems dishonorable to lie to someone who has made the ultimate sacrifice for the mission.
So when Jason suddenly straightens and lays down his bo in the middle of a sparring match and says, “Bruce,” he can only nod and answer, “Yes, it’s time.”
On their first patrol together, Bruce still expects the usual anxieties, hesitations, and mistakes that he’s spent such time training out of new Robins. Instead, they work in harmony, a ballet of tightly-controlled violence. As they pursue one robber’s car through the narrow streets, he catches a glimpse of Robin swinging next to him in the air. His form is perfect, legs extended to provide the smoothest swing, hands moving from line to grapple-gun with absolute confidence. He looks as if he’s never fallen.
When they return to the manor, Bruce tells Jason he’s done well. Jason only nods. It’s clear he already knows.
Bruce goes to his room to rest. As he curls his fingers around the sheet, he listens to the faint sound of feet moving through the house.
Jason doesn’t sleep anymore.
Three days later, they’re in the drawing room watching the local news while reviewing case files. Bruce is on the couch, and Jason is stretched out on the floor near his feet. He’s only half-listening to the television until the announcer intones, “The body of Ezra St. James, notorious local mystic who claimed to wield magical powers, was found today in St. James’s home. Police say he appears to have been murdered.”
He breathes in sharply.
“Bruce?” Jason, now so exquisitely sensitive to his moods, turns his head and looks up at him. “Bruce? What’s wrong?”
His voice goes slightly shaky on the last sentence, and Bruce realizes it’s because he’s cupping Jason’s chin in his hand, fingers digging into the soft flesh of his cheek, suddenly desperate to assure himself that Jason is still solid. He makes himself unfold each individual finger and pull the hand away. “Nothing.”
Jason stares at him. “Do we know this St. James?”
“I’m aware of certain of his activities. He had…some power.”
“Should we investigate?”
“No.” Every instinct tells him this is a situation better left alone. Villains come to bad ends in Gotham all the time. There’s no need to determine the particulars.
“I see.” Jason picks up his dropped papers and shuffles them together neatly. Silence stretches between them. “Bruce?”
“Did St. James have something to do with me coming back?”
Helpless before the gaze of the eyes he’d closed on a table in the morgue, he answers, “Yes.”
Jason exhales slowly. “Whatever you did, it was right.”
He isn’t so sure, and it must show on his face, because Jason climbs to his feet and leans down over him, his hands resting on either side of Bruce’s head.
“I couldn’t stay there, Bruce. You don’t know–you can’t imagine what it was like. I couldn’t stay. You had to save me.”
Bruce gets up convulsively. He doesn’t ask: even if St. James’s partner, the one he let go, was the one who killed him? He doesn’t seem to have the power even to give the thought voice. Instead, he walks away, into the dining room.
His parents look down at him. Thomas and Martha Wayne would not have killed to save him. He is sure.
That night, after patrol, Bruce is pulling on his pajama shirt when there’s a knock at his bedroom door. It’s too assertive to be Alfred.
When he opens the door, Jason is standing there. He’s fresh from the shower; his hair is wet, and he’s wearing a short silk robe that clings to him damply in places. Bruce hesitates, and he comes in without asking. Bruce shuts the door, automatically.
When he turns back, Jason is standing less than a foot away.
He remembers the first night that Jason spent in the manor. Bruce had come out of the shower to find Jason sitting on the edge of his bed, shaking and trying to hide it with a scowl. Jason had spent enough time on the street that he thought he knew what to expect. He didn’t want to be made to do it.
He remembers the swift, dizzying flash of temptation that had come over him, and how ugly it had been. Something monstrous, suddenly revealed to be whispering to him sweetly at the heart of his own best intentions. Jason had been tender and pliable and just coming into his strength. He would have tried to be tough, and he would have given up everything. Bruce was so alone. It had not been easy to tell Jason that he would not be required to provide those services in his new home.
