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is the blood on your hands dry? mine isn't

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he doesn’t die at all, even though it feels like he should’ve. the pain hurts almost as much as it did the first time, almost as much as coming back hurt. it’s white-hot, scalding against his skin, too painful to do anything but gasp. he’s had worse, but barely.

he thinks he screams once, he thinks he never stops screaming, yelling into the darkness that is not red, not green, it’s just black and black and that’s worse than everything. black means fear and pain and death. black means soil and the loamy taste of dirt, and the feeling of a coffin pressing in, and he’ll take anything over that any day.

someone says his name and he’s not sure if it’s real. it sounds a lot like bruce and sometimes it sounds like alfred and there’s no way either of them would be saying his name like that, all wrapped up in pain and worry. it can’t be real. maybe he’s lying on the floor of the warehouse, in the wreckage of another bomb. maybe he’s dying again.

he comes to all at once, wrenching himself out of unconsciousness and blinking up at the ceiling. it’s dark and heavy, and just for a second, he’s convinced he’s back in the ground again, that his nightmare was real. he shoots a hand up and it doesn’t hit wood, just hangs in the air and doesn’t touch anything. a fraction of the pressure releases in jason’s chest, just enough to let him think about breathing normally.

it takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. he’s in a hospital, he thinks, even though he can’t imagine which one, what lies have been told to explain why a dead man is lying in a bed and covered in the aftereffects of an explosion. it smells like bruce’s doing, and that makes him uneasy.

he takes a few seconds to gather his strength, collect himself and test out his limbs. he hurts, no surprise there, but nothing feels terribly broken. his right arm’s definitely in a few pieces, but nothing unmanageable. he’s had a lot worse. taking in a deep breath, he yanks out his i.v. and swings his legs over the side of the bed, blinking away the spots that appear on his vision, and stumbles towards the window. it’s hard to open with one hand but he wedges it free, tips out to look at the ground below. he’s only a few stories up, two maybe at most, and it’s doable. it’ll be hell landing but it’s torture staying in this room, not knowing who’ll enter next. sitting on the ledge, he inches himself around and—

“what the hell are you doing?”

he freezes, twisting his head around to peer at the doorway. “dr. leslie? what are you doing here?”

“it’s my clinic,” she says, sharp, and glares at him. “what are you doing?”

“i’m just... leaving.”

“like hell you are,” leslie snaps and takes a step towards him. “get out of the window before you get hurt.”

“leslie—”

she holds up a hand to stop him and he can read the flint in her face even in the darkness. “no, i’m not going to hear it. i don’t care. you just were in the center of an explosion, you, who already should be dead so many times over. i don’t care what you feel. get the hell back into bed, jason todd, or i swear, i will kill you myself.”

jason stares at her for a minute. “how did you—”

“you think bruce would leave you here without telling me why you were alive?” she points at the bed and he sits, holding still while she fiddles with the i.v., putting it back into place in his arm. “think, please.”

“i don’t want drugs,” he says.

“it’s fluids, you’re dehydrated because you tried to blow yourself up.”

“were you always this aggressive with patients?”

“i got jaded,” says leslie, sitting down heavily in the chair next to the bed. “too many people i loved died and i couldn’t save them. it’s easier to yell, especially when an idiot of an undead boy tries to kill himself again by plummeting out the window. fuck, jason.”

“i wasn’t trying to kill myself again,” jason mutters, crossing his arms over his chest as best he can hooked up to a machine. “i was just trying to leave.

“out the window.”

he picks at a thread on the scratchy hospital bed. “i didn’t know who was outside.”

“bruce isn’t here.” jason pulls on the thread again, making it longer. leslie sighs. “you’ve been out for three days. he had things he had to attend to.”

“good. don’t want to see him.”

“he said you tried to kill the joker.”

jason’s fingers twitch. “can you blame me?”

“personally, no. i don’t think he does either, not really.”

he scowls at that, leaning back into his pillows as the jolt of adrenaline that had flooded his body starts to ease away. it leaves him tired, jittery, aware of all the aches and pains on his body. he feels stretched thin, wrung out and scraped empty, more exhausted than he’s been for a while.

“he only left when we knew you’d pull through and he couldn’t ignore gotham anymore,” leslie says quietly and jason jerks his chin away.

“i don’t want to talk about him.”

