A/N: Okay, here it is, the final chapter. I am so, so, sorry about how long this has taken to get up. Life has been hectic but it really is no excuse for making you all wait three weeks for an update. It won't happen again, I promise. In future I'm going to wait until the story is fully finished before posting, instead of posting when I'm at the halfway mark with writing.
Grovelling aside, I'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who's commented along the way. There really are no words to express my gratitude when someone takes the time to say a few words but I'd still like to say thank you, and that I really appreciate it. I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful weekend. :)
Also, a big massive thank you to my wonderful beta, Kim, who has made my life SO much easier with regards to editing (so, I seriously have no excuse for the delay in updating). Kim, you rule. :)
It was the strangest Christmas Eve that Jason could remember: surrounded by the family he thought he had lost, in the house he thought he'd never set foot in again, with the father he'd tried to kill. It sounded like a demented nursery rhyme and the surrealism of it all made his head pop.
Several times throughout the day, Jason considered the possibility that he had finally gone bat-shit crazy and this was all just some wild fantasy. He'd even pinched himself at one point just to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. After the past few years of death and estrangement, Jason found it hard to wrap his head around this easy acceptance and forgiveness. They were all trying so hard to show him that he mattered, that they still cared – how could he not have seen it sooner?
Jason supposed that his fucked-up, five-year vendetta had prevented him from seeing a lot of things.
Much of the day was spent catching up. Jason told them everything that had happened to him since he landed in the other Gotham – including the full tale of what Joker had done to Robin.
Bruce had remained very quiet for a long time after that, leaving Jason to wonder what he was thinking; Bruce's expression suggested that something was going on in that busy brain of his.
It was Dick who filled Jason in on everything that had happened during the months he'd been in the other reality, and Jason used that as an opportunity to compare adult Dick to thirteen-year-old Dick. There were a lot of similarities between them; the easy smile, dark hair and wide blue eyes for example. But Jason was having trouble picturing young Dick growing into the muscular adult in front of him. He supposed it would happen sometime, but right now, he just couldn't see the skinny little teenager as a grown man.
All in all, it had been a surprisingly peaceful day, the only moment of awkwardness occurring just after they had opened their gifts from Jason.
Alfred had been very pleased with his first edition of The Woman in White. The butler had started collecting first editions with Bruce after the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne – a hobby he had continued long after Bruce had abandoned it. The Woman in White was Alfred's favourite book, but one he had never been able to find a good quality first edition of. When Jason had spotted the book in an antique book store several weeks ago in the other Gotham, he had thought of Alfred and purchased it at once. Even then, Jason had known deep down that the time to return was coming.
Dick had exhibited his usual boyish excitement at his gifts; a T-shirt that read someone I know went to another world and all I got was this lousy T-shirt and a holographic computer watch similar to the one young Dick had. Adult Dick was now curled in an armchair wearing said T-shirt and playing with his new toy, a big grin on his face.
Jason had to smile at that, and wondered how thirteen-year-old Dick would react when he opened his gifts the next morning. After all, he was still a child whose favourite holiday was Christmas.
His smile faded slightly when he remembered how quiet Dick had been for the last few days. Watching Bruce open the wrapping on his gift, it occurred to Jason that Dick may not enjoy this Christmas unless they got to the root of whatever was bothering him. He resolved to talk to the boy as soon as he got back tonight, before returning his attention to Bruce just as he peeled the last of the wrappings off of his gift and opened the box to reveal the small, black teleporter. The billionaire raised a quizzical eyebrow at Jason.
"It's a means to travel between this Gotham and the other," Jason explained. "That way you can visit…anytime."
Bruce looked pleased and touched; both rare expressions on his face. "Jason, I–"
"Wait!" Dick interrupted, sitting up straighter in the armchair and staring at Jason. "You're not staying?"
Jason opened and closed his mouth. Even though he hadn't said anything to them when describing his life in the other Gotham, it had been tacitly implied that he would be returning. Judging from Bruce's expression, it was clear that he had understood that, but it seemed Dick had missed the nuances. Jason shifted awkwardly and averted his eyes from Dick's confused face. "I'm going back to the other Gotham, Dick. My life is there now."
"But then why come back? Why go to all the trouble of coming back here and fixing things with Bruce if you're not staying?"
