Actions

Work Header

Write the Word and I'll Run to You Blindly

Chapter Text

For what feels like the millionth time that night, (twenty-first, he's keeping count) Jason slides up his sleeve and checks his forearm for any new marks that may have appeared since he last looked six minutes ago. But alas, his skin is bare except for old scars and the original message written by his own hand.

'Dear Soulmate, where the fuck are you??'

It’s stupid, but Jason feels his stomach twist something awful everytime he looks and sees no reply to his message.

He's never met the person on the receiving end of his messages, Jason doesn't even know their name or what they look like, but he knows it's not like them to take so long to write back.

They've been communicating pretty regularly all things considered, with Jason's gig as a criminal/vigilante and whatever the other person did with their time. This whole radio-silence feels all kinds of wrong. It’s routine that they take turns everyday to update each other of their general situation.

 

Their routine started a couple of months ago when Jason had a particularly bad run in with one of the drug gangs he was trying to chase out of the docks for not conforming to Red Hood's terms. He won, but they got in a few good hits.

Jason dragged himself back to his nearest safehouse, peeled his bloody uniform off, disinfected a bullet-graze wound on his arm, slapped on one of those miracle medical adhesives to "stitch" the wound closed, took a couple of painkillers (plus antibiotic just to be sure), and promptly passed out in his underwear.

He stayed knocked out for thirty-four hours.

When he woke up he was covered with writing on every inch of skin in his immediate line of vision.

They're asking if he was okay, why was he not replying, did he need help, where he was, and so on. The amount of messages had been overwhelming.

His soulmate usually wrote with black ink, but some of the words Jason saw were in red. Almost as if they've written so much but got no response and figured the situation called for some next level shit, and they had to switch to a red to better call attention to the messages.

(A stray thought of maybe his soulmate was a teacher and they were grading papers passed through Jason’s sleep-hazed mind.)

As Jason blinked, he saw new words forming on his left thigh (which was also quickly running out of space) saying 'I'll come find you' and that's when the gravity of the situation finally got through to Jason's sleep-muddled brain.

He couldn't have his soulmate looking for him. Fuck that.

Jason won't have the one person unfortunate enough to be tied to him by fate without their consent to see what Jason truly is and experience Jason's gritty world of blood and bullets.

And consequently be placed in immediate danger. No.

He needed to reassure them quick and let them know Jason did not need to be visited or whatever crap his soulmate had in mind. He dove out of bed, swallowing a groan from his jostled arm. He shook off the pain, fumbled around for his pants to fish out the pen he kept in there, and quickly scribbled his reply.

'It's ok, I’m fine.'

He was expecting his soulmate to reply back instantly. But it was a few moments before the red ink came back into writing.

'Where the hell are you?'

Jason felt himself snort on a laugh. He could tell from the handwriting and the choice of words that the other person was mad but also relieved.

There was a tilt and unsteadiness to the newest message that was absent from the previous ones. Like his soulmate was forcefully keeping their calm while waiting for Jason to finally fucking reply.

But now that Jason had written back at last, it seemed his soulmate had let some of the calm fizzle out of their system and let a bit of rage and relief seep through.

'Back at my house,’ Jason answered, which is technically not a lie, since a safehouse IS a type of house, and it was Jason’s so… ‘ Just finished a long job. Sorry for not writing back earlier.'

Again it took a few moments before his soulmate replied. Like the other person was thinking hard about what to write next.

'Do you need help?'

Warmth squeezed Jason's chest. God what did he do in his past life to deserve a whole real live person kind enough to worry about his stupid-ass's well-being?

Well, considering he was Robin for a while before he died, maybe that earned him brownie points.

'Nah, I have things handled. Was just distracted for a while and couldn't reply.' Jason wrote back.

'I vote we keep each other updated of our situations. Daily. We can take turns asking each other.'

Jason felt his eyebrow raise.

'Do you think that's really necessary?'

'You don't get a vote. You went radio-silent for 2 days.'

"It was only thirty-four hours!" Jason retorted aloud to his empty safehouse like a crazy person. It was unbelievable, the kinds of ridiculous reactions this faceless person on the other side of the written words were pulling out of him.

'So you're 100% of the voting population in this case?' Jason wrote back instead, knowing the sarcastic tone would carry through.

Apparently his soulmate was immune to sass because the reply came back with a serious no nonsense feel.

'Yes. Today's the first day this agreement is in effect. Since I did all the asking today, tomorrow you get to ask about me. Like I said we'll take turns.'

'What happens if one of us doesn't write back?' Jason asked, deciding the best course for now was not to argue his case, but to gather full intel on this new agreement.

It took two full minutes before Jason got a reply. Like his soulmate took some time tailoring the terms.

'If the person being asked hasn't replied after 24 hours. The asker gets a free pass to use the Link to know the other's location and go to them to make sure they're okay.'

The Link was written with a capital L. It was impossible to miss.

Jason was shocked at the terms.

(He dialed back his “Teacher” theory and moved firmly to “Lawyer” at the back of his mind, at what his soulmate could be doing for a living)

Jason took a moment of his own to breathe and think about the new terms.

They had a standing agreement from early on that they did not need to not meet in person yet, and they should keep their names to themselves for now. Part of that agreement is the unspoken (unwritten) understanding that they will not use the Link to seek the other out.

It wasn't one-sided on Jason's part. After the first doodle of a question mark appeared on the back of his hand which he replied to a few minutes later (after stopping himself from having a panic attack) with a rather crude drawing of a hand with the middle finger raised, he received a quick ‘I really hope you’re not a literal child’ in response (that made him laugh again and Jason had to stop himself from getting hysterical for the second time in ten minutes). 

Jason got himself back together enough to write back ‘Not a child you paranoid snob. How can I be if people get linked after 18??’ And then they basically started casually bantering and chatting until it lead up to some ground rules agreed upon by both of them.

'I don't think it's a good time for us to meet' 'I think we can manage without specifics, call me anything you want.' ’We don't really need to have THAT kind of relationship, but it IS nice talking with you.’ 'Should be no problem, we communicate okay via writing anyway.’  Those initial agreements have continued for about a year then, and they've been doing okay.

Jason was glad for small miracles and never really challenged why his soulmate wouldn't want to get specific with him. Hell knows he had a lot of things to hide and he appreciated the easy truce of them not wanting to get too close with each other at the time. He tried to mostly see them as a pen pal of sorts. Mostly.

Neither of them have brought up the possibility of meeting again, until then.

Oftentimes, Jason still had trouble coming to terms that he really did have a soulmate. He was almost convinced he'd just dreamt up everything because he was sick of being lonely all the time. But then he'd see the marks appear on his skin and he'd feel less alone.

 

When Jason was eighteen and had freshly broken out of the League of Shadows’ clutches, he tried a grand total of once to see if he had a soulmate; someone out there in the universe that he was irrevocably linked to. He wrote a quick hello on the back of his left hand.

That hello remained unreplied to until eventually, Jason's blood, sweat, and tears washed it away.

(For a while he stared at his unanswered message, slowly feeling sharp ice form in his chest and sink to his stomach. It was the first time Jason felt truly alone.)

He lived in solitude for a couple of years until he was twenty and then that damned red question mark sprouted on the back of his hand. Then he's twenty-one and have managed to keep up communicating anonymously with his soulmate for a year, and neither of them have driven the other insane. Yet.

 

Aside from the nifty Instant Messaging feature that kicks in once both parties have reached eighteen, soulmates also develop the ability to get in touch with the Link inside them.

If they concentrate hard enough they'll feel a pull that will let them know the location of their partner anywhere in the world, essentially tracking them. (There was a record of a woman in Tunisia sensing her wife from Macau.)

It was considered a breach of privacy by most of society and was only done generally with consent of both parties beforehand. Usually anyway, it wasn't needed to meet each other. Soulmates just normally set a meeting via writing one another.

Jason wasn't too hot about putting his soulmate's tolerance of him to the test by letting the poor sod track him down and experience Jason Todd in person. Not to mention he didn't want his soulmate involved in his criminal lifestyle. He's kind of wanted by both police and fellow criminals so there's no shortage of people wanting to gun him (and people in his general vicinity) down.

 

Jason stared hard at the message he got, unable to formulate a response that would dissuade his soulmate into reaching out through their Link to locate him, other than agreeing to the previously stated terms of keeping each other updated daily. He must've taken a while because his soulmate's handwriting popped out again before Jason managed to reply.

'Are you okay with that?'

The words felt hesitant and Jason snapped himself back into focus. It wasn't fair to keep worrying his soulmate. It wasn't like they chose to be tied to him. If agreeing to this would bring some peace of mind to them, then Jason thinks it's more than a fair trade.

He just needed to make sure to take care of himself so he doesn't pass out for more than twenty-four hours at a time and they can keep their routine going. It looked like the only viable choice to keep them at a safe distance. 

'Yeah, I'm okay with it ,' Jason wrote back.

'Okay great. It's a promise then.'

And that was that. As the bible said “as it is written, a formal binding contract has taken place” or whatever the quote was.

 

Everyday for the past couple of months, Jason and his soulmate have stuck through with their agreement. Aside from their usual conversation, they take turns asking each other if they're okay. Sometimes when they’re busy, it was the only message they exchanged for the day. Without fail they've managed to keep it going.

It's Jason's turn to ask today and he sent out his message of 'Dear Soulmate, how're you?' about ten hours ago, when the sun was out in the sky. On the seveth hour with no reply forthcoming to his message, he sent another one reading 'Dear Soulmate, where the fuck are you??' out of frustration due to the lack of reply.

Now the sun's long gone and Jason’s out on patrol, but he keeps distracting himself by checking his arm for non-existent replies and keeping mental count of each hour that passes.

He’s almost tempted not to wait for the full twenty-four hours and just use the soulmate GPS now. The remaining fourteen hours felt like an eternity to wait out. His soulmate had never taken so long to reply before.

Jason knows for sure that he’s plenty distracted from his patrol when someone gets the drop on him without him sensing until it was too late.

The Red Hood is about to swing to the next building's roof with his grappling gun, when it got knocked out of his hand by a projectile. It sails a low arch and lands with a clutter, away from his reach.

Jason looks with annoyance to his grappling gun lying pathetically on the gritty rooftop and almost growls at the sight of the batarang stuck to it that knocked it out of his hand in the first place.

He hears a swish of a cape and a soft thud as someone lands behind him. He feels his annoyance kick up a notch.

Red Hood turns and raises his gun (the one loaded with rubber bullets but no one except him needed to know that) pointing straight to the figure clad in red black and green in front of him.

“My toys aren't funded by the big Bat like yours are, so you better pray you did not break my grappling gun or I will shoot you," Jason snaps through his helmet.

"Oh please. We all know you have secret funds of cash from all your criminal activities Red Hood," Robin replies waving an empty hand, not even bothering to act scared of the gun in Jason's. ”I'm sure you can cope with light scratches to your equipment.”

"What do you want Replacement?" Jason says, cutting to the chase. He isn't in the mood to play with Robin's cheek tonight.

"I'm here to ask for help," Robin says back without missing a beat.

The new (or as new as being on the job for three years get) sidekick seems to not be in a mood for any games either. But fuck that, the Red Hood doesn't play well with Bats. Except for Oracle. But she's cool, she’s her own boss and takes no bullshit from Batman so Jason feels a kindred spirit in her.

"I'd laugh in your face but I've done it so many times before, I don't think I can go again without looking crazy," Jason replies.

"Well you were crazy for a short while there after you came back from the Pit-," Robin begins, and stops when Jason cocks his gun "but not the point. I could really use some backup tonight Red. There's something big going on and lots of people are in danger."

"Then get the Bat to help you." Red Hood clicks the safety back on and brings his gun back into his thigh holster. He starts walking away to retrieve his battered grappling gun.

"He can't," Robin says, hurriedly following Jason's heels. "Boss is tied up right now. Oracle and Batgirl are already responding to the situation, and I'm on my way there. But we're down one guy since Batman can't join and it's a delicate situation with lots of people in danger. We could really use your help."

Jason clicks his tongue in annoyance. He decided to at least hear The Annoyance out since Oracle's been name-dropped and he kind of owes her for giving him intel now and then. "What’s up?"

Robin smiles that cocksure smile only Robin can do and proceeds to brief him about the situation.

 

There is a charity event at the new children's hospital (because of-fucking-course it had to be at a CHILDREN's hospital) which Bruce Wayne is attending as a guest of honor as one of the top donators for the year, together with other of Gotham's wealthiest. Somehow scumbags thought that it would be a great opportunity to take the rich people hostage while drunk and partying, because yeah it totally is.

The whole hospital got put in lockdown and the hostages are tied up. The hostage-takers have sent out ludicrous demands for each rich guy and gal they have in their clutches. It's the grand opening so no patients are in the facility yet (thank god for small fucking miracles), but the guests are all kept hostages. 

Batman couldn't help out, because as Robin said earlier. He’s tied up, literally it seems. Surrounded by other hostages who would clearly notice if he slipped away to don a Bat costume.

Jason is following Robin's lead the second the words "Children's Hospital" was mentioned by the younger vigilante. They both land on the hospital's rooftop a few minutes later, which is somehow not crawling with scumbag lookouts, and they're met with the masked face of Batgirl.

"Two guards. Knocked out," She says in way of greeting. She doesn’t seem to find Red Hood's presence surprising. She wordlessly holds out a comm to him, which he takes and feeds into the helmet's earpiece mechanism. Oracle's voice is not an unwelcome sound.

"I have feed of the security cameras and can guide you three into the building. They have lots of guys, armed and playing lookout but I have their patterns down and you should be able to have minimum encounters." Oracle says. 

"How long have they had the hospital?" Jason asks

"Close to eleven hours," Oracle replies.

"Shit," Jason says. With feeling. 

"We only got word of the situation when B raised his silent alarm and Oracle hacked the cameras inside," Robin explains. "We think they knocked the hostages out but he managed to shake it off early because of his built tolerance to poison and stuff."

"Went around. Scouted," Batgirl says,  "No panic seen from outside. Hush job. No cops."

"I raised a tip to the police. Turns out they knew about the whole thing hours ago but the infiltrators demanded to keep things under wraps or they'll start killing VIP hostages,” Oracle's voice sounds in Jason's ear. “GCPD said they're arranging to meet the demands, but we all know we can't be sure the bad guys won't hurt anyone. I didn't want to send Batgirl in alone after I saw the number of guys inside," Oracle says. “I counted at least fifty hostiles. They're all pretty well armed.”

Robin whistles an impressed tune. “Well prepared.”

“Stop complimenting the bad guys Robin,” Oracle says with a flat tone, even through the voice scrambler.

“Yeah, sorry,” Robin replies easily, with a smile so charming and bright and fake, Jason had to force himself not to shield his eyes dramatically.

Batgirl though, seems to have lower tolerance for fake behavior, and punches the other vigilante in the arm, much to Jason’s glee.

He manages to turn his involuntary laugh into a scoff. “Can we hurry this along? I was sort of busy before I was dragged here against my will.”

Jason doesn’t know if he should consider this distraction a pain in the ass or if he should see it as a good thing. Surely running himself crazy by thinking about his radio-silent soulmate would not do his already-fragile psyche any favors… Maybe he needs a proper distraction for a few hours so he won’t just count the seconds left to the deadline for their agreed Soulmate GPS usage while writing increasingly paranoid messages on his skin.

“Okay kids here’s the plan,” Oracle says and Jason gets hit with nostalgia of days when he was still wearing the scaly short pants and Babs would deign to grace him with her presence during patrol and share her strategies with him.

He wants to protest out loud that he isn’t a kid, but Babs has enough dirt on him so he doesn’t contradict her too much. He forces himself to listen and let his training take over.

In less than ten minutes, Red Hood, Batgirl, and Robin have been briefed and have taken their positions into starting a terribly understaffed stealth rescue-slash-takedown operation. They know the importance of silence in this particular mission. Any alarm raised by the goons could potentially get hostages killed.

It’s a good exercise for Jason’s stealth and focus. He gives himself a pat on the back for always remembering to pack his gun silencer. He keeps the kill count to zero, since he feels like Batgirl will drop kick him if he kills anyone in front of her, but he doesn’t feel so bad about drawing enough blood and giving kidney shots and throat punches that the bad guys will need medical attention before they get put away.

All henchmen may have been wearing bulletproof vests but Jason knows a hundred different ways to get around that. His zero kill count is purely due to choice.

“That makes mine sixteen,” Robin brags while zip tying a couple of unconscious thugs together. “Puts me in the lead right?” 

Jason grunts a gagging noise. He wants to strangle the smug newbie.

Around the corner, three more armed guys appear and look at them in shock. Before Jason could pull his trigger or Robin could throw batarangs, Batgirl (who was literally just behind them a minute ago) descends from the ceiling and knocks all three men out with an admittedly well executed roundhouse-suckerpunch-nervestrike combo.

“Eighteen for me,” She says simply before walking ahead.

Jason smirks at her back, impressed despite himself. Then he turns to regard Robin and does a slight double take at the unmistakable dreamy look and heart eyes the kid has on. Obvious even behind the domino mask.

“Good luck Replacement,” Jason says with a sharp grin. He reaches out to ruffle Robin’s long messy blonde hair. “She’s going to eat you whole.”

“Shut up Red, or I’ll punch you,” Robin grumbles, pushing him away and trying to fix her hair in vain.

Jason just laughs at her as they follow in Batgirl’s wake.

---TBC---

Chapter Text

Half an hour of steadily taking down the guards one-by-one passes them by before Oracle alerts them to a change in plans.

“They know something’s wrong now,” Oracle says, “we need to change it up.”

“Took em long enough,” Robin snorts.

“They threatening hostages?” Jason asks in a calm way he would not have been able to do had he not spent years co-existing with literal killers.

“No, but they’re moving some of the hostages. Also they sent word to their own troops to stop patrolling and get to the top floor with the main crowd.”

“Strength in numbers,” Batgirl says somberly.

“Looks like they’re taking the higher profile hostages to the secondary location first, and leaving the others in the room with most of the guards. They’re dragging guests one at a time with 5 armed escorts. Bruce was the second one they took, right after the hospital’s owner.”

"Are they escaping with the most loaded hostages?" Robin asks. “Will we have to track down B’s party somewhere else after this?”

"Not sure. The hospital's camera system doesn't have a full view of where they're headed. And since this is a new facility I haven't had the chance to have my own bugs placed here yet." Oracle says, a touch annoyed. “If they leave Gotham, it’s going to be hard to track them down.”

"Think we can tail them while they’re escorting members of the cream of the crop away?" Jason suggests. Five guards with a single hostage being carted off seems like better odds than a dozen or so guards with multiple hostages.

“Yeah, Red’s on to something,” Robin agrees, looking like she bit a lemon at having to voice the agreement. Jason feels vindicated. “Their leader’s most probably with the second batch of hostages right? We take down that group and the chain of evil command should stop.”

“Cut off the head, not the tail,” Batgirl says with a shrug, and man what Jason wouldn't pay to read a book authored by her. Such substance.

"That may work," Oracle agrees. "As long as they’re in scope of the security cameras I can plot their path. I’ll work the floor plans, get you an interception route…" she pauses for a few moments and the others remain on standby. 

"Got it. They're most likely getting the hostages to the west rooftop. It’s a few floors below the main rooftop and it’s smaller, but it has its own helipad. Most likely they plan to use it to escape. They're taking the service stairs but those hallways have no visual. You can climb up the elevator shaft and use the connecting vents to get ahead of them."

"Copy that," Robin says with a nod as the three of them move to follow Oracle's instructions.

"They've taken a third hostage now. En route to the predicted drop zone," Oracle informs them. “Once you see where the other hostages are, there’ll probably be less guards there. You can take them out and secure the captives. Failing that, make sure they don’t leave before we get a bug on them or we can’t track them.”

“Copy,” Batgirl responds, as they get near their destination.

"We're by the elevator now," Robin reports.

The three of them work together to pry open the doors. Batgirl and Robin taking one side, and Jason pulling on the other. With a bit of effort the doors slide open. Jason takes stock of the shaft and fires his grappling gun inside to hook on the roof.

As he's about to pull up, they hear gunshots from the direction of the room where they keep the bulk of the hostages.

"Shots fired," Oracle says almost instantly. "Looks like the guards got mad when some of the hostages asked where they're taking the others. They fired warning shots to keep them quiet but I don't think we can afford to trust they keep their temper."

"Change plans?" Batgirl asks.

Jason looks at her and Robin, and then he looks up to the darkness where his grappling gun is hooked on to.

Can they really afford not to know where they’ve taken Bruce and the others? Fuck it feels like a situation set up by Two-Face. Save the many or rescue the few (one of which happened to be his estranged father-figure that he’s not in good terms with, oh also, it’s the fucking Batman). Can Gotham cope with having an MIA Batman anytime soon? How many people will the hostage-takers off before they make a decision?  

"Let's split up," he suggests. "There are about a dozen or so lowlifes left guarding the hostages. You guys work better together. You take them. I'll continue with the first plan."

Robin scrunches her eyebrows at him but ultimately nods.

"Be careful," Batgirl says to him before grabbing Robin’s hand and hurrying away.

Jason blinks at their rapidly disappearing figures. Damn chicks didn’t even wait to see if Jason would say be careful back or goodluck or something. Like they didn’t care either way because they have it handled.

Jason smiles. He’s starting to hate them less, and decides it may not be such a bad thing,

He turns and activates the pulley that zips him up to the roof. Once there, he has to swing a bit to shimmy inside the vent. He makes a loud clanging noise once he lands and he cringes inwardly.

“Oracle?” he asks quietly.

“You’re good. No alarms raised by hostiles,” she answers, and that is all he needed to hear before crawling further into the vent’s narrow path.

He mentally thanks the building’s designer for making the air vents wide enough for him to get into. It would’ve been awkward if he has to call back Batgirl or Robin to swap roles because he couldn’t fit. He wouldn’t live down the laughter.

Jason’s being tracked by Oracle who has the building plans so he defers to her whenever a junction comes up. A few minutes more of silent crawling and listening to directions pass before he hears voices and footsteps coming up below him.

"Target's here," Jason reports to his communicator. "I'll go ahead with the plan and tail them to the secondary location for the other rescue op. I’ll stick a bug on them if the rescue doesn’t pan out."

"Copy that Red Hood," Oracle says. "Batgirl and Robin are also at the primary hostage location now. I'll provide them support since there are cameras there. When they’re done I’ll send them your way. I don't have eyes on you so if anything happens, let me know."

"Roger," Jason says. "Go help Girl Wonder and your badass successor. I'm good." He hears the click sound of Oracle muting their feed to avoid confusions, and he continues to silently follow the sounds below.

“Can’t believe the boss wanted us to get this guy first before we nab the mayor’s husband,” a gruff voice complains.

Jason slowly crawls over near a grate where he sees the five thugs Oracle must’ve been talking about. They’re shepherding a shorter guy in a classic black tuxedo between them. He looks roughed up. He has creases on his clothes from being held hostage for almost twleve hours, his hands are tied together with rope in front of him, and he has like a fuck-ton of tension lining his slim shoulders.

As the entourage nears his hiding place, Jason could see the other guy’s face, which is sporting a split lip with his black hair in obvious disarray. The hostage doesn’t look like any of the rich people Jason saw at Bruce’s events when he was a kid. But then again the other guy looks fairly young so maybe he didn’t go to those parties while Jason was in his first life.

“Boss thinks this guy’s worth more money obviously,” one of the other armed men says. “Isn’t this the youngest CEO in Gotham’s history or some shit? Sprouted his company like a damn mushroom in a year? Duck Dynasties or whatever?.”

One of the other guards snorts, “It’s Drake Industries, dumbass.”

“Mr. Tim Drake here better be worth a lot then,” the first voice grumbles.

Well that explains why Jason did not recognize the face. The guy’s young, and of new money. And not the dirty kind too, since Jason hasn’t run into any shady operations funded by a Drake Industries on the down low.

One of the men behind the captive pokes the guy’s back with his gun.  “Hey walk faster!” he shouts. “Fuckin’ damn rich guys move so slow.”

“Still better than when Wayne kept tripping and falling on his face,” another comments. “I knew from the tabloids he’s a bumbling idiot, but fucking hell he trips on air! It’s easier if we get to shoot the annoying ones.”

At the mention of Bruce’s name, Jason freezes in this hiding spot. That sounded very much like Bruce has been trying to delay and buy as much time as he can. It gives the Red Hood hope as much as he hates to admit. Bruce is fine, Batman is going to be okay.

Jason gets pulled out of his short-lived relief when he sees Drake stop in his tracks and hunch up with so much tension it looks like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown. The goons escorting him take this as a personal offense and decide to violently shove the guy forward.

“Hey buddy I said walk faster, not stop!” the goon that poked him with the gun shouts.

Of course the hostage, being as tightly wound as he’s been, loses his balance and falls forward, barely catching himself with his tied up hands. He grunts in pain and stays crouched, shoulders heaving with near hyperventilating breaths.

The Red Hoods stops himself from doing anything. The goons still have their guns pointed to the prone figure on the floor and he doesn’t want to know how trigger-happy they can get when spooked just yet.

“Get the hell up!” barks another of the guards.

The captive on the floor just tenses even further at the command and makes no move to get on his feet. His shoulders starts to shake and his breathing sounds out louder, harsher. Classic symptoms of a terrified person.

The criminals give unsurprisingly no sympathy.

“Are you deaf?” one of the men sneers. “Useless shit, he said get up!”

As Drake continues to hyperventilate on the floor, Jason reminds himself that the goal was to confirm where the secondary location is so he can get all three of the hostages at once and not let them be shipped out of Gotham.

No matter how much he wants to drop down there and play “Rescue the Disheveled Panicking Guy in Distress” it’s not part of the plan for now.

One of the armed thugs seems to run out of patience sooner than the others and kicks at Drake, the force of it manages to turn the guy on his back. The bastard proceeds to step on his sternum, (which just further prevents Drake from getting up like he's been demanded to do, so that’s a spectacular airhead move on the thug’s part) he bends down and pushes the barrel end of his gun under the hostage’s chin.

“Do you want to have your brains blown up? Huh?? ” he snaps.

The shaking guy in the ruined tux takes a moment to swallow, and then shakes his head no.

“Then get your ass up!” the guard shouts. He and another armed goon proceeds to tug and manhandle Drake to stand on unsteady feet, while the other three watch with varying smirks and sneers.

Jason’s hand itches to bash their teeth in.

They all look at Drake standing very unsteadily on his feet. He’s holding his bound hands close to his chest, and is avoiding looking at any of the armed men in the eye by putting his head down and letting hair fall over his eyes.

His shoulders are hunched and remain tense.

They tense even further when the least patient bastard reaches out and shoves him against the wall. The thug looks like the type to get off on seeing his victims squirm. He’s wearing a sick smile and a disgusting glint in his eye as he holds Drake's collar bunched in his hands and shoves him further into the wall.

“You slow us down again and I break your fingers,” he snarls. And as if to emphasize his point, he lets go of the guy’s collar to grab both of his wrists forcefully and slam them hard above the guy’s head into the wall.

All further threatening is then put to an abrupt hold when one of the other guards points to the hostages raised arms and says “hey what’s that?”

This calls the other pricks’ attention and they all look at their captive’s bound hands.

The guy shoved against the wall goes very still.

“What?” the asshole holding up Drake’s wrists snaps back to his fellow asshole.

“I saw something on his arm,” the other prick replies, already moving forward to where their frozen hostage is shoved against the wall.

Like a rubberband, the hostage snaps into motion. It’s sudden enough to slip his wrists out of the first guard’s grip, but their close proximity doesn’t leave much room for him to get out of reach.

The asshole growls and makes to grab Drake again. He misses the first time when the guy slides sideways. He tries a second time and earns a backhanded smack to the face, when suddenly, the ropes binding Drake's hands fall away with the knots undone. The rope drops down the floor.

The asshole that caught Drake’ backhand to the face looks fifty-seven shades of pissed, a red mark already forming on his cheek.

“You’re going to pay for that you little shit!”

Drake makes a valiant effort to dodge and weave out of his captors’ hands. But it was still five bigger armed men versus a scrawny, tired, guy. Soon enough he trips, falls, and lands hard on his ass, and then the guards have him cornered again.

He earns a punch to the gut from the guard he managed to backhand earlier. Drake is breathing fast and shallow again. Sitting down on the floor, curled from the pain on his abdomen, surrounded by five pissed pricks with guns.

Drake has his right arm over his bent down head, while his left was close to his body, tucked in the middle of his curled sitting position. Like he’s expecting an earthquake, or the sky to fall on him, and he’s following the duck, cover, and hold standard.

“What do you say we waste this kid now? Little shit’s more trouble than he’s worth,” says the asshole with the sore cheek.

“Can’t kill this one yet. The boss will be pissed at us if we don’t deliver,” asshole number 4 says. “Let’s just tie his hands up again and get on with it.”

“Hey that’s right,” asshole number two says, as if remembering himself. “I saw something on his arm earlier, before he went all dodgy. His left arm.”

At the sound of that, Drake seems to curl further into a tight ball, keeping said arm tucked close inside.

And like fucking leeches that smelled blood, all five assholes squirm to grab on to the guy.

“No!” Drake shouts, sounding desperate. He keeps on trying to shield his left arm and scramble away, but he’s way outnumbered. It does not take long.

Drake ends up sprawled on his front on the floor. He tucks his arm underneath him, but he’s pinned down by the bigger men and he couldn’t move away. There’s a hand pressing his head sideways into the floor (his cheek earning scratches and bruises), a knee on his right shoulder, a boot on his right hand, two men pinning his flailing legs still, and the last asshole jamming a hand under him to get to his left arm.

It should be hilarious that it takes five assholes to pin the shorter guy down, but the genuinely desperate scared look on Drake's face (that Jason did not see before this, not even back when a literal gun was shoved under his chin) robs the situation of any humor to Red Hood’s eyes.

“What are you hiding you little shit? Got a bug on you? Alerting the cops?? HUH??” shouts the asshole practically sitting on the shorter guy’s back and reaching for his hidden arm.

“Stop!” screams Drake. “Get off me! Don’t touch me! NO!” 

Jason has heard a lot of cries and screams of victims before, and it always brings out the rage inside him, but for some reason the desperation in the guy’s voice now hits him harder. He supposes it’s due to not being able to go with his first instinct of helping the guy out and shooting up the thugs.

Jason grits his teeth and finds himself clasping tight on his gun.

It’s a futile battle from what Jason can see. He mentally applauds Dake for not losing his fighting spirit. He keeps on shouting and resisting even as his left arm is grabbed by the asshole. He tries to pull it back to himself, but the angle is all wrong and the assholes have the leverage.

They don’t hesitate to use that leverage and a good amount of force to get what they want.

A sickening crack sounds followed by a wordless scream of pain... It takes a second for Jason to realize that Tim Drake's arm just broke.

Jason’s heart is thumping so loud it’s ringing in his ears. Oracle could be shouting in his earpiece and he wouldn’t notice. His vision fills with haze and anger.

The only thing that keeps him from jumping down and bringing hell to the assholes below is the thought that they may shoot Drake or hurt him further before Red Hood can incapacitate them.

Drake deflates and goes limp on the ground after screaming himself hoarse. There are tears in his eyes and his left arm and shoulder are bent at an awkward angle. The bastard that’s grasping his arm lifts the sleeve to check what the guy has been so intent on protecting.

“What the hell?” the asshole says, sounding surprised and pissed.

“What is it?” one of the assholes holding down Drake's legs asks.

“Fucking soul messages,” comes the answer. “The hell, so you WERE ratting out the operation!”

Drake just shakes his head, cheek pressed to the cold dirty floor, whispering “no” in a hoarse voice over and over, clearly still reeling from the pain of his broken arm.

Jason hears his teeth grinding against his skull. He decides the five thugs below will bleed badly before all this is over.

“Stop lying!” the prick below shouts, “I should just snap your arm off!”

The asshole shoves the broken arm up further getting another shout of pain. He cuts him off by yanking a handful strands of dark hair and forcing Drake’s head up with a yelp.

Bringing his mouth close to Drake's ear, the prick snarls “I’ve had it with you and your tricks you fucking shit. You obviously got free of your binds earlier and have been snitching to someone outside! Now tell us what you said to your soulmate or we’ll hunt them down and slit their throat in front of you.”

The pained, exhausted look on Drake’s pale face turns to frightened panic so fast, Jason feels the whiplash. 

Jason wants so badly to tell the guy that it’s okay, that he can tell these scumbag monsters whatever they want to hear. If it will get them to stop then just tell them. Jason will stop them all before they get to do anything about it.

“I told them nothing, I swear!” Drake says desperately, his broken voice still managing to reach Jason’s ears clearly. “Please leave them out of this! Please! They don’t know anything about this!”

“I said STOP LYING!”

“No, NO! I’m not lying,” Drake pleads, frantic eyes looking around, imploring the bastards to listen. “They wrote to me but I haven’t written back! I swear! They know nothi-!” he cuts off with a pained shout that ends in a whimper as the man cruelly pulls his arm back even further.

“You think we’re stupid?” the man roars. He shakes Drake’s arm to emphasize his point. “This is not some grocery list! This is clearly a scheme!”

“Hey, what’s the message say?” quips another. “Maybe we need to get a move on. Did they mention cops? Capes?”

“Tell me this doesn’t sound shady,” says the guy with sarcasm dripping thick as tar. He looks down to read out the message on Drake’s arm, “It says dear soulmate, where the fuck are you? ” 

From his perch in the vents, Jason’s breathing stops. Realization slams him like a 10-wheeler truck and leaves him shocked and disoriented. 

Jason feels phantom burns where the same words are inked on his skin. His eyes can’t move away from Drake’s broken arm in the clutches of that slimy bastard... His left arm. The same place Jason wrote his own message more than half a day ago.

The same words written on the same place, coupled with Tim Drake’s desperate insistence that his soulmate doesn’t know anything are all that Jason needs to believe that he’s found the answer to why his own soulmate hasn’t replied to his messages today.

Jason comes back to his senses just as the assholes down below shout again, demanding Drake tell them what else he’s been saying to his soulmate. Drake just keeps on pleading that he didn’t tell his soulmate anything. That he hasn’t written back. That they keep his soulmate out of this. That he’d do anything, anything, but please don’t involve his soulmate.

“They don’t even know who I am!” Drake tries to reason out. “We haven’t met each other yet. They’re nobody! They won’t be of value, they don’t know I have a company, they won’t even suspect I’m part of this event. I swear they haven’t alerted the police or anyone! I can disappear and they won’t know about it. Please don’t get them involved. Please.” That last word is almost sobbed out.

The desperation guts Jason like a trout.

He never imagined meeting his soulmate like this. Hell, he never imagined meeting his soulmate at all. He was content to keep him at a distance. Just a person he can talk to and hide from. But Jason should’ve known better than to expect he’d get what he want for once.

Now he knows his soulmate is a fellow Gothamite. Someone that’s been closer than he could ever guess. Now he knows his soulmate is the city’s youngest CEO with his own company. That he has nimble fingers that could unknot ropes. That he looks pretty in a tux. That it takes approximately five armed men to bring him down. 

Now Jason knows his soulmate has a pretty high pain tolerance (that Jason both does and doesn’t want to know more about) which leaves him coherent enough through the pain of a broken arm on top of being beaten up, to beg not for his own life , but for some stranger’s that never gave him any reason to care…

Now Jason knows that his soulmate is a self-sacrificing schmuck.

Man does Lady Fate know how to pair up soulmates or what?

“Cry all you want, but your soulmate’s not innocent kid!” one of the bastards holding down Drake barks. “Tell you what, why don’t we paint your pretty face red and black so that they don’t recognize you, huh? Maybe send them your ear or pinkie as memento!” Then he laughs with his boys like he thinks it’s the funniest thing ever said.

Jason closes his eyes and takes a breath, feeling a familiar detached calm taking over his system.

Red Hood opens his eyes and welcomes a well-known cold rage burning under his skin. 

Well that bastard is right about one thing.

Tim Drake’s soulmate is not innocent.

 

---TBC---

Chapter Text

Red Hood calmly takes stock of the situation below. Five armed guys to take down, one hostage between them. He’s handled worse. Nevermind that he’s currently emotionally compromised, he’s gotten good at compartmentalizing. Leaps and bounds ahead compared to his early second-coming days.

He draws his other gun with the silencer, the one loaded with real bullets, and shoots the head of the guy holding down Drake’s right shoulder and hand. The target goes down like a wet rag. Eyes open and lifeless.

Right beside Drake on the floor.

Jason hears his soulmate’s gasp above the screaming and shouting of the other brutes panicking below.

The remaining guards all jump away like startled bugs, putting their backs to the walls and leaving Drake alone on the floor. The guy is stunned, looking into the crumpled dead man’s blank eyes several inches beside him. He remains down, unmoving.

“Red Hood, is everything okay?” Oracle says in Jason’s ear. 

“Just cleaning up trash,” he grunts in answer. Red Hood puts the communicator on mute before Babs can reply.

Without wasting time, Jason unhooks one of the miniature bombs from his belt and tosses it the opposite way in the vent. It rolls some distance before exploding with a loud bang and a shower of smoke. It does the job of drawing the attention of the thugs away from Jason’s position.

Jason gets down from the vent while the other thugs marvel at the smoke show in the other direction. He aims and takes out the kneecap of the guy closest to Drake, then shoots again and nails the guy’s wrist. The man shouts in pain and his gun clatters to the floor.

Jason lets another bullet zip and nails the guy on the back of the head.

The three guys still standing snap their stares down to their new friend bleeding dead on the floor, then raise their gazes comically slow to gawk at Red Hood.

Jason takes advantage of their shock to close the distance between him and Tim Drake; who’s now graduated from looking at the corpse beside him on the floor, to looking at Jason as he approached. Half his cheek is red with blood and scratches, his hair beyond ruffled, his wide eyes glassy, and his expression is impossible to read. Jason doesn’t try too hard.

Jason keeps his attention on the other armed thugs as he comes to a stop in front of Tim. Standing between him and the three pieces of shit left to clean up.

“It’s the Red Hood!”

“Fuck, shit! So there were capes coming!”

“Alert the others!”

Taking a sure and steady aim, Jason shoots the guy that reached up to tap the earpiece of his radio.

Another corpse with a hole in the head drops to the floor.

“Any more stupid moves you pieces of shit would like to pull?” Red Hood growls, hearing the words reverberate around his helmet, feeling the hate itch under his skin.

The two remaining henchmen stare at their newest dead member. Then they look at each other.

“Shoot him!” one of them shouts.

Jason is on the offensive a split-second before the bullets from the enemies start flying. He jumps forward (away from Drake), pulling a knife from his boot as he slides low to dodge the rain of bullets from the decent guns the shitty thugs fired.

Jason continues to duck low and move fast, finally coming up close enough to one of the thugs to grab his arm and dig his knife near the man’s clavicle, just where the bullet proof vest comes up short. 

He hears the man shout, and Jason twists and drags the blade across to his throat. The shout turns into a gurgling wheeze and Red Hood feels the life bleed out of the scum.

Red Hood uses the guy as a dying-human shield to deflect the other man’s continued barrage of bullets, offhandedly noting how the other asshole doesn’t hesitate trying to shoot Jason through his good-as-dead teammate.

That just makes Jason hate him more.

Dragging the body in front of him, Jason moves to draw the gun fire farther away from Tim. Once that’s done, he shoves the actual dead weight towards the last remaining henchman and watches him overbalance, slip on blood, and fall with his back on the floor.

With his dead buddy on top of him.

The man spouts curses and struggles to get free; jerky movements giving away that he isn’t as unspooked as his loud mouth will want one to believe. Jason recognizes him as the one that sat on Tim’s back and yanked his arm hard enough to break.

Red Hood raises his gun and shoots the guy on shoulder.

“AARRGH!!”

As the last piece of shit writhes in pain on the floor, unable to use his gun, Jason walks steadily towards him; relishing the pure look of terror on his face. A thousand different ways of making him hurt more are running in Jason’s head.

Normally Jason makes his kills quick and clean, but now his ears are ringing with the call to draw more blood, and Jason can’t bring himself to care about anything else other than inflicting more pain…

(Distantly, it reminds him of his first days back from the Lazarus Pit. As Robin said, he was crazy for a spin of time then.)

“G-get away!” the last scum shouts, but Red Hood barely hears him.

Jason stands over the guy on the floor and looks him in the eye through Red Hood’s helmet. He puts a foot over the asshole’s bleeding shoulder and stomps down. Hard.

The scream rings so loud it’s a miracle it doesn’t drown out the pounding in Jason’s ears that’s demanding for more blood.

“NO! GET OFF!” the broken man shouts, begs. He tries to escape but it’s futile because he’s trapped. Trapped under Jason’s boot and death.

Red Hood removes the knife sticking out of the corpse on top of the guy slowly, making it glint in the sparse light of the hallway, making sure the man underneath catches sight of it dripping in red 

Ignoring the pleas and the squirming, Jason brings the bloody blade to the man’s face, the sharp edge resting under the scum’s eye socket.

Thinking he would very much like to preserve the look of terror on that eye, Jason puts more pressure on the knife until he sees new blood flowing. The man jerks then stops moving. This apparently, is what it takes to scare him enough to stop struggling, although not enough to make him quiet.

“No, please, please stop, no more, please,

“Shut your mouth, it’s annoying,” Jason says, but the pathetic shit keeps on sobbing pleas. Tears are running down his face, making the blood drawn by the blade turn pink. It irks Jason to hell. “After I take out your eyes, I think I’ll cut out your tongue to make you quiet.”

The song of pain and violence is screaming a wonderful crescendo in Jason’s head. He feels a sick smile forming on his face. His hands move surely; knowing all the ways to draw more blood, cause the most pain, and nothing can stop him. Like he’s enclosed in a glass cone and given free reign.

“Isn’t that enough?” a sad voice asks… and the glass shatters.

It isn’t loud, not in the slightest. But it cuts through the bloodthirsty demands raging in Red Hood’s ears. It feels like Jason doesn’t have a choice but to hear it.

Jason stills. And so does the knife in his hand, midway a deep half crescent cut on the tender flesh under his sobbing victim’s eye. 

There’s no mistaking it’s Tim Drake’s voice, ragged from his earlier screams. Jason doesn’t want to turn his head and look, but his decision seems not needed for his body to act on it.

He turns and sees Tim, sitting down on his knees on the filthy floor, blood still splattered on his cheek.

Tim looks fucking exhausted. His left forearm is once again covered by his sleeve cradled close to his chest by his good hand; a blessing since Jason doesn’t know how he would be able to handle seeing the words he wrote that led to this. 

His soulmate is in pain and afraid, surrounded by violence and death…

The exact thing Jason never wanted to happen. The very reason why he never said who he was…

And now the sight of it is branded into Jason’s eyes, and he feels unshed tears burn.

Jason convinced himself over a year ago that his soulmate would remain happier without knowing him. He decided that he would never make his soulmate experience the ugly world he lives in… But what the hell is he doing now?

Making a show of more cruelty and letting Tim see just how awful of a human being he is? It’s not enough that he’s a murderer, he had to go and add psychotic torturer to the list.

So much for his first meeting with his soulmate.

Jason feels the anger leave him. The raging voices in his head replaced by echoing silence.

He doesn’t feel guilt about the lives he’s taken tonight because they deserve it. He does feel remorseful that he couldn’t save TIm from having to witness it. And even more guilt that Tim got hurt in the first place and Jason just fucking watched.

Jason removes the knife from his victim’s face. The scum gasps in relief.

And then Red Hood puts him out of his misery and shoots him between the eyes, point blank.

Jason keeps his ears open this time, but he doesn’t hear anything from Tim when he kills the last guard. Not a protest or a gasp. Like he’s too exhausted to even give any vocal reaction at all.

Jason wipes the bloody knife on the newest corpse’s uniform and brings it back to his holster. Now that all the trash has been cleaned up, he steels himself for the next, infinitely harder task.

He turns and walks back toward Tim. Not knowing what he should say once he got there or what he should do. But he couldn’t bring himself to go anywhere but closer. His instincts tell him he has to.

He stops a foot or so away, not wanting to loom over the injured guy. He racks his brain for anything to do or say but nothing comes up. Jason feels sick at seeing Tim hurt and in the middle of corpses of Jason’s own doing… It feels like if he opens mouth, he’ll spill out his guts.

Jason reinforces his standing decision to never tell Tim who he is. He also makes up his mind that after this, he needs to cut off ties with his soulmate for good. Lie to him and write that he doesn’t want to continue their communication.

