Damian stuck his tongue out at his older brother and entered the study. He slammed the door shut on his three imposing brothers and walked forward. Bruce immediately noticed that he had showered, no doubt to get the food out of his thick, spiky black hair. He was wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a black t-shirt. The small preteen held his arms behind his back as he approached him.
"Father, I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. I would say the specific one it is but everyone has refused to tell me just how old you are. I get the feeling it's because Todd and Drake don't actually know." Damian started formally. "You are a good man and you should know that one day I will be everything you are and more."
"I hope you are successful in your goals." Bruce nodded. It was hard for him to maintain such formality, but he knew that if he pushed too much Damian would only withdraw from them further.
"There is no reason to hope, Father. I will be successful." Damian assured him with a smugness that he definitely got from his no good grandfather. The expression softened however, when he looked up with large blue eyes. "You are...proud of me...aren't you, Father?"
Bruce kept the smile from forming across his lip as he nodded. The boy needed to see the grave sincerity on his face. Smiling would make him think he was laughing, making fun or lying to him. "Of course I am proud of you, Damian. You are learning a lot and you are opening yourself up to new ideals. You are strong of mind and spirit. Not many people can change or open their minds after the intensive training that you received with your mother and grandfather. I am very proud of you, Damian."
"Thank you, Father." Damian allowed a soft smile.
"Just, try to take it easy on Tim. He is my son, just like Dick, Jason and you." Bruce added sternly. "You boys are brothers and you may find one day that you enjoy their company."
"-tt-" Damian rolled his eyes. "Grayson makes sense to me, Father. He was a young boy who suffered a tragedy much like yours, but the other two? I truly don't understand why you insist on keeping them around."
"Damian, my son if there is anything I can teach you, any one thing that could stick with you long after I am gone someday, I would want you to learn how to love and care for people for no other reason than that you love and care for them." Bruce sighed before placing one of his hands on the boy's shoulder. "Maybe instead of resenting that I care for them, you could investigate why I care for them. Report back to me in two weeks with your findings. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Father." Damian nodded, almost excited to prove to his father he could figure this puzzle out. He was just about to walk away when he blushed and brought his arms in front of him, holding a notebook sized wrapped box. "This is for you, Father. Happy Birthday."
Bruce took the box and smiled at the wrapping job. He could see hints of Damian's frustration with the paper as there were a couple of rips and forced folds here and there. He untaped it first and then gently unwrapped it to find a thick black box. Knowing how Damian had been raised not to receive or give gifts, Bruce was fairly sure it was Dick who talked him into doing it. He lifted the lid and found a sketch pad with several pencils, both sketch and colored.
"You used to draw." Damian said softly. "I thought you could do so again if you had enough free time."
"Damian..." But when Bruce looked up the boy was already leaving the office and shutting the door quickly. He smiled to himself and set the book and it's pencils down on his desk.
"Bruce?" Tim's head poked in after a soft knock. A large shove knocked the boy fully inside the office. "Jason! Quit being an asshole!"
"Hurry it up Tiny Tim, we don't have all fucking day." Jason growled as he slammed the door shut behind Tim. Bruce suspected this was to keep Tim from getting the last word or from allowing Bruce the opportunity to yell at him about his language.
"Come on in, Tim. What did you want to speak to me about?" Bruce smiled and waved his hand toward the chair on the other side of his desk.
Timothy was nearly eighteen, he was going to be starting college in the fall and more than anything, Bruce worried about Tim's insecurities. His family had been anything but good and kind to him and let's face it, he himself hadn't been the best father-figure to his boys. Tim seemed like a very well put together kid behind the facade of a genius, but Bruce saw through it. Thanks to the constant comments from Damian and now Jason, the boy felt like his place in the family wasn't cemented.
He held in his arms a large box and placed it down gently on the desk. "This is my gift to you. I hope you like it." Tim smiled. "Happy Birthday."
Removing the well wrapped paper, Bruce's eyes widened in surprise. It was an old marble and onyx chess set, but not just any chess set. He and his own father had played on this board at least twice a week. After his parents had died, Bruce had been so upset and angry one night that he had flung it across the room. He had always assumed that Alfred had picked up the pieces and thrown them away. Never did he think he would see this again.
"I didn't want to intrude on your past but when I was up in the attic I found it. I figured I could fix it. Alfred found me working on it one night and he told me what happened." Tim shrugged. "Anyways, I just wanted you to have it back. I mean if you want it. I understand if it's not an appropriate gift."
So many emotions flooded Bruce as he stared down at the chess set. He still missed his father horribly, but to have this back and in good condition made him feel like the man wasn't completely gone. He ran his hands over the board and looked up to Tim, hoping his eyes weren't as teary as they felt. "Tim this is, this is very kind of you. Thank you so much." Bruce expressed with a cracking voice.