Jason stared at the ground. How could he explain this without making it sound like he was choosing one family over another? Jason wasn't good at voicing his feelings but he still cared a great deal about his family here. Not to mention that finally making peace with Bruce had made him feel more at home. The problem was that this was no longer home. Home was literally a world away right now.
After several minutes, Bruce broke the awkward silence. "You needed to do this if you had any hope of putting your anger behind you and making a life for yourself, am I right?"
"But why does that life have to be in another world?" Dick wanted to know.
"Because I have responsibilities there," Jason answered quietly.
"Young Dick?" Bruce guessed.
Jason nodded again. "He's just had the year from Hell; I can't abandon him now…I don't want to abandon him."
"You've only been there for a few months," Dick pointed out. "How can you get so attached in that length of time?"
Jason raised an eyebrow somewhat teasingly. "You doubting your ability to charm?"
"Never!" Dick shot back with a slight grin. "I'm just trying to understand."
Jason sighed. "I can't explain it, there's just a…bond there. Dick is the kid brother I never had. I feel responsible for him."
Bruce leaned forward in his chair. "Is that what's influenced this sudden mature streak?"
Jason shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."
Dick cocked his head in a move reminiscent of thirteen-year-old Dick. "Jason, are you happy there?"
"Yes." Jason felt slightly guilty at that admission and glanced quickly at Bruce.
But the older man was smiling. "And that's all that matters. Do you plan on returning for another visit?"
"That's what this thing is for," Jason answered, removing the small teleporter from his jacket pocket. "And hey, I expect you to use yours too. That thing's not a USB stick you know!"
"So I gathered," said Bruce, examining the item with interest. "Do you know anything about its design?"
"No clue." Thinking about it now, Jason wondered if the other Bruce had help in developing the miraculous little device. The man was a whizz at technology and had a strong grasp of science, but enough to create something so compact that could still generate portals between worlds? Jason strongly suspected Martian Manhunter and Barry Allen had a hand in its development.
"I must discuss its development with my counterpart," said Bruce, almost to himself, as he turned the object over in his hands.
Jason rolled his eyes. Trust Bruce to be more excited about the technology that could transport him to another world rather than actually visiting that world. "So does that mean you'll use it?"
"Without question," Bruce replied, smiling.
It was after six when they descended into the Batcave so that Jason could use one of the generators to power his teleporter, and Bruce bid him wait before disappearing into the bowels of the cave.
"You sure he's okay with my not staying?" Jason asked Dick, eyes fixed on the darkness that Bruce had just melted into.
"It probably wouldn't be his first choice," Dick admitted, and Jason turned back to look at him. "He's gonna miss you, Jason, we all are. But the important thing is that you're happy."
"I am," said Jason quietly.
Dick smiled. "Then like Bruce said, that's all that matters. Just don't be a stranger, alright? Use that electronic clicky thing and come visit. A lot."
"I will," Jason promised. "And hey, Bruce has one now too, so you should come visit as well – meet the squirt. You'd like him."
"Of course I'd like him. He's me, isn't he?"
Jason rolled his eyes and punched Dick lightly in the arm. "Your modesty humbles me."
Dick grinned just as Alfred joined them, carrying a small package. "Master Jason, I have procured some items for you to take back with you."
Jason took the proffered package. "Thanks, Alfred. What are they?"
"Some of those cookies that you have always been rather partial to. I have also enclosed some photographs of your family here to ensure that you do not forget us."
A lump formed in Jason's throat. "Alfred, I could never forget you – any of you! And this isn't goodbye, I'll be back to visit again real soon. A longer visit next time."
"See that you do, Sir. I would find myself very disappointed if you did not."
Jason smiled, before leaning over and hugging the old man, startling him. "Never change, Alfred."
"I shall do my best, Sir," the butler deadpanned as Jason pulled back.
Bruce reappeared, striding out of the darkness as only the Dark Knight could, a steel canister held tightly in his grip.
"What's that?" Jason asked when Bruce drew level with them.
"Waters from the Lazarus Pit."
"Say what now?!"
"You heard me." Bruce scowled. "After I discovered Ra's had resurrected you in a pit, I…acquired waters from one of the pits to study its chemical composition."
"You wanted to see if it really was the Lazarus Pit that turned me rabid," said Jason.
Bruce's silence was answer enough.