He can’t handle this again. Making Tim witness what Jason’s cruelty is, what a disgusting monster of a human he’s become. He doesn’t deserve to be paired with a guy like Jason. It’s all for the best.

(Jason hasn’t been this lonely and scared for the future since he came back to Gotham and realized he was going to have to kill his own demons because his father couldn’t do it for him.)

For now he’s going to have to deal with getting Tim somewhere safe. And for that, he would need to actually talk to him, since Jason doesn’t want to just grab him without saying why he’s dragging him away from here; from this hallway filled with bullet shells, gray matter, and gore.

“Thanks,” Tim’s voice sounds out again. Saving Jason from the fight with his own thoughts on deciding on an appropriate ice breaker.

Jason’s shock at Tim’s gratitude punches the word out of him.

“What?”

Because seriously? The last thing Jason expects from the situation is to receive fucking thanks. Did Tim not see how violent Jason is? Does he not comprehend Jason is a cold-blooded murderer?

Tim shrugs minutely and winces as it jostles his arm. He powers through the pain (seriously how high is his pain tolerance? He should be passed out now for fuck’s sake, would make things easier for Jason) and offers Red Hood a shaky smile. 

Tim’s acting calmer than one should be after all the death and violence he’s witnessed. Maybe he’s in shock and has wrapped himself in a blanket of denial. Jason could relate.

“You saved me,” Tim says, matter of factly.

No , Jason wants to say, no I didn’t. I didn’t stop you from getting hurt and brought you face to face with death. 

I watched them do all that to you, and I sat on my useless ass. And when I finally decided to do something, all I did was to make you watch something horrible that you can never unsee. 

Don’t thank me, I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve you.

And you sure as hell don’t deserve someone like me.

“T’was nothin’,” Jason manages to grunt in reply. Swallowing the other words he wants to say. “Can you stand?” he asks.

He doesn’t dare reach out to offer a hand and touch Tim. He’s not sure if he’s allowed. He’s not sure if he could let go after.

Tim blinks his eyes (dark blue now that Jason is close enough to see) frowns and looks down at himself, like he’s doing an internal inventory of what body functions he still has access to. After a second he gives a small nod to himself.

“Yeah, I think that’s doable,” Tim replies, shifting his legs and reaching out his good hand absently for added balance.

Jason lets go of his decision to not touch and immediately reaches out to grab Tim’s hand and gently help him up. Once Tim is back on somehow steady feet, he lets go.

Jason’s mind moves to planning the fastest possible escape routes. His main priority set on getting Tim Drake out of this god forsaken building.

“I think my shoulder’s dislocated,” Tim’s voice pulls Jason from his own mind again.

“It is?” Jason asks, stepping closer and bending down a bit to try and examine said shoulder.

“Yeah, it sort of feels… off,” Tim answers with a mild frown that seems more appropriate for a minor inconvenience like untied shoelaces, not bone and joint injuries. “I couldn’t tell before because my forearm hurt worse, but now that I’m standing I think it’s dislocated.” He turns said shoulder towards Jason, as if prompting him to confirm.

Jason barely stops flinching away. He’s startled, but seeing as there’s no other person around, he guesses Tim is forced to turn to him for help. He’s literally the only available option.

Jason steels himself and does the gentlest examination of Tim’s arm and shoulder as he could. The jacket makes it hard to see, but upon gently running hand over the limb and joint, Jason confirms the shoulder is indeed, dislocated.

“Does it hurt,” Jason begins to ask, and because the answer to that is painfully obvious, he lamely adds, “a lot?”

“It’s manageable,” Tim says as he shakes his head no, (seriously, what is his pain tolerance made of?) “It feels a little numb though, and I can’t move it.” Then he looks up at Red Hood, seems to hesitate a moment before asking “Can, uhm, can you pop it back in?”

This time Jason does flinch back.

He is very adverse to that request because he knows first hand how much popping a joint back in can hurt if done incorrectly... And the last thing he wants is to cause Tim more pain.

“You can have it looked at later by a medic.” Jason suggests instead. “I’m not the best choice in first aid.”

“O-oh,” Tim says, deflating like a popped tire. He turns away, like he’s embarrassed. “Yeah, sorry, that must’ve been weird. I didn’t mean to impose…”

Jason feels another twist inside him.

What the fuck is wrong with him? Earlier, he made his soulmate fucking thank him for dragging him into a front row bloodbath show; now he’s making his soulmate fucking apologize for asking for help?

“If you really want, I can give it a try,” Jason offers lamely, and the way Tim turns back to look at him is already doing wonders to ease his twisted chest. “But the pros can do a better job later.”

“I’d rather have it done now,” Tim says, side eyeing his shoulder. “it’s affecting my balance, and I feel like it’ll just continue to hurt worse if left like this.”

And that ultimately is the deciding factor. Because as long as he can help it, there’s no question that Jason doesn’t want Tim to be hurt further.

“Okay,” Jason gives a nod, “let’s pop it back in. I’m going to have to straighten your arm and hold your wrist… Wait, is your wrist even okay?”

Jesus, Jason should’ve asked Tim what other injuries he feels he’s got in the first place. The forearm feels tender, but Jason notes it didn’t feel broken when he did the shoulder examination earlier. He hazards a guess (a hope) that the bone isn’t broken and it’s just some strains and sprains. The crack from earlier must’ve been the shoulder dislocating.

“I think my wrist is alright.” Tim does a couple of small wrist movements without wincing to demonstrate. “We can make it work,” Tim says, looking up at Jason earnestly.

Jason stares back at him for a moment, allowing himself to believe for a split-second that the comment is meant to be about how they can find a way around all the fucked-up shit between them and somehow get to know each other, without all the secrets... And then he fucking yanks his mind back down from the clouds.

“Okay, let’s do it,” Jason says, but despite himself, couldn’t muster the nerve to reach out. Again he’s saved from making a fool of himself when Tim turns his wrist to offer his hand palm up. 

Knowing that the bum shoulder won’t let Tim lift his arm, Jason lets himself be pulled into action and takes Tim’s hand in his to lift his arm and straighten it out in front of him. He also puts his other arm to rest firmly but gently between the curve of Tim’s neck and shoulder.

He tries to make it as clinical as he can. His pounding heart is making it hard.

“Basically we line up your arm and shoulder like this,” Jason begins to talk, thinking that describing the procedure would make it less awkward (less close, less intimate), also that maybe Tim will appreciate the informative commentary. It is his shoulder they’re going to unmangle afterall. “You have to speak up if it hurts, I won’t know otherwise and can end up making it worse.”

“Okay,” Tim nods in understanding. “It doesn’t hurt more than it did earlier, so we’re okay?”

“Good,” Jason replies, and proceeds to talk as he works. “We straighten out the arm to align the ball and socket joint together. It’ll need a slow firm pull to line back up completely. We won’t jerk it because that’s just stupid. The more relaxed you are, the less pain there’s supposed to be.”

Jason watches as Tim nods, his pale face looking a little red around some places, probably from the trepidation of getting his shoulder popped back.

“Relaxed, yeah okay, I can do that,” Tim breathes out, voice going a little high, and for the first time, Jason has trouble believing him.

“It’ll be fine,” Jason finds himself reassuring him. Because he needs to try and be of fucking better use. “On the count of three, okay?”

“Okay,” Tim says, and Jason feels the other forcefully lax under his hands.

“One,” Jason slowly counts aloud. He immediately feels Tim involuntary tense up. Jason waits a moment until he feels the other relax again, and then without bothering to continue counting, gives a firm straight pull on the wrist and feels the shoulder pop back in under his hand.

Tim gasps out a surprised breath that doesn’t sound pained. His blue eyes widen and he looks at his own shoulder under Jason’s hand. After a second he whips his gaze back to Jason.

“What happened to two and three?” he sounds genuinely confused, it’s almost cute.

“I lied,” Jason replies bluntly. He takes off his jacket, intent on fashioning a make-shift sling out of it. “We need to get that freshly popped shoulder supported so it doesn’t move around.”

Jason pauses a moment to ensure his own left arm is still covered by his long-sleeved uniform, hiding the matching words on Tim’s own covered arm, before continuing to work. 

“We can just use my jacket,” Tim says, but offers no protest as Jason begins putting his arm in position and even adjusts his neck to give Jason more room to tie up the sling easier around the junction of his neck and other shoulder. “I can take it off.”

“That would need you to move your shoulder, which is the exact opposite of what we want," Jason explains, finishing up securing the sling.

Jason takes a half-step back to inspect his handiwork. Satisfied that it’ll do for now, he moves his gaze back to Tim’s face… Tim looks back at him with a complicated expression. Jason still doesn’t try reading it.

There’s still blood on his face.

“It’s starting to itch,” Tim says, reaching up with his other hand to point at his cheek that Jason is staring at.

“Yeah, dried blood can get irritating,” Jason says. “Try not to scratch.”

One of the troublesome things Jason wants to avoid is for Tim to have a scar on a place as visible as his face. It will serve as a reminder of this day and of how badly Jason fucked up. If he can have his way, he’ll wipe Tim’s mind of everything that happened tonight.

“Okay,” Tim agrees easily. He puts his hand back down, “Thank you."

Upon hearing the words again, Jason feels his fingers twitch from where he dropped them to his sides. Guess that's going to be an anxiety trigger for him now... He mentally shakes it off to keep from falling into that rabbit hole.

"Don't mention it," he replies through clenched teeth. Tim gives him a strange look. Jason unlocks his jaws before speaking again. "C'mon let's get out of here."

"What?" Tim asks, taken aback. "No way!" he protests strongly, which in turn makes Jason the one taken aback. 

"Uh? Yes way!" Jason finds himself retorting childishly. "You need proper medical attention. That's just sloppy band-aid levels of medical care," he says, gesturing to Tim's arm in the jacket-sling.

"But we can’t just leave,” Tim says in protest.

“We sure can,” Jason sasses back. “I already planned the escape route and everything.”

Tim looks back at him, horrified. Jason feels like he’s been shot.

“We can’t go!” he protests, leaning forward to argue his point instead of backing away like Red Hood thought he would. Considering Jason is a good foot taller than him, it’s surprisingly feisty. “There are still people here that need help. I heard gunshots earlier back from the main room, they definitely need it!”

Jason finds himself leaning back in surprise, unable to get a word in edgewise as Tim continues to list reasons why they can’t leave.

“And they dragged Ms. Crowne and Mr. Wayne away earlier and I heard they had “plans” for them, and that can’t be good,” Tim says, conveniently leaving out that he was originally supposed to be part of those “plans” until Jason came in and slaughtered the delivery guys, “and even if we get out of here now, this operation is not broadcasted outside, they said they’ll kill people if any cops show so we can’t go to the police! If we go to another hospital for my injuries, they’ll ask me questions, and I don’t want anyone involved further in this! They need your help, we can’t leave.”

Of course Lady Fate would give Jason a stubborn ballsy soulmate.

“Look, after I get you out, I’ll come back for the others,” Jason tries to reason out. “Besides, Batgirl and Robin are already dealing with the main room so the others will be safe okay?”

“What about Ms. Crowne and Mr. Wayne?” Tim pushes, “the bad guys will realize something’s wrong soon, and then what? They could escape with the two of them, or hurt them to make a point, or worse. We need to go and help them!”

“Okay, first of all, there’s no we,” Jason snaps, testier than he means to, “if you don’t want me to go with you, fine! I’ll give you a comm, give you instructions and you can go out on your own. And second, they’re two of Gotham’s wealthiest; they’re worth more alive, the bad guys know this, and they won’t off them.”

“I never said I didn’t want to go with you,” Tim says, sounding frustrated, “I’m saying the opposite; I want to stay. I don’t want to escape on my own. I can’t go to the authorities, and from what you said, the Bats already know about the situation so there’s no need to inform them.”

“It’s not about that! You don’t need to have a freaking assignment outside for you to feel okay to leave.” Jason argues, “And what ? Do you think you’ll be doing a whole lot of good in here?” 

“I know where they took the others!” TIm insists, “I’ve been there from the tour earlier, I know the way, I can help! If you make me go I’ll be alone and won’t be any use out there!”

“YOU’LL BE FUCKING SAFE!” Jason shouts, finally making Tim reel back.

He only realizes how loud he’s being when the words echo around the hallway long after they’ve left his mouth.

Well shit. Jason hazards a peek at TIm, who’s looking back at him with a clenched jaw and an intense glare.

Just how many more times is he going to fuck up before this day is over?

“Do you really know that?” Tim’s says, voice quiet and seething with contained anger. “How can you tell it’s going to be safe out there? How do you know they don’t have contingencies waiting? There could be hundreds of dangers out there we’re not aware of. You’re just throwing around excuses to get rid of me because you think I’m useless.”

Jason feels his jaw drop.

“Wha- That’s not what I’m saying at all!” Jason protests, “Look, I just… You’re hurt enough already; it’s best you just leave now.” He tries his best imploring voice, “and besides, none of this crazy shit is your responsibility, you don’t have to feel like you need to do anything. You just got dragged into this, you never chose this.”

Jason stands with his fist clenched, hoping Tim would not insist further. Because damn it, it’s proving a daunting challenge to say no to him.

“I’m choosing it now,” Tim says back with a sureness that breaks Jason’s heart a little. “I can’t just go and pretend this doesn’t have anything to do with me. I made up my mind. I can’t leave. I won’t be able to live with myself if I do.”

Jason searches inside himself, really reaches deep down, to the marrows of his bones… but he can’t find the will to fucking say no to that.

Red Hood turns on his heels and marches to one of the dead guards on the floor. He bends down and starts removing the radio equipment strapped to the vest. Thankfully this one looks pretty clean and undamaged.

“What are you doing?” he hears Tim ask, bewildered.

“Getting another radio,” Jason answers with a defeated sigh. He walks back to Tim, fiddling with the radio on his hand. “We’ll need a second one if you’re coming with me.”

He hears Tim gasp, and when Jason looks back at him, he’s wearing a surprised grin.

Would you look at that? His soulmate has a pretty fucking gorgeous smile.

“You’ll let me come with you?” Tim says, looking like a kid on Christmas.

“Yeah, yeah, don’t cream your pants,” Jason says. “Listen closely, I’m only doing this since you’re a stubborn son of a bitch and we’re pressed for time. I’m very tempted to leave you here but knowing you, you’ll just follow anyway.”

”Very astute assessment,” Tim praises patronizingly.

“You’re such a manipulative turd,” Jason says, and Tim just tips his head in affirmation. Jason shakes his head and switches to a more serious tone, “I’m only going to say this once. if you’re going to come with me, you have to swear to do everything I say. If we see any danger, you run and hide. No feats of heroics from you, okay?”

“Yes, of course,” TIm readily agrees, “I won’t get in the way, I promise.”

“That’s not what I said,” Jason replies unimpressed. “I wanna hear you promise what I said, or I’ll knock you out and leave you on the fire escape.” It’s an empty threat, but Tim doesn’t need to know that.

“Fine,” Tim rolls his eyes. “I promise to do everything you say, if we see any danger I promise to go hide, and I promise not to be a hero. Happy?”

“No, but I usually never am.” Jason says curtly.

He turns away and taps his own communicator back on to avoid looking at Tim’s newly concerned expression.

“Oh, the prodigal son is alive,” Oracle says crossly, and Jason winces. “Nice of you to get back in contact after cutting me off in the middle of a high-stakes, dangerous mission. Please, enlighten me as to what the hell were you doing Red Hood.”

“Sorry, I had to clean up some trash,” Jason says, repeating his excuse from before when he first went on mute. “Everything’s fine, aside from five casualties. And the civilian's safe. I'm calling in to ask one more slot to the channel. I have another radio I need to connect.”

“Okay, I’m going to gloss over that casualty comment because I’m not your dad and I won’t tell you what to do… But why exactly do you need another communicator? The one you’re using sounds fine to me.” Oracle says. Jason can clearly see her eyebrow raised from where she’s sitting in her tower.

Jason inhales and then just blurts it out, “I’m going with the civilian to the secondary holding.”

“Are you serious?!” Oracle demands, “I know you’re smart Red. So why in god’s name do you think that is a good idea?”

“I don’t,” Jason replies. “But we’re pressed for time here, and he refuses to escape on his own. I’ll cover for him. He’s got intel on the secondary location so he’ll guide me. I need a second communication slot so we can loop him in. I’ll keep him at a safe distance.”

We’ll keep him at a safe distance,” Babs replies, sounding resigned. “Okay Red Hood, if he managed to wear you down enough to agree, I won’t try to re-convince you not to. Connect to the frequency, I’ll open a new slot.”

“Thanks.” Jason feels his gratitude to Babs skyrocket.

“Also you’re right we are pressed for time.” Oracle says “Batgirl and Robin have made good progress in the primary holding, but they believe the guards managed to report that they’re there. I’m guessing they’re just waiting for the third hostage to be delivered before they escape with the others. It’s just a matter of time before they realize Mr. Drake’s not coming with his late escorts. We’re going to need to speed it up.”

“Roger that,” Red Hood says, “thanks Oracle.”

“Yeah, I’m magnanimous. Don’t you forget it.” Babs says, “I’m going to get back to the girls. If you cut me off again I will give you a noogie and ban you off my intel database for a month.”

“I understand,” Jason agrees, not doubting Babs can and will follow through, even with the noogie comment (especially with the noogie comment) “we'll keep in touch.”

The click of Oracle switching to another feed sounds again, and then there’s silence.

Jason finishes connecting the radio in his hands to the frequency, and it goes from static to the clean silent standby signal on Babs’ channel. He looks at Tim and sees him eyeing the radio in Jason’s hands.

For some reason (like the equipment belonging to one of his soulmate’s former torturers), Jason doesn’t feel comfortable handing the radio over to Tim. To bypass this weird apprehension, Jason takes off the little communicator from his helmet’s earpiece and hands that one over instead.

Tim takes it and looks at it for a moment.

“It wasn’t actually inside my ear so there’s no ear boogers there,” Jason says haughtily, trying and failing to get the stolen radio’s earpiece to fit inside his helmet’s slot. “Figured I’d be a gentleman and take the deadman’s radio for myself.”

“Right, thanks,” Tim says and slips the comm in his own ear using his good hand.

“Don’t mention it,” Jason grunts, giving one last try to fit the new radio’s earpiece inside his helmet before accepting that it just isn’t going to happen. He huffs an annoyed breath and clips the radio to this belt and pockets the extended chord of the earpiece for a moment.

Jason reaches up with both hands and quickly removes his helmet. He feels Tim startle.

"Relax, not gonna start stripping or anything," Jason says, hazarding a joke to get the tense atmosphere to lighten up a bit. (It isn't very successful, but they’re in denial so…)

Jason hooks his helmet to his belt, then takes out the radio's earpiece from his pocket and gives it a wipe on his sleeve before popping it in his ear. “There, problem solved.”

"Your domino mask is red too,” Tim says, looking intently at Jason’s newly uncovered head. His mouth forms a slight smile. “And you have a Mallen streak. It looks cool.”

Jason fights to keep himself from running a hand through his messy helmet hair self-consciously. He is not prepared for how exposed he’s currently feeling with Tim’s eyes on his lesser covered face.

It’s ridiculous, he’s almost feeling shy.

“Gotta keep on brand with the theme,” Jason forces himself to say breezily while pointing at his domino “and before you ask, no, I did not dye my hair.”

“Oh,” Tim says, pondering “you’ve had it since you were a kid?”

“Nah, some stuff happened and it just became like this,” Jason answers, thinking that at least this he can answer without too much lying. “You ready to go? You can back out anytime.”

“I’m ready,” Tim answers surely, taking a step closer. “They said they took the others to the "top floor suite". There’s a big operating room up the west tower. It’s directly across a big elevator connected to the rooftop. Ms. Crowne said they designed the room up there for urgent operations in case a patient needs to be flown in.”

“Think they’re there? Not on the rooftop itself?” Jason asks.

“It’ll call too much attention if they use the rooftop right away,” Tim says, sounding calm and logical. “They went through a lot of trouble to keep this under wraps so it’s more likely they’ll save using the rooftop for when they’re ready to escape, and not sooner.”

Jason nods, impressed. He’s always know from their previous written conversations that his soulmate is smart (one of the features that endeared him to Jason), but seeing first hand just how smart he is, it’s a nice experience.

“And you remember the way to that operation suite?” Jason asks.

“Yes,” Tim confirms. “I have... very good memory. It’s straight this way then we can exit to the main hall if it’s clear.” he points to the far end of the service corridor.

“Alright, let’s move then.” Jason says, taking a step beside Tim. “Stick close, unless I tell you to go run or hide. Don’t forget your promise.”

“I won’t forget,” Tim says, with another roll of his eyes. “I just said I have very good memory.”

“Check your sass okay,” Jason warns with no real bite to his words. He taps his newly stolen radio “Oracle, we’re heading for the west tower's top floor. There’s an operating room there, we believe that’s the place we want.”

“Copy, I see it on the building plans,” Bab’s voice says through the Oracle voice scrambler. “When you two get back to the main hall I’ll have eyes on you and will be able to provide visual support.”

“You hacked the CCTV system?” Tim asks, sounding awed.

“Yes,” Oracle answers simply, and Jason sees Tim’s smile widen. “Be advised I’m sending Robin over once she’s free. Batgirl will stay behind for a bit to help evacuate the civilians. I’ll tell her to take another route.”

Jason relaxes a bit at that. He isn’t hiding from the other Bats that he’s still doing the occasional murder when scums deserve it, but the state of the rampage that went on in this corridor is… too much.

“Copy that,” Jason says. “We’ll buzz in for any new developments.” Then he hears Oracle give a quick affirmative and click to switch the girls’ feed again.

“Wow,” Tim breathes beside Jason. “I can’t believe I just talked to the Oracle. And I get to meet Robin.”

“You’re a fan?” asks Jason, feeling an almost teasing smile pull on his face.

“Yeah. I just liked Robin since day one,” Tim replies, looking a bit flushed, and Jason feels his smile drop a little.

Wow what else will his Replacement be better than him at? So far Bruce prefers her over Jason, and now of course his own soulmate prefers Robin over Red Hood. No question there, since Robin is a symbol of hope and Red Hood just showed Tim a world of blood.

“I was about three-ish when the first Robin got the job,” Tim continues, and Jason realizes he was talking about the Robin persona in general, not just Stephanie. “I’ve followed the news for Robin sightings since then. I like the current one too, she gives justice to the name.”

“Yeah, she does, doesn’t she?” Jason finds himself saying, more to himself.

“My favorite has always been the second one though.” Tim says, looking at Jason with that unreadable expression again… and Jason falters in his step he almost trips. “You okay?” Tim asks,

“Uh yeah, just peachy,” Jason says, choosing not to think too much about Tim saying he’s his favorite Robin.

Because it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not now.

Maybe, maybe it would’ve been good news in an alternate universe. In another world, where maybe Jason doesn’t have hands stained with blood. Maybe his life wouldn’t be a tangled mess of danger and anger.

But here and now it is, and he’s made up his mind to cut ties with Tim after this. It’s easier to just remove hope from the picture and deal with reality.

“Go on,” Jason prompts, trying to get that unreadable look off Tim’s face. “Lead the way.”

Tim nods and walks. Jason follows closely behind.

 

---TBC---

Chapter Text

Jason and Tim have been walking in silence for a couple of minutes. In that span of time, Jason has catalogued everything he could about the other without actually talking to him. A few things that stood out are Tim’s clear and focused eyes, the intense bags underneath them, and the silent but sure steps he takes as he leads the way down the corridor.

Jason’s mind keeps forming theories about his soulmate. He’s probably a workaholic or an insomniac (or both) if his eyebags are to be believed. The clarity and focus in his eyes tells Jason that Tim is observant and goal-oriented. And the sureness of his gait informs Jason that Tim is confident when he’s in his element.

This is the person Jason has been writing with for the past year. His most constant source of human communication. The person that’s invested so much in Jason’s well-being; he made up a rule of writing each other daily to ensure Jason’s not dead in a ditch somewhere.

From their first face to face meeting, Jason’s learned a lot of things about Tim. A lot of good things. The worst thing he’s observed so far is that Tim’s a stubborn ass that won’t back down when there are other people in danger and he believes he can be of help.

Jason on the other hand, has displayed a lot of not so good characteristics. He’s pretty sure he’s made a shitty impression… His thoughts gnaw at him until he cannot hold them in anymore.

"So,” Jason begins abruptly, awkwardly, “no comments about the body count back there?"

Because there has to be something right? Tim cannot just be taking everything in stride and being chill with everything. Sure there’s the more pressing matter of getting to the other hostages quickly and maybe he’s prioritizing thinking about that... but surely Tim’s appalled at what he’s witnessed.

Surely he has some choice words to say. It can’t be healthy to suppress so much negativity.

"Uhm, none specially,” Tim answers, sounding neither overly concerned nor flippant. Like he’s in a boardroom meeting and is trying to hide what he really thinks about the subpar proposal he’s been handed, because other contracts from the same partner have made him good profit and he doesn’t want to rock that boat.

“Really?” Jason asks, feeling his eyebrow raise behind his red domino.

Tim spares him a glance. A quick flit of the eyes to Jason’s face before slipping back to look ahead again. He seems to get to the right conclusion that Jason will not let the subject go until he gets a proper answer, so Tim opens his mouth to reply.

“I knew from before that you don't strictly adhere to Batman's methods. I follow the uh, news closely, and there was never a report of Batman having killed any criminals since well, ever,” Tim says, not looking at Jason.

Jason hears himself scoff derisively. He knows first-hand how prestine Batman’s kill count is.

“But from what they say about your work,” Tim continues, “you don’t have the cleanest track record with fatalities. The news about the Joker’s death particularly gained a lot of media coverage and the city was in uproar.”

“That one wasn’t pretty too,” Jason finds himself saying. Mind being pulled back to the rage he felt during his face-off with the clown... and the fallout that happened after, between him and Bruce. “But I guess that’s my most notorious hit.”

“Many people say you did the city a favor,” Tim tells Jason, turning to regard him with sincere eyes. After a second he looks away again. “Not to criticize anybody’s methods, but from what statistics show, the crime rates in the areas where you’ve been frequently sighted has improved a lot compared to when Batman was doing solo work. There were staggering brutalities reported for a while, but never fatalities. And even after the latest Robin came to assist, your own territories are still lower in crime rates... So yeah, I don’t have any special comments on your methods. You have your own reasons I imagine, like how everyone else has their own."

It’s a very diplomatic answer. Containing nothing of what Jason tells himself he wants to hear. He’s angling more for Tim’s opinion about Jason’s violent outburst earlier. Jason bets Tim hates him because of it.

It would be easier to let him go if he hates Jason.

“For a CEO, you sure know a lot about crime stats.” Jason says, trying to steer the conversation away from him now.

"I'm sort of an avid follower of the community," Tim answers offhandedly.

Jason stops in his tracks and gives Tim a very disturbed look.

"You keep tabs on criminal underground activities?" Jason asks, genuinely shocked and scared for him.

Tim stops walking too and looks up at Jason confusedly for a second. Then he bursts out laughing.

(But fuck if the sound of Tim’s laughter doesn’t make Jason feel warm somewhere deep inside.)

"No!" Tim denies mid laugh. "I follow the vigilante community, news and forums and stuff," he clarifies before laughing some more. “What even is the Criminal Underground Community? Do they sit in meetings with agendas on tips and tricks on escaping Arkham? Deep web posts that rant about Bats? Imagine the chaos!” Tim laughs, like he finds the whole premise ridiculously funny.

“I’ll let you in on next month’s meeting gossip,” Jason says with a laugh, finding himself joining in the fun.

Jason thinks he should feel concerned how easy Tim can disarm him like this. When was the last time he honestly laughed and joked around with anyone?

He’ll probably miss it once all this is over.

“Oh, don’t lie,” Tim says with a smile, playfully nudging Jason with his good elbow. “You’re not cool enough to sit with the bad kids.”

Excuse you. I’ll have you know Catwoman treats me to brunch regularly.” It was twice, and it was for a cover when they busted a sex trafficker together.

Tim just snorts at him, unimpressed.

“Catwoman hardly counts as bad,” Tim rolls his eyes again (a habit that Jason is starting to find dangerously adorable)  “She once stole some of my parents’ archeological finds. They weren’t very ethically sourced anyway. The next week, I saw them auctioned online but they didn’t go to the biggest bidder, they went to museums from their home countries,” Tim reasons with a shrug. “And she’s seen working a lot with Batman.”

Oh yeah, they work very closely sometimes,” Jason says with a loaded smirk and laughs at the blush that creeps up Tim’s face. “I bet your parents did not appreciate your crush on Catwoman when she stole their stuff.”

“I do not have a crush on her,” Tim denies. “And my parents didn’t have much to say about it, on account of them being dead and all,” Tim says with a small wince of a smile.

Well, there goes another bad impression on Jason’s part.

“Aw shit, sorry man,” Jason says, knowing whatever apology he gives, it’ll be weak. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay, they were away a lot, and we didn’t get to be very close,” Tim says, waving Jason’s apology off. “They died a few days before I turned eighteen, and after the funeral was done I suddenly found myself a legal adult with a sizeable inheritance and a company filled with employees that needed me to function lest they all become jobless in a city with an unstable economy.”

“That’s when you started raising the company up?” Jason asks, intrigued despite himself.

“It’s not this whole business-genius success story everyone makes it to be,” Tim says, giving Jason a one-shouldered shrug, “Most of the groundwork had already been laid down by my mother, and my father’s worldwide connections helped investors flood in. Afterall they couldn't have afforded a hobby like leisure archaeology without funds and a stable inflow of cash right? People were pretty confident putting their money with Drake Industries. Really, they did all the work. I just picked it up after they died.”

“That’s still pretty amazing,” Jason says, because it is. “I’d consider it a win to last two days before driving a company to ruin.”

“It’s really not that amazing,” Tim insists “and you’d at least last a week I bet.” he jokes but Jason waves him off, refusing to let Tim change the conversation.

Jason wants Tim to know that he’s serious. That he really does think Tim deserves credit for all the work he’s done.

“That’s fucking amazing,” Jason says, “You went the whole nine yards with your company and managed to make it thrive. You get to attend big shot events and everything.”

“Oh god don’t remind me,” Tim complains, sounding tired. “I hate these fancy parties. If I could just write checks to my chosen charities and send them in the mail I will, but Tam says I have to show up so people will think I’m “sociable” and not a “workaholic shut-in with no hobby”, honestly it’s all very tiresome.”

It’s a loaded reply from Tim, filled with information about his personality that Jason’s brain automatically stores away (including, but not limited to: how Tim always redirects conversations when he really doesn’t want to talk about the topic at hand, and that he’s not good at accepting sincere compliments)… but Jason’s mind ostensibly chooses to get caught on a specific detail to comment on.

“Who’s Tam?” Jason blurts. He snaps his mouth closed and tries to play it cool right after.

“Oh, she’s my executive assistant,” Tim says, smiling absently, not giving notice to how Jason is hanging on to his every word. “Did you know she used to work as an intern at Wayne Inc. before she worked with us? Can you believe it? An intern. Such a waste of good management skills.”

Okay so Tam is a great coworker. That’s fine… right? She was an intern at Bruce’s company, but she got the executive assistant role right away when she hopped over to Drake Industries… 

“Wait, did you pirate her away from Wayne Inc?” Jason asks, because any other option of how Tam went from being an intern on one company to executive assistant on the next seems unlikely.

“No, and nobody can prove otherwise.” Tim says with a confident and satisfied smirk.

“Wow you’re a vicious shark,” Jason comments, feeling strangely proud.

“She’s an invaluable asset and we acknowledge her skills better than they ever could,” Tim justifies with a huff. “I just wish she didn’t insist so much on making me attend parties. We only wear suits when facing clients and investors at work, so tuxedos are a bit much for me,” Tim says, frowning down at his worse for wear clothes.

That frown is ridiculous because he looks gorgeous. Once again Jason opens his mouth before thinking the action through.

“You look stunning in them,” Jason says.

At that comment, Tim snaps up his gaze to look at Jason with startled eyes. Like even he cannot believe Jason just said what he said. Like he’s expecting a whole different response (or no response at all) but Jason threw him a curve ball compliment, and now he’s cornered into puzzling out how he should reply back.

They become locked in a weird staring contest, and Jason feels like if he looks away first, he’ll be admitting to something he’s not ready to admit. 

“I, uh, thanks,” Tim stammers, still staring at Jason’s masked face. Like there’s something so fascinating on it.

Jason swallows once to get his voice working. “Don’t mention it.”

They’re saved from an eternity of staring at each other’s faces when their communicators ping with Oracle’s voice again.

“Head’s up, Robin’s coming up on the next corner.”

They snap their gazes away from each other and Jason resists the urge to take a big gulp of air, because there is no reason at all for him to be short of breath, nope, none. He’s cool as a cucumber. He’s not bamboozling himself at all.

A few feet away, Robin emerges from a joining corridor. She looks chipper (and unhurt) Jason notes, which probably means Batgirl and her had a great time bonding and stopping crime together back in the main room. She spots Red Hood and Tim and immediately makes her way to them with a wave and big grin.

Jason doesn’t like that grin for some reason.

He takes a step in front of Tim.

“Hey Red Hood! I see you’ve ditched the ugly helmet, hope you didn’t throw it to break a bad guy’s nose like you did last time,” Robin greets cheerfully. Sharing the anecdote aloud though she clearly sees said helmet hanging off Jason’s belt. “O said you brought a tag-along, and I already saw him, so don’t bother trying to hide him behind your broad shoulders.”

“He’s injured, don’t crowd him,” Jason says warningly. Steph just raises an eyebrow at him behind her domino.

“Did he really hit someone with the helmet and broke their nose?” Tim asks Robin, peeking around from behind Jason, sounding amused.

Robin laughs. “Yep that’s our Red! Full of resourceful engenuity.” She side-steps Jason and walks closer to Tim and offers him a handshake. “Hi, I’m Robin. I was told you’ll be a member of the party for the rest of the evening.”

Tim smiles and accepts the handshake with his good hand. “It’s nice to meet you Robin. I’m a big fan. I hope you don’t mind having a civilian around,” he says, sounding like he’s apologetic, and Jason scoffs in his head.

He knows how unrepentant Tim is for having been able to bully Jason into letting him tag along.

“No biggie,” Robin says as their handshake ends. “They told me you had intel and good intentions, and you’re a big fan apparently, so you’re okay with me.”

“Thanks,” Tim says with a relieved smile.

“Hope this big guy hasn’t traumatized you though. He can be grumpy but he’s nice underneath all that lone wolf posturing.” Robin says, throwing her thumb back at Jason.

His hackles rise and Jason feels the back of his neck start to heat up at the teasing. (He’s really missing his helmet) Usually Jason’s better at weathering Robin’s deridings, but it seems having Tim around makes it easier to feel embarrassed.

“Yes, he’s been very kind,” Tim says with a soft smile and a much softer look directed briefly at Jason over Stephanie’s shoulder. Tim looks back to Robin and continues, “He didn’t knock me out to leave me behind even though I was being annoying. He also helped me with my shoulder.”

Any hope of stopping blood from rushing to Jason’s face is gone. He’s just glad Robin’s back is still turned to him because he knows she’ll tease him over it if she sees.

“Nice sling, homemade chic,” Robin says looking at Tim’s slinged arm.

"Right?" Tim agrees, smiling admiringly at Jason's jacket. "It's very well-improvised."

”I’m glad he found you before anything worse could happen,” Robin says with sincerety in her voice.

“Yeah,” Tim says. He again looks at Jason over Robin’s shoulder, “I’m glad he’s found me too.”

Alright that’s it. Time to stop this line of talk before Jason spontaneously combusts.

“This chat’s been all kinds of nice, but let's not forget that room we need to get to, like ASAP.” Jason says, packing the impatience in his voice and using everything he learned from Batman on extinguishing a blush.

“Red Grumpy Pants is right,” Robin says with a serious tone. “How far are we from the second holding?”

“Not much further,” Tim answers. “The exit’s through here.” He points to the direction he and Jason have been walking towards for the past minutes. “Maybe a few more meters before we reach it.”

“Approximately nine point two,” Oracle supplements in their ears. “ Batgirl’s clearing the main room of the rest of the hostages, and the incapacitated minions in there need to be handed over to authorites so she’s staying back for a while. I checked the cameras outside. The entrances to the operation suite and rooftop elevator are both guarded.”

“Are the guards up there looking freaked?” Robin asks while she walks along with Tim and Red Hood. “BG and I caught one of the main room thugs saying something to their radio. We didn’t catch what he said though.”

“They don’t look very concerned,” Oracle answers “I saw two guards get in the elevators a second ago and they haven’t returned. But other than that, the others are holding their position. No sign of the first two hostages they took out in the hallway.”

“O, do you have eyes inside the operating room?” Jason asks.

“I don’t. There’s a camera in the security system tagged for it, but it’s been tampered with. I tried as soon as you radioed earlier that it was our next destination, but no luck. It’s a hardware issue.”

“They smashed it?” Robin guesses.

“Most likely. I don’t get any errors from other cameras I’ve accessed.”

“Of all the cameras in the hospital, why only break the one in there?” Tim asks, sounding like he’s talking to himself aloud.

“I’m starting to think holding the others for a bigger ransom isn’t their whole plot,” Jason grunts.

“Well, they did say they have “plans” when they took them,” Tim says, then hums in thought. “Actually they said “the boss has plans” for them. I don’t think they know what the plans actually are because they didn’t gloat about them, and they seemed like the gloating type.”

“You remember they said that?” Robin asks Tim who nods.

“He has very good memory,” Jason says, feeling like he needs to vouch for Tim. Robin shoots him a weirded-out look which he ignores.

“Okay so they may have plans for the others that goes beyond cash ransoms,” Oracle says to conclude the conversation. “I want you guys to be extra careful with extraction, if you can sneak in, do it. The less attention on you, the better. We’re holding on to hope they’re still expecting the third hostage delivery and they don’t know you’re coming.”

“Copy that,” Robin says obediently. Jason grunts his own affirmative.

“You need to hide when the action starts,” Red Hood says to Tim.

“I know, I will.” Tim says with an agreeing nod.

Jason wants to examine Tim closely; dissect the words he said for any tiny nuance, make sure he really means them. But there’s no time and they have things to do. So he just has to trust Tim to mean it.

“I think I see the exit,” Robin comments, and Jason looks ahead to where she’s pointing at a metal door.

“That’s it,” Tim confirms. “It connects this service corridor to the main hallway. From there we take a right and the next left would lead to the big OR directly in front of the elevator with access to the rooftop.”

“You tracking us Oracle? Know if the other side of the door’s clear?” Robin asks.

“I am. It’s clear,” Oracle confirms. “The three guards in the hall are posted between the doors of the O.R. and elevator. Looks like they gathered there for easy escape. We’ll need to find a way to know what’s going on inside though, so we can plan how to attack this. Let’s not go directly to the OR entrance.”

“Any alternative door to that room in the floor plans?” Robin asks.

“No, but there’s always the favorite Bat way.” Oracle answers.

“Vents?” Robin asks with a tired sigh.

“Vents,” Oracle confirms.

“Great,” Robin drawls the word in sarcasm.

“The room’s vent system is connected to an air duct behind one of the ceiling panels,” Oracle says. “When you get out the door, go left instead of right. That keeps you away from the enemies’ notice too. I’ll let you know when you’re at the air duct. Climb up and sneak in. Once we have eyes inside, we can figure out how to rescue the hostages without a frontal attack.”

They all agree to the plan. Robin opens the door and takes the lead. Tim follows behind her. Red Hood rounds up the back.

They walk silently and briskly along the hospital’s empty halls, going the opposite way of Tim’s direction of where the OR entrance is. As Oracle advised, they don’t encounter any hostiles.

So far so good.

“Guys stop,” Oracle says and they do. “The air duct’s right above you.

All three of them look up at the ceiling overhead.

“Alright Red Hood,” Robin says with a very happy grin. “Time to make use of your broad shoulders. Give me a boost so I can reach.”

“What? Can’t you just pull the panel down with a grappling hook?” Jason asks irritably.

Robin looks way too happy and it’s flipping his annoyance switch on.

“I can do that, yeah,” Robin says with a patronising nod, “if you wanted me to make a loud noise and alert the guards a few yards away.”

“Ugh, fine,” Jason snaps. He accepts his fate and moves to the center of the paneling before crouching down. “Don’t kick my head or I’ll shoot you,” he warns Robin.

“Don’t worry I won’t mess up your chiseled face,” Robin says, then she swiftly settles on Jason’s shoulders and then gives him two pats. “Now be a good step-ladder and up we go!”

Jason rolls his eyes even though no one can see. With a grunt, he stands up, placing hands on Robin’s shins to balance them. “Hurry up Girl Wonder, I can’t keep carrying you for long.”

“You’re such a wuss,” Robin says, reaching up to work on the panel. “Batgirl once carried me for three blocks when I sprained my ankle. She didn’t complain nearly as much as you.”

“Well maybe you haven’t had as much waffles that day as you did now,” Jason snaps at her, “Gotta watch that or Batgirl will notice.” He earns a boot digging to his ribs. “Ow!”

“Hold still!” Robin hisses at him, “And be quiet down there. What part of “sneak” don’t you get?”

Jason swallows the retort he wants to shout at Robin and just scoffs.

“You okay?” Tim asks.

Jason looks at Tim’s concerned face and feels his own mouth forming a reassuring smile on reflex.

“Yeah, just peachy.”

Robin continues to work a few more seconds before managing to slide the panel to the side and open the exposed air duct.

“Okay good news: I’ve opened the air duct,” she announces, “bad news: I don’t think Red Hood’s giant ass can fit inside.”

“Hey! My ass is fine!” Jason complains, hitching his stance to jostle Robin in protest, who just grabs hold on to his hair to steady herself. Jason stops moving because he doesn’t want to be scalped.

“That’s for the waffle comment!” Steph snaps vindictively and blows a raspberry at him.

Alright, Robin can go in the vents on her own, Red Hood can stay behind on standby and for back-up. Our resident civilian stays put.” Oracle says in their comms, sounding exasperated but used to the bickering. “Robin you’ll report what’s happening in the room. Set up a cam if you find a chance so I can have visual too.”

“Roger,” Robin says and climbs up from Jason’s shoulders into the air vent.

Jason looks up as Robin crawls in. It does look like a tight fit. He guesses this vent isn’t the same as the ones connected to the other elevator which he used earlier.

“See you boys,” Robin says to him and Tim. “Play nice.” She gives a smile and a thumbs up before disappearing into the dark tunnel.

“How long do you think before she gets to the room?” Tim asks, hand still raised from the small wave he gave Robin.

“Not long, unless she gets stuck in there,” Jason answers.

“I can hear you,” Robin’s voice snaps through the radio.

“Good,” Jason snaps back. “Wouldn’t want to have to list down my insults to give to you later.”

“Nice comeback Red,” Robin says sarcastically. “It really flows off the tongue.”

“Robin you’re almost to the room,” Oracle says, “I advise you two to stop bickering for now, we don’t know if there are guards inside the room, they might hear Robin’s voice carry. I need a truce from you two for now, clear?”

Red Hood and Robin both agree reluctantly.

Jason hears Tim give a breathy soft laugh beside him.

“This may be an awful thing to say with innocent people in danger and all that,” Tim begins quietly, “but this is a pretty fun night.” He smiles at Jason. “Are your missions always like this?”

For a moment Jason loses himself in Tim’s smile and it takes a second for the question to register in his mind. When it does, Jason feels his jaw clenching.

It is a pretty fun night, even if it did begin on a low note and then descended catastrophically. 

But after Jason got Tim, it’s been a pretty wonderful time… He’s glad he has at least the memory of Tim’s voice, face, and smile to turn to once he cuts off their ties after tonight.

“I don’t often get drafted in these types of missions,” Jason answers with a shrug. “I wouldn’t know how it usually goes.”

“Oh,” Tim says ponderingly. “Well, I feel like Robin and Oracle both like working with you. Maybe you guys can work more in the future.”

“He’s right. You have an open invitation Hood,” Oracle says “and it’s never going to close from my end.”

Jason feels touched.

He knows Batman has probably already judged Jason as unworthy of being part of his team (his family) since that fateful night with the dead clown, and so he’s kept his distance. But Oracle has never shut him out. She’s always been there to assist in Jason’s cases and she reaches out every now and then to include Jason in her own cases too.

Jason thought the connection left between them is purely professional at first, but now Jason feels (hopes) that he can still be friends with Babs like he used to. And really, Robin and Batgirl aren’t so bad as well.