Jason is…was…his adopted son. The thought sends a shock through Bruce, but it is a shock that excites at least as much as it repels. Jason is so much more beautiful now. His innocence has melted into something knowing, almost ironic, but his body still has the thoughtless strength of youth, its gloriously careless sensuality in every pure line. His cheeks are damp, his eyes are…wanton.
Jason was fifteen when he died, three years ago. What did he learn, lost all those years in the dark?
“Bruce,” he says softly. “I’m tired of waiting.”
Standing so close that Bruce can see his chest rising and falling where the robe falls open, he doesn’t need to explain himself. Bruce wants to bind Jason and keep him, to ensnare him so that he can never be lost again. He wants to know him in the darkness, where all the frustrations of words might be left behind. He wants to be known, and…be forgiven.
He can’t send Jason away again.
When Bruce kisses him, Jason molds himself at once against Bruce’s body. He’s already hard. Bruce can feel the hunger in the fingers that quest over his shoulders, and he senses Jason is seeking an anchor to life. Maybe it is the wrongness itself that he craves–maybe that is all that will do for a boy come back from the dead. Bruce only knows that he hadn’t given him enough before. There had been too many fears and uncertainties and doubts, but now he no longer cares what will be left of him.
Jason breathes, “Do it now.”
He picks Jason up and carries him over to the bed. When he lays him down there, the robe falls open, and Jason is indeed naked under it, shamelessly so. He arches his back as he pulls at Bruce’s shirt, and Bruce stares at the sweet curve of it, the way it thrusts his cock up, the leanly-muscled legs suddenly taut. Jason is raw and fierce and needy, and Bruce leans down into him and is lost.
He fucks Jason for what seems like forever, Jason whispering harsh obscenities that, on his boy’s lips, only drive Bruce harder. He holds off his climax as long as he can, because he doesn’t want to stop burying himself in Jason. But Jason seems equally determined to make him, to draw him out of himself completely. He writhes so abandonedly, murmuring such lewd things in Bruce’s ear that eventually he cannot help but spend himself in a great wave that leaves him gasping against Jason’s shoulder.
He’s still recovering from the surge of it when Jason urges his head downwards. He moves automatically in response to his guidance. Jason’s cock bumps insistently against his cheek. It is hot, already slick, iron-hard, and when Bruce blindly opens his mouth to take it in, Jason bucks against him immediately. He takes Jason as deep as he can, all the way, wishing it could be more. Jason’s taste, Jason’s smell, Jason’s shivers and cries as he clutches Bruce’s hair and fucks deep into Bruce’s throat, rough and possessive, become all his universe. He can no longer remember why he ever refused.
Jason yanks at his head and comes, and Bruce swallows eagerly, again and again. He doesn’t want to release him, but Jason finally half-pets his cheek, and he lifts his head away.
Jason is watching him in the dark. His eyes gleam.
“I’ll never leave you, Bruce,” he says, and it’s infinitely sweet.
Bruce crawls back up to the pillows. He pulls Jason to him, wishing there were some way he could make that literally true, so that he could always hold this warm and yielding body against his. For the night, at least, he can.
He hears his own breathing slow as he drifts off, but Jason’s never does.
The next few days pass in a strange haze for Bruce. When he and Jason aren’t working, they are tangled up together, sweaty and bruised. Jason is bold and eager and seems to have no boundaries at all. He comes to Bruce’s bed every night, but it doesn’t stop there. It also happens on the couch in the drawing room in the middle of the day, and in the Batcave itself, both of them in uniform and Robin begging Batman to fuck him harder. One night at the end of patrol, in a dark alley, Jason turns to him and runs both hands down his armored chest, and Bruce is helpless to object, even to speak as Jason kneels down in front of him in the middle of a thunderstorm. He knows it’s insanity, but he can deny Jason nothing, and the sense of being that powerfully needed twists something in his brain until he’s ready to take Jason all over again.
Alfred says something about taking vacation. Bruce nods. Alfred is still talking, but he’s already lost interest. When he hears the door close behind him, all he feels is relief.