Jason sighed. "Did you find anything?"
"The only thing I could determine with any real conviction is that the Lazarus Pit has a remarkable ability to regenerate or restore organic cellular matter and human tissue–" he handed the canister to Jason "–such as skin."
Jason's eyes widened as he understood the implications of Bruce's words. "Dick's scars!"
Jason stared down at the canister in his hands. "Do you really think this will work?"
"My counterpart may want to run some tests to ensure the results will be the same in another reality before using it on the boy, but yes, I do believe it will work."
Bruce scowled slightly and Jason knew it was eating him up that something he hated so much might be able to yield some good.
Truthfully, Jason was also a little nervous about exposing Dick to waters from the Lazarus Pit, but the alternative was forcing him to live with scars that not only bothered him, but could potentially put him in danger. And Jason was even less okay with that.
"Thanks," he told Bruce quietly.
The older man smiled and Jason couldn't help but marvel at the years that had dropped from his face in just a few hours.
Taking a deep breath, Jason glanced at them all in turn. "Guess I'd better get going. Alfred won't like it if I'm late for dinner."
Bruce put a hand on his shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Jason. You know where to find us if you need anything."
"And you know where to find us if you feel like just visiting," Dick added. "People don't just call when it's about life and death; they also do the visit thing to say 'hi'."
Jason grinned at him. "I'll remember that."
"Make sure that you do." Dick leaned over and hugged him tightly. "Look after yourself, Jason, and don't forget to come back and visit."
Jason shuffled his packages under one arm and returned the embrace. "I'll be back so often you'll be tempted to break my mode of transportation!"
Dick laughed as they drew apart. "I doubt that."
Alfred put a hand on his shoulder and Jason realized that Bruce still had a hand on his other shoulder, as if reluctant to let go.
"Master Jason, it is good to see you happy and well. I hope you continue to be so, and that you return to us sooner rather than later for a visit."
"I will, Alfred, I promise," said Jason. "Can you promise that you'll have some more of those cookies for me when I do?"
"If cookies shall entice you back then I will bake a mountain, Sir."
Jason grinned before turning to face Bruce. The older man's face was serious. "Jason, you are welcome here anytime. This will always be your home, remember that."
"I will," said Jason. And before he knew what was happening, Bruce had pulled him into a tight hug, which Jason returned only too readily.
"Thank you for coming back," Bruce whispered.
Jason nodded. The lump in his throat made it difficult to speak.
After several minutes, they pulled back and smiled at one another. Jason could feel peace settling in his heart; all vestiges of his murderous old rage gone. Forgiving Bruce had been the last step in purging the poison. And while Jason knew he would always be a hot-head, at least now his anger was no longer destructive.
Bruce, Dick and Alfred stepped back as Jason readied himself to return.
"Remember, we have one of those clicky things as well," Dick called. "So if you don't come back for a visit, we'll drag you back kicking and screaming!"
Jason grinned. "I'd expect nothing less." With one last glance at them, he plugged in the teleporter and electricity coursed up his arm as light exploded around him.
He growled and closed his eyes as the uncomfortable pins and needles sensation rippled through him. The League really needed to work on making zeta beams less uncomfortable. Seconds later, the light around him slowly faded. Arms and legs still tingling, Jason found himself in the Batcave of the other reality.
"How did it go?" Bruce's voice asked.
Jason turned towards the computer where the older man was sitting, watching him carefully.
"Surprisingly, it went really well."
"Good." Bruce smiled and Jason couldn't help but notice that his smile was less guarded than his own mentor's. "Most fathers only want the best for their sons, Jason. I'm sure your Bruce had long since forgiven you the past – you both just needed the chance to talk and sort things out."
"Seriously, how do you do that?" Jason complained, joining him at the computer. The way Bruce in both realities could just know things freaked him out.
Bruce ignored the question. "How do you feel?"
"Better. Guess talking isn't as lame as I always thought."
"I'm glad you see that now." He raised an eyebrow at the items under Jason's arm. "Christmas gifts?"
"In a manner of speaking." Jason held out the metal canister. "This one's for you."
"Me?" Bruce took the canister. "What is it?"
"Waters from the Lazarus Pit– Wow! You mean it is possible to surprise you?" Jason grinned at the look on Bruce's face. "Guess you're human after all."