“Thanks O, I’ll keep it in mind,” Jason says. He looks beside him and sees Tim give him a small smile. He stays quiet, but his expression says he’s happy for Jason.

There goes another squeeze to his heart.

“I’m in position,” Robin subvocalizes into their channel, reminding Jason that they’re in the middle of a freaking mission. “Four guards by the door, no sign of the hostages yet. Limited visual from here.”

“Robin can you deploy the buzzcam?” Oracle asks. “It has a tight remote control range but it’s enough for the size of the room.”

“New Bat toy?” Jason asks.

“One of mine,” Oracle answers. “It’s a flying camera smaller than a thumbnail with audio receivers. Good for recon but has limited RC range for now. Stop by sometime, I can spare you one.”

“Buzzcam deployed,” Robin reports. “It’s too tight here to set up my own monitor O. I’m flying her blind, tell me when and where to steer.”

“I got you,” Oracle says, “I see the guards by the door you mentioned. They’re armed with the standard guns like the others. Let’s see further in, keep this height, turn left, and keep flying until I say.”

Jason and Tim listen intently on Oracle’s report. Jason keeps one eye on the hallway just in case any thugs loiter their way.

“There are other people inside. Two more guards aside the four by the door,” Oracle says, “I see two other people, two females, they’re in civilian clothing, but they don’t exactly scream hostage.” 

“Accomplices?” Tim asks. “What do they look like?”

Jason looks at him and sees a calculating look on his face. Like Tim’s going over the guest list in his head and trying to think up who can possibly be in cahoots with the bad guys.

“Smartly dressed, average height and build, a bottle blonde in a white suit and a brunette in red dress and heels. They move like they’re very comfy there,” Oracle says. “I still can’t see the two hostages… Wait, they’re talking now. We need to fly lower to hear. Robin turn right forty degrees to aim for the shadows, then descend one point three meters.”

“Copy,” Robin says. A moment later they hear the conversation inside.

“-much longer?” a female voice whined, “we’ve been here for ages!”

“That’s Ms. Brunette,” Oracle supplies for them. “Does she sound familiar?”

Jason looks to TIm, who the question is obviously aimed at, since neither Jason nor Stephanie has spent hours being tied up with the other hostages.

“No,” TIm says, with a frown. “Doesn’t ring any bells, sorry.”

He looks genuinely disappointed with himself that Jason couldn’t stop giving him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Don’t sweat it.”

Jason gets a startled look and then a small smile in return.

“Just a few more minutes, Doll,” another female voice sounds, most probably the other woman, the blonde one. “We need to wait for our ride to get here, I sent some boys to hail it over a minute ago.”

Jason gives a brief look at Tim, who somehow not only correctly guesses he is being looked at despite Jason’s eyes being behind a domino mask, but also correctly guesses the silent question of ‘does the new voice sound familiar?’.

Tim shakes his head no, not quite able to stop another disappointed frown forming on his face. Jason gives his good shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

“Great, they’re waiting for their escape vehicle,” Jason mutters. “We should move now.”

“Not until we know where the others are,” Oracle counters.

“What else can you see in there O?” Robin asks.

They couldn’t have hidden the other hostages in thin air, they must be in the room somewhere.

“Not much, they dimmed the lights. It all looks very standard for an operating room,” Oracle says. “Robin, activate the panoramic lens.”

“Done,” Robin says a moment later.

“Okay I’m seeing six guards, plus the two women. The rest of the room just looks filled with medical equipment,” Oracle reports, sounding like she’s keeping her calm in spite of them not making any progress on the rescue mission so far. Jason often envies how Barbara manages to keep her head on and assess situations thoroughly no matter the pressure. “Robin can you do a slow left to right sweep until we cover 360 degrees?”

“Okay,” Robin responds. “Tell me if it’s too fast.”

“Pace is good,” Oracle says, then silence rings for a few seconds as she probably focuses on watching her monitor.

Jason busies himself with thinking about sabotaging the elevator. That would probably buy them some time if they needed it. Problem is, he doesn’t quite feel right about going off alone to set up bombs and leaving Tim on his own.

Jason knows Tim will probably stay put if he asked, since he promised to do what Red Hood says in regards to this mission… but it’s Jason himself that feels uneasy thinking about not having eyes on Tim in this situation.

What a very ironic turn of events. Not an hour ago, he would’ve jumped at any chance to ditch Tim, and now he can’t fathom the thought of it, and that’s just idiotic...

He’s going to have to deal with the separation sooner or later anyway.

“Stop. Go back, slower.” Oracle’s voice snaps Jason out of his dilemma. Robin gives an affirmative and presumably does as told. “Hold,” Babs says, “I think I see something by the cabinets…”

“What is it?” Tim asks.

“Oh my god,” Oracle breathes, and Jason tenses alongside TIm at the tone of her voice.

“Did you find them? Are they okay?” Robin asks, near hissing her questions. Jason feels part of him sync with her worry. She too had been taken in by Bruce when no one else had. Of course they’re worried for him.

“I see them,” Oracle says, “They’re… inside big metal boxes. I thought they were medical equipment or fridges at first. But it has a window, and what looks like a control panel on the front, and I see Amelia Crowne and Bruce Wayne each inside one.”

“What the hell?” Jason hears himself ask. The picture Babs’ words are painting sounds a lot like a half open coffin.

“They’re alive,” Oracle reports, and a knot in Jason chest loosens. “They’re unconscious, but I recognize the display on the front panel of the... boxes, to be vitals. They look okay, but their heartbeats and other vital signs are slowed down by… a lot.”

“Stasis,” Tim whispers.

“That confirms this is no simple kidnap for ransom Op,” Jason mutters. “What’s our play? We can probably bomb the elevator or go in now.”

“Take out the elevator first,” Oracle says, “The boxes are big and there’s no way they’re going to be able to use the stairs and take them. We cut off their escape first, then we go in from the inside.”

“I’ll handle the elevator,” Jason offers, even though it pains him. “You stay here,” he tells Tim, who gives him another unreadable look before nodding. Jason turns to go.

“No wait,” Oracle says, and Jason stops. “Robin can set charges without being seen. The vent is connected to that elevator’s shaft. I don’t think we should risk either of you being seen before we spring on them. They could use the hostages against us and escape easier if they know you’re there. We’re counting on surprise here.”

“Sure,” Jason readily agrees, taking back the few steps he took away from Tim earlier.

“I’ll park the cam on a wall,” Robin says, readying to crawl again. “My head’s got more cobweb than hair in it, I really hate vents.” she complains and Jason feels a smile forming on his face.

At this point, smiling is a reflex every time his Replacement gets inconvenienced.

“How many charges do you have left Girl Blunder?” Jason asks, he could give her some if needed.

“Five, Zombie Boy,” she answers.

Beside Jason, Tim mouths “Zombie Boy?” at him with a raised brow and Jason just shrugs to brush it off.

“She’s not very creative,” Jason whispers.

“I can STILL hear you,” Robin drawls.

“Three charges should be enough to dislodge the cables,” Oracle speaks up. “Robin, go back to the second junction then take a left. Enter the third right and it’s straight through to the elevator shaft. Report back when you’ve planted the charges.”

“Understood.”

“Hood, how much fire power do you have?” Oracle asks.

“Six charges and five, no, four smoke bombs,” Jason answers, belatedly remembering he used one of his smoke bombs when he killed Tim’s escorts earlier.

“Good. I’ll guide you to the opposite side of the O.R. Plant two charges on the wall and blow it up to make a hole when I give the signal,” Oracle says 

“I’m taking the civilian with me,” Jason interjects. “He can camp out on the other side of the smoking wall later.”

“Acceptable. We need to make sure no one sees him, and the other side is clear of guards. It’s also safer if he isn’t far from reach at this point anyway,” Oracle replies. “Once the wall’s blown, it’ll give you an entrance point away from the door guards, and will serve as a distraction for Robin to get down from the vents unseen later. Throw in a smoke bomb for more confusion. You two take down the armed guards and the two ladies, then secure the hostages.”

“Copy that,” Jason says with a smile. Robin gives her own affirmative.

He really likes working with Babs. She’s not afraid to give orders, but she’s open to people’s suggestions. He should take notes to give to Batman.

Oracle gives the quick directions to Jason and Tim’s destination and they set off.

As they walk, Jason can’t help but notice the furrow on Tim’s forehead, like the other guy’s deep in thought, or worried.

“We’ll get them back,” Jason says, trying to give another reassuring gesture. “We’ll keep you safe too.” 

Tim looks at him and it feels like he forcefully smoothens his expression to a bland smile. Jason doesn’t like it.

“Yeah,” he says. “Sorry, I was just thinking. Why did they put them in Stasis Boxes? Kind of got hung up on it.”

“You can’t try to make sense of every little thing a scumbag does,” Jason advises. “You’d go crazy if you do.”

“Won’t it be easier to stop them if you know how they think?”

“Sometimes yeah,” Jason agrees, “But sometimes you can’t take too much time to dive into their thinking because a lot can happen in a second and you try and make each one count.”

“Wow Red that was deep,” Robin says awed, from their comms.

“Shut up blondie, just do your job!” Jason snaps, feeling annoyed that Robin’s teasings got him again. He forgot for a moment that they are all wearing active comms and he isn’t talking to his soulmate alone.

“For your information, I just finished placing all three charges ...now.” Robin says. “Felt like I made every moment count on that too. You should be proud," she teases again.

“Good job Robin,” Oracle chimes in before Jason and Stephanie could descend into another bickering match. “Set it on remote trigger and go back to the O.R. Standby until Hood’s done with his charges. I’ll give the signal after that, and you both trigger the bombs. Then you jump in and whale on them.”

“Roger that,” Robin says, and Jason can almost see the smirk she has on at getting the last word with Jason.

A breath of a laugh from besides him distracts Jason from his annoyance. He turns and sees Tim stifling more laughter. At Jason’s accusatory look, he mouths “sorry” and throws a sheepish smile at him.

Jason suddenly finds it hard to continue to be mad.

They arrive at their designated wall. Jason chooses a corner to deck in bombs. He gets out his smoke bombs at ready as well. 

"My smoke bombs are harsh on the lungs and eyes," Jason says to Tim. He detaches part of his helmet's lower piece that serves as air filter, he'll need it soon. "They don't do permanent damage, but they're very useful for short term mayhem. Stay back on this side of the wall and keep hiding until the commotion is over."

Tim nods in agreement. He looks serious enough. Jason takes it. 

"Do you have a gas mask Robin?" Jason asks into the comms. "We're in position with the smoke bombs ready."

"Never leave the cave without it," Robin answers.

"You live in a cave?" Tim says in wonder. 

"Where else will Bats live?" Robin says back with a huffing laugh.

"But you're a bird?" Tim says with a slight smile.

"I'm adopted," Robin reasons.

"Ah yes makes sense," Tim says with a nod. "My bad."

"I like you Normie," Robin says, amused. Then her tone changes back to mission-ready. "I'm in position now too and ready for the signal Oracle."

"Good. On my signal," Oracle begins, "Three, two, one. Go."

Jason presses his trigger and throws an arm over Tim to brace for the shock wave of his bombs. He also hears the distant explosion from the charges Robin detonated at the rooftop access elevator too.

Giving one last squeezing-push to Tim against the wall with an emphasis growl on his "stay here" order, Red Hood takes off.

Jason tamps down the desire to double back and make sure Tim’s actually going to stay put, to stay safe. He badly wants to, but there’s no time and they have things to do. So really, there’s no choice but to trust Tim.

After this, he’ll say goodbye.

But for now, Jason has a mission to complete.

---TBC---

Chapter Text

From the stolen radio’s earpiece, Jason hears the commotion inside the operating room right after the explosions rumble down.

"What was that?"

"Fuck! Earthquake??"

“Earthquakes don’t come with explosions!”

"Dolly are you okay? Secure the boxes!"

As he runs, Red Hood fits the lower half of his helmet over his nose and jaw and feels it snap into place. With his air filter equipped, he tosses the smoke bombs inside the fresh hole in the wall and hangs back a bit as they explode and hiss out smoke.

A second later once his entrance has been covered, he dives inside the room.

Jason hears coughing and panicked shouts right before the guards fire a couple of gunshots blindly in the direction of the wall that exploded. He dodges low and keeps his moves silent and stealthy to keep under the scumbags’ radar.

His domino’s lenses help in taking in the scenario despite the haze. The panicking guards are brandishing their guns, squinting against the smoke and turning every which way, looking for something to shoot at, trying and failing to conceal their fear... It’s always a joy seeing thugs act like headless chickens.

Red Hood sees a flash of black and yellow and then hears a couple of bodies thud to the floor by the front entrance.

“I make four guards,” Robin whispers after taking down two thugs. “Locked the front door too.”

“We’re under attack!” one of the remaining guards shouts.

“No shit!” another snaps.

“Before you imbeciles shoot blindly again, get over here and put your backs to each other so we don’t deal with stray bullets!” a female voice shouts over the confusion. 

The remaining guards cluster around the middle of the room, still coughing and swiping at their eyes. It’s a good strategy by the shady lady, and this cements Jason’s theory that the fancy hags are indeed the brains of this operation.

The evil ladies stand out due to their bright clothes. Jason watches silently as the two get surrounded by the semi-circle of guards. They don’t look armed from what Jason observes.

The brunette in the red dress who shouted the latest order looks very vexed. The other woman beside her has her back to the room but her body language doesn’t convey any tense lines or stress.

The blonde woman in the white suit is busily tapping at what must be the metal boxes Babs mentioned earlier. It’s surreal seeing it in person. There’s a dim blue light coming from within illuminating Bruce’s unconscious face that can be seen in the standing box’s glass window.

“They’re still under,” the blonde says, “we’re good.”

“With the amount of drugs you pumped into them I sure hope so,” the brunette says snidely.

“Don’t pout Dolly. I told you I needed you sober tonight.”

The brunette, Dolly, huffs and crosses her arms, acting annoyed.

Which is an intriguing exchange from the villains, but not something Jason can spare time to think about right now.

Red Hood chooses a target at the far end of the clustered guards. He fires his silencer-equipped gun twice in a row. One bullet nails the scum in the arm, making him drop his gun, the other hits his left leg. He goes down hard and bleeding.

“Three guards left,” he says quietly into his comm. “Better take cover now Robin, they’re going to get trigger happy.”

And as if they were waiting for Jason’s cue, the guards look down at their bleeding teammate and panic.

“They’re picking us off!” one of them shouts, then all three of them shoot around the smoke-filled room blindly.

Jason dives behind a medical cabinet (an actual medical cabinet, not the creepy stasis boxes ones) and crouches low. From his periphery he sees Robin suspended on the shadowy part of ceiling using her grappling hook as anchor with her bullet-resistant cape wrapped around her.

“I’m getting tired of being shot at,” Robin complains into the comms over the gunshots.

“Suck it up. They’re going to have to reload sometime.” And that’s the window Jason’s aiming for, “When I say go, we attack.”

“Okay,” Robin agrees, and Red Hood appreciates her easy cooperation. “I go right, you go left.”

“What about the middle one?”

“Whoever takes down their target first gets the last one?” Robin says with a playful tone.

“Deal,” Jason says with a smirk.

With his internal countdown for bullet capacity of the thugs’ gun model nearing zero, Jason readies his taser gun in hand. He counts the last couple of seconds aloud.

“Two, one, go!

Jason timed it perfectly. The three guns all falter at the same time as their bullets run out. Before the guards get a chance to switch guns or reload, Red Hood and Robin are already running in for their attacks.

Once he’s within range, Jason fires the taser gun and shocks the thug on the left. He goes down almost simultaneously as the thug on the right that Robin thunked on the head with a blunt batarang.

The last guard standing looks freaked out. His wide eyes going from Red Hood to Robin and mouth stammering unintelligible words. Poor guy looks like he’s about to piss himself.

He gets put out of his misery when Red Hood swipe kicks at his legs and Robin nerve pinches him on the floor to knock him out.

“Not too shabby,” Jason says, acknowledging Robin’s skills. 

The smoke has almost cleared up and all armed guards are now down. Robin removes her small air filter and grins at Jason.

“Such high praise,” Robin replies. “Your leg sweep could’ve been cleaner though.”

Red Hood snorts despite himself.

He and Robin turn to regard the women standing between them and the metal boxes housing the hostages.

“Time to step aside ladies,” Robin says, twirling another batarang warningly. “Elevator’s shut down, so even if you manage to slip by us, you won’t be able to take those people with you. We’re pretty sure we’ll catch you even if you take the stairs.”

“To be frank surrender’s your only option,” Red Hood adds, eager to wrap this up.

The sooner this mission’s over, the sooner they can send Tim home. The sooner he’ll be safe. 

And then Jason can write to him, behind the protected guise of anonymity, of how they should stop communicating. Of how they aren’t the right fit for each other. Of how they should just live separate lives again and forget they even have soulmates...

So yeah, Jason can’t fucking wait until this mission is over.

The bottle blonde gives them a derisive look, and Dolly actually snorts a laugh at them. Jason readies his gun.

“What do we do Sally?” Dolly says in a high voice full of fake worry. “These scary kids wants us to surrender.”

“This night’s not going as I expected,” the woman in white, Sally, replies sounding a tad inconvenienced. She raises her eyebrow at Robin and Red Hood. “I’m assuming you two are the reason why my third target isn’t here yet?”

Something inside him snaps, and Jason feels his pulse race upon realizing that the woman meant Tim as their third target. No chance in hell he’s going to let anyone try and hurt his soulmate again.

Red starts to edge around his vision.

Jason follows his instincts to swiftly raise his gun and shoot at the woman who spoke, not even bothering to aim somewhere non-fatal.

“Red Hood no!” Robin shouts, alarmed... Which makes her the only one in the room who is.

The two ladies remain standing, unharmed and unperturbed. Jason scowls. Robin stares.

Dolly smirks at them, looking pleased. Sally doesn’t even bother blinking, much less flinching. 

The bullet never reached her. Which is impossible given how good a marksman Jason is and how close he is to his target.

Jason grits his teeth and fires three more rounds in rapid succession.

All three bullets never make contact.

In fact they all stop, as if hitting an invisible wall inches away from the blonde lady’s head. They hover in empty space for a second and then fall to the floor, clattering uselessly.

“What the fuck are you?” Jason growls.

“What a rude question,” Sally says in distaste. “I’m just a traveler, visiting this god-awful city to pick up some gems for my collection.”

“You mean kidnapping rich people?” Robin snaps, taking a defensive stance with one hand hovering over her utility belt ready to pull out weapons at any moment.

She seems okay with not calling out Jason on targeting another person’s head with his gun… for now at least.

“I’m liberating them,” the crazy lady responds. “They’re worth more than anyone else in this hell hole. They have talents that made them excel. Thriving despite this cesspit of an environment.”

“They won the lottery by being born into rich families. They’re not special,” Jason retorts, and he feels justified saying it too.

Just because someone’s rich doesn’t make them more important. All people bleed the same.

Part of Jason’s brain is trying to work out a plan in the off chance that these freaky women can’t be overcome. If their attacks can’t land on them, is there a way to get the hostages away from the villains instead?

Fuck, those boxes look sturdy and heavy.

“Oh but they’re different. They’re clean. Stayed on top of their game without cheats,” Sally continues talking calmly.

She smiles and turns her back to them, (which annoys Jason because that’s rude) walking over one of the boxes; the one housing the hospital’s owner. “Amelia Crowne’s made a name for herself in the medical field. She went to nursing school despite her family’s outrage and then she funded medical missions and free clinics. This hospital’s her greatest achievement yet.”

“She’s pretty too,” Dolly remarks. “She’ll make a nice display back home.”

Sally nods once as if in agreement. Then she turns and smiles at the box Bruce is in.

“And of course, everybody knows this city’s infamous Bruce Wayne,” Sally says. “Your disgusting tabloids often make him sound less than, but he’s the top charitable humanitarian socialite around. I think he’s just not appreciated here. With me he’ll shine.”

Hearing them talk confirms that this is definitely not a kidnap for ransom operation.

“Stall them as much as you can,” Oracle says into their comms. “GCPD’s on the way for backup.”

Jason scowls. Being a solo-worker for years almost makes his pride take a hit at needing backup. But that’s just stupidity talking so he tamps it down.

Beside him, Stephanie shifts her stance minutely, getting ready to fulfill one of the most crucial roles in Robin’s job description: mouth off.

“You guys are a bunch of liars!” Robin shouts “You told the police you wanted cash for the hostages, now you’re telling us you plan on taking them away?”

“Making them think we’re only after money makes them back off while we got the targets nice and ready,” Dolly says with a happy grin. “The others below aren’t really interesting, you guys can keep ‘em.”

“What even do you want with these people?” Robin asks loudly. “They won’t jump at the chance to work with their abductors!”

“For now we’re just collecting them,” Sally answers. “Keeping them asleep and in mint condition. Maybe we’ll wake them up someday, maybe we won’t. Right now we just need to complete the collection.”

“We have a list of names, locations, and everything,” Dolly chimes in. “Gotham’s our first stop.”

“What? You have a multi-city tour planned?” Robin says mockingly. “Going to cross out each state in the East Coast?”

“Oh, it’s a world-wide project honey!” Dolly beams. “Imagine, the world’s best and brightest collected into one place under one owner.”

“Why are you doing this?” Robin asks incredulously. “You gain nothing if you’re just picking them up and putting them on shelves.”

“What reason does anyone need for having a hobby?” Dolly counters, sounding like she fully believes it justifies everything.

“Shame, I was hoping to complete my three-piece set from Gotham tonight. I’m still missing the young and competitive CEO. It’s going to be a pain to have to come back and pick him up another time...” Sally says, irking Jason. “But I believe our ride’s almost here.”

“You’re not getting out of this room!” Robin shouts, brandishing a metal baton she materialized from somewhere.

With her other hand, Robin throws ninja stars at the villains, but again they stop abruptly before hitting their targets to hover in midair… and then they explode and hiss out some kind of gas inches from the crazy ladies’ faces.

The explosion is enough to push the women back, earning them a few scratches. They inhaled a lot of gas too and that makes them falter.

Jason takes advantage of their rattled state and fires his gun. This time he gets a reaction from the wenches.

Sally jumps sideways to push her accomplice out of the way. She gets nipped on the side of her torso by a couple of Jason’s bullets. She bleeds but otherwise gives no indication that she’s hurt, not even a yelp of pain.

“A lungful of knockout gas with a couple of bullet hits and barely a stumble,” Robin says. “Okay now I’m convinced they’re metas.”

“Really? The bullet-stopping earlier didn’t convince you?” Red Hood asks dryly. “Batman’s gonna be pissed outsider metas came to the city. Kinda makes you wish he’s available huh?”

“Batman’s a punk ass bitch,” Robin says without hesitation and throws a sharp batarang. 

Sally raises an arm to shield her and Dolly, who is looking the worse of the two after the knockout gas episode. The batarang lodges itself into Sally’s forearm.

She doesn’t so much as flinch.

“Doll you need clean air,” Sally says softly to her loudly gasping friend, ignoring Red Hood and Robin completely.

“Think she’ll go down if you shoot anywhere fatal?” Robin asks Red Hood.

Jason does not get a chance to fathom if she’s serious in her suggestion, because the next second the roof falls on them.

When the dust settles, Jason sees the cloudy night sky of Gotham above.

For a frantic second, Jason worries the whole building’s roof collapsed, and that can’t happen because Tim is somewhere in the fucking building (and Jason cannot face tomorrow knowing he agreed to let TIm stay in a place where he eventually gets literally crushed.) But as he looks around wildly, Jason sees the room’s walls are still standing and that most part of the ceiling’s still intact.

Good. Tim should still be safe outside.

“Robin? Red Hood?” Oracle’s voice sounds with concern over the comms. “You went down with some rubble, are you okay? Respond.”

“They blew up the roof above us,” Jason reports. He hears a groan from his right and sees Robin sprawled on the floor. Jason immediately goes to assess the damage.

“Robin’s knocked out,” Jason says, gently propping the younger vigilante against the bigger rubble that must’ve taken her down and caused her to hit her head. It’s sporting a pretty impressive bump, but she’s breathing steady so Red Hood forces calm into his bones.

“Only one got hit? Another disappointing note to this evening,” drawls Sally.

Jason snaps his gaze to look at the meta. She’s standing with her lady friend right under the middle of the hole in the roof. The two stasis boxes are still behind them.

Dolly has a hand raised, palm up facing the now visible sky. Her scowl is so intense it looks like she’s ready to tear someone up. She’s no longer gasping from the knockout gas and she looks pissed.

Also she’s apparently telekinetic, which would explain why Jason’s bullets did not work earlier.

Meanwhile Sally looks unbothered by all the blood she’s shed. She nonchalantly removes the batarang buried in her arm and opens her hand to let it drop on the rubble-filled floor.

When she looks back up, her eyes have a killer sharp edge to them.

“I don’t think you should call in more people here O,” Jason says, slowly standing up and taking a defensive position in front of Robin. “Unless it’s Wonder Woman, then by all means, go ahead and call Wonder Woman.”

“Most of the League’s off world,” Oracle replies with a tight tone. “Those who aren’t all seem to be engaged somewhere else.”

“Don’t bother trying to call in help,” Sally says. “We told you we’re planning a world-wide project.”

“Did you really think we won’t have plans to make sure the other “heroes” aren’t busy tonight?” Dolly snaps.

“What did you do? Sent out a mass email telling the world’s villains to cause mayhem on a scheduled date and time?” Red Hood mouths off, falling back to old habits he had when he was still wearing the R on his own chest.

“Essentially that,” Sally answers, making Jason blink.

“Holy shit, so there is a criminal underground community,” Jason whispers to himself.

“I’m fed up with this place Sal,” Dolly says irritably. “I’m seriously itching for a good bottle of champagne right now.”

“Don’t worry Doll, we’ll get you drunk at home later, you can even have the good morphine after,” Sally answers sweetly. “We just need to finish up here first.” She then smiles cruelly at Red Hood and the unconscious Robin.

Jason doesn’t like where this is going.

“Time to kill the spares!” Dolly announces gleefully, waving her arms and lifting up a big chunk of broken concrete off the ground.

“Ah shit,” Jason says. He barely manages to heave Robin in a fireman’s carry before dodging away from the giant slab of broken roof the crazy telekinetic lady hurls at them.

The abrupt rocky movements caused by getting hauled around can’t be good for the unconscious Robin’s head, but there’s no other option right now to keep both of them uncrushed so Jason takes it.

“You need to retreat,” comes a whispered voice in Jason’s ear. “They’ll kill you.”

From the comms, Tim’s voice sounds worried. Jason grits his teeth to keep from shouting back that Tim needs to get out of here right away, now that they know he’s a target. He bites his tongue because the last thing Jason wants is to shine attention to the fact that Tim’s closer than the crazy chicks think.

Jason jumps away from another big slab thrown their way. He lands less gracefully than he wants to, but Robin’s head doesn’t suffer additional hits so it’s an acceptable compromise, he guesses.

“Try to tag the boxes with a tracker,” Oracle says. “We can always plan another rescue later.”

“Fuck it,” Jason says, and throws a couple of his own exploding throwing stars at the enemies.

They stop much farther than Robin’s did and then they fly double the speed back towards Red Hood.

Jason curses again and dodges to the side. The throwing stars explode, and the shockwave pushes him to stumble before righting himself and putting more distance between them and the evil metas.

“That won’t work a second time kid,” Dolly mocks. “Be good and stand still so I can end you!”

“Fat chance lady!” Red Hood shouts, leaping up on the next block of concrete thrown his way.

It’s a hard maneuver to twist in midair and drop a couple of the smaller trackers he has on the stasis boxes with Robin being thrown over his shoulder, but Jason manages to do it discreetly.

He would’ve been proud, if not for the fact that he saw his small devices spark then bounce away before it gets the chance to stick on.

“I can’t tag them,” Jason quietly snarls into his comm. “I think they have an electromagnetic field around the boxes, they fried my bugs.”

“Forget the tracker then,” Babs says with urgency in her voice. “I’m sending Batgirl up to escort our civilian away, I don’t want him going anywhere alone. Hood, your priority one is now getting out of there.”

It pains Red Hood to concede, but it won’t do to have Robin and himself killed (again) tonight. He throws a look at Bruce’s sleeping face and makes a silent promise that he’ll do whatever it takes to get them back.

But for now he has to escape.

Jason doesn’t dare consider using the same hole he came in from to get out, lest these harpies  give chase and they see Tim on the other side. That option is out of the question, at least until he receives Babs’ report that Tim and Batgirl are clear.

He needs to keep their attention away from the other side of that wall.

Red Hood raises his gaze and decides that the new skylight will have to do as their escape route. He dodges another concrete block thrown their way and uses the momentum to fish out his grappling hook and fire.

Jason feels it snag securely to one of the structures on the rooftop. He flicks the switch and feels the pulley mechanism zip him and his unconscious load upwards.

The relief is short-lived when he feels a force unrelated to Robin’s weight pull down at him.

“Dolly, stop playing with garbage,” Sally says with a mild scolding tone.

Jason looks down. He’s halfway to the roof, but the ascent is stopped and now him and Robin are suspended in the air with the invisible force tugging down at his whole body and his grip on the straining grappling hook trying to pull them up.

Okay not good.

“Aw but it’s so fun!” Dolly replies. “I promise to clean up after and everything! I’m even wearing red so there’s minimal stain worries Sal.”

“If that is a dig about my eggshell suit, then you get one less glass of champagne tonight,” Sally warns.

“Shit,” Jason breathes out and makes the choice to quickly tie Robin to the grappling gun and let her zip up over the roof’s hole on her own, away from sight.

He hopes she doesn’t hit her head upon landing just so she doesn't nag later.

Red Hood gets dragged down with the absence of his grappling hook trying to pull him up. He tries to brace before he crashes down hard.

“Fuck,” Jason wheezes after getting the wind knocked out of him on the floor. His vision blurs for a bit and it feels like his back will be one big bruise in the morning.

(If he makes it to the morning.)

“Aw, no fair! He sent the other spare out,” Dolly pouts.

“That’s what you get for taking too long,” Sally says.

“Ugh! Whatever!” Dolly fumes, and the click clacking of her not-so-sensible heels sounds out as she approaches Jason. “I’ll just play with this guy then.”

Jason feels an external force raise him up to a kneeling position. His tries to move his arms but they won’t budge from his sides. Jason strains as hard as he can but can’t make his limbs follow his own commands.

Looks like Dolly is done with trying to crush him with concrete and has now opted for a more direct approach.

“Be quick, our ride will be here in five minutes,” says the scum in the bloodstained eggshell suit.

“Aw, but I wanted to make him scream for a bit first before he dies,” Dolly says with a pout.

Jason never expected to live long the second time around to be honest. But he at least thought he'd go down fighting... Right now he can't even get his own body to move, much less fight.

He's hit with flashbacks of a dark place.

The feeling of being tied up, unable to move, unable to fight back. Of being beaten up half to death with a crowbar and thinking of all the failures he’s done while he waits for either the blood loss or the ticking bomb to kill him first.

Jason feels bile bubbling up his throat, and he clamps his mouth shut and forces it down.

“O, I think you’ll have to plan the rescue without me,” Jason subvocalizes into his comm while glaring at the lady in red that’s approaching him. 

Jason hears twin gasps from Barbara and Tim and it takes everything in him not to close his eyes in anguish. He lets the pain twist his chest but Jason keeps his eyes open. He doesn’t let his gaze drift away until the telekinetic villain is standing in front of him.

Jason swore he’d stare death in the eye when they meet again afterall.

“We’re on a schedule Doll,” the fake blonde reminds her friend.

Jason stares coldly back at the Red Lady. Determined not to give her the satisfaction of seeing him afraid. He’s stared down worse things.

“Fine,” Dolly snaps and hovers her hand over Jason’s prone form. “I’ll just quickly snap his neck then.”

A million regrets assault Jason’s mind, but he keeps himself from drowning in them by thinking of Tim. Of how he at least got to meet him before going, and how he’s managed to at least keep Tim away from these two crazy collectors.

All things considered, Jason feels like he’s done so much better this time around.

“Come at me, bitch.” 

Dolly’s face twists into a new scowl and Jason smirks.

“Insolent brat!” she shouts angrily and Jason steels himself.

“STOP!”

The shout echoes in the room, making all occupants snap their attention to the source.

Tim Drake is standing inside the room.

Tim’s not outside. He’s supposed to be safe on the other side of the wall. But he fucking breached the wall, and now he’s in the presence of these two metas with the agenda to collect people (including Tim) and keep them as living boxed barbies.

The calm that Jason managed to piece together for himself collapses.

“Sal look! It’s that Drake kid you wanted,” Dolly exclaims, pointing excitedly at Tim.

“Looks like we won’t have to plan a return-trip afterall,” Sally comments with a sick smile.

“Get the fuck out of here!” Jason barks at him.

Tim squares his shoulders and levels Jason with a look full of determination mixed with something unreadable. Jason feels a nagging pull in the pit of his stomach to come closer to Tim, but he still can’t move from his place. He’s stuck kneeling on the floor, held by the Red Lady’s powers.

Jason’s heart both breaks and rejoices when Tim starts walking towards him.

“So glad you could join us, Timothy Jackson Drake,” Sally greets, also coming closer to where Jason knelt and Dolly stood. “Just in time too, we’re about to leave soon.”

“I’m not coming with you,” Tim says as he takes his place beside Jason.

Jason feels his constricted chest settle a bit at Tim’s words and physical proximity.

“It’s cute how you think you’ll be able to stop us from just taking you,” Sally replies with a cooing voice and Jason glowers at her.

“Oh I do believe you can take me,” Tim agrees with a shrug. “You just won’t be able to take me alive.”

The next second Tim reaches down to Jason’s holster and swiftly pulls out one of the guns there which he promptly raises and points to his own head using his good hand.

“What the fuck are you doing??” Jason shouts. His blood is pounding in his ears and his chest feels like it’s going to explode. “Put the gun down!”

“No,” Tim says, and spares Jason a tight smile before turning back to stare down the villains.

Jason for his part, cannot take his eyes off Tim.

“Do you think this poses any threat to us?” Sally asks coldly. “Your dramatics are a bit much.”

“I assure you I’m not threatening,” Tim says and flicks off the gun’s safety to demonstrate. 

Jason’s too busy not breathing to even think of why Tim is doing this.

Jason wants to shout at him to ease up putting any pressure on the trigger he’s holding. The gun’s safety is off for fuck’s sake. But he knows better than to startle anyone with a loaded gun, so Jason bites his tongue.

“You’re so stupid Timmy,” Dolly says, “I can take that gun away from you in a snap.”

“May be so,” Tim agrees, then looks from the Red Lady to Jason kneeling beside him. His eyes are shining with a million things Jason cannot name. “But I think you can’t do that and hold him at the same time. If you could’ve held both of us, you would’ve done so since I walked in the room.”

Jason hears Dolly huff an annoyed breath, essentially confirming TIm’s theory about her power’s limit of only being able to focus on one focal point at a time… Distantly Jason realizes it’s how he was able to send Robin flying earlier, since the TK was focused on him alone. And come to think of it, the big slabs of concrete came at them one by one and not simultaneously. Maybe there’s a size limit to how much she can control at a time?

“Do you really think that threatening to kill yourself will have any effect on us?” Sally asks, sounding like she’s trying to keep her cool.

“Any collector would be disappointed by the presage of never having a complete collection because one of the items is gone forever,” Tim answers back with full conviction.

Jason gets slammed with the realization that Tim’s basing his actions into the skewed logic that these crazy villains will not want him dead because he’s part of a super ultra-rare collection they’re trying to complete.

Fuck, just how does Tim’s brain even work?

Jason gets pulled back to the here and now as he hears dull clapping from the Collector’s direction.

“You really are a smart kid,” Sally muses. “Already knowing how important you are, that’s good.”

“Even so, I can just switch to you and take your gun away,” Dolly snaps, “you won’t be dead if you can’t shoot yourself.”

“True, but if you let him go then Red Hood can kill me himself,” Tim says coolly.

Jason tenses impossibly further. Every fiber of his being recoils at the thought of what Tim just said.

“Why would he kill you?” Dolly asks confused.

And Tim looks at Jason with the most trusting smile on his face. “Because he knows I’d rather die than let you have your way. We’re a lot alike in that regard I think.”

“You’re such a manipulative turd,” Jason hears himself hiss at Tim.

Tim smiles further and inclines his head in agreement.

Jason feels like nothing’s real anymore. He’s risen above shock and entered a whole new plane of flabbergasted. Tim looks dead serious with all his claims. Jason however cannot fathom the thought of Tim’s words… Tim killing himself? Tim asking Jason to kill him?

No, Jason would sooner bite a bullet.

Jason’s in too much shock to voice out these things—he’s in too much shock to voice out anything— and so Tim continues the conversation with the two villains on his own.

“So no, I won't go willingly with you, and you’re not taking me alive.” Tim says with an icy tone.

“Why did you come here Timothy?” Sally asks, “Why show yourself at all?”

“You know I’m a businessman,” Tim says. “I’m here for a deal.”

“Lucky us we get to see your CEO skills up close,” Sally says and chuckles. “Name your terms then.”

“I have three conditions,” Tim says, his right hand never faltering from his steady grip on Jason’s gun. “My minimum condition is that you two will not kill or hurt anyone further tonight. You do that and I’ll agree not to kill myself. Disagree with that and say goodbye to the possibility of ever having a complete collection.”

A tense silence rings out in the room, until the Collector breaks it with a chuckle.

“Done,” Sally agrees easily.

Tim’s finger remains on the trigger as he continues. “My second and third conditions are for in exchange of me coming along with you.”

“You don’t need to do this,” Jason says, hating himself for being so powerless at the moment. Tim just gives him another tight smile.

“Two conditions for a single trade? That’s like, an unfair deal!” Dolly protests.

“You haven’t even heard them yet,” Tim says, raising a brow. 

“Go ahead,” Sally prompts. “Tell us.”

“One: you let me borrow a pen and paper,” Tim says, smirking at the shocked look on the villain’s faces, “and two: you let me say goodbye to Red Hood without hovering. That means you let your hold on him go and you turn away.”

“What the heck? That’s an obvious escape plan!” Dolly fumes.

“I agree with Doll on this one Mr. Drake,” Sally says.

Tim looks unruffled beside Jason. “If you really chose me as part of your collection and kept tabs on my work, you know I honor all my business deals.”

“True, but I can’t trust this brat to do the same,” Sally says and points at Jason.

Tim stills and a calculating look enters his eyes.

“Fine, we’ll compromise,” Tim says after a beat of silence. “You can keep your hold on him, but you walk and turn away and let me say goodbye. That way you know he won’t do anything— untoward. And you let him go once I’m with you.”

“How do we know you won’t run away?” Dolly challenges.

“Aside from my word?” Tim turns to look at Jason with a tenderness that he’s never seen before. “My goal is to keep him alive, so I won’t escape and leave him to you two.”

The words refuse to compute in Jason’s brain.

Why would Tim offer his own freedom in exchange for Jason’s life? Doesn’t he know Jason’s a cold-blooded murderer? That the world wouldn’t miss him if he’s gone? That Jason’s already exacted his vengeance from his previous killer and ever since then he’s been trying to justify every breath he takes by trying and failing to do good by this god-forsaken city?

That Jason would sooner carve his own heart out than let Tim get hurt.

“We accept your terms,” a woman’s voice sounds out somewhere beyond Jason’s world.

Jason feels like he’s drifting somewhere far away. The sounds don’t make sense. The visuals are all blurred aside from Tim’s figure standing close to him.

“Leave the pen and paper on the ground,” Tim says to somebody, “Turn and walk away, I’ll come over once I’ve said goodbye.”

Jason’s blood is pounding in his ears, his stomach trying to twist into knots, his lungs can’t seem to get any air, and Jason makes a strangely detached realization that he’s having a panic attack. 

He wants so bad to curl in on himself. Or maybe grab on to Tim and hold on for dear life. Or maybe push Tim away in anger because he feels so betrayed…

But Jason can’t do anything because he’s still held by the damn Red Lady’s powers, even as he vaguely registers the two women walking away as per Tim’s condition. He’s stuck, useless and helpless, with nothing but the familiar anger to keep him from coming apart.

After an eternity of not knowing anything and feeling absolutely wrecked, Jason sees Tim’s face peering worriedly at him. He feels Tim’s cold hand touch his face, fingertips brushing the skin where Jason’s masks end.

His head flinches back as far as he’s able, but Tim keeps his hold firm and steady, not letting Jason look away... And Jason’s too powerless (both literally and figuratively) to stop him.

“Are you okay?” Tim breathes, kneeling in front of Jason.

“You fucking promised,” Jason hears his own voice, hoarse and quiet from the mental exhaustion, but full of emotions he can’t contain.

Tim looks back at him with tears pooling in his eyes. It twists Jason’s insides further.

“I know, I know. Oh god I’m so sorry,” Tim says back just as quietly and just as wrecked as Jason feels. A definite contrast from the indifference he’s been using in his conversation with the villains. He sounds so imploring Jason almost wants to forgive him. “But I can’t— they wanted to—they were going to kill you.” 

“You should’ve let them,” Jason throws hatefully, and then hates himself even more for how it makes Tim look like he’s been shot.

Fuck. How did things escalate this badly?

“I really am sorry I broke your trust,” Tim says, fingertips still brushing Jason’s skin, tracing tiny invisible patterns on his face. “But I will never be sorry for choosing your life over anything, understand?”

Jason looks Tim in the eye, because he has no choice, because he can’t not look, because it feels like Tim’s silently willing him to… and he sees nothing but sincerity and determination in his soulmate’s eyes that Jason has no choice but to believe in him.

“I’m not worth all this,” Jason whispers, still clinging to the feeling of doubt in his ribcage.

“You are,” Tim says, and smiles another one of his tender smiles that makes Jason want to cry. “You’re so good and so brave and you give so much, and I’ve never met anyone as worth it as you.”

“Stop,” Jason begs. He closes his eyes against the flood of feelings Tim’s invoking from him. It’s too much, too much.

“It’s okay,” Tim says softly, fingertips no longer cold as they swipe over Jason’s cheeks. They now feel warm, and Jason thinks the warmth is sinking into his core from the points of Tim’s fingers. “Everything will be okay.”

Jason scrunches his eyes closed harder, feeling his throat tighten further and his own tears forming.

How can Tim say it’ll be okay? When it feels like he’s tearing Jason’s world fucking apart. He’s laying his life on the line for Jason. He’s giving his freedom away to let Jason live. How can Jason possibly live on knowing his every day of living is so fucking overpriced?

“You can’t know that,” Jason says. His protest sounds scared and tired even to his own ears.

“We’ll make it okay,” Tim whispers soothingly, “Trust me Jay.” 

And Jason feels his eyes snapping open. The helpless feeling in his gut is starting to take on a new form, and the resentment in his chest budging; giving way to a newfound shock.

“You know me,” Jason whispers back dumbly. Still reeling from the wonderful feeling of hearing Tim’s voice shape his name.

“Yeah. I’m an avid vigilante follower you know,” Tim says lightly.

“Bullshit,” Jason breathes, awed and incredulous.

Fine,” Tim says and rolls his eyes, the gesture now so familiar to Jason despite only seeing it a handful of times. “So I wasn’t a hundred percent sure until tonight… But I’m so happy you’re here and I got to meet you. You’ve always been my favorite,” Tim admits with a soft smile, and Jason feels any lingering anger towards him melt away.

Because there’s no way to stay angry with Tim. And even if you try, the adorable little shit will find a way to shock the anger out of you... Jason’s finding this out again and again.

There must be a plethora of things Tim knows. A lot of things Jason still hasn’t figured out about him. It’s both a daunting and exciting prospect.

Jason sees the same determination shining through his soulmate’s deep blue eyes. And that’s when Jason finally realizes that Tim is not going into this situation blindly. That he has a plan brewing in that wonderful head of his and he’s confident Jason will be able to play his part competently in it.

This is no time for an emotional breakdown. Their time together is limited.

“What do you need me to do?” Jason asks, and knows he said the right words when Tim’s eyes light up at him.

Tim takes a moment to turn his head behind him. It speaks to how deep in his own mind Jason has been when it takes him a second to realize Tim is confirming that the villains are indeed turned away from them.

For a while there he forgot anyone else existed outside Tim.

“Just be your wonderful self,” Tim tells Jason after confirming they aren’t being watched.