Batman and Robin do have a great deal of work to keep them busy, triggered largely by the astonishing page that wakes Bruce in the middle of the night a few days after Alfred leaves. He stares at it in disbelief, wondering if he’s dreaming, then rolls out of bed and hits the signal to Jason’s room.
As he comes out in the hallway, Jason appears from the general direction of his bedroom, yawning and pulling a shirt on. “Bruce, what–?”
“We’ve just gotten an unconfirmed report that the Penguin is dead.”
Down in the Batcave, he verifies the news from the police computers. Someone has found Cobblepot on the street outside his swank downtown apartment building. His neck was broken, but he was still warm. Ironic. It would be an understatement to say that Bruce won’t mourn Cobblepot, but someone with enough ambition to murder him probably has bigger plans, ones that menace the general public. He’ll have to deal with it.
He leaves Robin to compile a report on the whereabouts of all Cobblepot’s known rivals and enemies at the time of the crime and goes out to interview witnesses. They don’t have much to say. The young men who found the body were staggering home drunk from a club. They giggle, reeking of testosterone and stupidity, and can barely get their story out. He stares at them in disgust and leaves them outside the station.
The only witness to the attack that the police have been able to flush out is a little harder to reach. The police hold onto her for two hours, while Batman checks in with Robin periodically for the emerging forensics data. Cobblepot wasn’t injured except for the broken neck; the preliminary examination of the scene–a bustling city street–haven’t yielded any promising evidence. Five people with reasons to kill Cobblepot are definitely in town, but Robin hasn’t yet managed to pin down their locations with accuracy. He debates leaving the witness to go question them, but decides he needs the most immediate details first. Alibis can wait.
He tells Robin to check on Bill Sowerby as well, ignoring the voice that tells him they should have done that when St. James died.
“Just do it.” The witness is emerging from the police station, looking shaky, and he cuts the line.
The woman, a young lawyer returning home late from work, is intelligent and observant but can add little. She was half a block away when it happened and hadn’t actually seen the assault. She simply heard someone call, “Hey! Penguin!” as she was going into her own building. She’d thought it odd, but nothing important, til the police had come to her door.
“What sort of voice did he have?” he says.
“I don’t know. It was definitely a man. A tenor, I think. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you. In this city, yelling is background noise.”
He asks her more questions, but the one useful fact–that the killer was someone familiar with Cobblepot’s criminal past–is all she has for him. After fifteen minutes, he decides to return to the Batcave to look over the data Robin is gathering and choose the most likely suspects to concentrate on.
“Who first?” Robin asks.
He looks at the list, musing. “There are a large number of people who knew Cobblepot as Penguin and had reason to hate him…” He looks up. “Including our people. None of us are on this list.”
Robin is idly stretching his triceps, one arm behind his head.. “Am I a suspect, Bruce?” he asks playfully. Despite the night’s work, he doesn’t seem tired at all. “Because I’m the one person in the world with an unbreakable alibi. I was with you.”
Batman gives him a tiny smile. “It’s important to be completist, Robin. It will save your life someday.”
Five days of investigation yield no clear suspect. Several of Penguin’s enemies, and Sowerby, don’t have adequate alibis, but none can be conclusively linked to the crimes, and forensics offers very little to help, except that the killer was taller than Penguin. At best, that might rule out Scarface. Robin works tirelessly alongside him on the case, then shuts his eyes and absorbs Bruce’s frustrations in bed, but nothing helps.
That night, it gets worse.
The sight of the Batsignal in the sky startles him; he didn’t expect to be called in on this murder, and nothing else major is moving. He and Robin swing to the rooftop of the GCPD HQ, and Gordon is waiting for them. Gordon always looks worried and thoughtful, but today it’s more: he looks grave.
“Commissioner,” Batman greets him. “What’s the situation?”
Gordon looks at Robin, as if he’s going to object to his presence, but then returns to Batman. “It’s Two-Face.”
