It didn't take long for Jason to tire of the manor tour. To be fair, without the batcave, it was mostly just a bunch of dusty old rooms, which would bore anyone. So when Jason began to show signs of flagging, Dick was quick to suggest a movie in their home theatre. As he suspected might happen, fifteen minutes into the film, Jason all but passed out in his recliner. Dick could only imagine how tired he was – after all, he was tired himself, and he hadn't endured half the things Jason had in the last 24 hours. So he turned off the TV, carefully drew a blanket over his sleeping friend, and headed downstairs to get a snack, and see what Bruce was up to.
Halfway down the batcave stairs, he met Bruce on his way up.
"Dick," Bruce greeted. "I was just coming to find you. Where's Jason?"
"He fell asleep while we were watching a movie, so I thought I'd let him nap for awhile," Dick said. "I don't think he got much sleep last night."
"I would be surprised if he had," Bruce said.
"What've you been up to?" Dick asked, eying the sheaf of papers in Bruce's hand with interest.
Following his gaze, Bruce simply handed the papers over to him. "See for yourself."
Dick flicked through the pages as Bruce lead them back up into the manor.
"Boarding schools? Seriously?" Dick said with exaggerated dismay, even though he'd known something like this was coming. "Come on, Bruce, you know those places are no substitute for a real home."
"I did my best to find some relatives to take him in, but they weren't terribly cooperative," Bruce said.
"So you did find some relatives?"
"Yes and no. His mother has living relatives, but they aren't related to him by blood. Seems she was his stepmother. I don't think he's aware of it, though, so I think it's best if we don't mention it for the moment," Bruce said. "He's been through enough for one week."
Dick frowned. "No kidding. Poor Jay. All dis, no aster," he said. "There's gotta be something we can do to help him."
"We're already doing everything we can," Bruce said, with a gesture at the printed brochures. "I'd be happy to pay his tuition at whichever of these schools he chooses until he graduates."
Dick raised an eyebrow at him. "After everything he's been through, don't you think he deserves better than to be dumped off at some lame boarding school?"
Bruce's expression didn't so much change as tighten. "After everything he's been through, he needs the kind of professional counselling and support that institutions like those can provide."
"He could get that here," Dick pointed out. "I saw a grief counsellor for awhile too, remember?"
"Yes, I know, but your situations are not the same. Jason has fundamental issues that go way beyond grief counselling."
"Like what?" Dick demanded. "I spent almost 24 hours with him; I didn't notice anything like that, and I'm a pretty good judge of character."
"I got a sense of it last night when we…spoke," Bruce hedged.
"Why, what happened?" Dick asked.
Bruce's expression turned pained. "I don't want to get into it. Suffice it to say that he would benefit from professional therapy, and a more structured and stable environment than any I could provide."
"What he needs is people who love him unconditionally, who treat him with respect and build him up instead of beating on him and telling him he's stupid all the time," Dick said.
"That would be ideal, but I think we need to be realistic here. If we can find him a home where he'll be treated well, where he can get an education, and grow up away from the crime and poverty of the Narrows, then I think we'll have done the best we can for him."
Dick frowned. He knew he was losing the battle, that Bruce was grinding him inexorably down with his irrefutable logic, but there just had to be something he could say to change Bruce's mind. He'd made a promise to Jason, and whilst sending him off to boarding school did sort of satisfy the minimum requirements of that promise, it wasn't really in the spirit that it was made. After the awful hand he'd been dealt, Jason deserved a chance to be happy, not just ok because he wasn't getting used as a punching bag on a regular basis anymore. Maybe Bruce thought one was just as good as the other, but having spent a couple weeks in the foster system while Bruce's lawyers sorted things out, Dick knew that they were as different as night and day.
Of course, there was a selfish component to all this as well, which Dick was self aware enough to at least acknowledge, even if he didn't accept that it constituted much more than 10% of his motivation (15 at the outside). Simply put, he was lonely. What few friends he had at school knew nothing of his extracurricular activities, and friends from the team knew nothing of his life outside Robin. Except for Wally, he had no friends his age who knew the whole him, and even Wally never really got to see the whole picture because Bruce didn't trust him (or anyone, really) enough to let him. Jason was his only chance to finally have the friend, brother, and confidante that he'd been yearning for, just like he used to have with his group of friends at Haley's.
This was likely to be his last opportunity to sell Bruce on his idea before he gave those brochures to Jason, so he decided to go on the offensive. "You know what I think? I think you're just making up excuses because you're afraid. Jay might need some extra counselling for all the crap his dad put him through, but he doesn't need a shrink. There's nothing wrong with him that friends and a family wouldn't fix," Dick said. "I know you're worried something's going to happen to him, or me, but nothing's going to happen."
"You don't know that," Bruce said.