He removes his hand from Jason’s face and rummages around the floor. After a second, he reaches down to stuff crinkling paper into Jason’s pocket.

“Give my love to my family,” Tim says as he taps his right ear, motioning to the discreet communicator from Oracle hidden by his floppy hair. “Tell them not to worry about me.”

“Alright,” Jason finds himself agreeing. “I’ll let them know.”

Slowly, Jason’s recently addled brain pieces together Tim’s plan… It’s a goddamn reckless plan. But clever nonetheless. Very in line with Tim.

So much for his earlier promise of not playing hero.

Jason looks back at Tim and desperately tries to silently tell him ‘I’ll come find you, I swear. I’ll get you back no matter what.’ He thinks he somewhat succeeds based on the look Tim gives him back.

He looks back at Jason full of trust, confidence, and pride. A look Jason never expected to receive from anyone after waking up from the Pit.

Jason feels like crying again.

Tim’s eyes turn fond and he smiles his fucking gorgeous smile. To Jason’s surprise, Tim leans in and presses a soft kiss to Jason’s cheek, right over the edge of his masked lower face.

“Take care of yourself,” Tim says, meeting Jason’s eyes one more time before standing up and walking away.

It feels like he’s taking Jason’s fucking heart away with him.

“Here’s your pen back,” Tim says, and the villains turn from where they were tinkering with the stasis boxes.

“Oh good, you’re done,” the bottle blonde says and takes the pen Tim hands over. “Lift’s almost here. Dolly, be a dear and put the other kid to sleep.”

Jason sees Tim jolt in surprise at the words.

“No, that wasn’t the deal!” Tim says hurriedly, “You said you’ll let him go!”

“We will let him go,” Sally confirms. “We just need to make sure he won’t fling himself at our ride before we do.”

“Don’t hurt him,” Tim pleads, and Jason wants to tell him that he doesn’t have to beg these assholes for Jason’s well-being.

“Relax,” Dolly drawls and smirks, “this won’t hurt a bit.” She closes her hand into a fist.

The fucking bitch lied, because it hurts like a mother.

His windpipe feels like it’s being squeezed, and his lungs protest at the lack of air. As his vision begins to dim, a ridiculous thought enters Jason’s mind that this must be what being force-choked by Darth Vader feels like.

Through sheer will power, Jason forces himself to keep his eyes on Tim’s worried face until he passes out from suffocation… He thinks he hears the faint sound of helicopter blades before there’s nothing but silence.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Jason wakes up like a gunshot.

When his frantic eyes focus, he becomes aware of Babs sitting beside his bed. The somber look on her face chase away any hope that Jason just dreamt up everything that happened.

“How long?” Jason grunts, sitting up on the gurney he’s been laid down on.

Absently he notes that his domino and lower mask have been completely removed. They must be at an HQ, either the Clock Tower or the Cave. Jason does a quick scan of the surroundings and is relieved to find out it’s the former.

He can’t deal with looking at the fucking shrine Bruce made for the extinct ghost of him on top of everything else that’s happened tonight.

“You’ve been out for three hours,” Barbara answers. “You suffered multiple bruising. Your throat got the worst of it, but there’s no lasting damage. Steph’s okay too, she’s clear from concussions.”

Jason follows Babs gaze to see Robin sans mask lying asleep on another bed, on the other side of the dark room. Cassandra stood next to her with her cowl down.

“I was too late,” Cass says, and she looks so fucking guilty Jason feels it resonate in him too. “Sorry.”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Jason says, feeling pain from his throat everytime he talks. But it’s minimal enough to be put out of mind. “We weren’t ready for them.”

Cass stares at him for a minute before she nods. “Not your fault too.”

Jason feels his fists clenching and swallows the denial he wants to shout, (it fucking feels like it’s his fault), because that would make him into a hypocrite, and Cass would probably punch him for it.

Jason takes a longer look at Stephanie lying prone on the other bed.

“How’s the Replacement?” he asks.

“She’ll be okay,” Cass answers, gently running an un-gloved hand over Steph’s temple and hair. “Thanks for saving her.”

Jason feels a phantom longing as he looks at the two of them together.

“She’d have done the same for me,” he answers and roughly shrugs.

He decides to direct his energy into being useful and looks back to Barbara.

“Tim has a plan,” Jason says and stubbornly ignores how this is the first time he’s ever said his soulmate’s name out loud and how it tugs inside him wrong because Tim isn’t with him to hear it firsthand.

Babs nods seriously at him. “Think you can get up? Let’s go outside to the war room to talk it out.”

“Yeah,” Jason says and swings his feet off the gurney. He feels a lot of the bruises Babs talked about once he’s upright, but he ignores the aches.

He needs to get to work to get Tim back.

“Cass, can you stay here with Steph?” Babs says to the dark-haired girl, who nods back.

Jason thinks Cass would’ve stayed back anyway even if Babs didn’t ask. Batgirl is now sitting on the foot of Robin’s bed, holding the other girl’s hand in hers.

Babs gives a smile to her successor and rolls her chair out the room. Jason follows her lead.

The walls lined with various computer equipment greet them as they come outside. Jason absently notes that some of them must be new since he hasn’t seen them from his last visit… Then again, it has been a while since he'd dropped by to work cases with Oracle. He feels vaguely guilty and resolves to improve on his visits as Tim suggested before.

Another thing he adds to the unending list of what he needs to fix in his life.

“He has one of your comms on him,” Jason says, getting to the point right away. “We can track him using that right?”

“Yes,” Babs answers, tapping at a keyboard. A holo-display pops out and Jason sees a blinking dot moving over the map of Gotham. He feels his eyes following it.

“They escaped using an unregistered helicopter,” Babs continues reporting. “They left all their hired guns behind, and when police interrogated them, they didn’t have anything useful to offer. They all said they only employed them for a single job, and it was the hospital job tonight.”

“Do we even know who they are?” Jason asks, eyes still following the blinking dot moving westward to Gotham’s city limits.

“I’ve run searches, but facial recognition so far turned no matches closer than forty percent,” Babs answers. “As of now they’re completely out of our radar.”

“Yeah but we’re tracking them with Tim onboard,” Jason says, then he hears Babs tapping on the keys stop.

“Jason,” she begins and pauses, calling his attention.

She doesn’t continue talking until Jason manages to tear his eyes away from the Tim-dot and blink at her.

“What?” he asks, confused at the hold-up.

They should really be planning out the next steps on taking the Red Lady and Collector out once they’ve tracked them down, so they can rescue Tim and the others.

“I need you to sit down,” Babs says, with a wrinkle forming between her bespectacled eyes.

She looks seriously worried and Jason’s getting concerned. He parks his butt on the computer chair beside her, anxiously waiting for what she has to say.

“I’m worried that you’re emotionally compromised to continue on this mission,” Babs says, laying it down at face-value.

Jason feels a scowl forming on his face and opens his mouth to protest (he will not be benched out of this damn mission), but Barbara raises a hand to signal she has more to say.

“I won’t try to stop you, but I want to remind you that you at least need to be functional if you hope to be of help,” she says, not unkindly.

Jason feels his tense shoulders drooping as the fight leaves him. He sighs a deep exhausted sigh and leans his elbows tiredly on his thighs, letting his head fall forward as he forces calm into his body.

“You’re right Babs,” Jason admits. “It’s no good if I’m running myself ragged. I’ll be… more work-appropriate, moving forward.”

“I heard what you guys talked about,” Babs says, turning her chair to face Jason’s. “You and Tim... He knows you. He said your name.”

“Yeah,” Jason says and gives a sad laugh. “Surprised the shit out of me too.”

“You don’t know him?” Babs asks, sounding genuinely perplexed.

“Not until tonight no,” Jason answers, looking back up at her. It’s technically true.

“Oh,” Babs says slowly, “It’s just, you guys sounded like—.” She hesitates and looks at Jason concernedly again.

“Like we knew each other?” Jason says, trying to finish the sentence for Babs.

“Like you care for each other,” Babs clarifies. “On a much deeper level for having just met each other that night.”

Jason feels himself tensing again. He forcefully reins himself back in and looks back down at the floor.

“We don’t,” Jason says, hiding his crumpling face from Babs.

He hears Barbara take a slow cleansing breath. In and then out.

“Alright,” she says, her tone saying she will not push Jason into talking about anything he doesn’t want to. “I just wanted to tell you that I think you need to assess yourself. If you need help then please ask for it. We can’t dive back into this unready because there’s a lot at stake.”

They need to stop those crazy metas, for Tim, Bruce, and whoever the hell else they plan on “collecting”.

“I understand,” Jason says “it’s fine Babs, I’ll tell you if I need someone to talk to. I can work on this without another emotional breakdown.”

“Okay, that’s good to hear,” Babs says, and smiles tightly. It looks a lot like the tight smiles Tim gave Jason when things were going to shit.

“What’s wrong?” Jason asks, almost afraid of the answer.

Babs lets the smile drop. “This tracking plot’s been taken two and a half hours ago,” she says gesturing to the holo-display. “I lost the signal after the first thirty minutes and couldn’t get another ping to go through since then.”

The blinking Tim-dot on the screen reaches the middle of Gotham Bay before it blinks out completely.

Jason feels panic trying to seize him again, but he fights against it to prove to Babs that he’s capable of not letting any bump along the way keep him from seeing this mission through.

“Fuck,” Jason whispers.

“I’m running an analysis to predict their destination based on the speed and flight pattern we got from Tim’s communicator the first half hour,” Babs says tapping at the keys again, and the holo-display changes to a wider map of the East Coast with numerous points marked with “X”. “As you can see there’s quite a number of possible destinations.”

How long will it take for Jason and the team to check each one of those targets? And how sure are they that they won’t move to another place once they’ve checked all of them?

It’s not looking like very good odds and Jason curses himself for not being able to stick a tracker of his own to the villains… Jason belatedly remembers his trackers fizzing off when they came close to the stasis boxes.

“They must’ve fucking put Tim inside one of those metal coffins,” Jason says horrified. “That must be why his signal got jammed. They got fucking EMPs around those things or something.”

“I’d considered that too,” Babs agrees, “But to be honest I kind of avoided calling your attention to that theory.”

Jason looks back at Babs and blinks again at her worried face. Oh right, he needs to act like he’s got his composure and shit together so they can make progress with the case. It’s useless to panic right now. He needs to help Babs figure this out.

“They said Gotham’s their first stop,” Jason says, “so let’s assume they plan to target another city with a fabulously wealthy chump with a very clean criminal record and staggering popularity.”

“Right,” Babs says and gives Jason a sort of apologetic and thankful smile. “I’ll factor those in and re-run the algorithm.”

Jason shifts in seat to wait as Babs does her magic. As he shuffles his weight, he hears the crinkling of paper from his left pocket.

Abruptly reminded that Tim stuffed a message into his pocket before he went and surrendered himself, Jason quickly reaches into his pocket and fishes out the crumpled paper.

“Oh right,” Babs says, looking briefly at Jason “Tim said he wanted you to give a message to his family? Is that it?”

“I don’t think he has family left,” Jason says, looking at the crumpled paper. “He’s managing the company on his own and nobody’s tried to usurp him despite being very young for a CEO on familial claims, right?”

“Then what’s that message for?”

“I think it’s for us,” Jason says and carefully opens up the paper.

Tim’s familiar handwriting stirs further feelings of longing in Jason. It takes him a second to read what the words say.

“Try tranqs.”

“Like, tranquilizers?” Babs asks, confused.

Jason feels a laugh bubble from him. “That sneaky son of a bitch.”

“He wants us to tranq the metas?” Babs says with a puzzled look.

“I think he noticed that the Red Lady got so affected by the knockout gas Robin threw,” Jason explains and watches clarity dawn on Barbara’s face.

“And they kept mentioning Dolly needed to stay sober right?” Babs says, “Maybe it’s connected to her powers. Maybe she’s no good if she’s intoxicated or drugged.”

“Yeah I’m betting my money on that too,” Jason says.

“This is good,” Babs says. She turns back to her keyboard and continues working on the algorithm. “At least we have some lead on what we can use against them once we find them. Tim’s pretty sharp.”

“He sure is,” Jason says and smiles at the crumpled paper in his hands.

It feels a lot like a fucking ray of hope shone down to snap Jason out of his funk. Tim’s obviously thought of a plan. So there’s been a minor set back with the communicator and the stasis boxes being incompatible, but so what? Jason can pick up the slack from there.

Tim went through all the trouble to think of how to fight off the Red Lady on his own. The decent thing for Jason to do now is to exercise his own brain and think up of a way they can find them sooner.

Jason stares some more at the paper containing Tim’s familiar handwriting. It’s like feeling déjà vu to simpler times when the only place he’s able to see those marks are on his own skin.

It takes Jason back to their memorable conversations, like that time they argued which Star Trek series was the best, or that time when he bitched about Tim not knowing a Fahrenheit 451 reference, or that time Tim bitched at him about their stupid rule of keeping each other updated daily if they were okay—.

“Shit! Why didn’t I think of that first?” Jason exclaims aloud, startling Babs from her work.

“Think of what?” Babs asks.

“I know how to find Tim,” Jason says, straightening in his seat.

“You thought of another way to narrow down the projection?” Babs asks, looking ready to make another adjustment to her programming.

“No, I—,” Jason hesitates, but quickly moves past it. The situation is dire enough that Babs knowing his secret should be the least of his worries. “I can track him. We’re soulmates.”

Babs looks at him, stunned.

“I thought you said you hadn’t met him before tonight?” she asks

“I hadn’t.”

“How do you know he’s your soulmate?”

Jason breathes in. “He had my words…on his arm. I know because there were some thugs giving him trouble over it.”

“The ones that you… cleaned up?” Babs says.

“Yeah,” Jason confirms. “I’m sure those are the words I’ve written. It’s too specific to be a coincidence.”

“So does he know you’re his soulmate?”

“No,” Jason answers, “I was actually planning on writing to him anonymously after this fiasco is over, of how we shouldn’t… write each other anymore. So no, I didn’t tell him we’re soulmates.”

“But he knows you.”

“He knows Red Hood is Jason Todd, and that I used to be Robin,” Jason confirms. “And I won’t bet against him knowing a lot more about the other Bats than he’s let on too… But no, he doesn’t know I’m his soulmate.”

“Do you really plan to keep it that way?” Babs asks with an oddly sympathetic look.

“I don’t want to drag him into my shitty life Babs,” Jason answers and feels his heart lurch again. “He’s better off cutting all ties with me.”

Barbara’s sympathetic look deepens.

“Jason, take my hand,” she says and offers up her left hand with the palm down.

It’s a strange request but the look on her face tells Jason Babs is serious. He takes hold of her hand, resting his own underneath hers.

“I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’ve never tried using the Link to track your soulmate before,” Babs begins sagely and Jason nods dumbly.

“We’ve only ever written,” Jason confirms.

Babs nods, then takes another of her slow cleansing breaths before continuing. “It’s kind of a… an open secret within the soulmate community, that the Link goes both ways.”

“What?” Jason asks. Stunned at this new information about the soulmate GPS.

“If you get in touch with the Link, your other half will feel it too,” Babs explains, sounding like a patient kindergarten teacher explaining to her student why their dead hamster will never run on its wheel again. “It’s a two-way connection Jay, so if you use it, Tim will feel a similar pull. That’s one of the reasons why it’s generally only used with consent from both parties, because it affects both equally. The Link lets each person know where their pair is and creates a tug that pulls them to each other.”

“Oh fuck,” Jason whispers, tightening his hold on Babs’ hand.

“I don’t know how effective the pull will be from Tim’s side if— ,” Babs hesitates then pushes on, “If he’s been put in stasis too, but I want to let you know, that there’s a big possibility of Tim finding out you’re his soulmate if you use the Link.”

“Babs, how do you know all this?” Jason asks, because it feels like he must.

“Mostly from experience,” Barbara answers with a small smile. She then motions to her hand in Jason’s grip. “Watch,” she says and closes her eyes in concentration.

A few seconds later, words write themselves on the back of Barbara’s hand.

How’s the weather in your Tower?

Jason feels like he’s watching a very private moment as he sees the words write themselves into Babs’ skin. He never realized how intimate the connection between soulmates is until he’s seen it happen to other people.

“Holy shit,” Jason breathes. “You have a soulmate.”

Barbara laughs softly at his awed tone.

“Yeah that’s pretty much my first reaction to the whole thing too,” she says.

She gently takes her hand away from Jason and he lets her have it back. He watches as she writes back to the person on the other end of the connection.

Rainy, but manageable. Be careful at Star.

There aren’t any literal raindrops outside from what Jason can tell. Babs and her soulmate must’ve developed a code or something that they use when writing to each other.

Man isn’t that just the coolest shit?

Too bad he plans on cutting off ties with Tim before they get to play with having super-secret code words and such… Jason watches with a vague feeling of envy as the reply comes from Barbara’s soulmate.

Always am. TTYL xoxo

Barbara gives a fondly exasperated look at the message on the back of her hand before looking back up to regard Jason.

“I just feel like I should warn you,” Babs says, her smile slipping into a serious look. “If you use the Link, there’s a big chance you won’t be able to hide who you and Tim are to each other. Will you still use it, despite that?”

Jason takes a moment to search himself… Is he really so invested in keeping Tim at arm’s length that he won’t use the one sure thing they have in order to track him down? As Babs said the connection may not even be tangible from Tim’s side if he’s in stasis so there may be a chance anyway that Tim won’t know.

And even if he does find out, it’s not like Jason can’t still cut off ties with him regardless… He’ll just have to be more direct about it. No more being a coward and hiding behind the anonymous soulmate guise. It’s time he faced the music anyway, and tell Tim to his face that they need to go separate ways… Doesn’t he owe Tim at least that?

Jason finds his decision remains unwavering.

“It’s the best shot we have,” Jason tells Barbara, “I’ll use it.”

“Okay,” Babs says and gives Jason an understanding look. “When we’re ready I’ll ask you to start trying it out. I can give you pointers later. But first help me look for tranquilizers and spare guns we can use for your gear.”

Jason nods and follows Babs directions of rummaging through various shelves and cabinets around the Tower. Being busy and having a goal helps a lot in keeping his mind from wandering to places he’d rather not visit right now.

A few minutes later Cass emerges from the room with Stephanie following at her heels, looking ready to pick another fight with the people that dropped a roof over her head and knocked her out. Jason smiles at the thought.

“Please tell me we’re about to go kick some butt,” Steph says, walking up to where Babs and Jason are arranging the tranquilizer guns and gas bombs.

“You’re going to storm the castle,” Babs replies with a smile. “But first we need to get your ammo ready. Come help us over here. Jason, can you go and get more knockout gas? I think we can modify the regular smoke bombs to carry them instead. Also, there are extra air filters on the higher shelf of the storage closet.”

“Gotcha,” Jason acknowledges and moves to do as told. He high fives both Cass and Steph on his way, tagging them in for the table work he’s been doing with Babs.

“You look, better,” Cass says to him with an approving smile, “Driven.”

“Thanks,” Jason replies. “I am. We’ll get Bruce and the others back for sure. Then we’ll make those scumbags pay for what they did.”

“No killing,” Cass scolds, but her pout looks playful instead of scornful.

“No promises,” Jason says and slides away before Cass can bonk his head.

He walks into the storage room to fetch the items Barbara asked for. As he’s reaching up to get the air filters, his sleeves slide lower and Jason sees some scribbles below his left wrist that he hasn’t seen before.

His heart rate picks up and Jason quickly cradles his arm and slides the sturdy fabric of his top aside to see what it is.

It’s Tim’s handwriting. A message he probably scribbled with the pen he borrowed from the villains. It looks hurried, very unlike the sure writing Jason’s gotten used to, but there’s no denying it’s still written by Tim’s hand.

‘I’m ok. May not be able to write 4 a while. Stay safe.’

Jason watches as tears drop down onto the words.

He lets himself have a minute of just fucking feeling the hurt he’s experiencing. Of letting the pain punch through him one last time. Just to get it all out of his system now…

Jason reinforces his decision to use the Soulmate GPS to track down Tim.

His amazing soulmate that used a borrowed pen from fucking super-powered villains not only to give Red Hood a message on how they can fight said villains, but also took time to write a message and reassure his soulmate that he’s okay. When he’s clearly not, because he went and traded himself in for Jason’s shitty life.

“I swear I’ll get you back,” Jason whispers to the words on his wrist. “And then you’ll be free.”

Free of everything. Including Jason.

Once his minute is up, Jason wipes his eyes and gets back to work. The mission’s not over yet.

---TBC---

Chapter Text

“Just relax and focus your thoughts,” Babs tells Jason calmly. “You don’t want to force it. Finding the Link is like sifting through fine sand for a diamond. Dig too deep or too hard and you might miss it.”

Jason blows a breath. “That’s a very specific analogy, but alright.”

He sinks further into the very comfortable computer chair Barbara let him borrow, doing his best to release the stress out of his body in hopes of tricking his mind of following the example. 

It helps that the Clock Tower is silent aside from the hum of computer hardware. Barbara sent Steph and Cass to pick up a stealth jet from the Cave for their rescue mission. Jason elected to stay behind with the excuse of finishing up the last of the modified tranquilizer traps, so it’s just him and Babs left at the place.

Jason’s thankful for the privacy. He doesn’t want the others to know he’s planning on tracking the hostages using an effing Soul Link. As far as Batgirl and Robin are concerned, they’re homing in on the villains using Oracle’s communicator that’s still with Tim Drake.

The less people that know about Tim being Jason’s soulmate, the better.

“You should feel a pull once you use the Link. Follow it with your senses without actually moving and you’ll know where he is,” Babs says.

Barbara Gordon, being the godsend she is, has spent the last fifteen minutes giving Jason a crash course on how to use the Soulmate GPS.

“Okay,” Jason answers dutifully.

So far Jason feels like everything's needlessly complex and vague. Soulmates should come with instruction manuals (maybe he could write one). But Jason’s determined to find Tim and so he takes in Babs’ words like gospel.

“It’s just all about resolve,” Babs says encouragingly. “I’m confident you can do it.”

“Right.” Jason nods, thinking that makes one of us, then he decides to (put his innate stubbornness to good use and) finally give looking for the Link a try.

The first thing that enters Jason’s mind as he closes his eyes and follows Babs’ instruction to concentrate and reach for the Link within him is fear.

What if he can’t do it? What if he turns out to be the worst soulmate in history that he can’t even use the Link? Or what if Tim being in forced stasis affects their connection and acts as blockage? What if they need both parties aware of their senses for this to happen? What if Jason can’t find the Link?

Jason takes a deep breath to re-center himself. Remembering what Barbara said (literally) a minute ago that it's all about resolve and focus, Jason bats the worries away.

Then, against all of Jason’s doubts, it works.

“I found it,” Jason says aloud, with eyes still closed.

“Good, follow it.” Babs’ voice  answers.

The second thing that enters Jason’s mind while using the Link for the first time ever, is that it comes with a vague sense of familiarity… Like he’s been aware of its existence before but have only managed to focus on it now. Like deja vu from a dream, pulling him somewhere that feels like he’s been to before.

Jason lets the Link guide him and suddenly there’s a knowledge inside his head.

The third thing that enters Jason's mind is the reassuring thought that Tim is out there, and Jason knows how to get to him.

No resistance comes up. No strain is needed. Jason simply knows the other end's location as sure as he knows his own name. The vaguely familiar feeling of wanting to bridge the gap between him and his soulmate resonates from his chest to the rest of him.

It feels as easy as coming home.

Jason snaps his eyes open and looks to Barbara’s patient face.

"I know where he is."

He feels the triumphant smile that blooms on Barbara’s face echo in him.

“Is he stationary?” Babs asks. At Jason’s nod she hands him a sleek wireless keyboard. “Input his coordinates.”

Jason does, easily turning the knowledge in his head into numerical coordinates.

“Woah,” he says as another holo screen pops up with a new dot lighting up on Barbara’s map. Jason stands from the chair. “I didn’t even have to think to get those numbers.”

“The theory is that the location can translate into every knowledge you have,” Babs replies. “If you’re trained in cartography, you could probably draw a detailed map from your point to his.”

Jason’s eyes are fixed on the new marker on the map he willed into existence. He feels a compulsion to dash out of here and fucking run to it.

He stills himself.

“That’s convenient.”

“It actually took me a while to get used to,” Barbara says, retrieving the keyboard from Jason. “You’re adjusting faster than I did.”

“Yeah well, I guess when your soulmate gets kidnapped by evil supervillains and the only way to find them is to use the Link properly,” Jason begins with a wry smile, “you turn into a fast learner.”

Jason hears Babs snort as she types up some magic into the keyboard she took back.

“True, I imagine that’s a very convincing incentive.”

Jason’s smile drops a little as he feels the Pull’s intensity growing. His whole body feels strung tight. Like it can only loosen up once he bridges the (big) gap between him and Tim’s location. But Jason knows he needs to do things right and can’t just run off on his own.

He keeps himself still.

Standing still reminds Jason of the awful feeling he got back in the hospital when the Red Lady held him down and he couldn’t move closer to Tim. The memories threaten to suffucate him with the awful feeling they came with but Jason tamps them down.

He shifts uneasily on his feet.

The Soulmate GPS comes with a stupid nagging pull that’s midly annoying, as per Babs' warning. It doesn’t feel particularly bad per se. Like any mild annoyance he’s dealt with, Jason can push it to the back of his mind.

But it serves as a constant reminder that Jason failed and let Tim and the others get taken away. It rubs him wrong.

“How much longer until Batgirl and Robin get here with the jet?”

“Four minutes ETA,” Babs answers, then looks at Jason with slight worry. “How’re you holding up?”

“Getting used to it,” Jason grunts. 

Babs continues looking at him with worry.

Jason sighs and says “I won’t let the Pull drag me into impulsive decisions okay? I’ll stick to the plan and keep my head as promised.”

“Good. I know you’ll do what’s best,” Babs says, then hands him a wristband. “You can use that to connect the Batjet’s navigation to the coordinates you’ve set up. If you feel any change through the Link, adjust accordingly. I told Cass and Steph to defer to you in tracking the hostages because you have the comm’s tracker.”

“I doubt they’ll take orders from me,” snorts Jason as he takes the gadget from Babs and quickly snaps it over his left wrist. He adjusts the strap to cover Tim’s words. “I’m not a regular player for your team. Just an outsider.”

“They don’t take orders from outsiders,” Babs agrees. “But you’re not an outsider, not anymore... I think you never were, to be honest. And they know I trust you. And after tonight—if not from before, they do too. You can trust us back Jason. We’re on the same side.”

Jason blinks at Barbara’s steady gaze and feels… relieved. Being explicitly told he has people on his side during this very trying time eases him somewhat. And Barbara being one of those people, it helps a lot.

“I’ll do that Babs,” Jason says and doesn’t choke back tears, nope. “Thanks.”

If capable people like Babs, Cass, and heck, even the Replacement are helping Jason out in this mission, he thinks they can pick up the slack and pull his sorry ass up with them.

“Glad you’re on board,” Babs says and smiles. “Now look alive. Batgirl and Robin will be docking in any second. We need to get the luggage in order.”

From the Tower’s window, Jason sees the dark sky and the hazy outline of the approaching Batjet in stealth mode. He quickly gets to work to ensure the cargo are all accounted for.

A moment later, a panel in the wall opens and in walks Batgirl and Robin, looking refreshed back in their full uniforms.

“Head’s up Red,” Robin says and tosses a plastic bottle at him. 

Jason catches it and looks at it confusedly. “Gatorade?”

“Alf says to stay hydrated so…” Steph shrugs. She walks closer and hands Jason a brown paper bag. “He also made you this to eat on the way.”

Jason accepts the bag, feeling the heft and warmth of the food inside. His chest feels tight at being reminded of how Alfred Pennyworth still takes him into consideration after all that's happened between Jason and the Family.

“Thanks,” Jason says after a moment. He should go and humor Alfie’s invites to have tea some time. Maybe the butler will agree to meet outside the Manor. Some Gotham cafes are decent right?

“Alfred made you food too,” Batgirl says to Babs, handing a similar paper bag to her predecessor.

“Thanks Cass,” Barbara says with a smile as she accepts her food.

“Alf also asked to be kept updated,” Steph says, “He needs to run contingencies and interference with the media since the cops have released the news about the hospital and kidnapped guests. But he’ll be keeping an ear out for our updates.”

“I’ll loop him in,” Babs assures.

She touches a key and the holographic map with Tim’s coordinates expands bigger.

“Is that them?” Robin asks, stepping closer.

Babs nods. “We tracked them down a couple of minutes ago. They've remained immobile, they’re not near any other cities. I assume they went back to their base of operations and don’t plan to “collect” anyone else tonight.”

“Either that or they’ve hit those remote mountains and crashed,” Robin says as she eyes the mountain ranges the marker is pointing to.

Jason stills. The paper bag in his hand crinkles as his fist tightened. Cass steps beside Robin and punches her shoulder.

“Ow!”

“Gloom makes others feel bad,” Batgirl says and gives a glare that could be felt through her cowl.

“Oops, sorry,” Robin replies and smiles weakly. “I think I got used to Batman not complaining when I mindlessly spew dark stuff during cases. Sometimes he even cracks a smile... Sorry guys, I’ll tone it down.”

Jason frowns a little at the explanation. Robin’s comparatively the ray of sunshine and rainbows in the Dynamic Duo right? Also, he doesn’t remember Bruce’s humor being that dark… but then again things may have changed after Jason died an explosive death when Batman failed to get to that warehouse on time.

Nevertheless, no matter how unthinkingly (callously) the comment was made, it struck fear in Jason. What if they really did crash? What if they’re hurt? Or worse? What if we’re too late?

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Babs says confidently, and Jason feels his heart rate climb down. “The tracker wouldn’t have picked up a signal if they got into a wreck and the comms got damaged or anything.”

Oracle gives Jason a loaded look and he gets the message.

Jason’s able to feel the Pull through the Link even now, strongly calling out to him. Tim’s still out there. He’s fine. Therefore, the others should be okay too. The Soulmate GPS wouldn’t lie.

It’s fine. They’re out there, alive and Jason will get them back with Oracle, Batgirl, and Robin’s help.

Jason nods back his understanding.

“Besides, we know the Collector and the Red Lady don’t want the hostages dead. I’m pretty sure they’re keeping them breathing,” Jason adds, trying to get his brain back into rational working order.

“They’re okay,” Cass says and then slides off her cowl. She gives Robin a pointed look and places a hand on her shoulder. “You’re worried... Bruce will be back home. We’ll get them back. We’re strong, together.”

Robin stares at Batgirl’s eyes for a second then nods.

“You’re right Cass,” Steph says, and finally her smile turns more genuine. “Thanks.”

Jason blinks at them, impressed at their easy communication and mutual understanding.

So the reason Stephanie spouted that grim stuff was because she was worried about her adoptive father ? Seems like thinking about worst-case scenarios and spewing blunt comments are part of her coping-slash-defense mechanism.

Huh.

Jason could see now how she and Bruce clicked. Stephanie Brown and the Big Bat are more alike than he initially thought.

“Now that we’ve established their wellbeing,” Babs interrupts, bringing all of them back to the pre-mission briefing. “Let’s go over the plan again before you guys jet.”

— X — X — X — X — X — 

“Holy shit it’s like Castle Dracula,” Jason says in awe as they fly over their destination.

Of fucking course the super villains will have a cool castle hideout on a mountain cliff’s edge. Looks like they really are going to ‘storm the castle’, as Babs put it.

The trip was quick thanks to Batman’s investment in capable transportation vehicles, but it still felt like an eternity to Jason, especially with the Link constantly shouting at him to get over there right now

He’s beyond relieved they arrived when they did.

“Bet it looks like a princess castle in daytime,” Robin comments, chuckling from the pilot’s chair.

(A stray thought of Tim being a princess that Jason needed to rescue from the witches’ castle crosses his mind, and he has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from giggling.)

“Hmm, needs more pink and purple,” Batgirl says thoughtfully from the co-pilot’s chair. “We can land there.” She points to a closeby level terrain.

They land and keep the jet’s cloaking on. After disembarking, Jason climbs a nearby highpoint to survey the place.

“No guards from any vantage points,” Jason reports, the night vision binoculars pressed to his red domino mask (he forwent the helmet in favor of eating Alfie’s special chili dogs.) He triple checks and then switches to thermal vision just to make sure.

“The grunts from earlier were single-hire henchmen, so they may not have many regular staff,” Oracle says from their comms. “See any cameras out?”

“I don’t see any obvious ones,” Jason answers, “Either they hid them well, or they don’t have a secure monitoring policy.”

“They could’ve thought the location is more than enough cover,” Babs says, “Be careful when approaching all the same. Let’s move to the next phase, find me an access point to their system.”

“Copy that,” Jason answers and climbs down the rocks to where Batgirl and Robin are waiting.

Together they move in silently and quickly, watching out for threats and each other’s back along the way. They reach the castle walls without any attacks or alarms raised.

“Running the scanner now,” Robin reports, taking out a rectangular device from her utility belt and turning a few dials on it. A dim red light starts blinking from it as she slowly walks around and hovers it over the walls.

A few moments later, the light turns green and Robin proceeds to uncover an electronic circuit panel behind the wall.

“Guess this means the old castle’s not authentic," she scoffs, and plugs in a couple of wires from the device in her hand to the electronic panel. “O, I’ve connected to the electronics we found  Can you get into their system through here?”

“Yeah, give me a sec,” Babs replies and they hear the sound of rapid typing over their connection. “They barely have basic IT security. I think they’re very new to the whole criminal life.”

“Maybe that’s why we don’t have intel on them yet,” Robin muses.

“Possible. New baddies,” Batgirl agrees.

“I’m in," Oracle says, "Downloading the castle’s schematics now. Hood I’ll be sending it over to your navigator.”

“Roger,” Jason replies readily. They’ve discussed this part too.

Jason can of course just follow the Link and it will inevitably lead to Tim (and the other hostages), but it’s a high risk to go into otherwise blind terrain. They decided that Babs will hack into the lair’s system, work her thing, and get the building’s schematics so Robin, Batgirl, and Red Hood will have a map of the place.

Jason just needs to input the exact location he's getting from the Soulmate GPS into the building plans so the rest of his team can see where to go too. 

“Sent,” Babs says, and Jason’s wrist gadget lights up with the new info. “They have a few standard sensors and alarms around the place, which I’ve disabled, but there’s no cameras. I won’t be able to give visual support. We can use the buzzcams if needed, but it’s impractical to launch them while sneaking in.”

Jason quickly and discreetly inputs the location from the Link into the building plans Babs sent over.

“They’re in the highest tower.” Jason turns to show the holo-display with the updated marker. “Top of the center one.”

“High,” Batgirl comments, tilting her head in consideration. “Climb up the outside walls? Or bust inside and take the stairs?”

“You can save time by scaling the walls outside and using the higher windows to sneak in,” Babs says. “Also there are no visible guards out, but there could be any number of them inside. Be careful.”

“Copy,” Robin responds. “Good thing we packed the grappling guns,” she says, already shaking hers out.

The three of them fire their grappling guns and scale the walls. They stick to the shadows and keep their movements light and quiet… Only silence answers them in return, which they take to mean that the villains don’t know they’re here.

Hopefully this trend of smooth sailing continues. Personally, Jason feels like he’s had enough stress and close calls to last for the next decade or so. He deserves a fucking break.

They reach the highest window outside and use it to sneak in. Robin sprays a freezing agent to the metal bars and easily shatters them with a punch of her gauntleted fist. They quickly slip into the dreary gray castle.

The inside of the place is dimly lit by warm light coming from what looks like the main hallway. The floor they’re on looks unoccupied.

“We’re two floors below the top floor,” Jason says without having to consult the map. He taps his wrist and displays the holo-map for the girls’ benefit anyway. “No sign of guards or the Collector and Red Lady so far.”

“Stand by,” Babs says. “Better deploy a buzzcam now so you can get visual confirmation before you move any further in.”

“Copy,” Batgirl says and proceeds to set up the tiny bug-like camera and a small tablet that serves as the controls and monitor. “Launching Buzzy now,” she says and presses a button on the side of the screen.

The tiny cam flies off. Red Hood and Robin look over either sides of Batgirl's shoulders and watch the monitor in her hold.

The screen shows an empty hallway, then an empty floor, and then an empty stairway. Cass makes Buzzy sweep the perimeter before climbing up the stairs and scanning another empty floor.

“So far we’re seeing a whole lot of nothing,” Robin says, resting her chin on Batgirl’s shoulder.

“They should be one floor up from there,” Jason says, hovering over Batgirl’s other shoulder. “Maybe there aren’t any security around other than the top floor?”

“We find out,” Batgirl shrugs, slightly lifting Robin’s head and grazing her other shoulder against Jason’s chin.

Cass finds the stairs and makes the camera climb to the top floor… Which they find empty too.

“I don’t get it,” Robin whispers with beginning dread. “Where are they? Did they abandon the place?”

“No, they’re here,” Jason hisses through gritted teeth.

Honestly, the sight of the empty floor gives Jason a shit ton of doubt if Tim and the others are indeed in the castle. The place looks deserted, and the lack of security would make so much sense if there are no hostages around to guard.

A spike of fear assaults Jason’s senses, but he pushes it down...

Because the Link remains adamant that this is the place where Tim is. The Pull is so strong, telling Jason he’s so close . If the Soulmate GPS made a sound, it would’ve been screeching loud enough to be heard by coyotes in the distance.

“Did they shrink down to microscopic size? Turn invisible?” Robin snaps testily. “Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed Red Hood, but there’s no one there! They’re not here and we need to get out and find them.”

“The tracker says they’re here, so they’re here!” Jason snaps back. “We’re not leaving.”

“Maybe they removed the tracker and dumped it here before moving out!” Robin argues, “We can’t afford to waste time here! You know the first twenty-four hours is the most critical in kidnapping cases for keeping the trail fresh. Boss taught us that.”

“Shut your mouth about what B taught me," Jason finds himself seething out. "You know nothing.”  

" Really? You’re going to turn this into another fight now?" Robin snarls, looking pissed. "Stop acting like I personally made your life hell by becoming Robin, Jason!"

Jason blinks behind his mask.

It seems he’s let his reflex take over and snapped at Steph like he does whenever she mentions anything Batman-related to Jason. He honestly wasn't thinking and it's just a reflex.

Robin seems to take Jason's silence as further seething resentment, so she decides not only to stand her ground, but dig in her heels and refuse to waver.

"I thought you mostly got over it after you tried to kill me and failed spectacularly, but I guess I expected too much from you." Robin snaps, derisive.

"You fought dirty!" Jason accuses, again, in reflex.

"Gothamites don’t fight dirty, we fight smart!" Steph throws back immediately. "And excuse me for defending myself from a murder attempt!"

" Oh please," Jason scoffs. "It was a thwarted homicide at best."

Which is true, because Jason never actively did any planning on killing the Replacement for it to constitute as a murder attempt, technically.

Sure they fought before (many times) but Jason never really sat down and made a bullet point list on steps to kill Stephanie Brown…

Jason sort of just… snapped. And Stephanie happened to be there.

That night was a bad night. Jason kept seeing flashes of fire, dirt, blood, and green water.

Jason wasn’t in full control of his thoughts, much less his actions. He was out on the streets sating his bloodlust and letting his hands carry his anger further... And then he crossed paths with the new person wearing Robin and it triggered him even more.

Jason was just so full of rage and he just… let it out, without actively thinking about his actions.

(He came to his senses a few minutes later due to the intense pain between his legs courtesy of Robin's steel-toed boots that were no match for Red Hood's cup.)

"Oh so it was a homicidal attack, not murderous," Robin says sarcastically. "That makes me feel so much bet—!"

"I'm sorry okay?!" Jason shouts, cutting Robin off. "I'm sorry I tried to kill you. I wasn't a hundred percent right in the head that night, but I should've apologized sooner. I don't want you or Batman dead, even though I’ve attacked you guys before.

"I was just— am still— a little bit pissed that the world moved on without me… But it wasn’t yours or Batman’s fault. It’s just the nature of life to keep on rolling no matter how many people have fallen off the ride and got run over. Sorry if I blamed you for a while back there. I was... irrational."

Jason finishes off his tirade and looks back at Robin and Batgirl who’re practically frozen and gawking at him.

Robin in particular looks so lost. She turns to Batgirl with a helpless expression. When all Batgirl does is nod solemnly back at her, she turns to regard Jason with less suspicion but no less confused face.

“Did… did you just apologize?” Robin asks softly, bewildered.

After a quick internal panic, Jason swallows his pride and takes a deep breath.

“Yeah,” he admits.

“Holy shit,” Stephanie breathes out even softer, dumbstruck. She reaches out and grabs hold of Batgirl’s arm to steady herself. “Batgirl am I dreaming?” Cass signs back something quick that Jason doesn’t catch but it makes Robin mock shiver.

Jason rolls his eyes (Tim’s habit that stuck to him like glue) at the dramatics.

“I know we don’t have the most friendly history in this vigilante gig since we’ve met,” Jason begins carefully, “But I honestly only have the best intentions for this mission and I promise I’m not trying to steer us to crash and burn.”

The white lenses of Robin’s domino widen at the admission.

“I know that Red,” Steph says quickly. “I didn’t mean to say your were trying to derail the mission. I know you won’t do anything to let innocent people get hurt. You're not evil.”

“Oh, I— uh, thanks,” Jason says awkwardly, because he’s been pretty convinced the rest of the Bats think of him as a bloodthirsty murderer or something.

Jason shakes himself off to focus back and get his point across. “Look, I understand that we’re pressed for time, and I’m on the same page about how crucial the first twenty-four hours are into tracking kidnapped people… Which is why we need to make sure this place is absolutely clear first before we leave. We can’t afford to have missed anything and come back later.”

Jason looks resolutely at Robin, willing her to understand. He doesn’t want to come off as hostile in this team. He needs both of them badly and doesn’t want to provoke any further conflict But Jason can’t tell them the truth, that he knows for sure Tim is here because of the freaking Link.

That reveal would remain as a last resort. A life or death situation. Jason hopes like fuck it doesn’t come to it.

“He’s honest, and serious,” Batgirl supplies, steadily observing Jason who refuses to squirm. “He is sure we’ll find something up there. It’s… instincts.”

“Fine,” Robin says a beat later with a serious nod. “I’m convinced. Let’s trust your gut Red.”

Jason feels his face breaking into a grin. “Great! Let’s get up this tower.”

Oracle’s voice sounds up from their comms. “I’ve double-checked all alarms on the way are disabled. You get a clear path.” 

Barbara did not say anything during Jason’s tirade of trying to convince Robin to stay. But he appreciates that she trusts him enough to do it his way, without forcing Jason to reveal that his freaking soulmate is in the castle and that’s why Jason’s sure they shouldn’t leave.

“Thanks O,” Jason replies and takes it upon himself to lead the way. He has the “map” on him after all.

Jason feels his chest swell with gratefulness upon hearing Batgirl and Robin’s light but sure footsteps following  behind him.

They climb the stairs straight to the top, Jason basically letting the Pull drag him. They reach the top floor’s landing and stop to take in the empty place.

Or seemingly empty anyway.

Jason keeps on walking until he’s met with a solid-looking wall. He stops in front of it and presses his palm to it. The knowledge that Tim’s behind the wall heavy inside his head.

“Signal’s coming from behind this wall.”

Robin steps up next to Jason, makes a fist, and knocks on the wall. “It sounds thick… but, hollow.”

“Bomb it open?” Batgirl suggests.

“No, they’re too close to this side of the wall.” Jason shoots the idea down. “The explosion could impact them.”

“I can’t believe those jags went as far as hide the hostages in a false room inside a creepy old castle,” Robin murmurs, “those evil ladies are so extra.”

“There must be a hidden door to get to the other side,” Oracle says from their comms. “I double-checked the castle schematics but the plans doesn’t show the hidden passageway.”

Jason painfully wretches his hand away from the wall closest to Tim and scans his surroundings.

“If I were an evil superpowered villain with a penchant for kidnapping people and keeping them asleep forever as part of my creepy human collection, where would I place the switch to open my secret collection vault?” Jason roves his eyes over the room.

"Let's split up and look for clues," says Robin. 

Red Hood, Batgirl, and Robin spread out to search the place.

Jason refuses to let the Scooby-Doo reference get to him.

They explore every nook and cranny. In the end it's Batgirl that finds the hidden lever on a large bookshelf that doubles as the doorway to the hidden room.

Jason and Steph look at each other, both disappointed in themselves for not checking out basically the same type of entrance Bruce cleverly fashioned for the Batcave from the Manor.