That strikes him as odd. He wouldn’t expect Two-Face to show up on Gordon’s radar before his, and he’s heard nothing. Penguin’s death doesn’t fit his M.O. at all. “What’s he done?”
“Nothing.” Gordon folds his arms. “Someone killed him.”
Batman stares at him. “I don’t believe it.”
“I know. I don’t, either. But it’s Harvey. I’ve seen it–him–myself. The DNA tests will still be a few days, but the fingerprints and the preliminary blood analyses all confirm his identity.”
“How did it happen?”
“A very well-placed blow to the head.”
“Is there any evidence this is linked to the Cobblepot murder?” It’s hard to believe that it couldn’t be, and yet…
Gordon shakes his head. “Not yet.”
This kind of trick isn’t Harvey’s style. Not at all. His throat feels thick. “I’ll have to verify this myself.”
Gordon nods. “I’ve left instructions for them to let you into the morgue. If it’s a trick of some kind–”
He and Robin are already swinging away.
They land on the rooftop of the medical examiner’s building. Batman is struggling to suspend thought, feeling, reaction until he can see for himself, but his foot slides on a piece of scree as he comes down and he goes to one knee. “Damnit!”
“Batman.” Jason kneels next to him when he doesn’t get up at once. “Bruce.”
“I think it’s Harvey in there, Jason.” The city lights twinkle above them. Gotham ate Harvey Dent alive and spat him out a monster.
“Bruce.” Jason turns his face with his gloved hands until they’re looking at each other. “Two-Face hurt us. He nearly beat Dick to death. He killed my father. You hate him.”
And he could admit that to himself now–he had–but it had always been a hate tinged with helplessness and despair. “Harvey Dent was my friend,” he says simply. “I loved him.”
“I know, Bruce. I know.”
One of Jason’s hands slides between his legs. His body responds to Jason’s touch almost automatically. He is lying on his back and Jason is kissing him fiercely, over and over again, as he works the catches to free Bruce’s cock. Jason strokes him as heedlessly as if they were alone together in Bruce’s bedroom, and Bruce gives up his grief to the indifferent Gotham night. Coming with Jason curled around him abandons that feeling to their all-consuming heat. When he gets to his feet, he’s ready to investigate again.
“Wait here, Robin,” he orders, and Robin doesn’t argue.
The morgue is always the same, smelling of disinfectant and full of sickly yellow light. He recognizes the coroner, a short woman with lush brown curls bunched at the nape of her neck; she nods at him and turns back to her work. She doesn’t need to point out Harvey’s table. It’s pushed a little ways apart from the rest.
He knows, as soon as he sees. He’ll do the tests, and he’ll read the reports, and he’ll rack his brain for alternate explanations, but it will only be delaying the inevitable. The body in front of him is no dummy or phony or illusion. It’s Harvey.
“He wouldn’t have suffered,” the doctor says at his elbow, and he realizes he’s been staring for some time. “Death would’ve been nearly instantaneous. A better one than he deserved.”
He can’t blame her for the remark. He can’t imagine how many of Two-Face’s victims have passed under her hands. “Whoever it was would have had to get in close,” he says.
“Yes. He must have gotten careless.”
“Or else his good coin was ruling,” he says, mostly to himself.
It’s the first time he’s seen Harvey at peace in years. The good half of his face is serene; even the dark half is relaxed, no longer fierce and watchful. Someone has put a coin over only the dark eye. That’s appropriate, he thinks. Then he stops, and wonders: To whom?
“Did you put that there?” He points.
“No, of course not.” She cocks her head. “That’s funny, it wasn’t there before…”
The coin is too large to be a drachma or a dinar. He reaches out and picks it up with heavy fingers. Turning it over, he sees the scars. It’s Two-Face’s coin.
“You’ve never seen this before.”
His tone must be accusing, because her mouth firms. “I said I didn’t put it there.”
“Do you have the inventory of his effects?”