Again, Bruce ignored the comment. "What's this for?"
"Dick's scars. Bruce sent it back with me. Don't ask me how, but he managed to get his hands on some to study the chemical composition after I was brought back to life in one. He thinks it can heal the scars."
Bruce jerked his head up from where he had been studying the canister. "Will it work the same way in this reality?"
Jason shrugged. "He said you might want to do some tests first just to make sure."
"He was right about that," Bruce muttered, his gaze going back to the canister.
"Do you think it'll work?"
Bruce shook his head. "I have no idea. But let's hope it does; Dick is pretty upset about those scars at the moment."
"What do you mean? Did he talk to you?"
"Talk isn't the word I would use, yelled might be more appropriate."
"Yelled? What happened?"
"He saw you enter the portal. He'd guessed something was up and came looking for us just as you went through. He's pretty mad with us both right now."
Jason groaned. Sometimes Dick was just too smart for his own good. "Where is he now?"
"Busy ignoring me in the living room. I came down here to give him some space."
Jason gave a derisive snort. In a house the size of Wayne Manor, Bruce had to come to the Batcave to give Dick space?
"Alright, fine. I was waiting for you."
Jason shook his head. "For a man with the world's best Poker face, you suck at lying, Bruce."
"Not my concern right now. Jason, see if you can talk to Dick. He might be less angry once he knows you're back."
"Or he might be even angrier with me for not telling him," Jason pointed out, heart sinking at the thought.
"Just see if you can get him to talk. Right now, he's shutting me out and nothing I say is getting through to him."
"I'll talk to him," said Jason, heading for the stairs. "But, Bruce, I think this is about more than me going back to my reality."
"I know it is," said Bruce wearily.
Jason found the living room in near darkness. The only light came from the Christmas tree and the roaring fire, the combination casting strange shadows on the walls. Dick was curled in an armchair with his head resting on his hand, an unhappy expression on his face as he stared into the flames.
"You look way too serious for Christmas Eve, Kid," Jason commented as he entered.
"Jason!" Dick cried, jerking upright.
Before Jason could blink, the boy had jumped out of the chair, dashed over to him and thrown his arms around his waist. "Whoa!" said Jason, startled. "I wasn't gone that long!"
Dick mumbled something into his chest.
"Sorry, Dick, didn't catch that," Jason told him, patting the boy's head.
Dick pulled back and glared up at him. "I said, you're a jerk!"
Jason stared down at the young, angry face. "I'm sorry about today, Kiddo. We didn't want you stressing out and I had to do this."
Dick crossed his arms. "You promised to dial down the mother hen act!"
"I promised to dial down the mother hen act when you're Robin," Jason pointed out. "But we agreed that it still stood when you aren't. It's my job to protect you, remember?"
"I didn't need protecting from this!" Dick snapped furiously. "Jason, what you did wasn't fair! What if you'd got stuck in the other Gotham? What if you hadn't been able to come back?"
"I would have found a way to come back–"
"You're missing the point!" Dick yelled. "What if you hadn't? I wouldn't even have gotten the chance to say goodbye! You and Bruce had no right to make that decision for me. I'm not a child, Jason!"
Jason's eye twitched as he fought the urge to raise an eyebrow; Dick had never seemed more like a child to him than at that moment. He looked vulnerable as he glared up at Jason with anger and hurt.
"Okay, so we made a bad call. But, Dick, you've got to realize that when Bruce and I do this, we're not doing it because we think you're a kid, it's because–"
"That is such a crock!" Dick snorted angrily. "That's exactly why you're doing it! You don't do it to each other, or to Alfred, you only do it to me! I'm sick of it, Jason! I'm so tired of people making decisions for me or trying to control me…I'm not freaking helpless!"
And suddenly, Jason knew what this was about. The last few months had been all about loss of control for Dick. After Joker had tortured him, he had taken away the boy's independence; Dick had spent the weeks following the brutal assault confined to a bed and being taken care of, and the weeks following that being coddled by Bruce, Alfred and Jason. Even when he was finally well enough to return to being Robin, Batman and Red Hood had spent the week before his return working overtime to put as many crazies as possible on lockdown, to control the situation for Robin's return.
Their concern was smothering Dick.
"Don't you dare tell me that I'm wrong, Jason!" Dick jabbed a finger at him furiously.