"Dark, but there’s something..." Batgirl trails off as she steps inside the hole in the wall.

Jason and Stephanie both scramble to follow.

“No alarms tripped,” Oracle lets them know. “Any sign of hostiles?”

Jason gets to the false bookshelf and sees the dark room for himself. He and Robin step up beside Cass.

“We’re in a dark room. No guards,” Robin reports. She gets out a pen light from her utility belt. “There’s gotta be a light switch somewhere. I’ll go look. Batgirl, stand guard by the door for a bit?”

Batgirl nods and stays to stand guard.

Robin steps aside to look around for a power source and/or light switch.

Red Hood walks into the darkness, following the screaming Pull within him.

Before he realizes Batgirl and Robin are calling after him, Jason already finds himself deep into the room and blindly walking further in.

Jason vaguely registers he’s once again entered a tunnel-vision and snaps himself out of it just in time to realize that the Link isn’t screaming so loudly at him anymore… Jason’s finally reached his destination.

Jason reaches out into the dark and presses his palm to cold glass.

He knows the exact measure of distance between him and Tim down to the millimeter. Jason feels like crying upon realizing he’s so close to breaching their gap. Something inside him clicks into place and he feels calm… complete.

“I’m here,” Jason says, and then the room floods with light.

“Did you find them?” Robin asks, running together with Batgirl to where Jason stood at the far end of the room.

“Yeah,” Jason answers without looking up from Tim’s stasis box that he’s got a hand pressed against.

The three abductees are all present in the room. They’re still in their metal stasis boxes with the glass front windows that they saw from the hospital. The leftmost box has Amelia Crowne’s unconscious form,  next to her stood the box Bruce is in, and the last box; the one Jason’s standing in front of, contained Tim Drake.

Empty stasis boxes are lined up behind them, as if waiting for the next batch of collection.

Jason wants to smash every single one of them so that they can’t ever be used to take Tim away again.

“They’re all here,” Robin reports into her comms, “The nasty Collectors kept them in the creepy metal doll boxes.”

“Status? Can you see their vitals displayed?” Oracle asks.

Jason gives himself two more seconds of taking in Tim’s sleeping form —still as a marble statue, with Red Hood’s jacket still on him as a makeshift sling— then checks the vitals display.

“Their vitals are still tamped down,” Jason answers, watching Tim’s unnaturally slow heartbeat from the tiny display in front of the box.

“Oracle we need to get them out of here,” Robin says, walking beside the box Bruce is in and looking at it worriedly. 

“We will,” Babs assures, “I’ll remote-pilot the Batjet to meet you guys there.”

“Thanks O,” Robin answers. She turns to  Batgirl and Red Hood. “C’mon guys, let’s wake em up and get them out of these horrible coffins-for-the-living.”

That plan sounds all kinds of wonderful to Jason’s ears. Getting Tim and the others away from this horror-movie set of a hideout and back to Gotham where they belong is afterall, their goal.

It pains him a lot to have to contradict that plan.

“No,” Jason says, taking his hand off Tim’s box and looking at Robin and Batgirl’s shocked expressions. “We need to take out Collector and the Red Lady first.”

“We can hunt them down later,” Robin says. “Securing hostages comes first.”

“They won’t be secure as long as their names are on the list of those evil cows. There's nothing stopping them from going back to Gotham and snatching them again,” Red Hood argues, “They’ll only be truly safe if we take the Collector and the Red Lady out of the picture.”

“No killing,” Batgirl says immediately.

“Fine,” Red Hood snaps. “We make sure they get caught and  locked up, then.”

“How do you suggest we do that now?” Robin asks. “We don’t know where they are. Our tracker’s only  with Tim Drake, not the villains.”

“We make them come to us,” Jason says and folds his arms across his chest. “Oracle, if you purposely trip and raise an alarm in here, can you track where the receiver of that alarm is?”

“I can. But unless they have the receiver with them, I won’t be able to track their movements,” Barbara answers. “I can only calculate their ETA based on the distance between the two points.”

“That should be okay,” Jason replies. “We just need to spruce up their welcome mat before they get here. We’ll be ready for them.”

“So we use the hostages as bait?” Robin asks, sounding skeptic and border-line enraged. “We keep them in their boxes until we catch the Collectors?”

“Yes, we need them to reel in the big fish,” Red Hood answers and ignores the protest of his inner voice at the idea of letting Tim and the others stay in stasis any longer. “We know for sure they want these people alive, so they won’t harm them worse than they already did. They should be okay. And we’ll be here to protect them anyway.”

Like hell those bitches are going to hurt Tim further. Over Jason’s dead body.

“You can set up bugs around the place so I can give you better support.” Oracle suggests. “Before we decide anything further though, Is everyone on board with this new plan?”

Jason waits with his heart in his throat for Batgirl and Robin to answer.

“Everyone lives,” Cass says, stressing her stance on the no-killing policy.

“I swear I have no intentions of killing anyone tonight,” Jason offers, which is the most honest answer and the best compromise he can give.

Batgirl stares at him until she’s satisfied and then nods. “I’m in.”

Robin turns her considering look from Jason to Batgirl. Batgirl turns to look back at her and they share a silent conversation.

Finally Robin snorts. “Eh, what the hell. We did bring all these tranqs with us anyway. Let’s do it.”

Jason grins. “We’re all in Oracle,” he reports. “Hit us with the details.”

He bundles up and stores the Tim-related feelings and worries in a remote part of his brain for the time being as they iron out their new plan.

Jason tells himself he’ll deal with it later, honest to fuck. But for now, they have super villains to take down.

They all pitch in to give the plan a solid structure and it only takes a quarter of an hour to finalize. Gotta hand it to Gotham vigilantes, they know how to make fast plans on the go.

Babs doles out chores for them, and they take the next ten minutes to prep their grand trap for the baddies. Jason purposely asks for the job of bugging the place outside so as not to spend any more time accidentally (incidentally) mooning over Tim’s sleeping face.

Because no matter what Twilight says, it’s not cool to stare at a virtual stranger while they sleep without their consent beforehand. No matter how much the instincts inside you nag at you to do it.

The downside is that the Link is screaming at him again because of their increased distance. Fortunately, Jason’s able to ignore it better due to all the practice he’s had so far. He manages to finish his tasks without issue and climbs back up the tower.

He’s totally not dashing those last few feet, nope.

“How’re we looking?” Jason asks Robin who’s standing with her pocket computer plugged into another electronic panel in the wall.

“Sexy, but not like we're trying to, but like, sure we're trying, but it's almost effortless?” Robin says immediately, with a straight face.

Jason feels confused and draws a blank on how to respond to that, so he doesn’t. His long silence seems to amuse Steph and she snorts at his perplexed face.

“We really need to get you a TV Red, better yet I’ll get you Bruce’s Netflix password,” Robin comments lightheartedly before switching to a serious tone. “Oracle’s almost done taking over the whole system and Batgirl’s putting the finishing touches to the front door trap.”

“We should be good in two more minutes,” Oracle confirms.

“Good, great, awesome,” Jason says absently, already finding his gaze drawn to the stasis boxes on the far side of the room.

“So… you have a crush on Normie huh?” Steph says in a teasing voice and Jason snaps his gaze away from Tim’s box to look indignantly at her.

It’s such a childish term and seems like a very shallow description to even begin to encompass how Jason feels about TIm… but he still feels his cheeks heating up at the accusation and hates himself for it.

“I do not!” Jason denies, and then immediately realizes maybe he doth protest too much.

“I get it,” Robin says with a grin. “He’s cute, seems smart and cool. At least you have decent taste.”

Jason scoffs and it sounds forced even to his own ears. “He’s not— well yeah, I guess he’s cool and nice and smart and has a gorgeous smile…” and Jason stops himself from going on because he feels like he’s not helping his case. “But I don’t have a crush on him!”

Fuck, Jason can’t believe the word “crush” just came out of his traitor mouth.

“Liar,” says Batgirl, who’s suddenly standing behind Jason, startling him.

"Uh, no. I'm not lying." Jason tries playing it cool, ignoring the voice in his head saying he’s fighting a losing battle.

"You like him," Cass says simply. "I see it."

Jason chokes on air. 

He feels extremely ganged up on and knows whatever he says to try and deny their accusations won't stick. Cass is possibly the best human lie detector there is, and Steph is no slouch at the detective work either, as per par with Robin.

Damn Bats and their knack for sniffing out bullshit. 

Jason's immensely relieved Babs chose the next second to announce she's done with the hacking.

"We're good to trigger the alarm and set the trap," Oracle says.

"Great! Let's get to it," Jason says in a rush, jumping at the chance to swerve away from the conversation about his fucking crush. He walks away from the girls and goes to his designated (hiding) place without further comment.

It's not a surrender, Jason tells himself, it's a strategic retreat .

Also, Jason has no time for idle chatter because he wants to catch the villains as quickly as possible. The sooner that happens, the sooner they can let out the hostages.

The sooner Tim will be safe.

“I’m in position,” Jason says as he crouches down on his patch of shadowed corner. “Standing by.”

Batgirl and Robin both (thankfully) let the issue go after grinning at each other, and proceed to their own waiting spots too.

“Killing the lights in three, " Robin calls out in warning, "two, one."

The room plunges into darkness.

Jason lets his eyes adjust naturally, foregoing the mask's night vision mode. The lights will be turned on again once their trap springs and it’ll be harder to adjust from night vision in regular light.

"Alarm triggered," Oracle says. "I've traced back the signal to the responding receiver… It’s in the building’s sub-level.”

“They have a for-real dungeon as a lair,” Robin’s whisper comes through their comm-link. “Soooo extra.”

“ETA eight minutes” Oracle informs them. “I’ll have an update once they pass by the bugs Hood set up outside.”

Jason breathes and stays in position, keeping his muscles lax and unlocked. Ready to move at any time. He’s well acquainted with the practice from years of experience in stake-outs.

“I have visual,” Oracle reports a few minutes later. “It’s just the two women. They’re on the way up. I don’t see any weapons on them. They probably think it’s a false alarm since we did not trigger any other ones.”

Jason feels his lips pulling back to expose his teeth in a mean smile. He can’t wait until the villains climb up to their location. He has a lot of payback to give.

“ETA five minutes,” Oracle reports. “Batgirl, standby to trigger the traps.”

“Copy,” Batgirl’s voice answers via the comms.

“All of you, be ready to engage if needed,” Oracle says. “Batgirl’s going to draw their attention with the traps. Robin and Red Hood, you guys cover her, so be ready.”

“Got it,” Robin responds.

“Locked and loaded,” Jason confirms.

“Good,” Babs says. “They’re nearing your location. ETA two minutes. Take them down and get everyone back safe.”

Jason, Cass, and Steph sound out their assent. Babs goes silent and remains on the line for support.

A couple of minutes later Jason hears the sound of approaching footsteps from their comms. This lets him know the villains are right outside the fake bookcase now, since that’s one of the places he bugged with mics.

A moment later, voices filter through their radio channel.

“See? No sign of forced entry,” the unmistakable voice of the Red Lady says. “I say we get back to bed.”

Jason stops himself from irrationally busting out and confronting the dirtbags now lest they  get away… 

If the villains go back downstairs, Jason knows Babs can lure them back up by re-triggering the alarm. He lets the logic calm him.

Patience is a virtue and Jason gets rewarded when Sally refuses Dolly’s suggestion.

“You know I won’t be able to get back to sleep unless I check for myself Doll,” Sally answers. “But if you want to go back on your own, be my guest.”

“Is that a pout I see?” Dolly giggles. “Don’t sulk Sally, you know I’ll stay while you obsessively check over your collection.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll be complaining the whole while though,” Dolly chirps.

The Collector laughs, and a second later the hidden entrance opens up. As soon as the two women step inside, Batgirl activates the trap of a weighted net, soaked with skin-penetrating cocktail of drugs.

“What the hell!” someone shouts and the thud of bodies hitting the floor sounds out.

Robin switches the lights back on and all three vigilantes emerge from hiding. They walk over to the villains in a heap on the floor.

Well, that’s easy enough. Jason feels hope bloom in his chest.

“Aww,” Robin coos mockingly, “don’t you ladies just look cozy in your jammies on the floor.”

Batgirl giggles, then reports into her comm back to Babs, “Hostiles secured.”

“You,” Dolly spits out hatefully. “Knew we shoulda killed you.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t for lack of trying,” Robin says with a vicious smirk.

“What did you do to us?” The bleached blonde wearing a pristine white night-shirt demands, trying and failing to get her arms to support her.

“What? Never tried skin-absorbing substances before?” Jason jeers. “Thought you have a dedicated pool for it or something.”

“It won’t kill you, so just sit tight while we do our job and let out those poor people you trapped in giant steel boxes.” Robin says.

“Hah, you can’t open those things without Sally’s code,” the Red Lady sneers, lounging on the floor in her red nightgown. “And if you force them open they’ll self destruct.”

Jason feels his heartbeat spiking up again.

“She’s not lying,” Batgirl says grimly, after carefully watching the villain for signs of bullshit.

“Robin can you plug into one of the empty stasis boxes?” Oracle’s calm voice asks. “I’m going to hack into the lock and test out how we can bypass them.”

Steph quickly steps away to follow Bab’s instructions.

“Ooooh, so you think you can pick the locks?” Dolly laughs mockingly as she sees Robin plug her compact computer into an empty box.

“Hacking the locks counts as “forcing it open” stupid dears,” Sally explains with a smirk. “Once the box self destruct, all life-support protocol stops.”

As if on cue, the box Robin plugged into beeps alarmingly before the display panel sparks and the machine blows out wispy black smoke.

Jason’s stomach turns to lead.

“It’s okay, we have lots of test dummies,” Robin says encouragingly, but Jason can hear the tinge of worry in her voice.

“Hah! You’ll just burn through all of them. You won’t be able to get them back alive,” Dolly mocks. “If Sally can’t have them, no one can.”

Jason feels his thread of patience snapping.

He pulls his gun out and points it down at the Red Lady. “How about you shut your face or I put another hole in it,” Jason says coldly.

Dolly stares at the gun and blinks loopily up at Jason. Then she smiles wide.

“You’re bluffing,” Dolly says and laughs like she’s tickled. The other drugs must’ve kicked in on her.

Jason flips the safety off. “Fucking try me.”

“No killing,” Batgirl reminds him but she makes no move to take the gun away from Jason.

“Fine, I’ll aim somewhere non-fatal,” Jason compromises. “I’m pretty sure I can shoot her five, six times before it turns deadly.”

“You insolent brat!” the Red Lady shouts and tries to struggle but the paralytic component of the drugs have a solid hold on her. “I should’ve ripped your head off last time!”

“But you didn’t,” Jason says and smirks cruelly. “Now it’s my turn to play.”

Jason takes a steady aim, but before he can pull the trigger, a shout stops him.

“I’ll tell you the code!” Sally yells, sounding panicked. “Just don’t hurt Dolly.”

All occupants of the room stops and stares at the wannabe Collector. The Red Lady in particular looks shocked.

Jason keeps his aim at Dolly and cocks his head to side at Sally, unimpressed. He makes a point of adjusting his finger on the trigger.

“Please,” Sally says and she looks appropriately pleading. “I’ll tell you the codes, we’ll surrender without fuzz. Just don’t hurt Dolly.”

Jason scoffs. “Lady, we already have you netted, literally. We don’t fucking need your surrender.”

“What do you want then?” Sally asks, sounding desperate for the first time all evening.

Jason looks the villain in the eye, keeping his gun pointed at the other woman, he gives his terms in a stern tone.

“Give us the code to the boxes, and swear never to pick back up this human collection hobby. Stay the hell away from these people and everyone else in your fucking list,” Jason growls. “If you ever retry this shit, or come near any of them again, I swear to fuck I’ll hunt you two down and make you watch as each other dies. Slowly.”

A very uncomfortable look crosses Sally’s face, like the thought of it makes her sick. She jerks her head with effort in a nod after a few seconds.

“I understand and accept those terms,” Sally says quietly.

“No Sal! Don’t do this,” Dolly protests. “It’s your dream , you can’t let that go.”

A pretty sick dream of keeping a living-human doll collection. This chick needs therapy.

“It’s okay Dolly,” Sally says and looks softly at the other woman beside her on the floor. “I’ll find a new dream, with you.”

“Oh Sal,” Dolly says and sniffs wetly. “I love you!”

“I love you too,” Sally answers and her smile turns impossibly softer.

Jason rolls his eyes behind his mask. “Give us the code,” he snaps, cutting off the villains’ emotional moment on the floor. “Now.”

Both ladies give him glares, but a subtle shift of Jason’s grip on the gun convinces them to pony up.

“The code is zero-seven-two-four,” Sally gives.

Jason ignores the Red Lady’s gasp and whisper of “That’s our anniversary!”

“How do we know that’s not some fake code that’ll trigger some funky shit?” Jason challenges, still not bringing his gun down.

“It’s a single code for all the Doll Boxes,” Sally answers. “You can try it on any of the spares and it will work.”

Jason glances to the best human lie detector he knows and silently requests a consultation.

Batgirl nods back at him.

“Hey Bird Girl,” Jason calls to Robin behind them. “Try opening two random empty boxes with the code.”

“Got it,” Robin answers and quickly picks two stasis boxes and punches in the code.

They both open up.

“It works,” Robin breathes out, like she (too) has been holding her breath while she tries out the code.

“Sally isn’t a liar! Of course it works!” Dolly exclaims, offended at Robin’s disbelieving tone.

“Yeah thanks for your cooperation,” Jason says in an even tone. “Remember your promise ladies, or I will come for you.”

Red Hood looks the villains in the eye in turn, letting the message sink in. Once he’s aptly convinced they believe him, Jason pulls the trigger twice in rapid succession, shooting each villain in the chest.

Batgirl remains standing beside Red Hood.

The Collector and Red Lady both sprawl down further, bonelessly to the floor. Unconscious from the tranq darts Jason’s gun buried in their chests.

Somehow they ended up snuggled against each other.

“Please don’t tell me we’re bringing them to Arkham,” Robin pleads. “Ivy and Harley are bad enough, and Penguin is trying to woo Riddler again. We’re definitely over villain-PDA capacity.”

“I’ll call my contacts from Belle Reve,” Oracle says. “They’ll pick them up. Just secure them with a second layer of drugged net on top.”

“Roger,” Batgirl says and proceeds to follow Babs’ instructions. She finishes it with efficiency.

“Hey BG,” Jason begins, feeling a bit awkward. “Thanks for not roundhousing me when I pulled out the gun.”

Cass looks at Jason steadily. “You’re welcome. I trust you.”

Jason feels his mouth form a lopsided grin. It feels so light to be trusted again by people. He thinks he’s going to get spoiled if this continues.

“Let’s go get Bruce and the others out of here,” Jason says and turns away before Batgirl can see any more sappy truths on Jason’s masked face.

Batgirl and Red Hood walk over to where Robin is standing, looking anxiously at Bruce’s box. Jason can see the tension lining her shoulders. It makes him curious if this is the first rescue Steph has had to do for Batman since she got the job.

“Hey O?” Robin says, still not reaching out to punch in the code. “You’ve updated Agent A right?”

“Yes Robin,” Oracle answers. “He says he’ll see both you and Bruce for breakfast. He extended the invite to all of us actually. Hood included.”

“Thanks O,” Robin replies with a smile and then finally inputs the code.

The vitals displayed on the panel slowly turns from slugging to normal, and then the box hisses out white smoke and the front lid lifts open.

A few seconds later, Bruce’s eyes open and he looks around unsteadily.  His gaze finally focuses on Robin who’s closest to his opened box.

“Robin?” he slurs as he sits up. 

“Hey Boss,” Steph answers with a small smile. “Sorry we took so long.”

Bruce takes a couple of seconds to take in the scenario. He looks at the stasis box he’s sitting on and then removes the electrodes attached to him, cutting off the vitals displayed on his box.

Bruce then looks at the other stasis boxes scattered around him, no doubt noting that there are two others with occupants besides his own. He looks to the far entrance where the two villains are still unconscious on the floor covered with nets. 

Then finally, Bruce looks at Batgirl and Red Hood standing behind Robin.

Jason feels a twinge of hurt everytime when meeting Bruce’s eyes since they fought over the Clown’s demise, but it doesn’t stop the relief Jason feels at seeing his former mentor and estranged father awake and (semi) outside the creepy metal coffin.

“Good teamwork,” he praises, and Jason for once agrees with him. "Fill me in?" Bruce says to Steph.

“You got kidnapped and put in stasis,” Robin reports. “Their MO was to start a collection of rich talented and generous people. They’ve only hit Gotham so far. You with Amelia Crowne and Tim Drake are the only confirmed targets they managed to take before we stopped them. We tracked you down with one of Oracle’s comm units smuggled with Tim Drake.”

“I should probably start keeping one on me when I’m out of uniform,” Bruce comments absently, then he looks up again and says “And we'll parse the whole smuggling things with a civilian after we're in the clear. How's the hospital?”

“Situation’s been handled. No other guests were hurt.” Robin answers.

“Good,” says Bruce. "Do we know the perps? Repeat offenders?"

"No, this is the first and hopefully last encounter." Robin says. "Oracle's working to put them up at Belle Reve."

"So they're metas," Bruce says with a frown. "Are any of you hurt?"

Jason fails to stop his eyes softening at Bruce's genuine concern. Good thing he's wearing a mask so probably only Cass notices.

"Nothing we can't recover from," Robin answers, then tenses her shoulders as if steeling herself for something… a second later she launches herself into Bruce for a hug. "You're so hopeless without us B," she mumbles into his shoulder.

Bruce grunts at the force of Stephanie's tackle but he manages to catch her in his arms and hug her back.

"I know," Bruce says and drops a kiss on Robin's head. "Thanks for finding me, Champ."

Robin hugs him tighter.

The father-daughter reunion feels bittersweet from Jason's perspective. Try as he might, he can't quite shake the jealousy gnawing at his chest from seeing Bruce be a good dad to others.

But Jason’s envy gets tamped down when Bruce raises his gaze to meet his and gives him with the same soft look Jason remembers from all those years ago. A look that speaks of fondness and pride. It’s one of the things Jason believes makes having been Robin so magical.

"You did good," Bruce says over Robin's head "I'm proud of you."

Jason decides to take the message as meant for all three of them and not just for him personally. It helps him process things in manageable chunks and not yet completely give in to the hope that he and Bruce will someday patch things up.

Robin gives another squeeze before stepping out of the hug.

“Briefing over right? Let’s wake up the others and go back to Gotham,” she says with a smile. “Ooh, let’s wake up Red’s boyfriend first!”

“He’s not my boyfriend!” Jason exclaims and immediately curses himself for how childish and in-denial he sounds.

Bruce gingerly climbs out of his box and looks over the other one where Tim lies sleeping.

“So you’re dating Timothy Jackson Drake,” Bruce hums thoughtfully. “He’s a good egg, I approve.”

Okay one: Jason doesn’t need anybody's approval (especially Bruce’s, no matter how weirdly good it feels to know his pseudo-dad approves of Tim’s character) to date anyone , and two:

“We’re not dating!” Jason protests.

Bruce smartly refrains from commenting but looks to Cass beside Jason in silent question.

She signs back “he likes him,” and shrugs.

Bruce nods back in understanding and looks back to Jason with a satisfied smile.

Then the Batman raises his hand and gives a freaking thumbs up.

“That’s fucking creepy B,” Jason mutters. He turns, partly to hide away his reddening face, and walks back to TIm’s box. “Let’s just get it over with. And none of you better mention anything weird to him or I swear to god I’ll kick your ass! Let me do all the talking okay?”

“What? Worried we’ll embarrass you?” Robin teases.

“I’m serious,” Jason says and lets it show on his voice.

“Okay fine, jeez,” says Robin, throwing her hands up.

“We’ll be quiet Jay,” agrees Bruce, nodding solemnly.

“Zipped,” comments Cass, miming a gesture of locking her lips.

Jason takes a breath and raises his hand to touch the panel of Tim’s box.

This is it.

Jason feels the whole night’s crazy happenings one after the other culminate in this moment. He’s finally going to be able to wake Tim back up and tell him that it’s over, that he’s safe and that the Collectors will never bother him again.

That he gets to be free and go back to his normal life. That he should just treat all of this as some horrible dream that won’t be able to hurt him anymore.

Jason breathes and purposely doesn’t let go of the Link. He keeps it open on his end and holds it firm. No more hiding. If and when Tim takes notice of the pull too, Jason decides he’ll admit it point blank. He’s ready.

Ready to tell Tim that this is their final meeting and that they shouldn’t write again too. That Jason would never be able to commit to anything between them, and that it’s best they cut off ties now. That it’s safer this way.

Jason isn’t too hot about the possibility of it happening with Bruce Steph and Cass witnessing, but he supposes it’s better this way, so the other Bats can handle the contingencies of a civilian knowing one of them. Logic dictates that if Tim figured out Jason’s identity as the second Robin, then he must know some other things too. They can probably put in some of the protocols they have for Leslie arranged for Tim. 

He’s a CEO, maybe he’ll honor an NDA or some shit.

Really, it’s ultimately only going to be Jason’s pride that will take a beating for having to “break up” with his Soulmate in front of Bruce and the others… But if it’s between Tim’s safety and Jason’s pride, then it’s no fucking contest.

He enters the code.

Jason watches with baited breath as Tim gets out of stasis. His vitals normalize, the box hisses white smoke, and then the front lid lifts open.

Tim scrunches his eyes closed harder before opening them up slowly. He blinks up confusedly once, twice. Then his eyes drift to land on Jason’s face—as if Tim’s feeling the same pull Jason is, the impulse to keep staring and never look away—… and impossibly, Tim smiles.

“Hey,” TIm greets, breathing out softly. “You found me.”

Jason smiles back because he can’t not. He smiles back despite the heavy feeling in his chest brought on by his decision.

“Yeah,” Jason replies quietly. “I put together your clues and everything.”

“Knew you would,” Tim says softly but with confidence. “You’re the best.”

Jason’s heart sings.

“And you are still a manipulative turd who breaks promises. I haven’t forgotten so don’t even try,” Jason scolds, but the smile he can still feel on his face probably ruins it.

“Sorry,” Tim says as his face show no remorse at all. “It was worth it though, because you’re okay and you’re here.”

There goes another metaphorical punch to Jason’s gut. Oof.

Jason can’t take much more of this. Building up hopes and hoarding small moments when he knows he can’t keep them... It’s going to lead to one hell of a withdrawal and he doesn’t think they do rehab for broken hearts.

Jason knows he needs to just rip off the bandaid now and get it over with… But a part of him desperately wants to soak in every split second he has left with Tim.

Jason waits and waits for Tim to take notice of the Soulmate GPS figuratively beeping relentless as they both look into each other’s eyes. He waits for Tim to finally call Jason out for using it… So that he can use that final push to finally let go… 

But maybe the guy’s still a bit out of it from being in stasis for several hours because Tim shows no sign of noticing anything out of the ordinary. He just keeps smiling softly at Jason and looking like he’s still a bit loopy from the experience, with the soft slow blinks and tired but relaxed posture.

After all, it’s only logical that normal people don’t recover readily—as fast as say, Batman — from being pumped with a shitton of chemicals to enduce forced stasis. Jason supposes it’s understandable Tim hasn’t said anything about their Link yet as he hasn’t noticed it yet.

It puts Jason into the dilemma of having to be the one to bring it up, despite his very soul rebelling at the idea of him being the one to finally initiate the fucking end of their barely-there relationship. The thought of it makes Jason sick. Separation anxiety is such a bitch.

Tim blinks slowly and frowns at the awful look that must’ve made camp on Jason’s face.

“What’s wrong? You okay?” Tim asks with genuine concern and Jason feels like crying for the millionth time that night.

Jason forces a smile on his mouth even though it feels like his face is going to crack into a million pieces. He takes a breath and pulls himself back together. Tim doesn't deserve to deal with his angst right now.

“Everything's great. I'm fine,” Jason answers and fucking wills himself to mean it.

He makes a compromise with himself.

Once they get back to Gotham soil and Tim still hasn’t called Jason out about their Soulmate Link, Jason will tell him. And then he'll break it off.

For now though… For now Jason's going to recommit Tim's face to memory while he can and bury all the warmth deep in his chest to dig up again on stormy nights.

Tim seems to take Jason’s answer well enough, or at least decides not to call him out on it for now. But the worried look on his soulmate’s face doesn’t completely fade.

"Is everyone else okay?" Tim asks with an adorable wrinkle of his brows.

And Jason can't help but smile warmly at Tim at that. Just barely rescued himself and the genius bastard’s already asking about other people’s safety.

By all means Jason should hate this heroic (self-sacrificing) tendency Tim has, considering it's a huge part of why Tim gave himself up to the villains in exchange for Jason's life... but like all of Tim's other qualities, Jason can’t seem to help but find endearing sides to it.

“Yeah everyone’s fine,” Jason answers. “Well, Robin bonked her head but she’s thick-skulled and bounced back.”

Tim gives a small but honest laugh like Jason said the funniest thing and, not gonna lie, it rings like bells in Jason’s ears and strokes his ego.

“Did she need to stay behind to rest up?” Tim asks, his blue eyes still full of laughter.

“No, she’s right here with —,” Jason looks behind him and stops,  surprised that Steph, Cass, and Bruce all stand a fair distance away from him and Tim. Like they don’t want to hover or intrude or something. They’re well out of Tim’s line of sight, and they’re quiet as lurking Bats.

They all have goofy smiles on as they watch him and Tim interact. Jason feels his face heating up. He glares at them from behind his domino and Batgirl gives a tiny happy wave back.

“Uh,” Jason stammers, snapping his gaze back to Tim who’s still lying on the opened stasis box, blinking confusedly up at him. “I came here with Robin and Batgirl, they’re right behind me. O’s handling things in HQ,” Jason informs him.

“Oh that’s great,” Tim says sincerely, then he visibly hesitates before continuing. “Um, and the kidnappers?” 

Jason again keeps himself from pulling out his gun with real bullets and shooting the villains for making Tim go through this experience.

“They’re here but they’re contained. They’ll be shipped to a place far away that’s able to hold them,” Jason answers. “They won’t ever try this again.”

They won’t ever hurt you again. Jason doesn’t say. I won’t let them.

Tim relaxes at Jason’s words, and Jason feels fucking unworthy of the trust and gratitude Tim conveys with his eyes. It claws at his chest, digs in, and fucking twists.

Before Tim gets the brilliant idea of thanking Jason for coming to get him, Jason decides to get ahead of that train and jam the rails… Because it feels like he’s going to start foaming at the mouth if he hears Tim say thanks for coming to save him when Jason’s the whole reason he got taken in the first place.

“C’mon,” Jason says. “Let’s get you out of that box and blow this joint.” 

Tim snorts a laugh, “Did you really just say ‘blow this joint’? What era are you from?”

“I’m a classics guy alright? Stop nitpicking my lingo.” Jason tries and fails to stop the smile he feels taking over his face. 

“Who even says lingo ?” Tim breathes out then full on giggles. “You are such a dork.”

Jason lets out a surprised chortle.

Now isn’t that just hilarious? Red Hood has been given all sorts of creative insults and labels by fellow criminals, cops, press, and vigilantes alike, but never in a million years did Jason think he’d be called dork to his masked face by a giggling guy.

Tim Drake sure is something.

Jason shakes his head and breathes out the rest of the laughter in his chest. He gives up on trying to wipe the grin off his face.

“Yeah, yeah, yuck it up,” Jason says and rolls his eyes. “Let’s just get out of here, okay?” And Jason reaches down, offering up his hand to help Tim up.

“Yeah okay,” Tim answers, no longer laughing but still smiling up at Jason.

Jason tucks that smile into his memories as well.

Tim reaches up and clasps onto Jason’s hand. The second their hands touched and the distance between them ceased to exist, Jason feels the Link fucking rejoice. Like the mystical bond that exists between soulmates is capable of emotions... and Jason’s feeling it second-hand.

The punch of happiness takes him off-guard, but Jason still manages to pull Tim up to a sitting position.

Jason makes to pull his hand out of Tim’s grasp as soon as the other is upright, but Tim tightens his hold and Jason just can’t.

Jason swallows, feeling his throat suddenly dry up. He keeps his eyes glued to his own hand in Tim’s, afraid to raise his gaze to the other’s face. 

Going by logic, if Jason felt a second-hand emotion from the Link, then TIm should’ve felt it too. And then Tim would know for sure now that he’s connected to Jason… And for all of Jason’s internal plotting of coming clean about who he is to Tim, he doesn’t think he can do it right now when faced with the actual moment.

Jason grits his teeth, keeping his mouth shut. Any second now, Tim will piece everything together. He wanted a little more time in blissful limbo but Jason knows Tim’s far from stupid and fresh from stasis or not, he’ll realize Jason’s his soulmate because of the spike of emotion from their Link.

In the end all Jason can make himself do is stand tensely, hand in Tim’s very firm hold, and wait for hell’s wrath to descend upon him once Tim eventually calls him out and Jason has to fucking break up with him.

The short split-seconds seem to last for decades, until finally, Tim speaks.

“Oh,” Tim says in a floaty voice and Jason shifts his gaze to finally take in Tim’s awed face.

Jason doesn’t know what the fuck his own face looks like when he turns to Tim, but if it looks half as scared as Jason feels, then it must be a pretty pathetic sight.

To Tim’s credit, he doesn’t sneer in disgust.

Then, to Jason’s horror, tears start forming in Tim’s eyes after taking in Jason’s pathetic expression.

“Why?” Tim whispers, a few teardrops flowing down his face.

He sounds so fucking hurt Jason feels his heart ache, and the feeling echoes and oscilates through the Link between them.

The next second, Tim’s blue eyes roll to the back of his head and he suddenly slumps forward, unconscious. Jason startles and catches Tim in his arms. Heart beating like a hummingbird in his chest.

“Something’s wrong,” Jason finds himself saying before he even registers what’s happening.

The panic sets in when Jason realizes the Link from Tim’s end is wavering and dimming down.

It never felt this weak from before. Even when Tim was in stasis, Jason could feel the other end of the Link pulsing and calling loudly to him. Now it’s barely a whisper and Jason feels his soulmate getting heavier in his hold.

“Tim,” Jason hisses and receives no response from his unconscious soulmate. Jason clutches Tim’s slumped form to his chest while his other hand fumbles to hold two fingers against the pulse point on the side of Tim’s neck.

“No,” Jason whispers, feeling no pulse and trying to shift his fingers to the proper place on Tim’s neck, because it’s not possible that he can’t feel Tim’s pulse, no. 

It’s not possible that he feels the Link shutting down between them, no, no, no “NO! Damn it, Tim!”

Jason doesn’t understand what the fuck is happening.

His world narrows down to Tim’s heavy weight in his arms, Tim’s absent pulse, and the fucking Link that keeps getting weaker and dimmer. Jason struggles to hold Tim and the Link and it feels like he’s going to slip up and drop them and he can’t, he can’t!

Jason’s panic doubles when he feels hands pulling him and Tim away from each other. His gaze is dimming, but he can still see Tim’s boneless form being pulled away from him.

“No! NO!!!” Jason shouts, struggling to keep Tim in his hold.

When Tim leaves his arms, it feels like Jason’s chest rips open.

God, Tim’s face looks so pale, why the hell are his lips starting to turn blue for?? What the fuck is happening?

Distantly Jason hears voices but he can’t make himself care about them.

“—bin get him back to the box!”

“Hood let go — can’t help him!”

“Can’t hear — hold him back!”

Jason struggles and uses his full force to fight the hands trying to pull him away from Tim. They feel strong, but Jason’s fear grants him bursts of panicked vigor and by God he uses every ounce of it to fight. 

Why the hell are they taking Tim away? He needs to be with him. Jason needs to stay with him!

“Don’t! Please, PLEASE,” Jason cries, still struggling.

“Calm — Jay, son let us help,” a voice says but Jason can’t listen. Can only watch Tim’s prone form.

Jason sees Tim being laid back down inside the cursed box. The same box Jason spent what feels like his whole life trying to get Tim out of. Because it’s the prison that will keep Tim locked away and as good as dead to the world.

“Let him out! GET HIM OUT!!”

The fucking box closes over Tim and Jason feels a broken sob wretch out of him.

“No, no, no, I promised I’d get him back,” Jason continues struggling, trying to break the hold on him so he can go and break Tim free. “I promised.”

Jason feels his eyes burn as he keeps them tacked to Tim’s pale form. His own breathing is ragged, has been ragged since Tim closed his eyes. He feels drained but he keeps on struggling. 

Jason’s mouth keeps forming words; pleas and curses that seem to fall on deaf ears.

Why?  Tim's last words echo in Jason's ears.

“I just got him back,” Jason says and feels his soul rage at the unfairness of it all.

They ripped Tim away from him. After everything. After finally meeting the person that’s kept him company while he was alone for so long. After getting the chance to make and keep the wonderful memories he has of him…

The Link continues to dim down inside Jason and he feels the heat in his eyes overflow and streak down his face.

“I need to say goodbye,” Jason sobs, “let him out, bring him back. I need to say goodbye! Don’t take him like this! I’ll go away, I promise I’ll go, but let me say goodbye!”

Jason feels calloused hands take hold of his face and firmly turn it away from Tim; lying back in stasis, dead to the world, and up to the worried face of his Dad.

“Jay it’ll be okay,” Bruce says, but Jason feels his whole being refuse to accept the words.

How can it be okay when Tim’s pulse is nowhere to be found? When he feels their Link dying down, and Jason can’t get him out of that damned box? What the hell is happening?

Jason renews his efforts to struggle out of Bruce’s hold but a second later, he feels a pinprick stab his arm and then the dim world gets even dimmer. 

Jason forces his eyes to travel back to Tim, and with the sluggish movement of the box’s vitals display the last thing in his sights, Jason succumbs to the dark.

 

---TBC---

Chapter Text

As soon as awareness started blooming in his head, Jason let the panic fuel him and he shot his eyes open, desperately roaming around what he recognizes is the Batcave. He spots what he’s searching for a few feet away.

Tim is out of the fucking metal coffin, thank god, but he doesn’t seem awake. He’s being tended to by Leslie and Alfred, and looks no better than when Jason last saw him at the stone castle. Where he literally collapsed into Jason’s arms and he felt the life fucking slip away from Tim through their Link.

Jason jolts and would’ve launched himself out of bed and across the floor (after falling on his face), if not for the sudden heavy but somewhat gentle hands that firmly hold him back to lie down again. The familiarity of Bruce’s steady hands makes the panic climbing back up his throat settle a bit... but the fear that Tim will slip away again persists and his heart lurches.

Jason resumes fighting to get up. He gets pushed down again.

“Let them work for now, they need space,” Bruce’s voice says somewhere over the blood rushing in Jason’s ears. “They’re stabilizing him. He has to be eased out slowly to get the vitals support to hold. It’s delicate work, we can’t afford to distract them.”

Jason hears a broken sob. A wet blink of his eyes later, he realizes it came from him. He might die—” (again) “I need to get to him—”

“He’s going to pull through,” Bruce says with enough certainty that Jason starts to think he could be right. But then he says, “It’s going to be okay son.” 

And Jason’s breathing hitches.

He desperately wants to believe Bruce, but Jason got told that things would be okay so many fucking times already, and every time things always went tits up anyway. Jason isn’t a very trusting person, but this time it feels so much harder to stave off his fears and believe in empty platitudes.

Bruce let him down before.

“No!” Jason protests. “I need to go to him, I need to see him before, before—

Jason is near hyperventilating and thrashing against Bruce, who refuses to let him up no matter how much Jason fights and begs, (why can’t he understand Jason needs to get up and go to Tim?) when he hears another voice.

“You can tell right Jay? You can sense it? He’s here, and he’s fighting to hold on. Use your Link.”

It’s Barbara.

Jason didn’t notice her before, focused as he is on Tim, but hearing her steady voice of reason pierces him with a small relief. Just the knowledge that she’s around already makes Jason feel like he has someone on his side.

If anyone could understand a fraction of what he’s going through, it’s Barbara.

She understands what it’s like to have your soul calling out to another. To feel the intense need to be with them. To know the fear that they may disappear and leave you behind alone. She wouldn’t be handing him empty promises... Right?

Taking her advice wouldn’t hurt.

Jason exhales slowly, trying to regulate his breathing to center himself and reach for the Link. He starts feeling a familiar pull as he reaches inside himself…

Then he immediately gets suckerpunched by flashbacks of his last moments with TIm.

Sensing Tim’s side of the Link dimming down as his deep blue eyes looked at Jason with tears and so much hurt before rolling to the back of his head.

Feeling no pulse on him, no matter how hard Jason pressed his fingers.

(Tim looked so fucking broken after finding out Jason was his soulmate.)

And then Tim was being ripped away from him, and Jason couldn’t fucking reach him no matter how hard he fought.

Tim’s Link was shutting down, he was dying, and Jason couldn’t reach him.

Tim was gone.

Jason was alone again.

He never even got to say goodbye—.

Jason chokes on air and he gasps out. He tears himself away from the awful thoughts in his head, letting go of the Link like he’s been burned.

“I can’t do it,” he says, unable to keep the desperate fear out of his voice. The ghost of Tim’s presence fading away from their Link is still haunting his mind.

Jason feels like puking, his stomach turning in very unpleasant ways. He would’ve heaved but he’s too weak and gasping. The fear that courses through him is like a very bad hit from Johnathan Crane’s cocktails. Irrational yes, but he can’t get it out of his head.

“You can,” Babs says, both coaxing and commanding at once. “C’mon Jason, calm down and reach out to him. He needs to know you’re here too Jay. It goes both ways, remember? He’ll appreciate not being alone right now.”

Jason feels Babs’ words resonate with his concern for Tim.

She’s right. Why the hell is Jason acting like he’s the one whose life is in danger? He needs to get rid of his pathetic excuse for not even trying.

The least he owed Tim is to reach out to him and let him know he’s not alone. With Tim’s current state, the only available channel to use is their Link. Jason fights himself to punch through the fear and tries reaching for the Link again.

It takes a few shaky attempts full of internal strife, but he manages somehow.

Unconsciously, Jason stops physically struggling against Bruce as he concentrates on letting the Link pull him to Tim.

At first there’s only a terrifying emptiness... but Jason makes himself reach further until he finally feels the weak Pull coming from Tim’s side answering him. It’s nowhere as strong as the first time he felt it, but thankfully it doesn’t seem to be growing any weaker either. Jason desperately grasps it like a drowning man being thrown a line. He feels like never letting go.

Oh thank fuck he’s still with me.

Jason wants to cry in relief, and he might have had; he isn’t sure... But even if it warrants the gentle hand running through his hair, he’s not so worried if he sobbed like a giant infant. The relief of knowing for sure that TIm was holding on is enough to pacify him.

“He’s here,” Jason says shakily.

“Good,” Barbara replies, sounding genuinely happy and relieved. “Just keep holding on Jay. Don’t let go.”

Jason nods his impossibly heavy head.

He feels his body drooping down after he released most of the tension from fearing about Tim’s condition. Bruce slowly lets go of him and Jason slumps back to lie down in a tired heap. Babs’ hand stays a while, running through his hair.

He remains in a floaty state of mind the whole time they work on stabilizing Tim.

Jason feels himself dozing on and off, his body working through the tranq Bruce injected him with. Through it all, Jason holds a firm grip on the Link.


 

The first twenty-four hours back, they kept Tim under medical surveillance in the Batcave. He stayed unconscious the whole time.

Jason barely leaves his side after he recovered from his panic and had some rest.

Distantly, Jason picks up chatter from the others forming a plan on how to safely pull Amelia Crowne out of her own stasis box. They aren’t sure why Tim experienced extreme adverse side effects to being out of stasis while Bruce didn’t. They don’t want to risk Amelia having the same reaction as Tim did. 

Eventually they decided the best way to get Amelia out of stasis was to ease her out of it in a controlled sterile environment with medical response at the ready. They want her to adjust gradually to the elements while monitoring if her heartbeat and brain waves will normalize; not short out like what Tim’s apparently did.

They decided they should take her to the hospital and just feed the staff a cover story on how the Bats rescued the hostages who now need special care; sans Bruce Wayne who was being tended to in his personal medical suite on a classified location as per his health insurance “policy”.

It’s a load of bullshit, but Oracle could fabricate all the necessary evidence, and a lot of truths in the city have been far more outrageous anyway. Gotham’s media would most probably swallow it.