"No, I don't, but sometimes, you just have to do the best you can, and trust that everything's going to work out," Dick said. "I know trust isn't something you do, or at least not very well, but just this once, have a little faith. If you can't do it for Jason, then do it for me."
Bruce made a pained noise to match his pained expression.
"Does that mean you'll think about it?" Dick said hopefully.
"Go wake him; it's time for lunch," Bruce grunted in lieu of an answer, though when Dick glanced back over his shoulder on his way up to the second floor, he saw him staring thoughtfully down at the brochures in his hand.
Dick turned and hurried up the stairs, an irrepressible smirk sliding its away across his face.
Jason startled awake, and it was several long, panicky moments before he remembered where he was. Batman, Bruce Wayne, giant freaking house – check, check, and check. He looked down at the blanket clutched in his sweaty fists, and was momentarily touched by the casual kindness and consideration that it represented. But then he flushed, remembering that he'd also fallen asleep while he was supposed to be hanging out with Dick – not exactly very considerate on his part. He pushed the blanket aside and got up to find Dick, already practicing apologies in his head.
When he got to the top of the grand staircase, however, he heard voices filter up to him from the vast marble foyer below. He instinctively shrank back against the wall and away from the bannister so they couldn't see him. Then he realised - there was no reason to hide from Bruce and Dick. He shook his head at his own silly reaction and was about to head downstairs to meet them when he heard Bruce say, "After everything he's been through, he needs the kind of professional counselling and support that institutions like those can provide."
Jason froze, his breath sticking in his throat. Were they talking about him? Surely not...
"He could get that here. I saw a grief counsellor for a while too, remember?"
"Yes, I know, but your situations are not the same. Jason has fundamental issues that go way beyond grief counselling."
Jason's stomach dropped into his shoes at the realisation that not only were they talking about him, they were talking shit about him. He missed what Dick said next, but Bruce's reply struck him like a physical blow.
"I got a sense of it last night when we…spoke."
At the mention of what happened in the garden, he flushed hot all over, tears of humiliation pricking at the corners of his eyes. Bruce obviously thought he was mental after the way he freaked out over nothing. He hadn't meant to - it's just that the situation had felt so familiar.
He hadn't been totally honest last night when he said that he hadn't done that sort of thing before. There was this guy, Joey Falduto, one of Two Face's distributors. Jason used to deliver packages to him on a semi-regular basis. Joey was in the habit of giving him little things, like candy or cigarettes. He seemed like a nice guy, until one day, when Jason made a mistake. He forgot that the drop location had been changed at the last minute, and delivered the package to the wrong place. Joey figured out what went wrong, and fixed it before anyone could realise, at great risk to himself. Jason was beyond grateful, and when Joey had demanded quid pro quo, he hadn't felt like he could refuse.
Last night, when Bruce offered to help him in exchange for his cooperation, everything had kind of clicked, like why Bruce was being so nice to him, and the food and everything. Maybe he'd panicked a little, but who'd want to be put in that situation again? He often thought back on that first time with Joey, and wished he'd just faced his father's wrath instead of letting Joey help him cover it up. His dad probably would've kicked the crap out of him, but then it would've been over, instead of dragging on for months and months, until Joey got tired of him and found someone else to torment. It was a hard lesson, but he'd learned it. Nobody did anything for free, so it was better to face the known consequences, no matter how painful, than to owe someone something potentially far worse.
Bruce must have guessed at the truth, despite his lies. To be fair, it didn't take a genius to figure out. He wanted to yell down at them, defend himself from their judgment, but even as he pictured doing it, he knew there was no defence. Bruce was right. Everyone knew that kids who got the bad touch were seriously fucked in the head. There were enough kids at his school seeing the school counsellor for that sort of shit for him to know.
"Why, what happened?" Dick said from down below.
"I don't want to get into it. Suffice it to say that he would benefit from professional therapy, and a more structured and stable environment than any I could provide."
Professional therapy? Were they… Jason clapped his hand over his mouth to smother a gasp. Institution, that's the word Bruce had used earlier. They weren't talking about counselling; they were talking about shipping him off to a straight up mental institution!
Cold sweat trickled down his back, making him shiver. Maybe he was fucked in the head, but he didn't want to be locked away in a loony bin! The very thought made his stomach churn. And Jesus, what if they put him in Arkham like...like the Joker? Because that's what Batman did, he put people in Arkham!
He had to get out of there, like right now, yesterday.
He hurried back to Dick's room, where the window faced a tree. He knew he could use it to climb down and escape because Dick had told him he'd done it when he first came to live there.
He slid open the window and climbed out onto the narrow ledge. "Fuck me," he muttered when he clocked the distance between the window and the tree. How on earth did Dick…oh right, Dick was an acrobat. Of course he was. Well, Jason didn't have any special skills, but the fact remained that if Dick could do it, and at a younger age than him, then it was possible. Totally mental, but possible.