“fine, then. let’s talk about you.”

“no.”

“where’s the autopsy scar? the one on your ribs you got from two-face when you were thirteen?”

“there are plenty of scars on me.”

“yes, well. not the ones i remember. your body doesn’t match your medical records anymore, what the hell is up with that?”

“i thought medical records were confidential,” he says dully and leslie gives him a look.

“i’m your doctor.”

“i don’t know. i don’t know any of it. why the fuck are you asking me about my scars, anyway?”

“what else am i supposed to ask about?”

he waves a hand. “dunno. take your pick. all the murders, maybe? how i could go toe to toe against batman and walk away?”

“you almost died.”

“the explosion was mine. i was stupid and planted the charges directly under us.”

“why’d you plant them at all?”

“insurance,” jason says with a shrug. leslie stretches her legs out in front of her body and crosses them at the ankle with a sign. he wonders how long she’s been on her feet. “backup plans on backup plans.”

“they all failed.”

“they won’t next time.”

“jason—”

“i don’t want to hear it. i can’t rest until the joker is dead, leslie. i can’t do it.”

she’s quiet for a long time, staring at her toes and lost in thought. jason stretches out on the bed and looks up at the ceiling, runs his hands against the sheets. they’re cheap, a low thread count and scratchy. it feels nothing like the satin of the expensive coffin he’d been laid to rest in, the fabric that had given way under his frantic clawing. he hates satin now. he can’t stand it against his skin, just like he can’t stand the taste of air before a lighting strike or the smell of potting soil or the color red.

“jay,” leslie says roughly and he flinches at the nickname. “i thought i’d never see you again.”

“i can make that happen if you want me to,” he replies, back to bland. there’s no space in his body for emotion anymore; it’s all been scooped out. he takes in a deep breath and feels it twinge against his ribs. bruised, maybe busted. leslie would know. his legs feel raw too, tender like they’ve been burned. it’s probably what happened. he swipes his legs against the sheet and bites back against the hiss of pain it elicits.

leslie narrows her eyes at him. “don’t you dare.”

“i might,” he says and drops his head back on the pillow. his eyes feel heavy. “gotham’s a poison. it gets into your blood and it corrupts you and turns you rotten. maybe— maybe it wasn’t the pit that made me like this, leslie. maybe i’ve always been this way. maybe i’m not good.”

she’s quiet for a moment and then she leans forward, putting kind fingers in his hair and stroking the strands, a gentler touch than he’s felt in a long, long time.

“i won’t begrudge you for leaving. you can do that if you want and no one will stop you. but i’ve known you for a while now, before any of your vigilante days, and maybe you’ve done a lot of bad things but you are not rotten, jason. not even a bit.”

“i don’t believe you. bruce wouldn’t either.”

“you’re wrong about that.”

his body feels so, so heavy and he can barely keep his eyes open, warmth flooding through his veins. he sends a vague glare in leslie’s general direction.

“you said… no drugs.”

“i lied. you needed them.”

“don’t like it.”

“i know, i know. you’re right not to but i can’t let you be in pain. not after this.”

“he didn’t even recognize me. didn’t know it was me,” he says sadly, hardly even realizing he’s talking. he’s far too gone, pulled under by the morphine seeping through his body.

the last thing he hears is leslie sigh, feels her fingers still in his hair, and then nothing.

 

“ugh,” he says when he wakes up next. his brain is fuzzy and his tongue is thick in his mouth, dry and uncomfortable. “ugh.”

something cold is pressed against his mouth. he takes it without thinking, crunches down on an ice cube. it’s satisfying, the coolness and the wet, and he takes the next one that fed to him gratefully.

and then he comes to his senses, remembers where he is and who he is. with a jerk, he flips himself away, rolling off the bed and landing in a crouch.

on the other side of the bed, cass watches him carefully, a styrofoam cup in her hand.

“what the fuck are you doing here?” he says hoarsely after a few beats of silence. cass blinks at him.

“watching.”

“watching me?”

“yes. for bruce.”

“what the fuck,” he repeats. “did he ask you to do that?”

cass shrugs. “i… help.”

“that doesn’t answer my question.”

she shrugs again and dips her fingers into the cup, pulling out another ice chip. she offers it to him.

“no. gross.”

“thirsty,” she says. he makes a face.