“Jay, we’ll need to take Tim Drake to the hospital too.” Bruce's  careful tone takes Jason back to his early days in the manor, back when he was still prone to nightmares about his dead mother. “He’s stable now but he’ll be better taken care of there.”

He’s right. Jason knows he’s right. But it still stings that they can’t make Tim get well right then and there.

“How is he?” Jason asks numbly.

What the hell happened that made Tim’s heart stop? He was fine, if a bit fatigued-looking when Jason first opened the box. It was only when Tim fully got up outside the box did he seize up and lose his pulse.

“We’re not sure,” Bruce admits, sounding uncertain in a way that irks Jason. “His vitals are on the low side of normal, and we don’t have enough equipment here to test everything… But it’ll be alright.”

“He fucking died Bruce,” Jason says through gritted teeth. “Stop telling me it’s alright!” He’s scared and angry and Bruce is the only one besides himself he feels okay redirecting his frustrations to. 

Jason reaches out to rest a hand against the rail of Tim’s gurney. “I felt him die, and all I did was watch.”

From behind Jason he hears Bruce make a sound like he’s been punched.

“I’m so sorry Jay,” Bruce breathes out after a second. He reaches out and places a heavy hand on Jason’s shoulder. Somehow carrying with it a feeling of mourning and self-blame that strikes Jason with shock.

He feels his hackles rising; his grip on Tim’s gurney tightening.

Jason belatedly realizes that his own experience of witnessing someone he cares about die could be considered similar to how Bruce may have felt when Jason died and he failed to rescue him.

Like a reflection on a broken mirror. Different but recognizable.

“Don’t start this shit right now Bruce,” Jason hisses. He feels the hand on his shoulder tense and lighten as if going to pull away, before Bruce seems to come to the decision to keep it there and squeeze firmly instead. “Don’t apologize now.”

Jason shut his eyes and grips the metal railing of Tim’s bed tighter.

Fuck, Jason didn’t mean to bring up old ghosts so soon after he just went through his own experience of having a momentarily-dead important person come back to life. (Nevermind that Tim was never declared clinically dead, and that it may have only been for a few seconds, Jason felt his heart stop firsthand.)

“I am sorry Jay. I should’ve said so sooner, talked to you sooner,” he hears Bruce say. He sounds so small and it feels wrong to Jason. Bruce Wayne isn’t supposed to sound like that. Batman isn’t supposed to sound so powerless.

“Yeah well I was sort of trying to kill you back then,” Jason lets out a weak laugh. “I guess you were too busy dodging bullets to talk.”

“Most of your shots weren’t aimed fatally, and the Suit’s armored to be mostly bullet-proof,” Bruce begins sincerely, and Jason has the ridiculous urge to laugh hysterically for real but he manages to push it down. “And you eventually stopped attacking after a while, but I… I never reached out to you when I had the chance. I was avoiding you.”

Jason would like to think he scoffs in response, but it’s probably more of a snort in reality. “I would’ve punched you if you came to see me,” Jason says.

“I should’ve taken it,” Bruce replies in all seriousness. “You deserve more from me. You deserve better,  or at least— something. You died and came back. I had the impossible second chance to make things right with you. And I didn’t. I just let it fester for so long… I let you down Jay.”

Jason feels a whole new layer of exhaustion coming over him. His shoulders slump, taking Bruce’s hand down with them. He has no more strength left in him to even try lying.

“Yeah, you did,” Jason admits flatly. “But not because you failed to stop my murder. I forgive you for not being able to save me Bruce.”

Jason feels Bruce’s hand start trembling on his shoulder, and he follows the impulse to raise his free hand to grab hold of it and squeeze.

He hears Bruce gasp behind him. Probably not expecting Jason to reach back. Jason honestly wasn’t expecting himself to... But it happened anyway.

“My death isn’t really the biggest hang-up I have when it comes to us Bruce,” Jason forces himself to finally say. “I never blamed you for the shitty choices I made that led to that night. I was the one who made them, no one else. I was the stupid kid that deluded himself into falling into a stupid trap… But that’s fine. After I came back, I took care of disposing the monster under my bed personally, like a big boy, heh.”

Jason could tell his disastrous attempt at humor failed when Bruce’s trembling hand curls tighter around his shoulder…

And there it was. The true problem between them.

“I did it myself Bruce,” Jason says, deciding to just let everything flood out now. “I killed him myself because you wouldn’t do it. I wanted you to do it! I tied and gagged him up and demanded you kill him in front of me, but you didn’t do it. That made me feel like I wasn’t important enough; that no one cared enough to seek justice for me... Not even you.”

Jason practically feels Bruce wince at his words but he continues on, hand still clutching Bruce’s. There's no turning back now.

“I died but he got to live and ruin more lives and kill more people… It’s like my death was for nothing. It didn’t matter that I died. I didn’t matter at all.”

Jason pauses to breathe. Bruce remains quiet. Shaking hand still in Jason’s hold.

“I got so angry and then I just wanted to hurt you,” Jason continues. “But more than that I wanted him dead... And so I killed him, right in front of you.” Jason closes his eyes, he could still see the horror in Bruce’s face when Jason pulled the trigger that ended it.

“Now he’s the one who’s gone, but he’s still fucking hanging over us,” Jason seethes out. “He managed to take me away from you again, because now you’ll never be able to trust me anymore. You can’t accept me for all the blood in my hands. I can never go back home.”

“Oh Jason—,” Bruce says, but Jason cuts him off. 

“I forgive you for not being able to save me Bruce,” Jason says with finality. “And I know we’ll never be family again because you’ll never forgive me for what I’ve done. Because I’m not sorry.” He pauses for a second to let it sink in. “I don’t have a smidge of regret for killing him. I never fucking will. May he rot in hell for all eternity. That goes to all the others I’ve offed too.”

Jason feels Bruce’s hand leave his shoulder and slip out of his grip. He smiles bitterly at himself.

Yeah, it checks out that Bruce would want to get away from him after that shit-show. Jason lets his own hand drop while the other remains on Tim’s bed.

He’s accepted the fact that he’ll never be able to reconcile with Bruce. Jason knows the man is stubborn and stuck to his ideals. Jason knows himself too; knows that he would never feel guilty for his deeds and that will make it impossible for Bruce to accept him now…

Jason will forever be a disappointment.

He’s come to terms with it and has resolved to make himself used to life on his own. Jason was set on living the rest of his days his own way alone. He never even planned on meeting up with his soulmate… But recent events put a bit of a hamper in his plans.

It doesn’t matter though. Once Tim wakes up Jason will break it off and things will return back to norm—.

Jason staggers a little sideways from Bruce stepping beside him and engulfing him in a hug.

“You do matter Jason,” is the first thing that Bruce says while giving Jason the bear hug of his life. “I’m sorry I made you feel all those horrible things. I know we have many issues to work through, but I want you to know I’m willing to work on them with you if you’ll allow me.”

Jason blinks shocked eyes when he feels wetness on the side of his head, where Bruce smushed his face against.

Holy fucking shit. Jason made Batman cry.

“You’re my son Jay,” Bruce continues, hugging him tighter. “No matter what, you’ll always be my son. And I do care about you. We’re family.”

Jason feels his own tears begin to sting his eyes.

“No, Bruce,” Jason says in denial, because he’s tired of getting handed hope and having it ripped away from him later...like meeting Tim only to have him taken away. “We can never go back to how it was.”

“Then let’s just move forward from here,” Bruce replies, one hand going up to push Jason’s head against his broad shoulder. “We don’t have to be okay right away Jay. I know we both feel like we let each other down, but I think we should try being family again. We can talk it out, or see about getting professional help. There are certified counselors from the League that can help.”

“I don’t know if I can Bruce,” Jason says, trying and failing to not let his voice show how scared he is.

“That’s okay. You shouldn’t feel like you have to do it,” Bruce says, sounding sad but radiating acceptance. “I just wanted to let you know that if you ever want to, we can, alright?... I don’t hate you Jason. I could never, even if I tried.”

“I…” Jason starts to say, tears flowing down his face. “I don’t hate you too.”

Jason raises his free arm and fucking hugs back his dad.

Bruce tenses a bit, probably surprised that Jason hugged him back, but a second later he relaxes into hugging Jason again, and after a few more moments, Jason hears Bruce chuckle wetly.

“That’s really good to know Bud,” Bruce says through snot but with a lightness Jason realized he hasn’t heard from the man since his death. Jason feels an answering lightness begin to bloom within him.

Bruce gives Jason another squeeze before letting him go and looking at him with tear tracks on his stubbled face. “I know we have a heap of baggage on us. But we can work on that later, we have time now. But first we need to focus on this matter.”

Then his red-rimmed eyes sweep to the side, looking at Tim asleep on the gurney. He’s still out cold after all the heated conversation Jason and Bruce had right in freaking front of him.

Jason feels his stomach drop again.

“What’s wrong with him?” Jason asks helplessly. No longer too worried about sounding as lost as he feels around Bruce. He’s just too tired now.

Bruce releases him from the hug but does not step away. He places his hand back around Jason to his far shoulder in a show of support.

“We’re not sure yet,” Bruce admits again, tone not sugarcoating anything now. “Leslie and Alfred managed to get his heart beating without the help of the stasis machine, but his body’s showing signs of exhaustion and shock, which is probably why he’s still unconscious. We can run more tests with whatever we have here, but a hospital will be better to care for him and we can’t keep him here longer without raising concerns. He’s a civilian.”

Jason winces internally at Bruce’s words. He recognizes the truth in them. Tim’s a civilian with his own life to get back to. Jason can’t keep him. It’s just going to create problems later on.

Jason can’t keep him.

“Yeah, he doesn’t belong here. We’re just going to make it hard if we keep him longer. Let’s arrange their transfer.” Jason sighs. His eyes drop to his hand that’s still curled around the cold metal railing of Tim’s gurney. 

Jason suddenly gets reminded of their Soul Messages and feels anxiety claw at him. “We should remove the words from our arms before we send him to the hospital. They can’t know he has a soulmate. He looked so scared when they used it against him.” Then his anxiety ratchets up as another thought enters his mind. “Fuck, he knows me Bruce! How do we deal with that? Should he go into witness protection or something?”

“Calm down Jay,” Bruce says, and Jason takes a breath. “We have contingencies we can use. We’ll monitor his progress in the hospital. If you want, we can brief him as soon as he’s awake and ready. We can engage him with the knowledge network so he’ll—”

“No,” Jason snaps, firmly cutting Bruce off. “I don’t want him involved further than he is.”

“But, he’s your soulmate,” Bruce replies, sounding genuinely confused. “Haven’t you two been communicating regularly? Don’t you update regularly of your status?”

Jason looks at Bruce like he was crazy.

“No, what gave you that idea?” Jason rebukes. Then he catches himself and thinks back to the words on their arms.

'Dear Soulmate how’re you?'

'Dear Soulmate where the fuck are you?'

'I’m ok. May not be able to write 4 a while. Stay safe.'

Yeah that could read like they were updating each other (which they were) and purposely being vague because of vigilante stuff… 

“We were anonymous,” Jason explains. “We don’t have that kind of relationship. I wanted us to stay like that, because I don’t want anyone involved in my shitty life. But then I met him while he’s getting kidnapped and he had my Soul Messages. I kept on hiding mine so he wouldn’t know, and I planned on cutting ties off with him after that mission... But well, you know how well that turned out.”

“I— But the way you two talked, it seemed…” Bruce begins, but stops when he glimpses the pained look Jason’s face must’ve contorted to. Bruce takes a deep breath. “What did you mean when you said he knows you?”

“He knows Jason Todd and Red Hood are the same person,” Jason says, deciding this was the most important info. “I’m not sure how he knows, but he called me by name before he gave himself up and went with the kidnappers.”

“He gave himself up to the kidnappers??” Bruce sounds both scandalized and worried. Jason appreciates the concern for Tim. “Wait a minute, you were masked and he called you Jason?”

Jason nods in response. 

“And you didn’t tell him your name before you met?” Bruce asks and Jason nods again. “You— died,” Bruce says the word like he was pulling his own teeth, “before age eighteen so you didn’t have the Soul Links active yet… You’ve been off the grid since you came back, and your civilian identity is legally still— dead,” Bruce breathes then continues.“If you didn’t tell him anything, how could he have known you’re Red Hood?”

Bruce wasn’t even sure Red Hood was Jason until he revealed himself and attacked them.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Jason says flatly. “All I know is that Tim knows me from before too. He knew I was the second Robin.” Then fear climbs into his throat again. “What if he knows a lot more than that? He could be in so much trouble if the wrong people got wind of all the secrets he knows.”

“Thus, why you mentioned witness protection,” Bruce says thoughtfully. “Okay, we can talk to him about what else he knows and we can set up the same protection detail we have on our civilian connections.”

“Will that be enough?” Jason asks, not bothering to conceal his dread. “He’s very high-profile. What if he attracts more unwanted attention?”

“What we have set up with Leslie and Jim should work,” Bruce answers. “We just need to brief him about how to effectively hide what he knows… But if he’s known your identity when you were Robin and have told no one about it since then, I’d say he’s pretty good.”

“Stop being impressed Bruce,” Jason says and rolls his eyes.  Bruce always had a soft spot for clever kids that could one up him. “This is serious.”

“I can be impressed and serious at the same time Bud,” Bruce answers with a small teasing (painfully trying) smile, before turning to tell him sincerely. “We’ll do our best to keep him safe and brief him on the Family situation. You don’t have to break ties with him over this.”

“I’m not cutting off ties with him because he knows I’m Red Hood and that I used to be Robin,” Jason says heavily.

Jason frowns and feels his gut twisting. Out of all the people, he never thought he'd be telling Bruce this. But if there's a hope of ever making someone else understand his decision, the man that Jason just bled his heart all over on should.

“I decided to do it before I even found out he knew that. I just… I can’t do this whole soulmate thing.” Jason sees Bruce frown sadly and refuses to be affected. “It was great when it was anonymous and he was out of reach, but then I met him and he was wonderful and the only thing I could think about was how my life is so full of chaos and it wouldn’t be fair to get him mixed up in all of that. Shouldn’t he be free to make his own choices and not feel tied down to me and my shitty life just because we’re Linked?”

Bruce’s voice is impossibly gentle. “You should get a choice too, and your life doesn’t have to be chaotic Jay.”

“Well right now it is!” Jason snaps. “And if it’s true that I get to choose who I drag down with me, then I choose nobody, okay? All I wanted was enough time to say goodbye like a decent human being before I walk out of his hair forever, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Because god help him, Jason will not ghost Tim Drake. He’ll give him a proper goodbye because it’s the least he deserves.

“I understand. It’s your choice who you let into your life Jay. I will not interfere with that. I can only keep trying,” Bruce replies. “After you say goodbye to Tim you don’t have to talk to him again if you don’t want to. We can handle briefing him about the vigilante details. And he's going to be under the Family’s protection so don’t worry.”

Jason nods, silent.

“Please just keep in mind that I will be here to help you out when you need it. I won’t push you to come home, but if you ever want or need anything, you can tell me and I’ll be there, okay?“

“Okay…" Jason says, feeling weight both lift and settle on him, the newest wave of relief and exhaustion taking hold. "I’m just so tired Dad.”

“You should rest for a while. We’ll handle transferring Tim and Amelia to the hospital. You can visit him in the morning if you want. He may be awake by then.”

“Okay,” Jason says and lets himself be led away from Tim. He keeps hold of their connection and is aware of the increasing distance between them with certain precision.

As he lies in bed inside one of the Manor’s guest rooms (he sends a silent thanks to Alfred for not leading him to a room even remotely close to his old bedroom) and closes his eyes, intent on voluntarily falling unconscious for the first time in what felt like a few eternities, Jason promises himself he’ll be brave and finally let Tim be free of him once he talks to him after Tim wakes up from his own rest.

Jason wakes up the next day.

Tim remains asleep.


 

Before the recent clusterfuck series of events, Jason knew with a detached sense of awareness that a lot of people hated hospitals. Though he personally never quite understood the sentiment due to not having much personal experience with the matter…

When he was a kid, he and his mom lived in Gotham’s poorer fringe of society. Whenever Jason got sick, Catherine Todd mostly applied home remedies and turned to free clinics for treatment. When his mom got sick, she valiantly pretended everything would work out without expensive treatment.

And then she died.

After that came Jason’s time on the streets, and the chances of him visiting a hospital dwindled down even more.

When Bruce took him in, you’d think having a rich adoptive family would increase Jason’s chances of getting treated in a proper hospital for any illness that befalls him. But apparently, stupendously rich folks just call their personal family friend doctors to treat patients in-house.

Admittedly it’d been convenient. What normal kid would have the amount of scrapes and bruises Robin had? Would’ve been hard to keep secret identities unless they painted his adoptive guardian as abusive.

And then of course, Jason was murdered, came back to life, and was then dunked into a green swamp of liquid rage that had the side-effect of fortifying physical health (but deteriorating mental wellness) so he virtually never gets physically sick nowadays. Also he knows adequate first aid and has more than enough underground connections to get any prescription meds he needs under tables.

Hospitals just aren’t part of his lifestyle.

Until now.

Jason blinks dead-tired eyes, but the scene before him refuses to evaporate into an exhaustion-driven hallucination. It stays, tormenting him the same as it has for the past fortnight.

The sight of Tim hooked on to various monitors and IV drips as he lies unconscious on stark white sheets that further wash out his pallid complexion stirs all kinds of horrible thoughts in Jason as he sits on his ass for hours on end everyday.

Completely useless.

The reason people hate hospitals, Jason is finding out, has very little to do with the actual place, and more to do with seeing someone you care about lying in front of you so unwell in undeniable affliction… and you just sit pathetically beside them, completely helpless, and just watch them suffer.

Jason redirects his gaze and stares away into space that looks as empty as he feels. He’s tired of staring at Tim’s face, willing him to open his eyes and getting nothing in response.

The only respite left that Jason’s holding on to is that the Soulmate GPS is accessible and he can still feel Tim’s faint presence through it. Their connection pulses weakly between them as Jason sits by Tim’s bedside. He’s taken to clinging to their Link from his end since he woke up in the Cave.

The Pull is still present, making Jason want to stay rooted to his chair, scant centimeters away from Tim’s bed just to feel it where it’s strongest. It’s muted and doesn’t glow bright and hot like that time Jason felt their Links connecting.

Jason supposes it’s a lot to do with Tim being out of it right now.

Out of habit, Jason reaches for the clipboard at the end of Tim’s bed and reads today’s updates. They had to put him in a medically induced coma to help him heal from the toxic shock his system suffered when the cocktail of drugs the villains used to put him in stasis combined with the electrical impulses of the metal box suddenly wore off.

The doctors did a diagnosis on him and from what they summarized, Tim’s organ systems recovered from stasis at different rates. They theorized his brain and nervous system booted up first but some of his body’s other systems had a staggered start.

Particularly his immune system.

And that left him vulnerable to the toxins and caused complications to arise and his body went into shock while his immune system refused to function properly; basically letting poison run through his body before Steph and Cass managed to drag him back into the stasis box and get life-support going again.

Because apparently Jason’s soulmate is missing an integral part of his anatomy and has developed lots of obscure allergies due to it.

“Shit Tim, what happened to your fucking spleen?” Jason hears his own voice, gravelly from exhaustion, but sounding like thunder next to Tim’s silence. “How’d you lose something that’s literally inside your body? Things like that don’t just shake loose and drop.”

Tim remains unresponsive, connected to monitor wires and an oxygen line that’s feeding him clean air since his own body’s filters are still on the fritz.

“Good news though,” Jason picks up his one-sided conversation. “I read the business section of the paper every morning and your company’s stocks are looking as good as ever. I guess you have a really good VP or something. Or maybe Bruce got Wayne Inc. to somehow help? I don’t know. He said he’ll assist in making sure you don’t get too much trouble out here… You certainly could use people looking out for you, huh?” 

The beeping of the monitors are the only answer Jason gets in the impossibly large and claustrophobic hospital room. Jason’s used to the vaguely constricting feeling in the pit of his stomach everytime he hangs out in Tim’s room, but the silence makes it worse every passing minute.

Since they started communicating with each other, Tim’s always had an endless arsenal of things to tell Jason. Silence never suited him… Jason lets his mind wander back to their many many conversations to hide from the current hurt of sitting beside Tim with him not present.

After an indeterminable amount of time, a perfunctional knock snaps Jason from his brief disassociation session. He blinks and turns to look at the door that opens without waiting for a response from the occupants in the room.

“Oh, hello there. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’re still here,” the motherly-looking nurse that comes in greets Jason

“Hey May,” Jason makes himself greet back. He summons the strength to at least straighten in his seat, feeling the manners Alfred drilled into him coming to life in present company.

She gives a smile and walks into the room to do her rounds of checking on her patient. Her comfy-looking shoes make almost no sound on the floor and an errant thought of how effective those shoes would be on long stealth missions flashes through Jason’s head. (Do they come in black?)

She checks the monitors and equipment and then gets Tim’s chart out and writes the status on them. Jason tries and fails to disguise how he’s watching her every move. She doesn’t seem offended though and Jason counts his blessings.

“Everything looks normal,” the nurse says, returning the clipboard and giving a kind smile to Jason.

‘Normal’ she says. Not ‘good’ because that would be a lie.

(It’s distressing in a different way how this is now Tim’s normal. Jason longs to break him out of it.)

Jason nods at her and tries to give her a smile back. He’s sure it looks horrid, but maybe working in a hospital has made May more resilient to such horrors. She doesn’t seem fazed in the least.

“They’re going to take him off the medical coma by tomorrow’s end if he remains in current conditions,” She says, and Jason’s attention pounces on that info immediately. “They say his immune system’s working close to normal enough now.”

“Will he wake up after?” he asks, hearing the hope in his voice and wincing at himself.

“Not right away,” May answers kindly. “They’re going to let him come out of the coma organically, it may take a few more days but it’s progress.”

“I see,” Jason replies, stomping down his budding hope on reflex. It’s dangerous to build great expectations. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“No problem dear,” the nurse says. “It’s nice to know he has you to visit him often. We don’t see many people visiting him much,” she looks down at Tim on the bed with something soft in her eyes before regarding Jason again. “Aside from the busy-looking young lady that brings flowers every other morning, you’re practically the only visitor he gets. I figured you could use some good news. Oh, sorry if it wasn’t very good though.”

“No, not at all,” Jason waves a hand to dismiss her apology. “I’m glad to have any news about his development, so thank you.”

Jason must’ve sounded sincere enough because her smile turns a bit brighter.

“You’re welcome of course,” she gives a nod goodbye and walks back towards the door. She stops short of opening it and turns back to Jason again. “Oh, and I forgot to ask, visiting hours are almost over. Are you staying the night? I can bring over the sign sheet later if you need it.”

Jason pauses to think about it.

It’s one of the “security” measures Amelia Crowne put in place after she came awake at her own hospital. Strict visiting hours are implemented but if visitors want to stay the night, they could by signing some paperwork and showing ID. Given that most of the patients in the place are kids (it's still primarily a Children's Hospital) and that a hostage situation took place in it barely two weeks ago, they beefed up on security somewhat. Entrances are guarded and no weapons are allowed inside.

If Jason’s being honest, it’s not a reliable security measure since any evil-doer with semi-decent concealment tricks can still go through. But if it makes Amelia sleep better at night then who is he to judge?

“No it’s fine,” he answers after a second. “I’ll be going in a bit.” 

The nurse nods at him again and leaves.

The first couple of days of Tim’s confinement, Jason barely left his bedside and he always stayed the night, bypassing the sign up sheet and ID presentation sneakily by hanging out in one of the hidden corners until the aides and nurses finished checking on the patients. He barely ate and almost never slept. He just sat there and clung to Tim’s presence through their Link.

Bruce and the rest of the family were surprisingly distraught with his behavior but they were unable to talk sense into him…

Until one afternoon when Stephanie, still in her Gotham Academy uniform, with a healing split lip from when Jason blindly struggled against her for taking Tim from him, marched into Tim’s hospital room and tore into Jason with blunt words of:

“What do you think he’ll say when he finds out you’re letting yourself basically rot while he’s fighting to get his body back in working order? Don't cause more trouble. Stop this.”

And he did.

Jason finally faced the truth and made compromises with the family on how he can continue monitoring Tim’s hospitalization and still make sure he gets his own human needs met.

The new civilian ID that Bruce made for him with Babs' help makes visiting overnight easier, but they made him promise not to stay two nights in a row without breaks. They also made sure he’s not living by himself so there would be someone to poke at him occasionally to remind him to eat, bathe, hydrate etc.

It’s not the most unpleasant agreement Jason’s been roped into. (That title belongs to when Tim practically asked Jason to kill him if he got taken forcefully by the Collectors. Fun times.) It mostly works to Jason's benefit, but comes with the unpleasant side effect that he can't be near Tim 24/7 while he waits for him to wake up.

After a few more minutes of basking in Tim’s weak presence, Jason steels himself and picks up the unread book he’s brought to pass the time, before standing up from his chair and walking out of Tim’s unbearably quiet room.

He passes a day-old bouquet of sunflowers by the side table on his way.

“See you tomorrow.” Jason closes the door behind him and braces himself against the Soulmate GPS internally screeching in alarm at the growing distance between them.


 

Jason climbs up the steps and walks to the correct apartment door at the end of the corridor. He's clutching boxes of Chinese takeout with an arm, to fumble one-handedly with the key from his pocket and turn the door open.

Inside, the place is empty, but considering the time of night Jason expected that. He steps inside and places the food on the table.

He goes through the motions and eats. After that he takes a shower (highlights include perfect water pressure and adjustable temperature.) Then he gets into a clean shirt and sweatpants before collapsing on the living room couch with the TV playing reruns of mindless game shows.

It’s very extravagant living-conditions compared to Jason’s last one of hopping from safehouse to safehouse located in trashy parts of the city. This new setup allows him the advantage of lazing around in comfort and relative safety while he tries his best not to feel too bad about ignoring the Pull screaming at him that he needs to get back to Tim’s side right now. It’s amazing what tortures the human psyche can get used to with practice and dedication.

Between one heavy blink and the next, Jason gets sucked into a fitful sleep.

He wakes up from another nightmare some hours later with a flinch and cut-off gasp.

As he waits for his rabbiting heart to slow down, Jason silently looks around the place and notes the changes to his surroundings. The lights have been turned off and the only illumination came from the muted TV and the lamp posts outside. There are blankets draped over him and Jason doesn’t need to hear the soft scuffing sounds in the kitchen to know he isn’t alone in the place anymore.

But Cass just seems polite like that.

Jason remains slumped on the couch and stares at Batgirl sitting at her kitchen table, methodically packing away her equipment. He doesn’t know how she does it in the dark, but then again, she’s been with the League of Assassins longer than him. Maybe she’s trained in seeing in the dark better.

She takes off her gauntlets and presses a gauze to a long slice wound on her arm. Jason winces. Cass’s face remains neutral. The glowing clock on top of the counter tells him it’s less than an hour before sunrise. She’s back later than usual. She doesn’t show it, but Jason guesses she’s bogged down by the longer patrol.

Guilt gnaws at him.

“I should be out there too,” Jason hears himself rasp then clears his throat, trying his best to shake the exhaustion out of his voice. “I’ll go on patrol tonight.”

“No.” Succinct reply. Cass doesn’t even look up from bandaging her arm.

Annoyance begins to mix with the guilt now.

“You guys can’t just take over patrolling my territories. There are groups there that only I know how to counter, locals that I already know how to help. And you have your own shit to cover,” Jason protests, still lying in the warm cocoon made of Cass’s couch pillows and blankets.

“We can handle it fine. You stay here,” Cass says, voice soft but manages to make Jason feel like he's been slapped.

“Right, of course. You guys have it handled and I’m not needed.” Jason can’t help the sharp edge in his tone, but he figures Cass would hear it if he tries to suppress either way.

Cass huffs in exasperation and finally looks at Jason curled up on the couch after she takes off her cowl. It’s dark so Jason can’t see much of her expression but her stance makes it clear she’s not happy with him. She audibly inhales like she’s getting ready to give Jason a talking to, but after she lets her breath out in a huff, no words come.

Instead, Cass shakes out her hands, getting Jason’s attention on them.

“You’re always needed,” she then signs firmly “We’re on the same side. If you have fights that we can help you fight, we will. You do the same for us. We need you, so we’re helping. We’re not putting you aside. You’re one of us.”  She drops her hands with finality and looks at him in the dim light, her eyes somehow flashing.

“But now,” Cass continues verbally, voice quiet but ringing with sureness, “You have a... different fight. Only you can fight it. We can’t. We do our best outside… So go do your best and fight the other one.”

Jason feels a weird kind of gratitude bubbling in him. It makes his eyes sting and his chest constrict. He doesn’t really know how to express it in words, but he guesses Cass wouldn’t need him to say anything to make her understand. Part of why he insisted on rooming with Cass out of everyone is that he knows she wouldn’t force him to talk.

“Okay,” Jason says after a long minute. “There’s takeout in the fridge,” he offers lamely.

It must’ve been the right thing to say because Cass raises an amused eyebrow and snorts at him.

Jason burrows deeper into his nest of blankets on Cass’s wide couch. There’s still a few hours left before visiting hours starts for the day. Might as well try for a bit more restless sleep.

“G’night.” Jason tells Cass and lets his eyes drift halfway closed.

“Good night,” Cass signs back and picks her discarded things back up to finish cleaning and storing them away. Jason drifts off again before she goes to her room.


 

Tim doesn’t wake up on the first day of being taken off the medical coma.

Jason stayed the night and watched a couple of doctors officially get Tim off the meds that induced his coma. They give Jason the same spiel nurse May did the other day, but with more cold clinical terms and less human touch.

They don’t expect him to wake up right away, “give it three to five days more,” they said. And Jason bites back the urge to snap at them that they should know better than to assume Tim will conform to anybody’s expectations.

But Tim remains asleep all night no matter how hard Jason wills him to wake up.


 

Jason didn’t think he would be able to sleep that night, but he must’ve dozed off because the next thing he knows, he’s blinking awake drooling on the chair and feeling a faint crick on his neck. He looks at Tim, asleep on the bed, still as silent since day one, and feels the Link reassuringly pulsing between them.

Jason tries to figure out what woke him up. He takes a snuffling breath and the scent of coffee that was definitely absent last night punches his nose.

Is someone else in the room?

“Fuck,” Jason jumps up from his chair and immediately puts himself in front of the bed. A quick scan of the room reveals nothing different aside from the steaming cup of coffee on the side table where the sunflowers used to be.

Did… did someone come in while Jason was asleep and… leave coffee?

As Jason’s newly awake brain reels from this boggling mystery, the door to the bathroom opens and he barely stops himself from getting out the knife he has hidden on him to brandish it at the person that steps out.

Security cameras, he reminds himself and settles for looking at the figure in surprise.

The dark-skinned young woman with pretty eyes and a fancy blazer looks at Jason with far less surprise. She seems relatively unthreatening; holding a water-filled vase with a fresh bouquet of daffodils, but there’s something about her that tells Jason she’s not to be messed with.

“You’re awake,” she says simply, then walks to the side table and places the vase down.

Jason stares at her and tries planning his next move. She resumes talking in a light tone.

“The nurses told me there’s someone visiting daily, but I always keep missing them. I guessed it’s because I only visit every other day in the early mornings before office hours start. But it seems like a stretch that we haven’t seen each other before today, right?” she says with her back to him, and Jason flinches.

It is not a coincidence that they haven’t met each other before today.

Jason’s purposely timing his visits so that he’s alone with Tim. He doesn’t really feel like making conversation with anyone while he waits for his soulmate to wake the fuck up so Jason can make sure he's okay and then finally break things up with them.

And it’s not very hard to get alone time with Tim.

His room doesn’t seem to get much foot traffic on account of being an orphaned workaholic guy with very few friends.

Aside from Jason, Tim only has one other regular visitor. Jason kept tabs on that other person and worked around her schedule. She isn’t due for a visit today based on the routine Jason pieced together, yet here she is. She must’ve broken out of the pattern to catch Jason unawares.

And boy, does Jason feel caught unawares right now.

She walks closer and Jason determinedly stands his ground. She doesn’t stick out her hand for a handshake when she gets near, probably because Jason is still projecting (not) subtle “keep away” vibes, but she does give a friendly enough smile that helps lessen Jason's urge to wave a knife at her.

“I’m Tamara Fox, it's nice to meet you Jason Wayne,” she says pleasantly, and Jason’s brain stutters to a halt.

What?

Tamara just raises an immaculate eyebrow at Jason’s unhinged jaw. “I’ve seen your name on the sign sheet for the overnight visitors,” she explains.

Oh, right… The new civilian ID Bruce made for him named him as ‘Jason Wayne’.  Normally he’d make fun of Bruce’s lack of imagination, but if it wasn’t for the stupid ID he'd still be sneaking in using the vents or something just to visit Tim’s hospital room at night, so Jason let it pass without (much) complaint.

But apparently hearing somebody say the whole name aloud drives a wrench in his brain. He’s gotta get used to hearing that name to avoid looking stupid... Speaking of which, Jason feels like he’s stood in dumb silence long enough in front of Tim’s only mattering visitor and quickly thinks of how to break the ice.

“You’re Tam, the executive assistant,” Jason blurts out. He snaps his mouth closed and tries to play it cool right after.

He shakes off the feeling of deja vu.

The pretty woman finally gets some semblance of expression other than ‘reasonably-polite-but-can-and will-cut-you’ on her face at Jason’s words. She looks surprised for a second. But after a moment, it shifts into… amused resignation?

“Of course,” she says softly with a small shake of her head. She looks at Tim behind Jason and exhales a single breathy huff. When she looks back up at Jason, her eyes hold less civility… but not in a particularly bad way?… huh. 

Maybe this is a bit of her casual side peeking through?

Or more likely Jason's completely wrong, and Tam does indeed hate his guts for getting too familiar. Maybe he’ll find his own knife stabbed in his leg before this morning is over.

(Man, Jason feels like he’s picking up a few things from rooming with Cass, even if they’re only half-baked body language observances that he doesn’t know how to interpret most of the time.)

“I’m actually acting-CEO now,” Tam says, voice sounding breezier than when she introduced herself. “Until Timothy Drake here decides to re-join the world of the sleep-deprived, I get to run his company.”

“Oh,” Jason replies, and tries to fish around for more words to say. “That’s… nice?”

“Very,” Tam agrees and smiles with her teeth.

Jason suddenly wants to grab Tim and flee the room.

"It's a lot of fun shutting down the stockholders that challenge my position every day with one hand, and bat away hordes of tabloid and gossip column writers that insist I have my sights set on taking over the company permanently with the other,” Tam says, still smiling. “All while actually running Drake Industries with my invisible third hand. But what can one do, right?"

Jason nods dumbly. And then, because Tam looks like she's genuinely expecting an answer, he smartly says:

"Yup, c'est la vie," and shrugs.

Her smile loses a bit of edge. “True,” she says and looks back to Tim with an almost sad look. “Just can’t help feeling I should do better, I guess.”

“Hey, you’re doing a good job if we’re talking pure numbers,” Jason says before he can stop himself. “I wouldn’t worry about whatever they write about you in gossip columns or whoever questions your leadership. Anybody with half a brain will know they’re fake.”

“You’re keeping tabs on us.” Tam’s pretty eyes narrows at him. “On me?”

Oh, whoops.

“The Gotham Gazette is a publication,” Jason begins, talking deliberately slow, “printed for public consumption.”

Tam raises an unamused eyebrow and looks like she wants so badly to roll her eyes at him but she’s smart and knows not to take her sights off a potential threat for even a second.

(It reminds him of Tim and makes Jason miss him that much more.)

“What are your intentions, Jason Wayne?” Tam asks coldly, snapping Jason back to the present.

“What do you mean?” Jason hedges, and knows, even as he says it, that playing dumb will not work on Tim’s acting-CEO.

“I’ve been working with Tim for more than a while now, and never have I heard a whisper of your name. Then suddenly you appear, visiting him everyday after he got hospitalized, and you seem to be absolutely avoiding the times I visit. And now we meet and you know I’m his executive assistant, which very few people outside business know, and you also keep up with our company’s status,” Tam lists off, walking to put herself between Jason and the door. 

“I tried looking you up,” she continues, “but your records are all generic, pristine, or sealed from the public. You came out of nowhere as far as I’m concerned, and you’re spending a lot of time with my boss—my currently incapacitated friend. I know this hospital has security and monitoring and they do rounds every so often, but still… It worries me. You worry me.”

As Jason stands and listens to her talk, it dawns on him that Tim does have at least one person outside Jason’s world that cares about him. Cares enough to confront an unknown guy with a shady background inside a closed space with no immediate help available. Cares enough to go the extra mile of putting herself between Jason and the exit, as if she’s prepared to tackle him if he tries escaping without a concrete answer to her concerns...

It eases Jason in a way he didn’t know he needed until now.

Tim will be fine. He’s wonderful enough to have inspired friendship and loyalty from a person like Tam Fox. He’s not alone out there. He’ll be okay when Jason leaves.

“Who are you, really?” Tam asks, and had Jason been anyone else he’d be feeling more than a bit intimidated by her tone.

“I’m nobody,” Jason answers.

“Now you’re just trying to be mysterious and it’s sad. All you did is make yourself look more suspicious.” Tam crosses her arms and gives him an unamused look. 

“I’m nobody important, okay? I don’t want any trouble. I don’t mean any harm to him, or you, or your company,” Jason says, throwing up his hands in frustration. “I’m just visiting until he wakes up because I have something to tell him.”

After that you won’t have to deal with my suspicious mug ever again

“Then why not just visit after he wakes up?” Tam asks, unconvinced. “Why visit everyday?”

“I just— ,” Jason flounders for a second before deciding to fuck it and just vomit some of his feelings out. “I just want to see him for myself. Be here for him. He’s… he’s my friend too, okay?”

Not that it’s a lie. You can call someone you’ve been in constant communication with for a year your ‘friend’ right? 

Especially if you genuinely care about them? And if your souls are connected?

“Why are you only showing up now? Where have you been this whole time?” Tam says, keeping the follow-up questions coming. “How did you know who I am?”

Jason knows the basics of cover-story maintenance so he doesn’t balk at the questions because that would be a tell. Besides he doesn’t even have to lie, mostly.

“I wasn’t around before because of work. I was busy. For a good chunk of time I wasn’t even in the country,” Jason answers with more than enough subtle pleading in his tone to play on most people’s sympathy. “And he mentioned you once. I wasn’t spying or anything. He just said your name in passing; that you have impeccable management skills or whatever. I didn’t even know your last name before you introduced yourself.”

Tam narrows her eyes further. But Jason can tell she’s starting to at least consider he doesn’t have bad intentions.

“Okay look,” Jason says and spreads his empty hands, “I am friends with Tim. We’ve known each other for more than a year now, but we were long distance and don’t talk much about other people. But I do know him and I care about him. What would it take for you to believe me?”

“What’s his favorite Star Wars movie?” she asks in all seriousness.

“Rogue One,” he answers without hesitation. “But all Star Wars movies are ‘gifts to mankind’ and his favorite character is Leia.”

She blinks at him and uncrosses her arms back to her sides. “So you do know him.”

"Yes!" Jason belatedly reels in the relief from his voice. "Thank you for finally believing me," he adds sarcastically to compensate.

"Sorry for the hostility," Tam says and gives a diplomatic shrug. "I've been feeling on edge lately."

"Because of assholes interfering with your new temp job?" Jason asks with a raised brow.

"No, I can handle those guys,” Tam says and waves a hand dismissively. Then her air of confidence flattens a bit. “I’ve just been uneasy since this whole thing."

"Is it a safety issue?” Jason asks, starting to worry for Tim’s friend. “Do you think the competition's aiming to get you?" Maybe Jason needs to hook Tam up with discreet protection too, like what Babs has on her dad.

"No, I doubt it. If something happens to me, the company assets get liquidated and divided equally among the remaining employees. From board members to maintenance crew.” Her smiles turn sharp again. “Tim's iron-clad contingencies made sure of that. So if any corporate foul play is committed against me, it'll be a very stupid move on their part. I’m basically untouchable on that front.”

"You guys run a mean game with business.” Jason says, then his thoughts run again and he frowns. “So why are you parano—” he gets cut off by a glare from Tam, “Uh, I mean, uneasy if it's not because of work threats? Do you think you’ll be targeted by the kidnappers now that you’re running the company? You shouldn’t worry about them, they’re locked up now."

“No. I am not worried about them.” Tam sighs briefly. “It’s nothing to be concerned about,” she says and looks away.

Jason blinks. Yeah that won’t do. This girl’s basically running Tim’s work by herself. The least Jason can do is listen to her concerns because he’s responsible as to why she’s working solo right now. Tim’s in this situation because Jason failed him.

Also, what if she knows about a problem that can affect Tim? Jason should get ahead of that as early as he can.

“Hey, c’mon, I thought we were finally talking?” he says lightly, trying to get Tam to open up. “You’re not the only one allowed to be curious. You already know I’m not after your business, and I’m Tim’s friend. If your problem turns out to be something I can help with, what’s to lose?”

Her dark eyes briefly pin Jason with a considering look. She seems to accept his sincerity after a few seconds of scrutiny.

“Fine,” Tam says and walks over. She sits down on Jason’s unoccupied chair, then looks up at Jason and crosses her arms again. “Mind sitting down? I don’t feel comfortable with you looming like that.”

Jason bites his tongue. She took his seat so where is he supposed to park his ass?

Tam just raises an eyebrow at his silent outrage and pointedly looks to the surface of Tim’s bed. Jason feels heat blooming on the back of his neck and wills it not to climb up his face.

Granted, it’s big for a hospital bed, because Tim’s rich and his finances and private healthcare can afford it. But Jason never once tried sitting on the empty spaces of Tim’s bed. It feels like his head will explode when he considers doing it. And besides his chair is perfectly close enough to pacify their Link so he saw no reason to get… closer. But now his chair’s been taken over and he has no choice.

Jason gingerly sits down on the bed by Tim’s feet and glares at Tam.

“Thanks,” Tam says and smiles at him sweetly. It reminds Jason of Steph’s ‘I win’ smiles.

Jason rolls his eyes. “Now spill. What’s got you so worked-up?”

Silence for two seconds. And then,

“You’re going to think it’s stupid,” Tam warns.

“So?” Jason raises an eyebrow. “Why should you care about what I think?”

That startles a laugh out of her. “You’re weird. I get why Tim likes you.”

Jason fails to stop the blush that time. “You said he never talked to you about me, so how would you know?”

“The fact that he talked to you regularly despite the distance and told you of his interests,” Tam says and smirks. “Would he put in that much effort to stay in touch if he didn’t like you?”

Jason chokes on spit and clears his throat to breathe again. “Hey, you were going to tell me about your problem, so maybe stop deflecting?”

Tam huffs and shakes her head at him. “Stubborn too. You guys make a great pair.”

“Deflecting,” Jason says, deadpan but feeling traces of heat behind his neck. “Tam please, this seems beneath you.”

“Oh, alright!” Tam surrenders. She inhales and looks away from Jason to stare at Tim’s face.

The sadness that makes its way to her face feels like a personal call-out to Jason. “I hate seeing him like this,” she says.

Jason grips the sheet by Tim’s feet tightly. “So do I.”

Tam’s gaze leaves Tim and she looks Jason in the eye. “I’m the reason he’s here you know?” she says bluntly.

Jason blinks then frowns. “Well that’s just stupid.”

“Told you that you’d think it’s stupid.” Tam’s mouth twists into a small wincing smile. “But it’s true.”

Jason’s frown deepens. “No it’s not. You didn’t put him here.”

(I did. It was me. I failed to save him. 

I let him come with me because he’s so smart and convincing and wonderful and I felt not alone when he was near. I was selfish and wanted to have that closer even for just a while. 

Then I failed to protect him.

I left him no choice but to go with them so I won’t be killed. He gave his freedom for my life; he died for my life... and everyday I wake up knowing I’m not worth it— )

“You’re wrong Jason,” Tam says, snapping Jason back to himself.

For a second Jason’s desperately afraid he said his crushing thoughts out loud... But upon looking at Tam, she isn’t looking back at him with pity or disgust in response to his pathetic ass like he feared.

No, the look on her face is far worse. A very familiar expression that Jason’s come to know from himself these past couple of weeks.

The guilt on Tam’s face makes Jason want to double over in attempt to push down the similar reaction it evokes from his own conscience. 

He feels a surge of empathy engulf him, and he wants to reach out and let her know she’s not alone. It surprises Jason that he’s still capable of that. He thought his empathy was stripped from his person alongside the majority of his other morals after he came back wrong.