Dick froze. "What?"
Jason sighed. "We've been real buttheads about all of this, haven't we?"
"You…have?" Dick's eyes were wide. He'd clearly been expecting Jason to disagree with him, to defend his and Bruce's actions.
"Ever since Joker, everyone's been making decisions for you, haven't they? Deciding that they know what's best for you. Nobody's even asked you what you want."
Dick's mouth opened slightly and his forehead creased in a small frown.
"And then Brick comes along and spills to everyone about those scars on your arms," Jason continued, "making it harder for you to keep your identity secret, making it harder for you to be Robin. You can't control the fact that criminals target you because you're Bruce's son, but now it feels like you're losing the freedom that being Robin gives you as well."
"I don't blame Bruce," Dick was quick to point out. "He can't control what those guys do either. It's just…I don't…"
"You've had little enough control over what happened to you over the last few months without me and Bruce taking away the power to make your own decisions," Jason finished.
Jason felt like a complete asshole. Dick had told him last Sunday that he was tired of Jason and Bruce making him feel helpless, but Jason hadn't listened. He'd been too busy reacting to the situation to see what Dick really needed. "I'm sorry, Kiddo. It won't happen again."
Dick looked sceptical. "You mean that?"
"I promise. Just let me know if I slip up, okay? Sometimes it's hard to break a habit."
"Deal." Dick tilted his head. "What about Bruce?"
"You're going to have to talk to him about that. But I wouldn't hold my breath; he's a parent, Dick, and it's kind of in the job description to be overprotective."
"Of course it is," Dick muttered.
Jason frowned, studying him. Dick still looked strained and upset. "What's wrong? And don't tell me 'nothing' because I know something is bothering you."
Dick shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Nothing you can do about it anyway."
"And that's a reason not to tell me?" Jason put a hand on his shoulder and stared down at him in concern. "C'mon, Dick, what's up?"
Dick wrapped his arms around himself. "You know the drugs those guys gave me? The ones that made me hallucinate?"
"What about them?" Jason asked carefully.
Dick's expression was haunted. "They made me see Joker. He was there, laughing at me and making me remember…stuff."
Jason felt a wave of pity. "Aw hell, Kid. Why didn't you say something?"
"What was the point? Besides, I've kind of realized, he's always going to be with me."
"What do you mean?"
"The scars." Dick shrugged. "Like Brick said, I'm Joker's bitch now."
His voice was bitter and full of pain, making Jason's heart twist; the words sounded all wrong coming from a child's mouth. Instinctively, Jason reached for Dick and pulled him into a tight hug.
"Don't say that ever again! You're no one's–" Jason grimaced, feeling sick, "–bitch. You're Dick Grayson and you make a kick-ass Robin! Joker can't take that from you. No one can."
"But how am I supposed to maintain a secret identity with these scars?" Dick whispered. "How am I supposed to forget?"
"I don't think you can forget," Jason admitted. "But there might be something we can do about the scars."
"Oh, yeah? What?" The boy's tone was disbelieving.
Jason took a deep breath; Bruce was going to kill him for doing this before he had a chance to run tests. "My Bruce gave me a canister with water from one of the Lazarus Pits to bring back with me. He thinks it might heal your scars."
Dick pulled out of the embrace and looked up at Jason. "What?"
"He was studying the waters, wanted to know more after I was resurrected by them. He said Bruce might need to run some tests here first but…Dick, there's a good chance it'll work."
Dick took a step back and stared, unblinking, at him. "Where's the canister now?"
"Bruce has it." Jason guessed where this was going. "Dick, no way he's going to let you try anything until he's run some tests."
"Uh-huh," Dick muttered, circling around Jason and heading for the door.
Jason followed him quickly. "Dick, did you hear me? Bruce needs to run some tests first."
Dick kept walking. "Thought your Bruce had already tested the stuff."
"He has, but Bruce needs to make sure the waters work the same way here. Different realities, remember?"
"You're from that reality. Doesn't stop you from breathing the same air and eating the same food as us," Dick countered. "Why should the waters from the Lazarus Pit work any differently on us?"
"Kiddo, you know it doesn't work like that," said Jason gently as they reached Bruce's study.
Dick pushed open the door and entered. "I think you're making it more complicated than it needs to be. The Lazarus Pit raised you from the dead, Jay, and it's kept Ra's Al Ghul alive for a couple of hundred years; you think it can't heal a few scars?"