He took a deep breath and exhaled sharply. One…two…THREE!
Jason launched himself at the closest branch, and hit it dead on, much to his satisfaction. But that, as it turns out, was the easy part. The branch slid through his fingers faster than he could grab it, and then he was falling. He crashed through the tree's branches and by some small miracle, managed to latch onto a smaller branch as it whipped past him. Unfortunately, his surge of triumph was short lived, because it promptly snapped under his weight. With a muffled curse, he plummeted the rest of the way to the ground, crash landing on a perfectly landscaped bush, which mostly broke his fall. He rolled to his feet with a soft groan as each one of the bruises on his body screamed in protest.
Ignoring the pain, he broke into a run, cutting across the shortest section of the open lawn and then disappearing into the tree line at the edge of the property.
"Why would he run?" Dick said as he stared at the broken branches of the tree opposite his bedroom window.
Bruce grimaced. "He could have heard us talking in the foyer, and assumed we would force him into a boarding school."
"Not we, you," Dick said reproachfully.
But the criticism rolled off of Bruce just like everything else. "How long would you estimate he's been gone?"
Dick checked his watch. "Assuming the worst case scenario, and he was faking being asleep, I'd say he's had a 45 minute head start. If he really did hear us talking, then I'd say no more than 20 minutes tops."
"As fast as he runs, he could be in Gotham within the hour. We have to find him while we still can, because once he reaches the city, he'll blend in, disappear, and the next time he turns up, it'll be in cuffs or on the coroner's slab," Bruce said.
"Well then we'd better find him!"
Bruce scanned the forest with his thermal imaging goggles. There was a lot of signal to noise ratio on this unseasonably warm and sunny Autumn day, making it more difficult to pick out the true heat sources. Lucius had built these goggles with the most advanced daytime filters known to man, though, so he should still be able to see Jason quite clearly, if he managed to get within line of sight of the boy. The problem was, it was slow going traipsing through the forest on foot. The most efficient search would have been aerial, but he couldn't risk anyone seeing the batplane circling over Wayne Manor in an obvious search pattern. There was no way that wouldn't have ended up in the papers, and managing that PR storm was just more trouble than it was worth.
He took off the goggles to concentrate on more conventional tracking techniques. Jason wasn't bleeding or anything so obvious, so all he had to go on were the subtle signs of his passing – bent grass, broken twigs, faint sneaker prints in the leaf littered forest floor. He knew he was on the right track, but it was difficult to tell how far behind he was. Dick was on the other side of the forest, where it thinned out and sloped off into a floodplain through which the Gotham River snaked. It was his hope that if he was too far behind to catch Jason, Dick would intercept him as he emerged from the forest on the other side.
When he was sure which way Jason had gone, he put the thermal goggles back on and continued on. About twenty minutes later, he was starting to think he'd lost the trail after all. He came to a small stream, but there was no sign of Jason's crossing there – the soft mud on the banks would have made that obvious. So he chose to travel upstream for a bit to see if he could find any sign of crossing there. He could just have easily traveled downstream, but the trees were thicker upstream, and he figured Jason would instinctively choose more cover. He was just about to double back when he suddenly saw a flash of red through the trees in the distance.
He immediately crouched down low and changed his angle of approach, so his quarry wouldn't see him until it was too late to run. He took off the goggles and inched closer. As he skirted some dense brush, he saw that the boy was sitting beneath a large oak tree, eating what looked like a cinnamon roll wrapped in a napkin. Bruce had seen him pocket it from the breakfast table this morning, just before Dick had taken him up to the roof. It saddened him to think that Jason might have been planning his escape all day.
He tapped out a quick text message to Dick to call off the search, and then carefully approached his target, sneaking in close on silent feet.
Jason didn't even turn around, he just dropped his roll and bolted, or tried to, before Bruce grabbed his arm and hauled him back from the edge of the stream.
"Sit down," Bruce said sternly, "I want to talk to you."
"Fuck you!" Jason snarled. He glared at Bruce, his hands balled into fists at his sides, as if he might actually have a chance in a physical confrontation.
The kid had guts, Bruce had to give him that. "Jason-"
"You ain't lockin' me in no loony bin," Jason interrupted. "I'll tell everyone who you are, don't think I won't! Even if they think I'm crazy, someone'll listen. Someone will come here, and then they'll dig around and-"
"No one is putting you in a loony bin," Bruce said, preempting the hysterical rant that Jason seemed to be working himself up to. "I was going to offer to put you up in a boarding school of your choosing. You would get a top flight, private education, and during holidays you could visit Dick, or travel – whatever you wanted."
Jason frowned. "What?"
Bruce reigned in a sigh. "Boarding school, Jason. Remember, like we talked about? I couldn't find any family members to take you in, and I know that the foster system leaves much to be desired, so I thought I might pay for you to attend boarding school."