“i’ll drink real water that hasn’t been touched by your dirty fingers,” says jason, gruff, and cass looks at her hand.

“clean,” she says and shows him.

“no. fuck off and leave me alone.”

she scowls at the language but retreats across the room to perch on the windowsill, the one he had tried to escape out of the night before. she doesn’t leave, just sits with her feet dangling and her wide eyes watching.

“you hurt.”

“yeah, no shit. i just got blown up.”

“bad. bad to do.” she crosses her arms. “hurt you. hurt batman.”

“b seems fine.”

“you haven’t… seen. hurts here.” she taps her palm over her heart twice, giving him a pointed look. he looks away, frowning.

“i don’t care.”

“liar.”

“i am a lot of things but i am not a liar,” jason tells her, voice rough, and leans back against the wall. his body hurts.

“you care.”

“not about bruce.”

she studies him for a moment and he shifts in place, uncomfortable. he’s got the distinct feeling that she can read himself easily as he reads his books, like she can crack open his covers and take in every detail he’s ever tried to hide.

“why.”

“why what?”

“why kill.” cass tips her head to her side. “why kill if… it hurts.”

“not killing hurts more.”

“not a lie,” she muses. “but not… a truth.”

“i’ve had this conversation twice already.”

“not with me.”

he sighs, running his hand through his hair. his legs still hurt like a bitch and he wouldn’t be able to get away from cass anyway.

“i thought i told barbara to keep you away from me.”

she grins at him, her teeth sharp against the smile. “not scared of you.”

“maybe you should be.”

cass just hums, watching him fidget. the medicine seems to be wearing off, making him feel hollowed out and achy. it’s a different ache from the bullets, an all-over ache. it’s easier to compartmentalize somehow, more spread out instead of deep. he twitches his toes and winces.

“why are you here?” he asks again. cass tips her head to the side, wrinkling her nose.

“for bruce?”

“i just tried to kill bruce,” he says roughly. she makes a noise, low in her throat. “i tried to make him kill me and the joker, and then i tried to kill him. i’ve tried to fuck him up so many times for so long. so why are you here for him?”

“why not?”

jason doesn’t need cass’ skill to read her, read into those two words. he can see the blind respect, the dumb love she has for him written all over her body and it makes him ache again. he’d been like that once, all stupid unseeing trust in the cowl and, worse, the man underneath it. bruce could’ve done no wrong when jason was younger, until he’d done nothing right when jason died.

he changes the subject. “you’re my jailer, aren’t you? watching to make sure i don’t run off and try to kill again.”

“yes. and no. you hurt.”

“yeah, yeah. you’ve said.”

“make sure… you don’t hurt.”

“my own personal prison guard,” he spits and drops his head back against the pillow, closing his eyes. somewhere to the right of him, cass shifts.

“he loves you. still.”

his eyes snap back open, rage bubbling up in his body faster than he thought possible. he is suddenly completely and entirely furious, filled with sulphur and the coppery taste of blood. “fuck off.”

“no.”

“don’t ever fucking say that again.”

“he does,” she insists and he fists a hand in his sheets, his knuckles going white from how tightly they’re curled. “he loves you. you are his son.”

“his son died in a warehouse,” jason says through clenched teeth. “his son was buried in the family graveyard, with a nice little headstone and a shitty memorial in the cave. i am not— i am not him.”

“people change. love does not.”

“if he loved me,” he tells her, forcing the words out through a dry throat and a wooden tongue. the words taste terrible. “if he loved me, he would’ve done everything different.”

cass is silent for a minute, swinging one leg against the wall. it’s a mannerism that inexplicably reminds jason of dick, his boundless energy when he’s relaxed.

“not perfect,” she says. “still loves.”

he swallows hard, still tasting sulphur. “and what would you know about love?”

an ice chip hits him in the forehead, sharp and cold against his skin. cass’ eyes are wild when he looks over, angry and bright even in the dimness of the room, and her fingers are tight around the cup, making the styrofoam protest.