The young man looked at the floor with such a small smile of pride that Bruce felt his own pride swell for him. This was what he loved about Tim. His third son was so logical and cold on the outside but inwardly, he wanted to be loved, no different than Damian, Jason or Dick. Timothy Drake had a way of healing his broken heart time and time again without being as needy as Dick, as demanding as Damian or as critical as Jason.
"Would you care to play a game tonight before we go on patrol?" Bruce asked, the only way he could express what this meant to him.
Tim blushed a little and nodded. "Would love to." He smiled and stood from his seat. "I better get going. We all know how irritable Jason gets when he is forced to wait for too long."
"You know I noticed he has been calling you Tiny Tim more than Pretender or Replacement." Bruce pointed out. "I wonder why?"
"It's definitely better than the latter two." Tim agreed. "But I can't let him know that. If I do, he'll revert."
Bruce nodded and watched as Tim walked out of his office. He could hear a bit of a scuffle and then Jason shout. "OUCH! Fucker, that's my cast you are kicking!"
"That's what you get for trying to trip me!" Tim laughed.
"I swear to God I am going to beat you with my crutches!" Jason threatened.
"And you call him Tiny Tim?" Dick giggled.
"Fuck you both." Jason growled. Bruce watched as Jason brought himself into the office on his crutches. He plopped down in the chair and threw down his crutches haphazardly. This was most likely to show just how much he hated being injured and in need of them. "So Happy Birthday, B."
"Thank you Jason, I am glad that you are here to spend it with me."
"Food fight and all?" Jason questioned with a challenging tone.
"Food fight and all." Bruce confirmed. "You know, it's nice having you here. To see the four of you everyday and not have to wonder where you are or if you are safe."
"All good things must come to an end." Jason shrugged as he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Look, B, it hasn't been a total nightmare to be here, but I think we both know that me coming home isn't a good idea. So let's just skip past that horrible conversation now. I am still a criminal and we can't share the same home when I am doing things you are so adamantly against."
Bruce watched his second son carefully and nodded after a moment. "I suppose I can admit you are right. It would make coming home from patrol quite awkward."
Jason laughed to himself as he smiled. "Can't you imagine it though? You guys spend six hours chasing my ass around the city for killing some fuck-head only to pick me up at dawn to go home?"
"It wouldn't really make sense would it." Bruce gave a weak smile. He tilted his head and then shrugged. "But you are here now, aren't you?"
"Yeah, well, this is the first time you and I have talked civilly since I got here. I suppose you could call that progress."
"From grunts and nods, to arguments and debates, to conversation." Bruce nodded. "I'd say that is a lot of progress for us."
With a sigh Jason pulled an envelope form his back pocket. "Don't get all weird or anything, I just figured maybe you would want it. If you don't, it's cool. You can throw it out." Once again, Jason's teal eyes fell to the floor as he handed over a manilla envelope that was the size of an 8x10.
Bruce opened the top of it and carefully pulled out a 5x7 photograph of Jason looking dead on into a camera. It was very recent, his black hair was shaggy with the white streak pushed off to one side. His teal eyes were focused intently on whoever was taking the picture. He wasn't smiling in the picture but he wasn't frowning or glaring either. It was easily the most open and vulnerable he had seen his son since he had kidnapped the joker and give him the ultimatum to kill the clown or himself.
"I guess I never noticed that you don't actually have a picture of me on your desk." Jason blushed, his eyes narrowing as he noted the pictures of his brothers and even one of Barbara and Alfred. "Probably was a bit too presumptuous."
Taken aback as the boy stood, Bruce rose to his feet. "Jason, wait. You are getting upset and you have not given me the opportunity to explain."
"Explain what?" Jason growled, his temper flaring. "I get it, alright? I am not your...It's not a big deal." The boy pushed his anger and hurt aside, wrapping himself in cold apathy.
Bruce had made it around his desk and was holding both crutches in one hand while the other held the picture. "You picture is here in this office, Jason. It's in my drawer."
"B, don't worry about it." Jason shook his head. "Just give me back my crutches."
"No. I want you to see that I am telling you the truth." Bruce shook his head. "Go ahead and take a look."
Jason glared angrily but finally he rolled his eyes and hopped over to the desk and started looking through the drawers. He found a picture of himself in the top right drawer. It was of himself probably a few months before his death. The boy that looked up at him from behind the glass was smiling arrogantly, his teal eyes filled with mirth and a mischievous agenda.
"I never wanted anyone to think, but especially you, that I wanted the old you back. When you first died, Jason I couldn't look at anything of you. All I saw was my failure."
"Yeah, I hear that all the time. I was your biggest failure." Jason sneered as he contemplated smashing the frame and picture.
"No, that's not what I meant either. People have misunderstood me for years. I never said you were my greatest failure, I said my greatest failure was not saving you. Not figuratively, philosophically or metaphorically, but literally. I didn't save you. I had never, ever failed to protect someone I loved like that since my Mother and Father. It was devastating. Any picture of you drove me to madness, so I placed it in the drawer where you would always be close."