She finds her copy and hands it to him. He scans it with dread. The coin isn’t listed.
Whoever had killed him must have slipped in and left the coin. Someone who knew the significance, someone who wanted to make a gesture. Someone who could find out when the police made the discovery of the body and didn’t have to worry about being spotted in the morgue.
“What was the time of death?”
She reads the precise number to him off a clipboard, irritated into officiousness. More than five hours earlier.
Five hours earlier, he and Jason had been asleep in bed. Or, more precisely, he had been asleep. Jason didn’t sleep. Jason had been…
When he gets to the roof, Jason is waiting on the cornice, standing silhouetted against the night sky. The moon makes his features a mask; he’s a beautiful gargoyle for the Gotham night. “Is it him?”
He nods curtly.
Jason springs down to him. “Bruce…”
His hand is on Bruce’s face, as if seeking a telltale dampness. Bruce gently takes it away. “Let’s go home,” he says.
He can’t voice his suspicions. If he’s correct, that will simply put Jason on his guard. If he isn’t…
If he isn’t.
They’ve been through this together once already. Despite all the nights he spent lying awake replaying the scenario in his head, looking for a better strategy, he’s never found the optimal one.
There is an upper limit, even for the Batman. To drive Jason away again might end him.
He has to continue the investigation into Harvey’s murder. He spends hours trying to identify alternate suspects, cracking alibis, turning up new leads. The effort yields nothing concrete, but he can’t give it up. He feels robotic as he goes through the motions, silently hoping that something unexpected will offer him a better theory and bring him back to life.
The worst of it is that his fever for the boy has not abated. Sex is a means of investigation now, and he throws himself into it with desperation, looking for clues, some turn of the head or set of the mouth that will reassure him. But Jason never was reassuring, and he’s never less so than when he’s lying in Bruce’s bed. Still, Bruce dreams with each touch that he at least might be able to reach Jason. Whatever has happened, Jason isn’t rotten deep. Bruce can catch him, prevent him from slipping away. If he would only confess–
Bruce doesn’t let himself think about how much he craves their urgent intimacy, deep in blood and bone. In those dreadful days, Jason has become a comfort and a terror, the center of all his attention, and everything around him is growing pale and grey. So he fucks Jason violently, staring up into his dark unblinking eyes, and afterwards rolls over and lets his breathing grow shallow and slow. Jason’s, of course, never does. Several times over the next few days he gets up from Bruce’s bed, only to pay an unremarkable visit to the bathroom or the kitchen, but on Bruce’s fourth sleepless night he rises and doesn’t return.
Bruce wishes that he could convince himself that he’s counted the seconds wrong, but the knowledge of the time that has passed is implacable inside him. He gets up himself, zombie-like, and makes his way down to the cave. Jason is there, and almost ready to go. He’s checking his supplies and adjusting his equipment. Even now, he’s so sturdy and graceful that Bruce wants to go back upstairs, to lie on the bed and pretend that this isn’t happening until Jason returns to catch him with fierce caresses. But when Jason dons the mask, he isn’t just Jason anymore. He’s Robin, and Robin can’t do these things.
“Going somewhere?” Bruce says, stepping out of the shadows.
Robin turns his head and looks at him, expressionless. “I have something to take care of.”
“Don’t you mean someone?”
“You guessed it.”
“Jason.” He tries to keep his tone neutral. “You can’t do this.”
“Sure I can.”
The playfulness in his voice is horrid, mechanical. Bruce suppresses a shudder. “Robins don’t kill. And you–you’re not a killer.”
“Wrong. I’m going to kill a criminal tonight, and you’re not going to stop me.”
“Oh, yes, I am. This is wrong, Jason.”
He shakes his head impatiently. “Come on, Bruce! You want to make Gotham safe, but the crime never stops. No matter what you do, the system’s just a revolving door for people like Garzonas, like Joker. I know how much you hate them, how much you wish they were dead–”
“That’s not true.”