“don’t,” she warns and she’s breathing hard. “don’t say—” she shakes her head once, a violent motion, and tries again. “i know. i love.”

something in jason twists, as much as he hates to admit it. “fine,” he concedes. “maybe you do, but bruce doesn’t.”

he’s expecting the ice this time but it’s still a surprise when she launches all of it, the coldness raining on his head like a tiny, manmade hailstorm. when he looks up after they settle, cass is gone, disappeared into the night.

jason brushes the ice from his body and grits his teeth, rolling off the bed. his body hurts but it’s too much to stay in this place, easily found by the people he’d rather kill. only a breath and he’s gone too, running on shaky legs to where no one can find him.

 

he picks up something to dull the pain from one of his dealers, a spare helmet jammed onto his head and burner cash picked up from one of his warehouses. the man hands over his phone without complaint when jason asks for that too, taking the bills jason hands him and running off without looking at the money.

jason waits until he’s out of sight and then calls a cab, ignoring the dirty look he gets when he clambers into the back.

“what happened to you?” the driver asks. jason shrugs.

“motorcycle accident,” he lies, rubbing at his bare face. the driver doesn’t seem convinced but he doesn’t argue, just quietly takes jason to the location and drops him off without another word.

jason leaves the money on the front seat and doesn’t count that either. “keep the change,” he says and barely shuts the door before the car is gone, leaving him alone on the street. it’s early enough in the morning that the sky is lightening but the world is still dark, all the lights in the houses lining the road switched off. it’s peaceful in a way that makes jason’s body itch and practically reeks of money, but it’s a good cover. he bought one of the houses a while ago, buried under three or four false identities, just in case. it had been a good deal; the building had stood empty on the market for so long that the owners were willing to sell it cheap. not big, but prime location.

he lets himself in through one of the windows left unlocked, cracked on the second window that overlooked the back patio. hoisting himself onto the little patio roof was easy enough, even in his state, and he soon spilled into the quiet room.

normally, jason would do anything but take the meds but the ache in his bones is worse than he’s had for a while, a deep, jarring hurt that makes him want to do nothing but sleep. in all that his trainers threw at him, they never set off a bomb directly underneath his feet and expected him to walk it off. no, he’d be the dumbass to do that instead.

it hasn’t even killed the joker. jason had checked, but there was an input form from the arkham hospital for him, dated the same night as the confrontation. he tries not to think about that; it leaves a sour taste in his mouth.

he’d failed, and failed again, so many times over. it’s almost humorous at this point, his life a fucking comedy of errors, everything falling to pieces and him stuck in the middle.

he slides down so he’s lying on the carpeted ground, his back to the wall and feet pointed towards the window. somewhere in this massive fucking house there should be a bed but he’s too shattered to find it. unhooking his helmet with shaking fingers, he sprawls on the floor and watches the shadows play on the ceiling.

 

the figure appears at the window between one heartbeat and the next, a sudden looming shadow. jason doesn’t flinch.

“fuck you,” he mumbles, too swallowed by medication and pain and his own constant incompetence to do anything about it.

the figure in the window shifts. “jason,” says bruce and his voice is too packed with emotion for jason to even begin to process. “you’re here.”

“fuck you,” he repeats and sweeps his eyes to the ceiling so he doesn’t have to look at his father. former father. whatever. he swallows hard. “why are you here, bruce? come to make sure i didn’t disappear again?”

“you weren’t at the clinic,” he says, stepping into the room. he stops right at the edge of jason’s vision, an ever-present reminder of his presence.

“no,” agrees jason. “not that it’s any of your business.”

“hn.”

“i hate that noise. always did. it meant that i had fucked up somewhere and was about to deal with the consequences. means you’re fuckin’ furious with me.”

“jay—”

“why’d you do it?” he says to the ceiling, swallowing again. there’s a crack that runs through the plaster, tiny but still there. jason tracks it with his eyes. “why did you have to take me in? why couldn’t you have just left me alone, all those years ago? yelled at me for jacking the wheels of the batmobile and let me live my dumb fucking life in peace?”

there’s a heartbeat of silence before bruce speaks, his tone completely devoid of emotion. “i don’t know.”

“do you honestly think that anything i would’ve experienced as gutter trash would’ve been worse than what happened? yeah it fucking sucked, but at least it wasn’t this.”

“it’s my greatest regret,” bruce says after another pause and shit, does that hurt. it slices right through jason’s chest, leaving him breathless for a microsecond, and then all he can do is laugh.

“that answers that question, i guess,” he says bitterly, finally lolling his head to look at bruce. he’s still done up as batman but he’s got the cowl off so jason can watch his forehead twitch. “i’d always wondered if you regretted me too, so thanks for that. tell cass i was right.”