"That's not the issue, Dick," said Jason, watching as he spun the hands of the clock to 10.47; the time of Bruce's parents' death. The clock swung open to reveal the steps leading down to the Batcave. "Bruce knows the pit can heal, what he needs to find out is if the waters will have the same results in this reality."
"And what better way to test that than on me?" said Dick with an eerie smile, descending into the darkness of the cave.
"I'm no scientist but I can think of at least fifty better ways to do it!" Jason bellowed after him before following him down into the darkness. Bruce was going to fucking kill him.
Dick reached the bottom three steps before Jason did. "Is that it?" he demanded, hurrying over to Bruce, who looked up from the microscope he was bent over.
Bruce glared at Jason as he came up behind Dick. "You told him?"
"Yes, he told me!" snapped Dick, before Jason could answer. "This concerns me, why shouldn't he tell me?!"
Bruce sighed. "Because I need to run some tests first to make sure the chemical composition isn't altered in this reality."
"Test it on me."
"Not in a million years!" Bruce snapped at once.
Dick exhaled in frustration. "Why not? It's just my arms, it's not like you're actually putting me into a pit."
"We don't know what reaction your skin would have–"
"Reaction?" Dick interrupted. "Bruce, how could anything be worse than this?!" Tearing back the sleeves of his sweatshirt, Dick revealed the scars on his arms.
Bruce flinched, regret flashing in his eyes. "Dick, I know they bother you, but if you just give me a few weeks–"
"A few weeks?! Bruce, you don't understand! I don't think either of you do."
"Then help us to understand," said Bruce gently.
Dick's eyes darted between Bruce and Jason, his expression somewhat frantic. "These scars, they're not just a reminder, they're a connection to Joker! I see them and…he's there. In my head. I can't get rid of them, which means I can't get rid of him. He's in here" – Dick gestured to his head – "like, all the time and I need him out!"
Jason felt like he'd been socked in the stomach. He had no idea Dick had been struggling that much.
Bruce looked stricken. "Dick, why didn't you say something sooner?"
Dick mumbled something they couldn't hear, although Jason thought he caught the word 'baby'. His heart sank as he realized why Dick hadn't said anything, and he felt even worse that his and Bruce's overprotectiveness had kept Dick from saying anything in case they treated him even more like a little kid.
"We wouldn't have thought you were a baby," he said quietly, putting a hand on Dick's shoulder. "What Joker did to you…Dick, anyone would have trouble dealing with that. Hell, it took me five years to get to grips with what Joker did to me, and it's only been a few months for you. I'm sorry we were such overprotective buttheads that it made you afraid to talk to us."
Dick gave him a slight grin while Bruce frowned as he looked between the two of them. Jason knew he was piecing two and two together, and he didn't look happy that their efforts to protect Dick had done more harm than good.
Dick turned back to his guardian. "Bruce, please," he whispered.
The man's eyes narrowed. Instead of answering Dick, he stalked over to one of the storage cabinets and yanked it open.
Dick exchanged confused looks with Jason. "Bruce?"
He still didn't answer. Reaching into the cabinet, he pulled out a large metal tray with high edges and a scalpel, then whirled and returned to the table.
"Dick, I'm not letting you do this," he told the boy, putting the tray down. "Not without testing it in some way first." Before either Jason or Dick could ask him what he meant, Bruce sliced open the palm of his left hand with the scalpel.
"Bruce!" Jason exclaimed, while Dick gasped.
"If the waters heal this wound without any side effects," Bruce told Dick, "then you can try it." He reached for the steel flask and poured the Lazarus Pit waters from it into the metal tray.
The green fluid emitted a faint smell that triggered some dark memories in Jason's brain and, reflexively, he took several steps back.
"Bruce, you can't–" Dick began, but Bruce held up a finger to silence him.
"How do you expect me to let you do this, Dick, if you don't even want me doing it?"
The boy had no answer to that. He could only watch, frozen, as Bruce plunged his wounded hand into the green liquid. The waters started to hiss and spit as they bubbled around the appendage. Bruce was expressionless as he stared down at the seething, molten liquid. Less than a minute later, the hissing and spitting of the waters started to die down and Bruce removed his hand.