"Why?" Jason demanded. "Did Dick put you up to this? I know he feels bad about what happened with my dad, but I don't need your pity, or your money, all right? I know you think I'm fucked up, but I'm not your problem to fix. Just turn me over to social services. Job done."
Bruce considered which part of that speech, littered with erroneous assumptions, he should tackle first, but in the end, he decided to take a different tack. Half formed ideas and aborted impulses had been percolating in his brain for the last 24 hours, but now, here, in this forest, with the boy in front of him radiating fear and pain and grief despite his valiant struggle to keep it all contained, everything crystallized into one clear plan of action. He knew what he had to do – what he'd always meant to do, even if he'd doubted himself along the way.
"You didn't let me finish," he said. "I was going to offer to put you up in a boarding school, but I changed my mind. I want you to stay here, with Dick and me, for…well, for as long as you want to stay."
Jason stared at him for a long beat as wild hope and abject terror warred for dominance on his young face. Then with a soft, pained noise, he stumbled away from Bruce. "Shut up," he said roughly. "You're lying!"
Bruce resisted the urge to follow him, letting him have some space. He was aware that his looming presence was often not conducive to clear thinking, a fact he'd used to press his advantage in many situations. This, however, was not one of those times. "I'm telling you the truth," he assured the boy.
Jason shook his head. "No way. Nobody does nothin' for free, and I ain't got nothin' you want. You made that pretty clear. So what…what d'you want me for?"
Bruce thought of all the things he could say, but discarded them all as either overreaching or too weak to convince Jason of his sincerity. In the end, he simply said, "I want you to be my family."
It seemed to be the right thing to say, because it gave pause to the legion of swarming doubts in the boy's eyes. But even that, it seemed, wasn't enough to combat his innate distrust. Bruce could relate. He could relate so completely that it scared him how similar they were despite their vastly different backgrounds. It occurred to him that in some ways, he saw himself more in Jason's fear, anger, and distrust than he ever had in Dick's faith and boundless optimism.
Jason paced slowly toward the edge of the stream and stopped to stare down at the water, murky and turbulent from the rains of the past few days. "Family, huh? You wanna adopt me, like Dick?" he asked.
"That's the idea," Bruce said.
Jason snorted. "Yeah, right. Me, Bruce Wayne's adopted son. Are you kidding me?"
Bruce shot him a wry smile. "Would it surprise you to learn that Dick grew up in circumstances about as polar opposite to this as you could possibly imagine? He didn't think he would fit in here either, but as you can see, he's managed to adapt."
"Yeah, but I'm not Dick."
"No, but you will adapt too," Bruce said.
"No, I mean..." Jason huffed in frustration as he struggled to put his thoughts into words. "Dick, he's…a good guy, you know?"
"And?" Bruce prompted.
"And…well…if anyone deserves this, he does."
Bruce frowned. He moved to stand beside Jason, though he was careful not to touch him. "What is it you think you deserve?"
Jason bit his lip and looked away. "Not this," he mumbled finally.
"Why not?" Bruce pressed.
Jason clenched his fists. "You know why."
"I don't," Bruce insisted.
Jason's expression twisted till it was something between rage and despair. "Cause I ain't no good, all right? And I ain't never gonna be. Everyone says so – my dad, my teachers, that cop last night, everyone." He swiped angrily at the tears welling in his eyes. "It's like you said – it's built into my DNA."
Bruce knelt down in front of the boy so that they were on a level. "Jason, listen to me. I see the good in you. I see love, kindness and compassion, bravery, intelligence, and loyalty to a fault. I don't care where you came from or who your parents were; you have the power to be who you want to be. Nothing in this life is pre-ordained, and there is no such thing as fate, do you understand me? We forge our own futures through each and every choice we make. You have a choice now, a chance to change your future for the better. What choice will you make, right now, today?"
Jason finally looked him in the eye, for the first time since they started this conversation. His red-rimmed eyes flicked back and forth, searching Bruce's face presumably for traces of deception. "You really think I could be a good guy? You're not just saying that?"
"I never just say anything," Bruce said gravely.
"And you really want me in your family?" Jason asked, as though he still believed the rug could be yanked out from under his feet at any moment.
"Yes, Jason. I really want you. We – Dick, Alfred, and I - all want you to be a part of our family."
Jason glanced back in the vague direction of the manor. After a long, tense moment, he suddenly declared, "Well all right then, what're we waiting for?"
Boy, I hate writing endings! Eep! I know it ends a bit abruptly, but I hope it lived up to everyone's expectations. Thanks for sticking with me through this admittedly protracted process.
I've started the next part to this fic, but no ETA yet on when I will feel ready to post it. If you'll recall, I originally imagined this as a trilogy covering pre-Robin, Robin, and Red Hood storylines. But, we shall see how far I get!
Thanks again for all of your support and kind comments!