“no, jay, that’s not—” bruce looks stricken in the fading light, frowning deeply. “that’s not what i meant.”

“wasn’t it?” he murmurs, turning back to the ceiling. he needs a drink. a drink and a shotgun and five thousand miles between him and the filth of gotham and the long, long shadow of batman. “i should’ve killed you when i had the chance.”

“it wasn’t,” insists bruce. jason scoffs at the crack in the plaster. “listen to me,” he says and it’s bordering on a growl, bordering on angry enough to make something in jason tense. “there are so many things i regret about our… relationship, and so much more that i regret about what happened to you because of me, but taking you in was one of the best things to happen to me, do you understand?”

jason does not understand. he doesn’t say so.

“funny way of showing it,” he says instead, the words thick against his teeth.

“you haven’t given me much of a chance.”

“why?” jason asks without meaning to, and it sounds heartbroken even to his own years. “why couldn’t you care about me enough to kill him?”

there’s a long, long stretch of silence, long enough that he wonders if bruce left. it would be just like him, to sneak out instead of answering a question he didn’t want to answer, leaving jason alone on the ground. he doesn’t turn his head to check, doesn’t think he can bear to know.

except, there’s the barest sound of a sigh, breath being forced out through a clenched jaw and the dark smudge at the corner of jason’s vision moves.

“do you know,” bruce says, low and terrible, “how many times i planned it? how many times i thought through every single detail of how i would make him pay for what— for what he did? every day, jason. every fucking day. i wanted to kill him. i wanted— dick almost did, and i almost let him. god, i almost helped.”

“then why—”

“if i let myself kill him, where would i stop? who would i kill next?”

“this wasn’t some fucking random off the street, bruce, it was the person who murdered me,” jason snarls, jerking his chin to glare at bruce straight on. “do your morals matter more than me?

“if i had killed the joker,” bruce snaps, “then i would’ve killed myself too. i wouldn’t have been bruce anymore, i would’ve been someone else entirely and that— that would’ve been a disservice to your memory as well.”

“dick said you lost yourself anyway.”

bruce winces and then sits, adjusting his legs so they’re crossed. it brings him much closer to jason, brings his face into focus.

“that is true.”

“so you could’ve.”

“i wanted to, jason,” bruce says sadly, and jason does not care, he doesn’t. “for you and for barbara. isn’t that enough?”

“not in a million lifetimes,” jason spits. “you didn’t do anything. i wanted you to do something.”

“doing that isn’t something i could ever do.”

“you didn’t do anything right,” says jason and it’s thick with tears, to his horror. he looks away in the vain hope bruce doesn’t notice, grits his teeth against the hurt that’s building up in the base of his spine. “you didn’t— you didn’t even recognize me. i was your son and you didn’t—”

there’s another breath. “i’ll never forgive myself for that.”

“i won’t either.”

“i know. i don’t expect you to forgive me for anything.”

“good, because i don’t plan to.”

bruce sighs and his shadow is long, nearly touching jason’s fingers. it makes jason want to move, inch away from it as if he could inch away from the memories of the warehouse floor and the way the joker had seemed never-ending. the sinking sun paints everything red, paints jason’s toes bloody and bruce’s face scarlet, and oh jason is drowning in it.

“do you know,” bruce says quietly, still as a shadow and so close jason can’t look at him straight on, “what the original french definition of reconciliation is?”

jason twitches his foot. “do i look like i know french?”

he does, in fact, know french, and arabic, and mandarin and german and spanish and a smattering of swahili. he just doesn’t know what bruce is getting at.

“everyone thinks it means something dramatic, like wiping away the past so it’s gone, but it doesn’t. it just means ‘to talk to each other again’.”

“and?”

bruce’s voice is so quiet jason can barely make it out, has to strain to hear. “and i know we’ve both done things that are unforgivable, and i’ve made too many mistakes with you to even begin to consider atonement, but— but— maybe—”

“you want us to reconcile? just like that?”

“i want… to talk to my son again. whatever it takes.”

jason swallows hard, closes his eyes against the sunset. it doesn’t help; his eyelids are a brilliant, bright red and all he can think about is the blood that’s so soaked into his soul, there’s nothing that can get it out, and the taste of the word reconciliation on his tongue, earthy like the dirt that crowded his mouth underground. he wants to spit. he wants to sleep. he wants this all to be over.