But lo and behold, here he is; sitting in a hospital room with another person full of guilt that’s resonating with his own feelings... Jason then makes a decision to help lighten her burden any way he can.

Jason doesn’t know why she’s insisting she caused this, but Jason knows for sure the fault lies with him, not her.

“Tam you didn’t put him here,” Jason says again. “It’s not your fault.”

He watches Tam’s guilty face mix with anger.

“You don’t know anything,” She hisses. “You weren’t there when his parents died and the company was thrusted onto him. You weren’t there when we worked countless late nights transforming the business into something we’re proud to run. You weren’t there when we had to weed out corrupt co-workers who often retaliated. You weren’t there for the many lawsuits Tim had to face when he was barely a legal adult. You weren’t there when he was turning into a one-track minded corporation owner and stopped having fun, barely interacting with anyone outside work. ”

Jason sits and listens to Tim’s friend throw these words at him. They hurt. But he knows he can’t protest them, because they’re all true…

He was never there for Tim.

What right does Jason have to share moments with Tim now, when he hasn’t been there for Tim through any of his trying times? What did Jason have to offer that could possibly help Tim now?

Nothing, that’s what.

“You don’t know everything about him. You especially don’t know everything about me. Don’t tell me it’s not my fault,” Tam seethes out coldly.

Jason looks back at Tam and tries to reframe his mind back to what they were discussing.

Oh, right.

It’s not the time to wallow further in his guilt for hurting Tim and basically not knowing anything about him other than shallow trivias, whereas Tim was there to save Jason both from crushing loneliness and evil metas that wanted to kill him.

Jason told himself he’ll hear out Tim’s friend and help her out if he can, and by jove he will. Kicking himself for being a parasitic soulmate can come later. Right now he needs to find out what Tam’s problem is.

“And what exactly made this your fault?” Jason asks, keeping his tone unaffected, trying his best to channel Alfred’s calm and listening presence.

(It always worked to get Jason to admit he stayed up past bedtime doing extra credit homework.)

“I...” Tam’s breathing stutters and she blinks at him. She steadily gathers herself together, losing the majority of the tension she’s built up lashing out at Jason. The anger in her eyes gets replaced by a beseeching look.

“I didn’t know,” she says and her shoulders hunch like she’s expecting Jason to snap at her.

This is turning weird but Jason knows how to roll with the punches. He calmly looks back at her and blanks out any judgement from his face. He waits for her to continue.

“He became so closed off I was worried it wasn’t healthy,” Tam says looking down at the floor. “He barely talked to anyone outside work, he was spending more and more time alone. I was worried he’s going to turn out like the workaholic people we know. Most of them easily get… stressed and obsessed and sick and not themselves.”

She looks back up to Jason. “He was always working and I thought maybe if I tried, I could make him go out and be social, be around people, maybe have fun again. Lose some of the stress, you know?”

Jason holds Tam’s sad eyes and nods his understanding. “So what did you do?”

“I made him go that night. I made Tim go to the charity event for this new hospital. Then he got beat up, kidnapped, and came back in a coma,” Tam says like it’s the heaviest thing she’s had to convey.

It’s fucking ridiculous.

“You can’t possibly think the reason he got abducted was because you suggested he go attend a fucking party?”

“I shouldn’t have interfered with his personal life. If I didn't make him go, he would've been safe,” Tam protests. “I thought a lot about it and traced the root cause. It’s my fault.” 

“This is real life. There is no root cause,” Jason says. “Endless variables make up this shit. You can’t just assign them values and then manipulate the data to get answers. You’re putting too much credit on your actions by saying you caused this.”

“But it’s true!” Tam insists. “If I wasn’t such a meddler I wouldn’t’ve forced Tim to go there.”

“Nobody can force Tim to do anything he doesn’t want,” Jason says bitterly. “Also, what would’ve changed if you didn’t tell Tim to go that night? The Bats said the kidnappers specifically hunted their targets down. If they didn’t get Tim back there, they would’ve just nabbed him at the next opportunity. Maybe during work, where other people would’ve been put in danger too. You can’t expect yourself to prevent that.”

“Knowing that doesn’t change the fact that my actions did lead to this,” Tam roughly gestures to Tim on the bed. “If I just minded my own business and let him be, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Are you even listening? There’s no way you could’ve prevented them from coming after Tim,” Jason knows this, that’s why he made sure they won’t try again. “And there’s nothing wrong with you trying to get Tim to go out more and work less in the first place. What’s so bad about that? You were just being a friend.”

“I doubt we even are friends,” she says, smiling at herself deprecatingly.

Jason frowns again. “You told me earlier he’s your friend." When Tam remains looking uncertain, he continues, "I can have them play back the CCTV if you want.” He points to the camera over their heads. “They have audio.” Jason checked.

Tam winces in embarrassment. “No, I mean, yes I do see him as a friend. But he probably only sees me as a very capable Executive Assistant that can stand-in for him and run the company as smoothly as possible while he’s away. We never really talk about things outside of work.”

“Uh, Star Wars?” Jason reminds her helpfully.

“That was one weekend at team building where we had to do a joint presentation on inspired innovations and he kept pitching Star Wars and lowkey kinning Leia…” Tam says. “And I guess he once asked me how someone can prefer Wuthering Heights to Frankenstein? But that’s about it.”

Jason reels internally at the casual reminder of one of his and Tim’s previous discussions about classic Gothic Novels.

‘Wuthering Heights just has superior imagery okay?’

‘That you comprehend after DAYS. It’s such a heavy-worded book.’

‘Frankenstein’s no walk in the park to read either buddy. I’m thankful for it opening the sci-fi genre but c’mon, it took how long before the Creature even BLINKED?’

‘It’s called world-building. And Victor created LIFE. That beats the ghost haunting Heathcliff’s ass any day.’

It felt surreal, talking to someone about things other than crime and death threats. Things he actually enjoys. Jason thinks it’s kept him relatively sane… Just another of the priceless things Jason will never be able to pay Tim back for.

But right now that’s not the issue.

“Are you kidding me? Of course he’s your friend!” Jason snaps at Tam. “He took your advice because he values your opinion; in all the time we’ve talked, yours is the only name he ever mentioned in good grace.”

“You said he praised my work ethics? That hardly counts as him considering us friends. I don’t presume things.” Tam says trying to sound reasonable. “I’m just here to be his Executive Assistant, and apparently run the company while he takes a nap… Oh, and also to give him advice on how he should go out more and incidentally get himself kidnapped.”

“Okay one: you gotta let that ‘I fed him to the kidnappers’ thing go; he was on their list the whole time and there are infinite other instances where he could’ve been abducted. And two: I admit, you can never presume anything when it comes to Tim,” Jason says placatingly, and watches Tam’s expression turn mildly intrigued at his second point.

“His thought process makes you feel like you’re playing a new kind of chess and he’s the only one who knows how the pieces move,” Jason continues and smiles as Tams snorts. ”But trust me, he values you a lot. Would he trust just anyone with his company? Would he have taken your advice if he didn’t believe you have valid opinions?”

“I… I guess not,” Tam says, finally sounding like she’s starting to listen. “But I can’t help it if I feel like I contributed to this mess.”

“If you’re really looking for a root cause, then blame the villains. But they’re locked up now so that’s taken care of... Just don’t let yourself think he blames you, because he’d never do that,” Jason says, looking down at TIm. "Continue being there for him okay? They took him off the meds last night and they say he’ll wake up sometime this week... But he still needs you, even if it doesn't seem like it. He's a very good liar and a manipulative guy. But he’s got a stupid hero complex and can be prone to tunnel vision. He could use more people that can knock sense into him. And he seems to listen well enough to you."

Tam is silent after that, and when Jason finally looks up to see why she’s been quiet so long, he’s greeted by a soft understanding look. 

Jason stands his ground and doesn't flinch.

“Alright,” Tams says after a long minute and smiles tightly at him. “I understand. I’ll continue keeping an eye on him.” She gets up from Jason's chair and grabs the coffee from beside the flowers. She shuffles her feet a bit where she stands. It feels strange to see her act hesitant now.

When she finally turns back to Jason with a sure look, he feels a small corner of his chest ease up.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have blown up on you like that,” Tam says and sounds sincerely apologetic. “I was just worried about— well, you know— but that’s not an excuse. This is our first meeting and I was plain rude and… hurtful.”

“Don’t worry about it,” says Jason with a wave of a hand. “I’ve had far worse first meetings.” He looks back at Tim’s face and feels his heart get heavy again.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Tam says and offers Jason the now lukewarm coffee.

“Sure,” Jason says easily and accepts the drink. 

It’s not like Tam said anything particularly bad, just the simple truth that Tim’s had his own struggles that Jason’s been zero help with. And even if her own fears and guilt are tamer compared to Jason’s own, it’s sobering to know that he’s not the only one with self-blame issues when it comes to Tim’s current situation.

Granted, Jason still thinks Tamara’s reasoning is ridiculous… But what does logic know when it comes to gut-wrenching guilt anyway? Who’s Jason to tell Tam that her guilt’s not valid when he’s busy wallowing in his own version of it?

All Jason could do in the end is implore her not to think Tim will ever blame her and to stay friends with him. The care he sees reflecting in Tam’s eyes as she looks at Tim tells Jason she’ll stand by Tim through this, and it brings Jason relief.

“I have to go. Work started two minutes ago.” Tam slings a purse on her shoulder that she got from somewhere and gives Jason another small smile. “Other than my breakdown, it’s been nice meeting you. I’m glad he has you visiting daily, and that you genuinely know him and you’re not just some weird guy I have to dig dirt on to justify getting a restriction order against.”

That punches a bark of laughter out of him.

“Yeah, me too.” Jason gives her a lazy salute from where he’s still sitting on Tim’s bed. “Have fun at work. Go wreck havoc or whatever. Make Tim regret ever getting into a coma and letting you pick up all the slack.”

Tam rolls her eyes at him and walks to the door. With a final wave goodbye, she leaves the room.

Jason takes a sip of the cooling coffee and is pleased to find out it’s far from stale. For a few minutes he lets his mind run blank and just lets the caffeine re-wake him up… It felt more than a little draining talking with Tamara Fox. She kept Jason on his toes.

“You need to give her a raise when you wake up,” Jason tells Tim’s sleeping form.

Three to five days more, the doctors said. Tim will wake up in three to five days. Jason feels like it’s such a long wait… But he’s managed to wait this long already, he sure as hell won’t flake out on waiting a few more days.

“Come back soon Tim. You’re sorely missed.” Jason reaches out and brushes some strands of hair out of Tim’s face.

After he finished the cup of coffee, Jason reluctantly leaves Tim’s bed and sits back on his chair next to the fresh flowers. The Link protests a bit at the longer distance, but like any mild annoyance, Jason tunes it out.

Jason settles in for the day’s vigil, buoyed by the knowledge that Tim has at least one more person looking out for him, and he should wake up before the week is over. Now Jason also knows that Tim’s been through a lot of shit in his life and he made it fine without any help from Jason. 

Tim can take care of himself. And he has friends out there to help him when he stumbles.

It makes the goodbye Jason’s waiting to have feel a couple of stones lighter… Or at least, it should.


 

His routine continues for the week, and each day Jason visits, he has to stop himself from hoping this will finally be the day Tim wakes back up.

On the eve of Tim’s third day being off the medically induced coma, Jason stays the night at the hospital, thumbing through a worn paperback copy of Shadowland without really reading.

He stays up the whole night and makes small talk for a few minutes with Tam when she visits the next morning, bearing yellow tulips for Tim and coffee that goes to Jason.

The rest of the day passes by uneventfully. Tim remains asleep.

Visiting hours come to a close and Jason makes himself numb again to the Pull screaming at him to turn back as he leaves the hospital. He also ignores the worry starting to burn at the back of his mind when Tim did not so much as stir the whole day.

Three to five days more, Jason reminds himself.

This is only the third day. Tim’s well within the window and the doctors foresee no complications with his brainwaves. The chances of Tim falling deeper in his organic coma is slim to none. There’s nothing to worry about.

Jason repeats this mantra over and over again to himself as he goes through the motions of eating dinner, hydrating, and cleaning himself up… It works to keep him functioning up until sleep comes.

On the fourth day, Jason wakes up from a horrible dream of holding a shovel in his hand and looking down at Tim lying asleep in a metal coffin.

The sun is just beginning to shine, stabbing his bloodshot eyes. The ringing in Jason’s ears refuses to go away no matter how hard he shakes his head.

A few moments later he realizes a separate ringing is coming from his cellphone on the side table, and he forces himself to breathe through his residual nightmare and pick up the shrilling thing.

Caller ID shows Barbara’s name. Jason taps the ‘accept call’ button with slightly shaky hands.

“Babs?” Jason breathes.

Silence on the other line for a second, and then Barbara’s clear voice sounds through.

“He woke up.”

---TBC---

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: To Have (Loved and) Fucking Lost It


Aside from the Soulmate GPS screaming away inside him, Jason feels numb.

After Babs’s call, he donned pants and took off running— bedhead and all, making his way through the familiar route between Cass’s apartment and the hospital. His mind conjures countless scenarios of what’s waiting for him, but his emotions refuse to acknowledge any of it, remaining buried in the deep, dark, ditch they found somewhere above Jason’s pancreas; a little below his chest.

He gets to the hospital in record time, only to be told he has to stay out in the lobby for an hour and a half more because visiting hours hasn’t started yet.

Jason knows he’ll go crazy if he has to sit and wait AGAIN before he can see Tim. Luckily, he’s had tons of practice sneaking into places and puts his training to good use. It’s child's play to steal a spare white coat and walk with purpose so no one bothers him on the way to Tim’s room.

He gets there with no fuss.

Jason stares at Tim’s door. He takes a second for a brief internal check, and after confirming his emotions are still dead to the world, he opens the door and steps inside. The door clicks shut behind him.

And Tim is there. Wide awake. Sitting on the propped-up bed.

He makes a small breathy sound upon turning and seeing Jason.

Tim’s holding a pen over his left arm, the tip poised lightly over his skin. The pen drops to the bed soundlessly a second later as Tim’s hand slackens open in time with his jaw.

Tim blinks, looking at Jason standing frozen at the opposite end of the room. The silence between them is ringing.

Tim takes pity on them and breaks it.

“You’re here.”

And as if they’re waiting for Tim to say a fucking trigger phrase, Jason’s emotions come alive, clawing their way out of the grave they dug in his core to burst out and riot.

Relief, desperation, fear, joy, triumph, distress, and a few other sentiments with no names rage war inside Jason. He fights not to let them overwhelm him. Throwing up on the floor doesn’t seem like the best way to start their second reunion.

Jason straightens his back, lifts his chin, and swallows down the rock in his throat.

“Hey,” Jason greets in a stroke of utter genius. He searches for a better follow-up and comes up blank.

Silence begins to stretch again.

Then Tim tilts his head consideringly (adorably), looking at Jason confusedly. “Why are you wearing a lab coat?”

Jason snaps his head down to look at himself.

“No reason, just borrowing,” Jason blurts the nonsense non-excuse. He shrugs out of the coat, feeling humiliation join the party of emotions he’s juggling. He turns to hang the stupid stolen garment on one of the hooks conveniently mounted by the door.

God, he probably looked so lame with a ridiculous doctor’s coat over his ratty shirt jeans and boots combo. Jason gives an unintentionally hard tug on the style-cramping coat.

A riiiiipp sound is heard, making Jason freeze again and Tim gasp behind him.

Slowly, painfully, Jason turns to Tim and winces awkwardly.

“Oops?” Jason offers.

Tim blinks wide eyes at Jason once, twice… and then his face splits into an unbelievably sunny grin and he lets out one of the most beautiful sounds Jason’s ever heard in his life.

Jason stares in wonderment, absorbing the scene of Tim laughing in amusement and delight. Jason’s stomach is doing flips and his mouth is falling into a smile of his own. He basks in bliss at bearing witness to something as pure and amazing as Tim’s honest laughter.

Another priceless memory that Jason will keep forever.

“We can burn the thing and scatter the ashes,” Tim offers kindly as his laugh simmers down, “no one will ever know.”

Tim directs a smile at him and it makes Jason ache.

This is how Tim should always look like. Safe and happy.

“Thanks, but I can dispose of evidence on my own.” Jason leaves the torn coat hanging and walks over to Tim, stepping over his fears and hesitations on the way.

He won’t need them anymore.

“It’s easier if you work with someone though,” Tim says, sounding very persuasive and looking all kinds of improper with a sly smirk on his mouth.

“Conniving with you does sound tempting,” Jason agrees with an incline of his head, “but I’m going to have to pass.”

“Your loss,” Tim shrugs before leaning back heavily on his bed. He sighs and gives Jason another smile as he waits for him to come closer.

Yes, Jason agrees. It’s very much his loss.

Jason finally gets near enough to look at Tim properly. He doesn’t look like death warmed over anymore; but there are still noticeable bags under his eyes and his posture is just shy of being slouched, like he’s exhausted from waking up.

Tim has fewer lines connected to him, Jason notes thankfully. His face is also clear of the oxygen line, now that they’re sure Tim is able to filter air on his own again. Babs gave Jason a run down of things. She’s been monitoring Tim’s medical condition via the hospital CCTV and patient database as a favor to Jason.

But hearing about it and seeing it first hand are two different things.

“How’re you feeling?” Jason asks, sitting down on his chair besides Tim’s bed one last time.

A crease forms between Tim’s forehead and all traces of smile leave his face. He hunches in on himself like he’s trying to shrink.

Jason immediately regrets asking the question after seeing Tim’s reaction to it. Of course Tim’s feeling like shit, genius! Jason bites his tongue from blurting out further idiocies.

“Weak,” Tim eventually answers, so soft Jason almost doesn’t catch it. Tim’s gaze leaves Jason’s face and falls down to his lap, his shoulders slumping.

“That’s normal for your situation,” Jason says, trying to sound reassuring. “Don’t worry, you’ll recover.”

Tim almost flinches, before he slowly looks back up at Jason dismally, like he’s disappointed in something. Like Tim finds Jason’s words wanting… Heck, he probably finds Jason wanting

 It twists like a hot poker in Jason’s gut.

“Okay,” Tim says after a while. He gives Jason a smile but it looks pained. “I’m glad to see you,” he adds, like he’s trying to steer the conversation away from how he's really feeling.

“Glad to see you too,” Jason says, feeling his own smile turning pained in response.

“I,” Tim starts then falters, frowning down at himself for a second. Jason barely stops himself from reaching out and touching him. When Tim looks back up, he asks “How’ve you been?” with a trying smile.

It hurts to be reminded of how selfless Tim is.

“You don’t need to check up on me,” Jason replies, hands clenched into fists out of view. “I’m not the one in a hospital bed.”

Stop it. Jason wants to shout. Stop trying to look out for me, asking about me, caring about me. Care about yourself for a change.

“Sorry,” Tim says, and Jason feels like he's been punched in the gut (stop apologizing, you did nothing wrong) “I just thought I should ask…  since I’m told it’s been a while since I was awake, you know?”

“I’m fine,” Jason says, making sure to take the growl out of his voice. “Don’t worry.”

“Good,” Tim answers with naked relief. “That’s good.” He sighs again, letting his shoulders relax.

Jason gives Tim another once-over and tries to gauge his condition.

“How tired are you?” Jason asks. “Do you wanna rest? I can wake you up later. I kinda jumped the gun and dropped by early. Patients should still be resting now.”

“I’m okay, not that tired,” Tim says hurriedly and straightens on the bed. He gives Jason a wide-eyed look, trying to demonstrate he's awake and alert.

“You sure?” Jason asks, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t really feel like sleeping again right now,” Tim explains and tries to shrug it off, but the emptiness in his smile tells Jason all he needs to know.

“Yeah, I get it.” Jason nods. He’s not really so hot about watching Tim sleep again anytime soon either. “So, how much did they tell you about your condition?”

Tim bites his lower lip as he thinks back. Jason refuses to be distracted by it.

“They told me I was unconscious for about three weeks, and they said a few other things but I didn’t really…” Tim trails off and looks at Jason apologetically.

“Hey, don’t sweat it, you must’ve been dazed as fuck,” Jason says gently.

Tim gives a slight nod. “Yeah, a little.”

Jason reaches out and takes the clipboard hanging by the bed. It’s needless; Jason knows the old information by heart, and the updates Babs gave him are fresh in his mind. He skims through it all the same then puts it back.

“I can give you the important points if your head’s feeling up to it now?” Jason offers.

“Oh, thanks.” Tim gives a small yet blinding smile and nods attentively at Jason.

He missed having Tim’s sharp clear focus on him.

“You went into toxic shock because you’re slightly immuno-compromised and the stasis messed with your system.” Jason begins with the hardest thing to get out. It’s over now. Tim’s awake now.

“You had to be put into a medical coma to keep your brain functions and other systems at low activity so your body could focus on rebuilding your immune system. They took you off the meds four days ago and you woke up on your own without issues, which is a very good sign. All your test results and readings are so far normal.” And Jason thanks the stars for that. “You with me so far? How’s your head?”

“Yes I’m with you,” Tim gently rolls his eyes at him. “I’m lucid and I understand what you’re telling me. I’m currently not drugged nor concussed okay?”

Jason breathes a little easier. “Good, just double checking.”

The corners of Tim’s mouth twitch up to a faint smile, then it fades and he asks in all seriousness: “The others didn’t get complications like I did, right?”

It’s such a Tim thing to ask, Jason feels his eyes turning soft as his chest tightens. Tim is good. Literally good. Too good for Jason to keep.

But he knew that already.

“Both of them are fine. You’re the one that got the shortest stick. Don’t worry about them,” Jason answers after a beat.

Tim’s face brightens in relief upon hearing the confirmation. Jason feels both proud and scared as fuck.

“You’ll be under observation here for a few more days,” Jason continues, “but you’re slated to have a full recovery with no complications. You’ll be given some real food today, nothing solid yet. I guess they’re easing you into that. You’re also being recommended to take some PT before complete discharge to make sure everything’s aligned. You’re not feeling any weird muscle or joint pains are you?”

Tim hums, then looks down at himself like he’s doing an internal inventory of his body and assessing each individual joint and muscle. It reminds Jason of that night Tim asked him to reset his shoulder... It hasn’t even been a month but the nostalgia punches Jason hard.

“No weird aches,” Tim answers, dragging Jason back to the present. “I mostly just feel… heavy.”

“Must be the fatigue.” Jason makes a mental note to ask Babs to subtly insert that into Tim’s patient notes. He continues telling Tim the important points of his hospital stay. “Your regular attending nurse is May, she’ll probably introduce herself to you if you haven’t met her yet. She’s got brown hair with a bit of grey and wears black-framed eyeglasses.”

“Oh, I think I met her earlier,” TIm says. nodding to himself. “Yeah, she said her name’s May and she talked about her son driving her to work today. She seemed nice.”

“That’s her,” Jason confirms. He’s been made aware of the nurse’s commute routine too. May is chatty. “If she’s not the one giving you pills or messing with your IV or something, ask for a doctor, push the call button. It’s there beside your bed. Do you see it?”

Tim hesitantly reaches to the side and grabs a corded remote with a button and built-in speaker. “Uhm, this thing?” Tim asks, holding up the white piece of plastic.

“Yup,” Jason nods. “All staff here have ID badges, remember that. If anyone in uniform comes in without an ID, press the call button for at least three seconds to alert security. They have protocols for that sort of thing.” Also it’s rigged to alert Oracle and that puts Jason at ease better.

Tim suddenly gives him a teasing look. “You literally came in wearing a lab coat. I doubt you have a work ID.”

Damn Tim and his beautiful logical mind.

“Humor me,” Jason says and ignores the pleading tone he hears from his own voice. “I wanted to give you the skinny so you’d know what to expect for the rest of your stay. That includes security, since you were literally kidnapped before you got here. This is important stuff, and I won’t be here later to keep reminding you about them, so just take my word as gospel okay?”

Tim’s face slowly morphs into a confused frown. He lifts his eyes to look into Jason’s own, searching for something Jason knows he can’t hide.

A few moments later, realization dawns on Tim’s face.

Tim drops the call button

It doesn’t even hit the floor to make a sound. The cord catches and hangs it midair, intact and undamaged. It’s strangely disappointing.

Jason’s sort of expecting some kind of shattering sound to accompany this next part.

“You’re leaving,” Tim says.

It’s not a question, but Jason knows he should answer anyway. Because this is what he came for in the first place. To see Tim one last time, make sure he’s okay, and then say goodbye.

“Yeah,” Jason whispers, his voice almost breaking. He clears his throat and tries again. “I just came by to tell you. Don’t worry, this is the last you’ll see of me.”

“What?” Tim hisses, sounding legitimately surprised. He shuts his eyes closed and gives a small shake of his head. When he opens his eyes back up, he turns them somewhat desperately to Jason. “Why? Is it because of a mis— ,“ Tim catches himself mid-sentence and casts a fleeting worried glance at the CCTV above them.

God, Tim’s always so thorough. Jason fights off the fond smile trying to carve its shape to his face. 

“The room’s secure,” Jason tells Tim and watches his soulmate cast an incredulous look at him. “Oracle knows I’m here. She’s probably playing a loop of you sitting on your bed or something. We can speak freely.”

“I…” Tim says, still looking a bit shocked. “What?”

“You called me by name before the kidnappers took you,” Jason reminds Tim. “Oracle heard it. And now the Bat clan knows you have knowledge of the city’s vigilantes.”

“Oh,” Tim says, deflating. He chews on his bottom lip for a moment (Jason still refuses to be distracted by the sight) before asking, “am I in trouble?”

He didn’t even try to deny anything. Jason feels a laugh punch out of him.

“No, no you’re good,” Jason answers after a second when his chuckle fit calmed down. “Head’s up though, the big Bat’s planning to talk to you about that.”

Tim’s eyes are as big as saucers now. “What? Batman??

“Calm down, it’s just to make sure you’re safe,” Jason says, trying for a soothing tone. “The talk’s mostly going to be pointers on how to better hide what you know from the public. He’s also going to set up some channels you can use to alert him if you have vigilante related things to bring up, like info or if you feel like you’re being targeted by anyone.”

“That’s going to be such a weird conversation…” Tim whispers to himself. He shakes his head then looks back to Jason. “So, uh, you’re not mad?” Tim asks, looking almost sheepish at Jason.

“What? No, why would I be mad?”

“I don’t know! I haven’t told anyone and I don’t plan to,” Tim says sincerely. “I understand heroes keep their identities secret for reasons right? Are you mad I figured yours out?”

“No, I’m not mad that you’re smart enough to have figured out who I am… who I used to be,” Jason says, running a hand through his hair, trying to work out the jitters in his head. “I’m just glad the bad guys aren’t as smart as you. You should definitely never shift careers to villainy.” 

It earns another small laugh from Tim. Jason’s jitters leave momentarily.

Tim gives a slight smirk. “They couldn’t afford my salary anyway.” Then another worried look crosses his adorable face. “And, uhm... is Bruce Wayne mad at me?”

And that answers if Tim knew Batman’s identity or not.

“Nope,” Jason answers. “The old man’s actually impressed you managed to deduce who I am given that my civilian identity is dead.”

Suddenly a look of deep sadness tinged with horror makes its way to TIm’s face.

“You really died, didn’t you?” he whispers.

Jason sometimes forget that Jason Peter Todd’s funeral was a public thing.

“Uh-huh,” Jason answers, trying to sound nonchalant but he feels his jaw clenching on every word. “Had to dig my way out through six feet of shit.”

Fuck,” Tim breathes, horrified. Jason wants to save both of them from this nightmare. “I can’t even imagine—,”

“Don’t,” Jason cuts Tim off. He’s not ready to talk about that now. Maybe not ever.

Tim closes his eyes and takes a deep, shaky breath. When he opens them back up, he gives Jason a small smile with most of the sadness wiped off. “I’m just glad you’re a great digger then?”

“I’d say it’s too soon to joke about,” Jason says with a small not-sad smile of his own, “but it’s been more than half a decade now. Maybe I should start getting over it.”

“You should take as long as you want,” Tim says, giving Jason a serious look.

Jason is touched. Other people got to mourn Jason's death, maybe Jason should be allowed to take time and do his own mourning too.

After a second of silence Tim asks again. “Are you sure you’re not mad at me?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Jason answers.

“And Batman’s not mad at me? And the others aren’t mad too?”

“Yes, no one is mad at you okay? Stop being paranoid.”

“Then why are you leaving?” Tim asks, sounding very confused and a touch panicked. “Do you have an away-mission or whatever? Will you be safe?”

Oh Tim. “I’m not leaving for a mission.”

A second wave of realization dawns on Tim’s face. This time it ends with a note of hurt.

“So you’re just… leaving because of me?”

“It’s not your fault,” Jason says, one hundred percent sincere. “You didn’t do anything wrong okay? It’s just better this way. You shouldn’t be involved with me further.”

“Yeah that’s a classic “it’s not you, it’s me” line,” Tim smiles even more painfully. “Just tell me you hate me. You don’t have to lie.”

“No. I don’t hate you and I’m not lying,” Jason replies, looking Tim in the eye. He won’t lie to Tim. He’s caused too much damage already. He owes Tim honesty at least. "I have a pretty fucked up life and I can’t have anyone coming in to make it more complicated.”

“But we were doing okay… sort of. Maybe it wasn’t the best start but we can improve,” Tim says, hesitant but with a generous amount of hope in his voice.

Jason hates himself for being the one that will squash that hope.

“We agreed not to meet in the first place, remember? There was a reason I wanted that. I can’t be a part of your life, I can’t be part of anyone’s life. It’s just asking for trouble,” Jason explains. “You need to understand. I can’t keep being near you. I’m a target for just about every dangerous creep out here. I won’t drag you into that.”

“There must be a way around it,” Tim insists, and Jason can feel his mind working. “Your line of work calls for insane amounts of covers and subtlety right? We can keep it discreet.”

“No,” Jason replies, adamant. Tim deserves someone that can commit fully, not just half-ass things. “And we can’t take that chance. Red Hood’s a notorious criminal and Jason Todd doesn’t exist anymore. You’re way too high-profile and hands-on with your very public work, someone’s bound to notice.”

“Tons of people are higher profile than me,” Tim protests. “A lot of them have publicly-known Soulmate Links. Some of them also keep their soulmates’ identities private as to not be used against them.”

“But none of them are Linked to someone who’s a target for the GCPD, the entire city’s Rogue population, and then some,” Jason argues back, “They don’t need to look out for every shadow around the corner because of who they’re Linked to. They’re not vulnerable spots.”

Tim gives him a disturbed, disbelieving look. The room feels a few degrees colder.

“And that’s what I am, aren’t I?” Tim asks, hands clenching on his lap, eyes shining with an unspoken challenge. “I’m a vulnerable spot to you. A fucking weak point.”

The amount of hurt in Tim’s voice makes Jason want to take his words back… But he wasn’t lying when he said them, and if that’s the kind of truth it takes to convince Tim to back down, Jason’s willing to deal a bit of hurt.

It’ll be worth it in the long run.

Jason slowly reaches out to take Tim’s hand. Tim surprises him and grabs back tight. Their Link sings, but there are stabs of guilt and an undercurrent of sadness resonating through it...

“Yes,” Jason answers bluntly. “You are a weak point.”

Tim gasps.

“That’s not fair!” he snaps, tears of anger starting to pool in the corners of his glaring eyes.

Okay so that just made Tim mad apparently.

“You literally went with the bad guys in exchange for my life,” Jason points out.

“Well they were after me not you. You can’t keep saying you’re the sole trouble magnet between the two of us,” Tim argues. “And I came with them to buy you time. If anything, that proves you’re my weak spot!”

Jason gasps, feeling like he’s been shot.

“That doesn’t make me feel better!” he exclaims, his own temper rising.

“How do you think I feel?” Tim bites back.

Tim visibly fumes at him. Jason feels their bond heating with barely suppressed rage, but Tim doesn’t let go of Jason’s hand even though he looks like he wants to bite Jason’s head off. So Jason holds on too.

For now.

Jason works to bring his temper down.

“Look, I can’t have anyone vulnerable trying to put themselves between me and harm’s way,” Jason tries explaining again. “What kind of life do you think I have? There’s danger everywhere. I can’t have you be part of it. I can’t have anyone not equipped to protect themselves be part of it… I will not let you be put in danger again because of me.”

“I understand,” Tim says, but Jason doubts it because he’s still opening his mouth to argue. “But I can try things from my end. Keep better security, learn self defense, create covers to make sure I won’t be tied to you... Can’t we at least try?”

Welp, here goes another stab at that hope-squashing gig Jason’s taken up.

“You have no idea how much I want to try,” Jason says and lets the desperation seep in intentionally. His thumb runs absentminded circles on the back of Tim’s hand. “But I’d rather put a bullet in my head than know I put you in harm’s way.” Jason ignores Tim’s gasp at his words and continues on. “I can’t go through this again, I can’t... Your fucking heart stopped. Did you know that?”

Tim mutely shakes his head no. His eyes still wide in shock from Jason’s words.

“Your heart stopped and I felt it. It might as well have been mine,” Jason continues and breathes through the memories. “I keep having nightmares of being the reason you die. I can’t look at you without that fear... We can’t build ourselves from this. We’ll break apart before we even get to truly know each other. I have issues that just won’t work with us. I can’t do this.”

“B-but I’m okay, I’m not dead,” Tim says hurriedly, like the logic will somehow sway Jason.

“But you were. For a handful of seconds, you were dead.” Jason shudders as he remembers the gaping cold void where Tim’s presence should’ve been in their Link. He tightens his hold on Tim’s hand and their Link. He’s here, he’s alive, he’s okay. “And it happened because I wasn’t strong enough to protect you.”

It happened and Jason’s world collapsed.

“You tried okay? It wasn’t your fault,” Tim says, sounding near-tears but braving on.

Jason feels warmth starting to take over the memories of the cold void. 

“I just wanted to protect you too, that’s why I came with them,” Tim continues.“I couldn’t just stand on the other side of that wall and listen to them tear you apart. I ran the scenarios and went with the one that had the best chance of everyone surviving… Please tell me you understand that? I didn’t do what I did to hurt you. I didn’t want you to end up so torn over it, I never wanted that. I’m so sorry Jason.”

Don’t apologize,” Jason says, pleads, closing his eyes against the familiar sting of tears wanting to form. Fuck, Tim’s apologies still strike a hurtful chord inside him since that first time.

“But you’re hurting,” Tim says, impossibly sounding like he’s pleading too. “You’re hurting because of me. You trusted me to stay back and I broke—,”

“You didn’t do anything wrong okay?” Jason cuts him off. He snaps his eyes open through sheer will and looks at Tim’s eyes to drive the point. “It wasn’t your fault.”

You’re the one that’s been hurt the most. Don’t apologize. I failed you.

Tim nods slowly after a while.

“But you can’t blame yourself for what they planned,” Tim continues insistently. His eyes taking on a steely resolve. “And you definitely can’t blame yourself for my actions. I broke your trust before and I regret that. But I don’t regret choosing your life over anything. What happened that night was not our fault. We can do better.”

Jason has to smile at that. In the end Tim will always try to look for solutions to problems. That’s just who he is. But Jason leaving isn’t a problem.

It’s the opposite.

“I know we couldn’t have prevented what happened that night. It was out of our hands,” Jason agrees. He’s had literal weeks thinking about that and in the end he’s accepted there was nothing he could’ve done. “I know the kidnappers had your number from day one okay? And that I had nothing to do with you being on their list. But fuck if you’re going to try and use that to agrue with me into not leaving.”

“I wasn’t—,” Tim begins in denial, but stops at Jason’s pointed look. “You can’t hope to control every circumstance in the world okay? It’s not like leaving me would magically make me safe from everything.

“I know that okay?” Jason says, lifting his free hand to pinch between his eyes where he feels a headache beginning to form “But if I leave, it sure as hell decreases the chances of you being a target again.”

“You realize my wealth and status have already made me into a big target anyway, right? Tim says, trying to steer the argument into logical terms again. “I’m not new to the whole high-risk profile thing. Sure I may not be taking as extreme means of protection like other businessmen as deranged as say, Lex Luthor has, but I do have security and insurance in place. And we can work together on any holes in them; set up safe rendezvous points and communication channels, and whatever else you feel like will help. I can and will make any adjustments necessary. You don’t need to leave.”

Jason takes a minute to look at Tim. He takes in the determined look on his face. The tiny crease between his eyes that seems to appear whenever his mind is running miles per second. The firm set of his mouth and his chapped-bitten lips that pours out endless arguments and encouragement. The tense line of his slim shoulders that absolutely refuse to shake… His cold hand, grasping Jason’s own tightly.

Tim deserves the world and Jason can’t give it to him. The best he can do is leave so Tim can live his life again. Jason will miss him.

“Your security is going to be amped up anyway because you’re connected to the Bats now. Your stay here is going to be monitored for your safety, and once you’re well enough; you’ll be briefed about what to expect in being a civilian liaison to the vigilante network,” Jason says in response to Tim’s latest rebuttal. “We’re going to do our best and keep you safe from our end… And I’m still cutting ties with you.”

Tim’s face begins to crumple, but he pulls himself together after a second. A tear manages to make its way down his cheek and he hurriedly lifts his free hand to wipe it away. His cold hand is now trembling in Jason’s hold.

When Tim speaks again his voice is thick with the remainder of his tears.

“How can you just let go like this? Don’t we deserve a chance?” Tim asks, flooding their Link with desperation and confusion. The tinge of hope is there but Jason’s own doubts washes it away. “There has to be some way this—we can work. Just give us a chance.”

“We can’t work. No matter how much we wish it, it won’t happen. I’m not doing this because I don’t want to be with you. I’m doing this because I literally can’t,” Jason says and waits for a moment to let that sink in with Tim.

“How can you say that?” Tim demands, “ You haven’t even tried.”

“If I stay with you, I’ll be dooming you to a hell of a life. I can’t live with that,” Jason says, sad and apologetic, but honest. “If I stay, the risks of you getting pulled into danger increases and nothing will make me okay with that. We can take all the precautions and put every contingency in the world in place, but it still won’t make me feel alright with putting you at risk. I can’t stay.”

“You can’t just decide for both of us!” Tim argues again, defiant and desperate, wiping away a couple more tears that managed to escape him. “At least let me have time to think things through. There may be a way we can try.” The pleading and hopeful notes coming from Tim are almost overwhelming…

Almost.

“My life deals with cleaning up the scum of the earth. I won’t stop my way of life for anything... I lived, died, and lived again on this hill. I will not climb off it as long as I breathe.” Jason knows this to be true. Very few people have managed to get out of the vigilante life once they entered it.

Even being paralyzed did not stop Barbara from going back.

“I’m not asking you to leave your life behind okay?” Tim answers, trying to be placating, but the frustration cuts through his voice. “I’m just saying we can find a middle ground where we can work.”

“There is no middle ground. We don’t even walk on the same street!” Jason rebukes, and scrubs at his face roughly to get rid of his own tears. “I take down lowlifes, messily. That doesn’t mesh well with your life and work. And don’t try to tell me it’s not important to you, because I know you’re a dedicated little shit. You’re doing great things, and you can’t leave your life just as much as I can’t leave mine.”

They’re a tragedy trying to pass as a romantic comedy. They’re better off not making plans to escape their lives to be with each other. It’ll end badly.

(Jason tries and fails to push away the double suicide from his mind.)

Jason knows he’s more or less managed to convince Tim of his stance when he feels the exhaustion, sadness, and the general sense of done permeating through their bond. There’s no acceptance to be found, but that’s to be expected. They need to go through the stages properly…

At least it seems that the biggest denials are over with.

“We were doing fine with just writing. Can’t we keep that at least?” Tim asks, clutching at Jason’s hand with a weak grip.

Writing again would just make it hard to move on, and Tim deserved to move on. Writing each other and pretending everything’s fine is a form of escapism Jason would rather not participate in. He needs to let go completely.

“I can’t promise I’ll ever write back,” Jason tells Tim. “You’ll move on faster if you just forget about me.”

“Yeah, like I can ever forget about you,” Tim scoffs and sniffs wetly.

“Try,” Jason pleads, raising his free hand to wipe another tear from Tim’s cheek.

Tims glares and slaps Jason’s hand away. Then more tears fall from his face and Jason reaches up  to wipe them again but Tim catches his other hand and this time holds it in a crushing grip to match the first one.

“Don’t touch me,” Tim seethes, clutching both of Jason’s hands with his own. Tears are freely flowing on his face now.

“I’m sorry,” Jason says, at a loss.

Annoyance stabs through the Link from Tim.

God, no. Don’t. Apologize. You don’t get to be sorry. You’re not even willing to try. You’re such a—,” Tim stops and twists his mouth closed painfully. He takes a breath. “Don’t you dare apologize.”

Of course Tim is angry. All Jason’s managed to do is make TIm sad, angry, tired, and hurt.

“Alright, fair,” Jason says and lets Tim cry while he holds his hands.

Their bond is full of echoing sadness and frustration. Despite it all, Jason still feels a compulsion to remain close… knowing this is the last time he’ll be able to.

“What about,” Tim begins hoarsely, then clears his throat and continues. “the Soulmate GPS?”

Hearing the ridiculous name they dubbed the Link sparks fond memories Jason has for their connection. The fondness is short-lived, quickly taken over by melancholy.

“I can’t stop you from using it,” Jason answers, “but you shouldn’t come within two miles of me.”

Tim looks at him like he’s grown a second head.

“Are you for real?” Tim asks with tear tracks on his face. “You’re setting a two-mile radius restriction? What if I have business to take care of near where you’re currently lurking?”

“It’s not a strict limit,” Jason says and feels his teary eyes roll despite himself. “Just try and keep your distance.”

“Oh yeah? Well, what’s stopping me from actually going to you?” Tim asks with narrowed red-rimmed eyes.

The challenge in his voice is almost a welcome distraction from the misery.

“You owe me a promise because you fucking broke your last one,” Jason answers back, daring Tim to deny it.

“Are you fucking serious?” Tim breathes. “First, you break us up and I don’t get a say in it. And now you’re making me promise to agree with a restriction order?”

“I’m asking you to promise that you’ll try your best to stay safe and out of trouble,” Jason clarifies tiredly. He endures a few more seconds of Tim’s glare before continuing. “Most of the time I’m not in a safe place, so don’t try and seek me out. Please.

Tim scoffs at him.

“I mean it.” Jason says “If I feel you getting too near when I’m in a very obvious dangerous place, I will flee into space, don’t fucking test me.”

Tim glares some more, then rolls his eyes at Jason.

“You’re such an over-dramatic jerk,” Tim tells him. “I fucking hate you.”

Jason smiles despite himself, his heart feeling heavy.

“Welcome to the club,” Jason whispers back with a smirk.

Tim scowls at him for the cheesy line and Jason finds it hard to see it as anything other than adorable.

They sit in silence for some time, holding on to each other’s hands. Their Link feels both hollow, and full… Jason lets him Tim hold on. He’s waited a long time to do this. He can wait a few more minutes before it finally ends.

Tim deserves to be the one to let him go.

“Will it…” Tim begins, after what feels like an eternity of silence, after what feels like a blink of an eye. “Will leaving make you happy?”

The question gives Jason pause… (In the back of his mind, he’s warmed that Tim is still somehow concerned for him after all that shit) He debates with himself on how to answer.

Honesty, he repeats to himself. Tim deserves Jason’s honesty.

“No,” Jason admits, and watches as Tim’s heart breaks for him.

Jason feels Tim lifting their hands. He lays Jason’s left palm over a wet cheek, trapping it there with Tim’s own pressed behind it, fingers slotting easily in between Jason’s. After the slap earlier, this feels like a gift.

Jason lets his hand cup over Tim’s face. The other hand Tim clutches desperately between them, twining their fingers and closing them into a fist, into a prayer.

Jason can’t do anything except hold on.

Tim shuts his eyes painfully tight, letting the tears overflow. He slowly turns his head to press a gentle kiss to Jason’s palm, then to the inside of his wrist. So tender and full of care, like he thinks Jason’s would break if Tim handles him wrong.

Jason hears his own gasp and feels his chest tighten at the sight and feel of it.

“Don’t go,” Tim pleads, opening his eyes,  looking at Jason through tears. He presses Jason’s hand— big enough to cover almost the entire half of Tim’s face— harder to his cheek. “Stay with me.”

There is so much longing flooding through their bond, Jason is drowning.

“I can’t.” Jason hears himself answer. His breath hitches and his throat closes up but he pushes on. “I can’t stay.”