“Bruce.” He takes a step towards him. “You can’t lie to me. It’s Robin’s job to feel all the things you won’t let yourself feel. All those things you keep buried deep inside and pretend you don’t have. Love and sadness and anger and hate…”
Bruce says nothing, thinking of what Tim had said to him when he had first appeared. Perhaps it’s true, but since when has Jason ever been so…analytical?
His smile is bright and crooked, Jason’s smile, and Bruce has never loved him so much or so desperately as he does in that moment. “And I’m the perfect Robin.”
The words toll in his heart, and he barely gets out, “Are you even Jason?”
Behind the mask, the eyes are perfectly blank. “Jason is…close. Robin’s closer.”
“Whoever–whatever you are, it stops now.” He reaches for the tranq gun, but Robin must have been waiting for him all along, because he snaps his wrist, and something crashes into Bruce’s head.
He falls to the ground, consciousness fading. He feels Jason’s gloved hands on his face, feels him kiss him fiercely on the lips. “You’re glad, Bruce. You’re already glad,” he whispers. “Later on, I’ll help you realize it.”
His feeble attempt at grabbing Jason’s arm is nothing more than a twitch, and the pain pushes him over the edge into blackness.
When Bruce wakes up, his head throbs and he can taste blood in his mouth, but he’s only been out fifteen minutes. There’s still time to retrieve the siutation. He drags himself to his feet, trying to decide who Jason’s next target would be. If he’s really going after every criminal Batman despises, there’s far too long a list of potential targets. He can only hope that Jason didn’t realize…
He sits at the computer and squints at one of the screens. Jason had gotten rid of the tracker, of course, but Bruce had also left a file audit running. Yes. Jason has pulled files recently that aren’t related to the Two-Face investigation. Bruce nods as he sees the Joker-related filenames scroll up. Then he sees the second set and freezes. They’re all related to Catwoman.
Bruce rests his head on his hand for just a second. Yet another painful choice. The thought of standing guard over Joker while Jason butchers Selina makes his nausea surge in him. She is superbly tough, but a Robin could throw her off just long enough. Joker, though…he makes himself think. Joker killed Jason. He has no idea what Jason thinks his feelings are for Catwoman, but surely he knows of the rage Bruce felt then, and for Barbara. Perhaps Jason means Joker to be the climax, the last killing, but he can’t take that chance. Jason’s schedule may have changed with his discovery.
He leaves a message on Selina’s answering machine, knowing it is either the most pointless or the most futile gesture in history. Then he speeds into the night in the Batmobile. Joker’s most recent rumored hangout is underneath the docks.
He’d brought Jason home in the same vehicle hardly three weeks ago…
Ezra had smiled at him. “Nothing up my sleeve, Batman. It’s a fair trade I’m proposing: let my friend Bill here go, and I’ll bring Robin to you. He’s so close from the last time with Neron, I can almost see him in my mind. The marks are all over you.”
If he was going to make the trade and damn himself, at least he would be sure to get what he bargained for. “I want him sound and whole, St. James. He has to be in perfect condition.”
St. James nodded. “Just as you wish.”
He released his grip on Sowerby. It was only seconds before he heard strange, shuffling footsteps–
In the end, he thinks, it’s so little of a mystery. He just hadn’t wanted to see. St. James might have been able to send Jason back, so he had to be the first to go. And then the rest, acting out…He shakes himself. He doesn’t know how much choice Jason, or whatever of Jason remained, had had. It doesn’t matter. It can’t.
It’s quiet in the tunnels. There are two guards with their necks snapped piled neatly near a hatch. Even now, Jason won’t use a gun. Harley’s still in Arkham, so he doesn’t have to worry about her. A small blessing.
After he climbs down, the tunnel widens out. There’s a storage space in front of him. Construction gear is scattered about. He hears the laughter before he sees the two figures, and he takes a second to be grateful about Selina.