Bruce spoke carefully and purposely as his son faced him in disbelief. "When you returned, I wanted to put the picture back, I wanted at first to take down the memorial but that didn't feel right either. I felt like if I put that picture back you or others might think I missed the you that was still fifteen and that it would be insulting to you. When it came to the memorial, I realized removing it changed nothing. You still died, you still died because of me and I never wanted to down play your death or forget my greatest failure. I didn't want anyone else to forget it either, to forget that we are not gods. We are humans and mistakes can and will cost us our lives or those of our loved ones."
"I guess when you put it like that..." Jason mumbled as he stared down at the floor.
"Jason, I wish with every fiber of my being that I had saved you. Not because I don't like who you are now, or because I think you are a villain and it all would have been different if I had. I wish that I hadn't failed you because then you wouldn't have all this pain weighing you down. You wouldn't have had to live through what you had when you woke up in that coffin and I never would have had to lose you." Bruce looked to the picture in his hand and smiled. "I was actually just thinking that I needed to find some way of getting an updated picture of you."
Now Jason really looked uncomfortable. "Then I guess you can keep the picture if you want." He shook his head. "You know I...I don't know how to be normal any more, Bruce. Not that I ever was, but now? I want to be a part of this fucked up thing you and Dick insist on calling a family but how do I ever fit in?"
"By trying, Son." Bruce answered simply.
"Yeah, I guess." Jason sighed. "I need to get out of here. All this sentimentality is starting to make me ill and you still heave Dickie-Bird left."
Reluctantly Bruce handed the crutches over to his son. "Thank you for the picture, Son."
"Happy Birthday, Dad." Jason mumbled before he quickly, well as quickly as one can with crutches, left his office. "Don't touch me, Dickhead!"
"Aw, JayBird, look at you all red and teary eyed!" Dick teased from behind the slightly open office door. "Don't worry, your secret is safe with me and Bruce."
"Fuck off!" Jason shouted before Bruce heard the injured boy head toward his own bedroom.
Dick sauntered into the office and smiled at him full force. If Bruce hadn't known better, he would think Dick had been Apollo the Sun God's son. He didn't just smile, he beamed a light of hope and optimism at anyone caught in sight of it. That's why when Dick was in trouble, hurt or depressed it could shake Bruce to his core. It had to be a truly terrible thing to bring his oldest down.
"Hello, Dick." Bruce smiled.
"Happy Birthday, B." Dick handed over a sloppily wrapped. "It kind of goes along the same theme as Jason's but I figured you needed it."
Bruce's brow furrowed as he opened the gift. It was a framed picture of Bruce, the boys and Alfred from earlier this evening. It looked like the picture was taken from the other end of the empty table. Alfred was standing in the door way smiling as he looked over the scene, a blissful expression on his face. Bruce was sitting at the head of the table with a combined look of annoyance and acceptance. Damian sat beside Bruce to his left, arms crossed as he glared menacingly at Tim who was sitting diagonally across from him. Dick who sat to Bruce's right smiled as he looked to Jason who had been sitting beside Damian. Jason was flipping Tim and Dick off with his usual smug smile. Finally, Tim was looking to Jason with an unamused expression.
"How did you?"
"I placed one of those neat toys next to your cake and had Oracle snap a photo as soon as the moment was right. She said it was an easy pick out of all the pictures she snapped because everyone was constantly moving in the others." Dick shrugged. "I like this one a lot. Shows all of us exactly as we are when we are just being us."
Bruce nodded as he put an arm around Dick's shoulder. "Yes, it does. Thank you. This has been a wonderful birthday."
"You deserved it. I was just glad Jason was already here and I didn't have to go drug his ass to get him back here." Dick smiled.
"So, do the boys really not know how old I am?" Bruce asked with a laugh.
"Like I would ever tell them. You are who you are and I think the mystery is good for them. Besides, if they knew you were only-
"Eh, I don't need to be reminded as to how old I am." Bruce held up a hand, silencing his oldest.
"You know, I will always miss and love my mother and father, but I wouldn't trade you for even one night of having them back, Dad." Dick said softly. "You and I have always had our differences and our fights, but without you, I have no idea where I would be now."
"That means a lot to hear you say that, Dick." The two men embraced, Dick tucked under his arms as he leaned his head against his father's chest.
One thing Bruce had always seen in his oldest was the need to express love, concern and pain with physical touch. He was the only one of his boys who had ever wanted to be hugged or held when his day just sucked. Normally Bruce preferred the hands off approach but after tonight and the little talks with each of his sons, he was grateful to have such a loving and compassionate son to help ease him down from such gravity.
"I'll leave you to your work. You probably have a lot of work to do before we all go out on patrol." Dick said as he released the larger man from him his hold.
"See you boys in the cave." Bruce nodded. "Oh and Dick, have Alfred check in on Jason, he keeps putting all his weight on that foot."
"I think he is trying to break it again so he doesn't have to go back to that hell-hole." Dick frowned.
"Don't worry, Dick. I am not letting him go again." Bruce promised. "You have my word. I will not let this family fall apart, ever again."