Tim shuts his eyes. Like he can’t bear at looking at Jason after what he just said.

“I wish…” Tim speaks, voice sounding strangled. “I wish I was enough.”

Jason feels the hot streak of tears on his face as his own heart shatters for Tim. He leans forward and presses his temple against Tim’s. Desperate for one last bit of closeness.

“You are enough,” Jason whispers, putting his soul into every word.

“You’re more than enough. You keep saving me. You’re so good and so brave and so determined and so kind and so bright. You’re wonderful and you deserve better.” Jason says and hears Tim gasp and feels him sobbing. “I wish I could know you more. I wish I could keep you. I wish we met and I was just some guy that didn’t live this life and have all this baggage. I wish I could be with you everyday and talk to you about everything and nothing…”

Jason closes his eyes, flashes of an imaginary life burning the heart in him. He opens them and faces reality.

“I wish I could live with myself for wanting you as much as I do,” Jason confesses.

Jason’s so close he can’t see Tim’s face. He feels a shudder and can’t figure out which of them it came from. Not that it matters. They’re both falling apart and it’s pointless to keep track of who’s doing what.

“Jason,” Tim breathes the name like something irreverent, or something grievous... He backs away, trying to peer into Jason’s eyes. He catches them and doesn’t let go. “Jay I lo—,”

Before Jason can get a grip on himself, he realizes he's kissing Tim.

Maybe he does it because he can’t bear to hear what Tim was going to say. Maybe he does it because it’s the last time he’ll see Tim… Or maybe he does it because he wants to.

For chapped-bitten lips, Tim's are impossibly warm and soft. Jason could kiss him forever. A firm press, a gentle slide, then again and again until the world fades.

Suddenly Jason feels Tim’s hands letting go of him, and for a terrible moment Jason’s afraid he’s going to be pushed away. But then in the next second he feels Tim’s hands slide up his chest, to his neck, up to his face and then Tim’s kissing him back so sweetly, matching Jason’s desperation with his own.

Jason’s chest expands and fills to the point of overflow.

Their first and last kiss tastes of gratitude, desperation, and lost hope. When they finally break away, breathing heavier, Jason has lost track of time. Tim has his hands twined behind Jason’s neck and Jason’s hand is still cupping Tim’s face.

Jason’s other hand reaches up to brush away some stray hair from Tim’s face, he tucks it behind a very red ear and watches in awe as Tim shivers under his touch.

“We would be so great together,” Tim sighs, his thumbs rubbing distracting circles on the nape of Jason’s neck.

Jason smiles and leans forward, pressing a final kiss to Tim’s temple.

“Yeah,” Jason agrees, and gently wipes the tear tracks from his soulmate’s face before completely removing his hands from Tim. “We would’ve been.”

Tim regards him sadly, but no fresh tears come. Maybe he’s drained. Jason feels wrung out too.

“Will you be okay?” Tim asks with genuine concern.

Jason decided to stop being surprised by Tim after the first time they met. But he still can’t help being dumbfounded by Tim choosing to be concerned about him now after Jason has hurt him so much.

“Yes, eventually.” Jason wills it to be a promise. Because that’s what Tim needs to hear right now. “Take care of yourself. Please.”

Tim roves his eyes over Jason’s face, like he’s memorizing every detail of it. Jason sits still and lets him. It’s Tim’s turn to take in whatever version of Jason he wishes to keep. Jason’s had weeks to etch Tim’s face into his mind… But he does take the opportunity to drink in the devastating beauty of TIm’s kind and clever eyes.

A slice of eternity later, Tim tightens his hold on Jason’s neck and throws himself at him for a desperate hug. Jason catches him and wounds his arms around Tim’s warmth. The perfect way they fit together is another slap to Jason’s face.

It’s you. It’s always been you. It will always be you.

The words are echoing through their Link. Jason’s not sure where or who it came from. He only knows it’s the truth.

Tim’s arms curl impossibly tight around Jason and just as he’s starting to wonder how Tim can manage that much strength after getting out of a coma just that morning, Tim’s arms fall away and their hug ends.

Tim draws back but keeps a light hold of Jason’s hands.

“Goodbye,” Jason says, feeling the word cut him but he refuses to flinch and bleed.

Finally Tim nods, small and defeated, and Jason knows it means Tim’s not going to fight him on this anymore. And then Tim lets Jason go.

Never before has a win felt so devastating.

Jason gives Tim one last glance, hating himself for how small and empty Tim looks, sitting on his bed, with his hands clutching the sheets on his lap in a white-knuckled grip… It’s better this way, Jason reminds himself and roughly scrubs his hands over his face.

Jason stands without any last words from Tim and lets the Pull scream at him again as he heads for the door.

Jason walks past the wilting yellow tulips as he exits Tim’s room.


 

Many hours later, in the safety of Cass's apartment, Jason notices he has a soul message on his forearm. 

Unbidden, that first sight of Tim sitting up and holding a pen to his own arm from earlier comes to mind.

The writing is small, slightly smudged, and startling.

'I'm here'

Jason traces the letters, thinking Tim must’ve been in the middle of writing when Jason came in.

“Guess you did have last words after all.”

He laughs until he's able to cry again.


___

— XXX — XXX — XXX —

 ___


 

Gotham Public Library has always been a safe haven for Jason every once in a while when he had down time to spend

That is, until the head librarian decided to ban him.

"Don't whine," Babs tells him, adjusting her eyeglasses and shooting Jason a non impressed stare. "I'm not banning you. If you actually came in to read books like you used to, I won’t complain. But you need to stop moping in here everyday, looking at newspaper archives and hoping a new case will jump at you. If you want work, go ask B for open cases."

Jason cringes.

“I’m kinda working my way up to actually visiting the Cave on purpose.” They’re in one of the sound-proofed study rooms and he knows Babs keeps the place secure so he’s not so worried to talk about Bat stuff.

“It’s the memorial isn’t it?” Babs asks, not unkindly.

“It’s a fucking shrine and I won’t look at it if I don’t have to.”

“Just tell him to take it down,” Babs says like it’s obvious.

“Think he’ll agree?” Jason asks.

For a long time, that glass case was all Bruce had to cope with his son’s death. And now, maybe it’s all Bruce has as a reminder of the time his son wasn’t a murdering criminal. Maybe he wanted to keep that. What right did Jason have to take that away from Bruce?

“Once you tell him it’s a big trigger for you, he’ll take it down in a heartbeat,” Babs says confidently, before shrugging. “Besides, Steph also thinks it’s kind of creepy.”

“Really?” Jason raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah, but she said that’s between you and Bruce so you have to tell him yourself. Don’t worry, Steph’s been training Bruce to not internalize too much so he actually verbalizes his thoughts and feelings semi-regularly.”

“Way to go Replacement.” Jason gives a lazy fist pump.

“You need a job Jay.” Babs wrinkles her nose at him.

“I have a job,” Jason replies, gesturing to the semi-recent newspapers strewn on the desk and articles open on his borrowed library PC.

“I meant a day job,” she clarifies. “Or at least a hobby. It’s not healthy spending all day working on crime fighting.”

“I’ve been doing that since I returned,” Jason reasons (and doesn’t whine).

“You’re working with a team again now,” Babs reminds him. “You don’t need to burn yourself out anymore.”

She’s right, as always.

“Guess I’m just taking a while to adjust.” Jason runs a hand through his hair.

“Or you’re trying to keep busy to distract yourself.”

Babs points up to the hand in Jason’s hair. There’s a note on the back of it. It’s small enough not to be eye-catching to anyone unobservant. Too bad Barbara isn’t.

'Hear my soul speak. Of the very instant that I saw you, Did my heart fly at your service'

“That sounds… romantic,” Babs says, shooting a hesitant look at Jason.

“The Tempest.” Jason scowls at his hand.

Quote Shakespeare at me again and I’ll fucking scream, Jason thinks. He’s never been so mad to read Sonnets before, knowing that Tim’s using it nowadays to try and make Jason crack.

“He still won’t let go.” 

“Of the Link?” Babs whispers, quieter than when they were talking about vigilante stuff. Like she treats Soulmate stuff with more privacy.

Jason nods at her. “It only slightly dims when he’s sleeping, I think.”

“It’s been two months. That’s gotta be a record.” Babs manages to make her frown look impressed.

The consistent Pull of their Soulmate GPS tells him Tim is at his office building, which is safe since Batgirl and Robin personally bugged it… But Jason can’t help the worry that pokes him.

“Are there negative side-effects to prolonged usage of… that?” Jason asks.

“No, it’s perfectly safe,” Barbara assures him. “Just takes considerable willpower to maintain it every waking minute.”

“He’s had practice,” Jason says and digs through his pockets for the gloves he started bringing along since they broke up and Tim refused to stop writing and using the Soulmate GPS every waking moment.

Undeterred by the non-response from Jason.

“You have newfound free time you don’t know how to fill. Go find something to do. Get a part time job, join a book club, take up competitive video gaming, or whatever,” Babs says, picking up their previous conversation, not touching the Soulmate Issue again, and Jason re-cements her as his favorite ally. “Just don’t spend it in isolation trying to look for more cases to work. That’s not healthy.”

“Did you hack my therapist’s notes?” Jason narrows his eyes at her.

“No, I have standards.”

Jason grins at her. “Then why’d you date my brother?”

Jason never saw the hand that smacked him upside the head.

“Ow! Fine!” Jason rubs his tender head with a gloved hand. “I’ll go find a stupid hobby.”

Babs looks at him with a satisfied smirk.

“Go place back all those papers first,” she orders then rolls out.


 

He turns the words over and over in his head. It’s obvious they won’t get prettier, but maybe if Jason stews over them some more he’ll find a less lame way to say them?

Yeah, probably not.

“So… I’ve been thinking of taking up online classes,” Jason says after needlessly working up his nerves.

He’s not prepared for the rattling of Bruce’s fork on his breakfast plate and the absolute gobsmacked expression on the older man’s face… A few seconds later, Bruce gets misty-eyed and Jason panics.

“Well not if you’re gonna cry about it!” Jason throws up his hands. “Jeez.”

Bruce seems to finally catch himself. He uses a napkin to dab his eyes then clears his throat.

“That’s great Jay,” Bruce says with a fragile-looking smile. “Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Jason rolls his eyes, pushing the eggs on his plate around. “Just some classes related to the ones I missed in high school.”

“If you want, we can put you back in an actual school,” Bruce offers, leaning forward and looking so… open.

“Nah,” Jason waves a hand. “Online classes are easier to deal with.”

It’s easier to apply online since he doesn’t need to show up in person and falsifying digital records of a fake identity is easier than generating hard copies. Jason doesn’t want to make the others go through more trouble than he’s worth.

“I’m sure we can make it work,” Bruce says, but doesn’t insist like he’s wont to do when he thinks he knows what’s best for Jason. Unlike back in his first life.

Maybe Bruce’s own therapy is mellowing him out too.

“I just wanna start with this first, like a trial run,” Jason says. “Also I don’t think I can stand to be around strange kids for more than a couple hours a day.”

“Scared they’ll tease you for being old?” an amused voice asks from the kitchen’s doorway.

“They haven’t kicked you out for being an ancient menace, so yes I’m scared of the regulars there,” Jason retorts.

“Shut up, too early to talk smack,” Steph groans, plopping herself at the table with them and stealing a toast from Bruce’s plate.

“You started it.”

“It’s my birthday, be nice to me.” Steph is really not a morning person. 11 am and still whiny.

“That ended last night Bird Brain.” Jason nudges a mug of coffee her way. If she manages to tip it over it’ll be entertaining. “Welcome to your 20s, where dreams go to die.”

Stephanie snorts.

“Bah! Who needs dreams?” She stabs a sausage with Bruce’s fork and waves it around. “I don’t need to find meaning in my life, I have a trust fund. Right B?”

Bruce looks both long suffering and fond as he gets up to fetch the plate Alfred set aside for Steph and pour a fresh mug of coffee for Jason.

“You both do,” Bruce answers as he returns with the food and drink. “But trust funds are not alternatives to proper education.”

“Dick dropped out of high school,” Steph accuses, chewing on her stolen sausage.

“He got his GED,” Bruce offers with a shrug. “And trained at the Police Academy for his job.”

“So if me and Jay finish high school, you’ll let us be cops?”

Bruce looks like he sucked a lemon.

“I’d rather you not choose such a dangerous and frowned upon profession,” he says with gravity.

Jason snaps his head to share a very wide-eyed look with Stephanie.

Then they almost fall to the floor wheezing in laughter.

Bruce sits with them and just looks even more long suffering.

Beneath the laughter though, Jason finds he understands. Bruce doesn’t want him and Steph to get the same job as Dick, because he doesn’t have a hold over the dangers in that line of work… Not like how he can keep an eye on them and the rest of the Bats when they work together.

Bruce is okay with them getting into danger, as long as he’s in the thick of it as well and can reach them.

It’s a very weird and controlling way of caring. Very on brand with B.

“Good thing Dick's leaving that job soon, huh Boss?” Steph smacks Bruce’s arm, then turns to Jay with a sly grin. “So, Jason. Sure you don’t wanna enroll at Gotham Academy? I’m willing to loan you my old notes and test papers... for the right price.”

“I bet they’re a C minus average at best. I’m shooting for something higher.”

“Ugh, nerd!” Stephanie goes to hack away at her waffles.

Jason kindly doesn’t point out she’s not denying the C minus average.

“But if you do want to go back to school Jay, I can help,” Bruce says in a serious tone. “If not high school, then college? After you get your GED or finish online school.” 

Jason gets doused by a ridiculous fear that things are escalating out of hand before he even gets a say in anything… But he grips his knife and white-knuckles through the feeling, letting it pass.

It’ll be a shame to ditch Alfie’s pancakes.

“I don’t really have concrete plans yet,” Jason says, managing to make fleeting eye contact with Bruce. “I’m still getting a feel for things. I know I used to like acads but I’m not so sure I still do? And it doesn’t feel right forcing myself to just… like all the things I used to do before.”

There… That makes sense out loud right?

The thing is, Jason’s no longer the same kid that died in Ethiopia. He’s gone through A LOT of changes, and he’s just trying to figure out who he is now that he’s back and has a better grounding with Bruce trying to be nice again and with no longer working solo on the vigilante front.

It’s a whole fucking mess of trial and error.

“I see,” Bruce says, and nods simply. “If you make a decision either way, you can let me know.”

Then he goes back to eating like nothing special happened. Like Jason normally talks to him over breakfast about what he’s got brewing in his life with Stephanie devouring waffles swimming in syrup between them.

It leaves Jason feeling a little disoriented, but not bad enough to make him bolt and abandon breakfast.

With a slowly hard-built determination, Jason goes back to eating. He’s a little relieved Stephanie picked up another steady stream of light conversation with Bruce.

He’s also a bit glad they didn’t comment when Jason just sat with them after that and ate his breakfast in silence. And maybe he’s also a bit disappointed at that too…? It’s a mess but at least he’s handling it.

When the three of them are done, Jason automatically goes to clear the table but is halted by Bruce.

“You and Alf cooked earlier, I can clean up with Steph,” Bruce says with the same serious cadence he had when he told Jason he can help put him back to school.

Jason shrugs and pushes his dirty dishes towards the Replacement’s direction.

“You’re making me do chores on my birthday?” Steph whines as she gathers the plates. “Some dad you are.” She turns her nose up at Bruce as she walks to the counter.

“Your birthday’s over Champ,” Bruce calls over with another fond look. “And I got you a convertible so I think we’re even.”

“Is it even purple?” Steph asks with a mock glare.

“Of course. I’m not a monster.”

Stephanie grins. “Okay, I think I can help with the dishes.”

That mixed feeling of glad and disappointed hits Jason again, this time harder. He stands awkwardly for a second before deciding it’s time to bail now.

“Hey B, I’m gonna split.” Jason gestures to the door.

“I’ll walk you out,” Bruce says and is already stepping over to do just that but Jason stops him.

“Nah, I know the way,” Jason says. “You two clean up before Alfie gets back from the store. He’ll appreciate the initiative from your lazy asses.”

“Hey, I resent that!” Steph exclaims. “I’m perfectly diligent.”

“Wow, I’m surprised you used that word right.” Jason smirks.

“Keep it up Zombro, see if I lend you my class notes.” She blows a raspberry at him and turns to start on the dishes.

“She regularly aces her Math, Logical Reasoning, and Philosophy classes,” Bruce tells Jason quietly, as if sharing a secret. “She got first place in a puzzle-solving contest her first year.”

Huh.

“Huh,” says Jason. “A left hemisphere brain user, like you.”

“Yeah, but somehow she hates baseball and I don’t know why.”

“Baseball’s not a game of logic Bruce,” Jason tells him.

“Jay, don’t be absurd. It’s the most logical game there is. It uses physics and logic and strategy and it’s fun.”

“Well yeah it’s fun,” Jason agrees, but logic doesn’t make baseball fun. It’s fun just because.

“The Knights are playing against the Meteors in Gotham stadium next month,” Bruce says and looks at Jason almost hesitantly. “Do you think you can watch the game with me?”

Uh.

“Uh,” says Jason. “Sure.”

“Okay, see you then Bud.” Bruce smiles like he’s just been told Two-Face reformed and is willing to be best friends with him again. He pats Jason’s shoulder.

“I’ll be going now,” Jason says before the day gets even weirder.

“Okay, drive safe. Text me when you get back.” Bruce says and Jason can only nod back.

“Thanks for letting me stay last night,” Jason adds, because of those stupid manners Alfred taught him.

“You’re always welcome here Jay,” Bruce says, looking so… open, again.

“Uhm, yeah.” Jason says smartly, slowly inching towards the kitchen exit, feeling like any sudden movement will cause something to explode. “Noted.”

From the sink, Stephanie cranes her neck to shout at Jason before he goes.

“You may wanna wear a jacket or change shirts before you go. One with longer sleeves,” Stephanie says with a wink before she turns to Bruce and complains “Hey B, you said we’ll do the dishes, but I don’t see you helping!”

Bruce smiles at Jason again then huffs a laugh and turns to help Stephanie with the dishes.

Jason flees.

Before he makes his way to the garage where his bike is parked, he stops by the foyer where he left his jacket.

Jason inhales and makes himself look at the inside of his left arm where he kept seeing vague lines of ink that he did not have the spoons to even read or deal with during breakfast with Bruce and Stephanie.

'Whatever our souls are made of, yours and mine are the same'

Jason feels his cheeks burning. Mostly from the fact that Tim remembered Jason loves the book the quote came from, rather than from the quote itself (although it is a pretty good line.)

Tim’s really upping his one-way romantic notes game. But as long as he’s honoring Jason’s wishes of not seeking him out, it should be fine. Jason can take the written words and the shouting pull of their Link and function.

After a few more seconds of admiring Tim’s careful penmanship, Jason tugs on his jacket and leaves Wayne Manor.

As he leaves, he spares a glance at the empty big house next door and absently wonders when it got abandoned.


 

Jason really only gets two, maybe three blessed hours of semi-tranquility to himself a day; between the unholy hours of late night (when Tim probably sleeps and thus their Link dims with his consciousness) and the unholier hours of early morning (before Jason himself catches some Zs after patrol).

The rest of his day is filled with the one-sided insistent Pull from the Soulmate Link Tim keeps refusing to let go of.

So it’s perfectly understandable that Jason’s not happy when something disrupts those few precious hours of calm serenity he’s lucky enough to have.

Jason glares at the cardboard box sitting in the middle of his (relatively new) safehouse. 

It wasn’t there when he left for patrol last night.

Jason’s new digs is supposed to be a secured place. Cass and Babs insisted on “flipping” the place to serve as his living quarters a few weeks ago, when Jason finally accepted the fact that jumping from safehouse to safehouse is not a very human way of living. He agreed to their whims but demanded they ward the place in return.

It’s in a prime location. Not too close to Crime Alley that Bruce gets frowny and not too far that it’s considered anywhere a safe neighborhood. Aside from the Bats (and most probably Tim), no one knows Jason’s been staying regularly there.

Who the fuck managed to break in, bypass Jason’s security, and leave a suspicious box inside?

Jason is heavily debating calling Batgirl for backup when he catches sight of an envelope with a stylized cat silhouette stamped on, taped to the cardboard box.

“Selina,” Jason rolls his eyes at himself for not figuring it out sooner. “Of course.”

He grabs the envelope and opens it. There’s a greeting card inside with a picture of a kitten playing with pink yarn and the words “Home Is Where The String Is” printed below.

Jason snorts at it and opens up the card.

Dear Red Kitty,

Congratulations on the new place. I got the address from a common friend, don’t worry.

I’ll be leaving town for a few weeks, sorry can’t be there to visit sooner.

I’m calling in a favor too, can you drop the contents of this box to a donation place? I had to pack in a hurry and realized I have more stuff than I know what to do with. They’re too good to burn so I’m unloading them to you.

Thanks a bunch.

C.W.

P.S. The succulent in there is a house warming present for you.

P.P.S It’s Ivy-proof ;)

Jason closes the card. He’s going to have to burn the letter, but maybe he can cut the front of the card with the cat pic and tape it up on a wall somewhere.

With his nerves settled, Jason finally opens up the box. He fishes out the tiny potted succulent plant and puts it on one of his window sills. The rest of the stuff he leaves for Tomorrow Jason to deal with.

He gets ready for bed and doesn’t miss the other note he’s received today, written below his wrist.

'how ardently I admire and adore you'

Despite himself, Jason feels the back of his neck heating up. Damn Jane Austen and her romantic literary prowess.

In the quiet stillness of the early morning, Jason sits on his bed in silence. Before the Link dimmed yesterday, Jason could pinpoint Tim had been in his condo in Gotham’s business center area relatively early last night. 

That was good. Some days Tim stays at his workplace through the late hours of the night and Jason doesn’t like him getting home so late. He’s happy to note the late nights at the office are happening less and less.

Maybe Tim’s starting to seek less work and less distraction from their situation… Maybe, Jason hopes, Tim’s starting to move on.

For reasons unknown, the comforting thought doesn’t help Jason sleep any better.


 

Goodwill isn’t really his first choice of where to dispatch old fancy clothes that Catwoman probably used for various disguises. But it’s a convenient place not too far from his new house, so Jason figured it’ll be over faster if he goes there.

Only, he forgot that it’s a weekend, so there are more people around than he’s expecting.

As Jason fights his way to get to the counter with the box he’s carrying, he’s blindsided by a familiar face that makes his heart pound like a drum.

“Jason?” Tamara Fox calls out, standing two feet from him, wearing a surprised face to match her voice.

Jason almost drops his box. He recovers and grips it tight enough to dent the sides.

“What are you doing here?” Jason asks, barely filtering out the fear from his tone.

He stops himself from looking around. The Soulmate GPS pinging inside Jason tells him Tim’s far away from here, in an undetermined location somewhere within the city center. Safe.

“I go thrifting sometimes,” Tam answers.

“But you’re rich,” Jason blurts. Then realizes he fucked up.

This isn’t really a very innocuous area. He really shouldn’t have announced Tam has money in these parts.

“I try to shop responsibly,” Tam says with a shrug. “Also thrifting’s fun. I sometimes find discontinued stuff… What about you? Here to shop too?”

Jason panics trying to think of an excuse… Only to realize a moment later he doesn’t really need one.

“I’m here to donate old stuff.”

“That’s nice,” Tam says and steps forward to peek at the box in Jason’s arms. “These look cute… Did your girlfriend make you drop them off?”

Jason’s synapses fail to connect.

“What?” Jason asks, confused. Then he looks down at the box full of women’s designer clothing. “Oh, no! These are from my— aunt.” Selina will probably claw him for calling her an aunt, but Jason’s reeling mind can’t think of a better lie.

“She has good taste,” Tam praises.

“Yeah, she’s always paid attention to clothing and fashion,” Jason says.

Catwoman always knows how to dress up for an event. She’s a master at blending in with the rich folks.

“She’d get along with Tim,” Tam says offhanded and Jason’s heart lurches. The box gains deeper dents. “He’s a fashion geek too.”

When Jason can breathe again, his mind jumps to make an excuse to get away.

“I should get these to the workers,” Jason says and gestures to the back of the store.

“Sure, I’ll keep looking around some more.” Tam gives him a normal, not awkward smile.

“Well, bye.” Jason tries to give his own version of a normal, not awkward smile, then power walks away.

The whole donation process gives Jason a few minutes to recover.

It feels surreal meeting someone from Tim’s life now. Jason has been doing a pretty good job ignoring the words and the Pull and letting Tim live his life… But seeing Tam digs up a lot of memories and emotions Jason has been working so hard to keep buried.

Before Jason could make a game plan on how to exit the store without running into Tam again, he’s being handed a receipt for the donation and he has to move away because there’s a person standing in line behind him.

Right. Jason pockets the receipt and scans the area for Tam.

He spots her checking out some hanging coats. It should be easy enough to get out without her noticing him. Jason takes a step intending to do just that, but he stops in his tracks when he realizes he’s not the only guy in the place scoping Tam out.

Fuck. Evidently, more than a few people heard it when Jason broadcasted that Tam is loaded. Now other people are not so subtly checking the apparently rich girl out… That can’t be safe. They’re in one of Gotham’s poorer districts. People can be a bit more desperate here.

Jason curses himself again and goes to fix his mistake.

“Find anything good?” Jason asks once he’s close enough to Tam.

He looks her in the eye and gives a wry smile. Acting friendly enough to let others know she’s not alone in here.

Tam turns with a blink. “No. I’m done browsing, nothing jumped out. Maybe next time. Are you done with the donation?”

“Yup, all done,” Jason answers with a smile and none of the awkwardness from before. He has to sell that they’re friends so people will see her as less of a target. “You ready to go?” he throws a thumb to point at the door.

Tam looks at Jason like she’s puzzling out why he’s acting weird. Thankfully she seems not to think too badly of it.

“Sure, let’s go.” Tam takes the lead and walks out the store with Jason close behind her.

“Where are you off to now?” Jason asks, making small talk and trying to figure out how he can escort Tam to safety.

“I think I’ll visit the office.” Tam says, making Jason groan.

“It’s the weekend, can you not think about work?”

“Fine,” Tam says, matching Jason’s groaning tone. “Then I guess I’ll go home.”

Acceptable. That’s a pretty safe destination.

“Do you have a ride?” Jason asks.

“Yes, I parked a few blocks away,” Tam answers.

Smart. Jason wouldn’t park his wheels near here either. Not everyone’s as dumb as Batman.

“I’ll walk you over,” Jason says and is relieved when Tam nods her okay.

“How are you?” Tam asks a few minutes into their walk. “I haven’t seen you since Tim got hospitalized.”

Jason doesn’t let himself wince.

“Doing good,” Jason answers and refuses to laugh at the double meaning. “I fell back with people from my old work. They’re helping me get back on my feet.”

“I didn’t know you were going through tough times when you visited,” Tam sounds concerned. “Do you need help now?”

“It’s fine, I’m recovering well,” Jason waves off her worries. “How about you? How’ve you been? No longer stressing I hope.”

“Work got better eventually when Tim came back,” Tam answers and Jason keeps himself from flinching. “But he was like, super into working again the first few days. I had to enforce a curfew on the office to get him to go home at a sane hour.”

This time Jason does wince. “Sounds like he’s still a workaholic little shit huh?”

“Yeah, but he’s slowly getting better,” Tam says, then frowns in thought. “I think he’s trying to take better care of himself? I almost never have to prod at him to remind him when it’s lunch time anymore, and he no longer ditches security detail during outside meetings. It makes my work load lighter too, since I don’t have to keep babysitting him.”

Jason takes a second to let the warmth of the news seep into his being.

“That’s great.”

“It is,” Tam agrees. “He’s also cursing more frequently now. I think his coma influenced him to be more open about his feelings after he woke up.”

Jason's taken aback. Then feels guilty for most fucking probably being the influence that got Tim to cuss more.

“Is that really a good thing though?”

“It’s very entertaining to see insufferable board members get shocked when Tim drops a curse in response to their awful work. There’s no anti-cursing in corporate law, and he only does it when things are off the record and not in a “professional” setting anyway, so they never have material to complain to HR about,” Tam says with a grin. “Now if only he’s more social outside work too... He’s still a damn hermit.”

And Jason knows this is true. Tim’s locations are a pretty steady routine of office and home. There’s a few outliers when they go to, what Jason is assuming, outside meetings in fancy places, but other than that, Tim doesn’t get out much.

“Why don’t you try asking him to go thrifting with you some time?” Jason finds himself asking.

“Are you serious? He’s a fashion snob! Even his sweatshirts are designer label.”

Wow okay, that’s not something Jason knew before. But remembering how dashing Tim looked in a tux, even rumpled, makes more sense now.

“Well you guys can stick to thrift stores nearer the business district,” Jason suggests. “Those have more chances of having vintage things dropped by previous rich owners right? And maybe Tim will like the challenge of finding a diamond in the rough or something.”

Tam frowns as she considers Jason’s words. A second later her face clears into a smile.

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” Tam says.

Jason pats himself on the back. And that’s how you kill two birds with one stone.

“I’m full of great ideas,” Jason says with a smirk.

Tam rolls her eyes at him again.

Jason feels the longing grip him; remembering Tim rolls his eyes almost the exact same way when faced with bullshit too. He lets it pass.

Soon, they reach a paid parking area and Tam stops to say goodbye.

“This is me,” Tam says, gesturing to the parking entrance. “Thanks for walking me over.”

“No prob Bob,” Jason says with a small but genuine smile. “It was nice seeing you again.”

“You too.  See you around.” Tam gives a smile of her own and walks away.

I hope not, Jason thinks as he raises a wave goodbye to Tam.

Jason stands for a couple of minutes then sighs. That wasn’t as stressful as it could’ve been. But he’s still a little restless from the encounter. He runs a hand through his hair and huffs.

He’s glad to have some news about TIm… And he’s happy they’re good news. He’s grateful to know that Tim isn’t wallowing over Jason walking out from their connection. Tim deserves to live his own life without Jason mucking it up.

When Jason brings his hand back down, he sees a new note on his palm.

'You have your moments. Not many, but you do have them.'

It takes a second to recognize it’s from The Empire Strikes Back. Jason remembers how Tim can maybe quote all the movies in a drop of a hat for how much he likes them.

Jason’s lost in thought; staring at his palm and wondering when will Tim finally stop writing to him and complete his moving on process, that he failed to remember he used this same hand to wave goodbye to Tam earlier.


 

The Bats reconvene in the Cave after a rather long and eventful night.

It’s been a while since Jason felt this tired from patrol, but considering there’s been a minor breakout from Arkham, he’s not as tired and mad as he thought he’d be at the end of it. 

Looks like working with people that genuinely have his back helps in keeping his rage in check.

Granted there’s still some stragglers left out, but Batwoman is already working with her cop girlfriend and the other Birds to sort it out; so Oracle’s still on the job. The bigger villains have been corralled already and Batman called for a meeting to combine info and try and pinpoint how the inmates got out this time.

The roar of Batgirl’s motorcycle cuts through the night. Robin is riding with her, arms wound tight around Batgirl’s waist. Cass parks besides the Batmobile, a few feet away from Jason’s own bike.

“Is it just me,” Robin says, leaning over Batgirl’s shoulder and pressing closer to address Bruce and Jason, “or did that get cleaned up relatively fast?”

“Looking a gift horse in the mouth?” Red Hood says, letting the smirk behind his helmet color his voice. “Careful, it might bite.”

Robin removes her bike helmet and gives Jason a disdainful look through her domino.

“Well excuse me for asking questions that might be relevant to the investigation,” she says as she climbs off from behind Batgirl. “For all we know they could have staged that as a distraction for something.”

And Jason is surprised that he’s agreeing with her.

Not that he’s going to say that aloud. But he’s at least not going to argue further for now.

“We’ll look into all the angles,” Batman says, sitting in his chair in front of the Batcomputer and pulling up different feeds from Arkham security. “I’ll need details from each of you about your encounters in your assigned areas tonight.”

Red Hood waits for Batgirl and Robin to get closer so they can start the briefing. They walk close together, wearing the same mild exhaustion Jason feels but otherwise unharmed. They pass over the empty space where the Glass Case used to be and in the next second they’re all pulling up chairs to huddle by Bruce.

“For my area, it just looks like they’re running away at random,” Steph says. “At one point I had four inmates in my sights but they didn’t seem to be working together. Two of them even got into a fist fight, it was cool to watch.”

“So if there are any bigger plans, the low threat inmates probably don’t know about it.” Jason surmises.

Batgirl takes off her cowl, revealing a thoughtful expression.

“The people I met were… tangled?” She begins, then frowns harder. “No… lost. Confused.”

“Yeah that lines up with the low lifes I encountered too,” Jason agrees. “They didn’t seem to be following any instructions on where to go or what to do.”

“Did any of them attack any of you on purpose?” Batman asks.

“No,” Robin and Batgirl say, coinciding with Jason’s:

“No more than usual.”

The three Bats turn to give him a look.

A few seconds later Jason realizes it’s a look of concern.

“Uh, I’m fine. Just some minor bruising,” Red Hood reports haltingly.

“Are you sure?” Bruce asks, taking off his cowl too and looking at Jason carefully.

“Yes,” Jason says, enduring the scrutiny. He’d have told the team if he’s been injured heavy enough to warrant concern.

Bruce almost frowns, then schools his face into an agreeable expression before nodding. Not pressing further.

Jason’s shoulders relax. He doesn’t even remember them tensing up, like he was getting ready for a fight.

“Do you remember the places you got attacked in your area?” Bruce asks, back to typing up on the Batcomputer. “We’ll discard the issue once we confirm if they were just intimidated and got defensive. But we’ll need to cover all bases. You may have encountered some outliers that had other motives than the ones Robin and Batgirl encountered. We’ll know to focus on them if so.”

Jason takes a moment to digest the words. Bruce is getting better at using them to get his points across. A lifetime ago he would have just ordered Jason to give him the info and neglect to let Jason know the why of things. It was a very spectacular recipe for miscommunication.

Bruce is clearly trying to do better now. 

Jason can at least try to meet him halfway.

“West of the New Trigate Bridge,” Jason says. “One of them tried to use a taser gun they probably stole from Arkham guards, but I knocked her out. Another one close to the Old Steal entrance lunged at me but I got him pinned and zipped. A couple of them tried to corner me south of Aparo but they went down too.”

Bruce nods in acknowledgment, trying to find surveillance footage of said attacks. It’s a bit tricky since the areas Jason covered are mostly in the middle of nowhere with very little City security cameras, but thankfully Babs has noted this oversight long ago and had her own contacts place her own cameras around.

A minute later they’re watching a replay of two inmates crashing to the ground after being dragged by the bolas Jason threw to tie their legs together.

“Nice move,” Robin says.

“Thanks,” Jason nods.

“I’ll rewind to before the attack,” Bruce says and does so. “Batgirl, if you see anything strange in their behaviour, let us know. That will help.”

“Okay,” Cass says and gives her full attention to the video on the monitor.

A second later she frowns and says, “They’re scared. They saw Red Hood and their… fight or flight? Instinct activated. But, it’s not fly, it’s—  fight or die…?”

“Eat or be eaten,” Jason says.

“That one,” Cass confirms, pointing at him with a nod.

“Okay so they most probably recognized Red’s ugly helmet. And since they’ve been locked up for the past few months, haven’t been privy to the rumors that he’s no longer killing criminals,” Robin says. “So they think the only choice is to try to fight him off before he gets them?”

“That’s one possibility,” Bruce says, and Jason can hear the praise in his tone.

It’s not a half-bad theory.

“You’re talking sense Replacement,” Jason agrees. “They did look extra skittish when they saw me coming.”

Bruce pulls up another video, this time the one from the bridge.

“There,” Batgirl says, pointing to the screen. Bruce hits pause. The woman on screen is holding up the taser gun. “She looks afraid, but also angry… Mostly terrified.”

“Angry...” Bruce says absently. He zooms into the woman’s face. “Do you know her from before?” he asks Jason.

Jason tries recalling the encounter itself but the woman’s face gets swept away with the dozens of other encounters with escapees he’s had tonight. He tries looking at the monitor instead.

The dark environment forced the cameras to switch to night-vision and the image on the Batcomputer isn’t the best quality. Jason squints for a bit before deciding he’ll have a better view of things without his helmet, so he reaches up and takes it off.

Then he feels three sets of eyes pin on him.

Bruce’s eyes widen comically. Steph looks at him and gasps, putting a hand over her mouth. Cass looks at Jason’s face with an intensity she usually reserves for reading words on paper.

Oh no.

He sighs. “I have something on my face, don’t I?” Jason says heavily.

Stephanie bursts out laughing.

“What is that word?” Cass asks, pointing to Jason’s cheek. “Buh, bab, babbi?”

“BABIES,” Robin manages to wheeze out, almost falling out of her chair from laughing so hard at Jason’s face.

Jason knows he won’t like what he sees, but he casts a helpless look at Bruce anyway, who then procures a compact mirror from somewhere (probably his utility belt) and hands it wordlessly to Jason. He takes a breath then opens it and looks at his face.

There, written in large, bold, red, blocky letters on his forehead, Jason reads the words

'I MAKE'

Then on his right cheek, the one Cass pointed at earlier is the word

'BABIES'

And finally on his left cheek, the last word

'CRY'

Jason slowly shuts his eyes and breathes through his nose. He’s trying to find his zen, but Stephanie’s making that a bit difficult.

“Oh god Red, you really made your ex mad huh?” Stephanie laughs. “I knew I liked that Normie!”

Jason feels a vein throbbing on his head.

It never occurred to Jason that Tim would pull a prank like this. But then again, when has predictability and Tim Drake ever been on the same page?

Jason’s just glad Red Hood’s helmet prevented the bad guys from seeing the note tonight and cracking up in his face. He silently hopes the rumor about him no longer using lethal force in Gotham dies down. He feels like he’ll need all the intimidating power he has left if he ever gets de-helmet-ed and there’s another prank message scrawled on his face.

Jason opens his eyes and looks at Bruce, ignoring Robin shitting herself with laughter and Batgirl starting to giggle. He hands the compact mirror back.

“I don’t recognize the inmate on screen,” Jason says with forced seriousness. “She wasn’t involved in any of my previous solo operations. I don’t know why she’s angry at me besides the general things of being, well, me. I’d rule out personal vendetta, but you guys keep digging. I’ve said all I know. I’m going home.”

Bruce nods. A paragon of professionalism who doesn’t comment on Jason’s predicament. Jason stands and walks back to his bike.

“Aw, Jay c’mon!” Steph whines with a grin, “Sorry for laughing at your face.”

“Let me know if you need me for anything,” Jason says then puts his helmet back on, gets on his bike, and rides away.


 

Bright sunlight wakes Jason up. He forgot to close his blinds after getting back.

Probably because he’s been trying to wrap his head around the prank Tim made (Is Tim mad? Does he really think Jason’s an awful guy who makes babies cry? Why is he only retaliating this way now?) and it sapped his brain cells dry, until he finally just fell asleep with the letters still on his face.

The Link is particularly noisy today. Like a buzzing of anxious bees that had their queen kidnapped.

Jason opens his eyes and moves his arm over his face, blocking out the sunlight streaming in. A blink later he realizes his arms are covered in words.

'OMG I’m sorry abt the face!'

'I fell asleep at the office last night and Tam caught me'

'She poked at me to go home and I was so sleepy I didn’t even realize'

'I just went straight to bed, ISTG I didn’t know she wrote on my face'

'I cleaned it off as soon as I saw this morning'

'had to use extra strength astringent'

'it was PERMANENT MARKER! Tam wtf'

'Did you get in trouble because of it?

'heard from the news there was an Arkham breakout last night??'

'Jay are you ok???'

The familiarity of the words and how easily they flowed catches Jason’s morning brain off guard. His chest tightens and a familiar sting assaults his eyes. He almost forgot what it feels like waking up to Tim’s stream of words written just for him

It’s different from the sweet nothings and Shakespeare quotes Tim has been leaving Jason everyday. As much as they sometimes (always) make Jason blush, they’re words of others repurposed by Tim to make his presence known.

The words currently on Jason’s arm are conversational, written to apologize about a second-hand prank (explaining why the words from last night had different penmanship), written without much thought and insidious purpose other than what they say, written not to make Jason’s heart skip a beat (but they manage anyway).

Most importantly, they’re Tim’s and Jason didn’t realize how much missed that.

Jason presses the heels of his palms over his eyes, partly to push the tears down as much as to shield them from daylight. When he’s confident his eyes have adjusted, he raises his arm to re-read the words. He quickly finds out there’s more to Tim’s ramblings.

'I think you are ok bec ur at your regular place'

'But if you don’t answer by noon I’m calling B to ask'

'You have been warned'

Jason snaps to look at the clock on his bedside. 11:53 AM. There’s still time. He flings himself out of bed and goes to his desk in search of a pen.

Once upon a time, Jason always kept a pen on his person. He was never two feet away from one... But after they broke up, Jason made it a point to not have pens on him lest he be tempted to write Tim back.

It’s that very same thought that makes Jason pause, his newly acquired pen gripped tightly in one hand.

“Shit,” Jason whispers, with feeling.

He’s been doing so well. Jason’s been successfully avoiding writing back for the past months. He’s trying to steadily chip away at Tim’s insistence by using his non-response to demonstrate that Tim doesn’t need Jason in his life.

Jason’s been holding on to the hope that one day, Tim will eventually get tired of the silence and finally realize he should stop wasting time and effort on Jason.

If Jason answers Tim now… Won’t that ruin all the hard work he’s put in?

But… It’s just a studpid prank. And it wasn’t even Tim’s fault. And he apologized and he just wanted to confirm if Jason’s okay…

If the roles were reversed, Jason will fucking appreciate even the simplest of response.

Is Jason really so petty that he’ll let Tim stew in his own worries? No matter how silly they root from?

Also does he really want Tim to call up Bruce’s emergency line just to inquire if Jason is okay because he’s worried the I MAKE BABIES CRY message may have somehow put him in trouble with an Arkham breakout?

What if Bruce tells Tim that Jason walked out of the meeting last night because he got annoyed when Robin and Batgirl laughed at him?

Fuck. It sounds embarrassing even in his head.

He looks back at the clock, 11:59 AM.

Crap.

Jason uncaps the pen and writes back before he can change back his mind for the nth time.

'I’m fine, don't worry.' Jason scrawls on his arm, below Tim’s last message.

He holds his breath.

When Tim’s reply comes in, Jason just feels his breath getting shallower.

'Thank fuck'

'Thanks for letting me know'

The anxious buzzing of their Soulmate GPS mellows down to the normal annoying pinging, and Jason barely stops himself from picking up the Link from his end, just to reassure Tim further.

Jason debates writing another reply to Tim’s message. But he bullies himself into letting it go. He’s answered the question and Tim’s now aware that he’s fine. There’s no more reason to write again.

Jason drops the pen like it burned him. He walks back to bed, away from the desk, away from the damn pens, and works on his breathing.

For a moment, Jason is almost convinced he’s managed to work through the whole thing without suffering a major breakdown. He almost congratulates himself for having built up enough immunity to Tim’s unique impact to be okay with casually writing back a single response and not writing any more after.

Surely this is a good sign that he’s starting to be less influenced by his soulmate? That he’s slowly becoming strong enough to truly let Tim go?

And then Jason makes the mistake of looking back at his arm to see that Tim left him another message that makes his breath catch again.

'I miss you'

The tears blur Jason’s vision before the pain even registered.

The words resonate with the big ball of longing inside Jason’s chest. To read and see it written by Tim’s hand is like a validation to Jason’s basest needs. He fights to stop the hope from budding in his throat and suffocating him alive.

Insanely Jason thinks this must be what it feels like; to have (loved and) fucking lost it.

He really thought he’s been getting better. Jason’s been moving through his life and making changes he could only have dreamed of before. Isn’t that enough to let him be able to lie to himself about how much he misses Tim?

And besides it’s fucking impossible to even miss Tim.

Jason can’t miss something he never had.

He crawls into bed and closes his eyes. Scared beside himself of any other message Tim may have written again. Jason knows he won’t have the strength to deal with it after this. He resolves to just close his eyes tight.

Out of sight, out of mind.

In the back of his head, Jason knows he has online classes this afternoon, and that he has overdue books to return, and that he should probably touch base with Bruce about the breakout last night... He also knows he’s going to stay in bed all day and nothing short of the apocalypse will make him leave.

After countless minutes of aching from a broken heart, Jason cries himself to sleep.

 

---TBC---