Joker’s backed against the wall. His face is bloody, but he’s laughing as if he might explode, shaking in a mirthless rictus. “Boy–blunder–come back from the dead to kill me!” he shrieks in between peals. “It couldn’t be more perfect.”
Jason stands in front of him, looking patient. Waiting. “I’ve got time,” he finally says. “Get it all out.”
“Oh, my boy, I’ll never be done,” Joker answers, wiping tears and blood away from his eyes.
“Well, then–” He raises his hand.
“Robin!” Bruce thunders, and lets the net fly.
But Jason reacts, faster than a human should. He spins aside, leaping over a stack of bricks, and the net tangles Joker instead. “Batman. I thought you would go to protect Catwoman. The way you feel…”
”...Is irrelevant.” It’s strange, now; there’s a kind of clarity. Like breaking the surface of water after nearly drowning. He fires a series of tranq darts, but Jason springs away.
“You keep telling yourself that, Batman, but it’s not true. I know. I feel it. Your entire life is driven by emotion, and you don’t even know it.”
“I know why I’m here tonight,” he says grimly, prowling sideways, watching him.
“Duty? The mission? Justice?” Jason mocks, walking along a plank.
He loves Jason. He’s not going to let him hurt anyone else. That may be all he can do for him.
“Love? Love will never–”
There’s the sharp report of a gun. A bullet rips through Jason’s chest, another strikes his face, and he falls to his knees. A third bullet whizzes by Bruce, and he dives forward. Joker aims again, but Bruce gets a flash-bang off first. He’s too close, and the noise stuns him a little, too, slowing his attack. Joker kicks him so hard he can’t get his breath, but then Batman knocks him unconscious.
He doesn’t even bother to check Joker’s pulse before turning back to Jason, struggling to rise against the pain of cracked ribs. Those were critical injuries, and it would take minutes for a paramedic team to find its way down here…
But the smoke is clearing, and Jason is standing over them both. The wound in his chest gapes, the costume is dark with blood, and each breath makes a horrible gurgling noise, but he’s on his feet.
“Jason,” he says, stunned. Jason stoops and picks up Joker’s gun. “How…?”
“I’m the perfect Robin, remember?” he says, and smiles. Muscle and bone grind visibly where the bullet took off part of his jaw. “The perfect Robin can’t be killed.”
Of course not. It’s self-evident.
Jason aims the gun at Joker’s head.
There’s no time, there’s nothing gentler he can do. Bruce seizes a shovel lying nearby and swings it upward, at his neck, hard.
The two distinct thuds are hardly even audible.
“But I’m going to have to bury you,” he says.
Jason’s eyes are still looking at him. He pulls himself over and closes them.
Then he vomits until his stomach is empty.
The second time Bruce Wayne buries Jason Todd, there are no other mourners. His ashes have been carefully divided, and it’s only the last third that Bruce can return to Jason’s original grave. He lays the shovel down and turns around. His car has arrived.
Alfred is waiting for him outside the Manor. Bruce sits down on the steps, his legs suddenly giving way beneath him. After a moment, Alfred sits next to him.
“He knew you loved him,” he says.
“Does he?” He’s not sure when it will even seem possible to speak of Jason in the past tense. Not with the ashes shifting and whispering. “I tried to tell him, but I don’t know if he even believed me. I don’t know if he even should believe me.”
He touched Robin. He touched and he…The dull horror of it throbs through his brain.
“If what you say is true, Master Bruce, and he could see into your heart…” Alfred places a hand on his shoulder. “Then he knew. Perhaps…”
“Perhaps that is why he seems to have only acted on the darker desires there. Because he knew you were already acting on love.”
He thinks about watching Jason offer his throat up to the dawn. Kissing that throat a hundred times, a thousand. Driving a sharp-edged plane of metal straight through it, hearing the sick shear of flesh and bone. “I don’t know if that makes things better or worse, Alfred.”
He doesn’t have to worry about it ever happening again, he thinks. His heart is scattered ashes.
“Come inside, Master Bruce.”
Alfred helps him back into the empty house.