"Bruce, are you okay?" asked Dick anxiously, as his guardian examined the palm of his hand.
The man looked at him, then calmly held his hand out for Dick and Jason to see. The wound was gone.
"It worked?" said Jason, while Dick stared at the hand. "How do you feel?"
"Fine," Bruce answered, his eyes on Dick. "No different."
Dick looked up from the hand. "Did it hurt?"
"It burns a little," said Bruce quietly. "Do you still want to try it?"
Looking nervous but determined, Dick nodded.
Bruce sighed. "Okay, come over here." He pulled the tray closer to the edge of the table as Dick came up beside him.
Despite the fact that the smell from the Lazarus Pit waters was repugnant to him, Jason moved closer as well. His heart began to thump with apprehension and hope. Would this work? What if it didn't? Dick would be crushed.
Bruce was clearly thinking the same thing. He put one hand on Dick's shoulder and leaned down until they were eye to eye. Placing his other hand against Dick's cheek, he spoke gently, "Dick, your scars aren't the same as a fresh wound, this might not work the same way on them."
"I know," Dick whispered. "But I have to try."
Bruce pulled him into a tight hug. Looking over the boy's head, he caught Jason's eye and they exchanged an apprehensive look.
Please let this work, Jason thought.
Dick pulled back and looked up at Bruce. With a nod at his guardian, he turned to the table and looked down at the metal tray. Jason saw him take a deep breath then lift his arms and place them carefully into the waters.
Bruce immediately put his hands on Dick's shoulders as the waters began to hiss and bubble, ready to yank the boy away in a second if he needed to.
His nerves overcoming his repulsion for the smell, Jason came up beside Dick. The boy's posture was tense, his teeth gritted as he stared down into the green, effervescent liquid. Jason's stomach seesawed nervously and his hands tightened into fists. Beside him, he could almost hear Bruce's teeth cracking as he clenched his jaw.
It took several minutes before the hissing of the waters finally stopped and the bubbling died away. Slowly, Dick removed his arms and Bruce used the sleeves of his own shirt to dry them before gently taking Dick's wrists and facing his forearms upwards.
The scars were gone.
For a moment, none of them moved or spoke as they stared down at the smooth skin on Dick's arms. Jason felt like he stopped breathing for a moment. It worked? It actually worked? He hadn't dared believe that it actually would.
They snapped out of their stunned silence when Dick pulled his left wrist out of Bruce's grasp and slowly ran the tips of his fingers along his right forearm where Joker had carved his name into the skin. "They're gone," Dick whispered. "It worked."
Bruce responded by once more pulling Dick into a tight hug, his right arm wrapped around the boy, his left hand cradling Dick's head against his chest. This time, when his eyes met Jason's, they were filled with relief.
Jason could feel his own relief trickling over him like a warm shower. Sheer gratitude towards his own mentor filled him and he was seized with the urge to teleport back to the other Gotham and thank the man profusely.
The moment was shattered when Alfred's annoyed voice rang across the cave. "There you are. What on earth are you all doing? Is it really completely beyond your capacity to leave this dreadful cavern for one night and be on time for dinner?"
Bruce released Dick and they all turned towards Alfred. The butler stood at the bottom of the steps, frowning at them all.
"I'm sorry, Alfred," said Bruce, although the large smile on his face made the apology seem less than contrite. "We were in the middle of something and lost track of time."
The butler arched a less than impressed eyebrow. "Dare I hope you were curing world hunger?"
In Alfred's eyes, nothing short of the apocalypse was an excuse for poor timekeeping.
"Alfred, Alfred, look," Dick came towards him, holding out his arms. "They're gone! My scars…they're gone!"
Jason saw the man's eyes widen for a moment. "Gone, young Sir?"
Dick nodded as he stopped in front of Alfred. "Jason's Bruce sent waters from the Lazarus Pit back with him to get rid of them and it worked! It really did!"
"Then we must celebrate, Master Dick," said Alfred, smiling down at the boy. Although he shot a how could you subject that child to something so dangerous and I have far more to say to you look at Jason and Bruce when Dick glanced back down at his arms. "Might I suggest starting with Christmas Eve dinner which is ready and awaiting your presence?"
"Great idea, Alfie!" Dick beamed. "Wait! I need to get something first; I'll be there in a few minutes!" And he dashed back up the steps, two at a time.
Alfred glared back at Bruce and Jason. "I shall expect you both at the dinner table in five minutes." Then he turned and stiffly made his way back up the stairs.
Jason grinned at Bruce. "Think that means we won't get any pie?"
Bruce shook his head, smiling. "He'll be fine when I explain everything to him."
They started to climb the steps out of the cave and Bruce sobered slightly. "Jason, what did Dick say to you earlier?"
"Pretty much that he's sick of us babying him and tired of being made to feel like he's helpless." Jason shook his head. "I gotta tell you, Bruce, I felt like a complete asshole. Dick's been feeling like he's losing control of everything in his life, including Robin, and we've only made it worse by smothering him and making it harder to move past the whole thing with Joker."
Bruce shook his head as they exited the cave into his study. "It's hard not to be more concerned in light of what happened with Joker…I nearly lost him."
"But you didn't," Jason reminded him. "And I think that's what you– we need to focus on. Dick needs to feel like we trust him to make his own decisions."
"You're right. It won't be easy though."
Jason sighed. "Who're you telling?" Every instinct he possessed screamed at him to coddle and protect Dick. It wasn't going to be easy to shake that impulse.
"Boy, you two move like little old ladies," Dick's voice complained as they entered the hallway and they looked over to see the boy hovering outside the living room door.
Jason grinned at him. "What's the matter, Kid? Hungry?"
"Starved! But I need to give you something first."
It was then Jason noticed that Dick's hands were behind his back. "Okay, what is it?"
Dick switched his gaze to Bruce who chuckled. "I can take a hint. I'll wait for you both in the dining room. Just don't take too long, we're already in enough trouble with Alfred."
"You mean you and Jason are in trouble with Alfred," Dick corrected with a grin.
Bruce shook his head fondly and ruffled Dick's hair, before continuing down the hallway and entering the dining room.
"Alright, Kid, what have you got?" Jason demanded, amused to see Dick shifting anxiously from one foot to the other.
"It's your Christmas present. Well, sort of. Your real present from me and Bruce is under the tree to be opened tomorrow. This is just something from me and you kind of need to have it tonight." Dick brought his arms out from behind his back and held up a small box wrapped in shiny red paper with a gold bow.
Jason was surprised. "Thanks, Dick."
"It's not much," Dick mumbled as Jason started to open the wrapping paper. "It's just something to, you know…" He shrugged awkwardly.
Jason opened the box to find a Christmas tree decoration; a red ball with his name written on it in gold. The Grayson family tradition to have the name of every member of the family on the Christmas tree.
He looked at Dick, speechless.
"Bruce and Alfred's are blue and silver," Dick rambled quickly. "But I did yours like mine. You know, red? Cause you're Red Hood and you used to be Robin? I had to give it to you now instead of tomorrow so you could have your name on the tree tonight and…you think its totally lame, don't you?"
Jason swallowed and shook his head. "Dick, it's the best present anyone's ever given me."
"Seriously?" Dick's eyes widened. "Dude, that's actually kind of sad."
Jason chuckled before leaning over to hug him. He knew Dick had some idea of what this gift meant, that was why he had given it. But he was still only thirteen and couldn't possibly fully comprehend just how much it meant to Jason. Whatever expensive, high-tech gadget Bruce had under the tree – and Jason knew he did – couldn't compare to this.
"You really like it then?" asked Dick nervously.
"I love it," Jason replied. "And I feel the same way, Kid, you're family too."
Dick's arms around his waist squeezed tighter for a moment before they drew apart and smiled at one another. Jason thought his heart might burst with happiness. Despite the earlier drama, this was hands down his best Christmas ever. Jason had spent years feeling completely alone and now, in the space of just a few hours, all the people who mattered most to him had shown him just how much he meant to them.
"We'd better hang it on the tree and go in for dinner before Alfred gets mad," said Dick.
"Alfred's already mad," Jason pointed out as they entered the living room.
"Not at me and I'd like to keep it that way. I want my piece of pie."
Jason laughed as they stopped beside the Christmas tree. "So, where should I hang it?"
"Where ever you want."
Jason looked at the tree and made his decision quickly. He hung the ball beside the one with Dick's name on it, then turned to the beaming teenager. "Alright, Kiddo," he said, ruffling his hair. "Let's go into dinner."