“i think,” he says, finally, quietly. bruce is barely breathing beside him, “i think i want you to leave.”

just as quickly as he came, batman is gone, not even a whisper of fabric against the ground to announce his departure.

jason keeps his eyes shut until there’s nothing behind his eyes but black.

 

he wakes up stiff, hurting in different tangible ways. it takes a moment but he drags himself into the bathroom and turns the water as hot as it’ll go, collapsing in the bathtub. he flinches when the hot water hits his skin but it’s soothing, eases the locked muscles in his legs and abdomen. it’d be better if he could find some epsom salt but this will have to do, this is good. he sits until the water goes lukewarm and his body doesn’t feel so wound, just loose and languid.

the lazarus pit had been shockingly cold, had taken his breath away and seized his lungs with the iciness of the water. it had taken ages for him to chase the chill out and take a deep breath without shivering. his anger had been hot but it hadn’t been able to touch the coldness of the pit seeped in his bones.

sitting here, in the heat, feels like it’s unlocking something in his chest, letting something loose. he can’t tell if it’s sweat or tears sitting on his face but either way, it’s a release. he stretches out a leg and lets his knee pop.

there hadn’t been a plan for failure. honestly, there hadn’t really been a plan past getting revenge; jason always sort of thought he’d die with the joker, or die trying. he hadn’t anticipated everyone surviving.

“what next?” he says out loud to the barren bathroom and dips under the surface of the water before he can hear the silence.

no one tells you what to do when everything you set out to do suddenly becomes unattainable again. he’s certain they won’t let him near the joker, not unless there’s another breakout.

what next, indeed. does he stay in gotham, clean it up with fire and blood like he’s been doing? cut off the heads of eight more murders and drop them on the gotham police’s doorstep again? does he run; he could go anywhere. he could find talia again, or find a piece of the world that’s untainted by the city filth that seems to follow him. what next?

jason sits in the tub until the water gets cold and doesn’t come up with an answer. he drags himself up instead, stumbling over to the mirror and swiping across the moisture beaded across the front. his face is red from the heat, damp from the water. he’s been crying in that slow, quiet way that’s less about the emotion and more about the catharsis, no hysterical sobs but just a slide of tears against his skin.

his hair is getting long. the white streak is growing out, the black roots starting to show at his hairline. he hates that the white isn’t permanent. he can see bruce in his face again and it makes him woozy.

jason’s fist is flying before he realises, yet again. it connects with the mirror in front of him and shatters the glass into a thousand pieces, like he had done to the robin shrine a few days ago. shards cut into his knuckles, splattering the porcelain with scarlet.

 

the doorbell goes. jason stares at the front door with wide eyes as it rings out, stops, and then starts again. no one should be ringing the doorbell. he snatches a handgun and creeps forward, peering through the peephole and recoils back.

it’s alfred, standing on the front step and looking as proper as ever. jason tucks the gun into his waistband and carefully opens the door.

“alfred?”

“master jason,” alfred says evenly. “you look unwell.”

“i don’t— what are you doing here?”

“it seems to me that when someone comes back from the dead, it should be standard practice to have a conversation.”

“uh.”

alfred raises an eyebrow. “are you going to let me in?”

“are you alone?”

something softens in his face, something around the eyes, and if it were anyone else, jason would’ve slammed the door for their sympathy. but…

“yes, of course. i am by myself.” jason steps back so alfred can come in, a duffel bag in his hands.

“what’s in there?”

“supplies. i wasn’t sure what condition i’d find you in, so i took precautions.”

“i don’t need—” jason starts and alfred holds up a hand.

“master jason,” he says, “you have experienced multiple tragedies in your young life. three days ago, you were in an explosion. you should be at the hospital, or at least in bed, and instead you are crossing the city and toddling around the house like an idiot.”

“alfred—”

“since you’ve been back in gotham, you’ve shown a considerable lack of care for your wellbeing. forgive me if i was not sure of the medical supplies at your disposal.”

“i didn’t ask for your help,” jason tries again, curling his fingers into his fist.

“i don’t care,” alfred snaps, “i am fucking tired of this family trying to kill themselves to absolve their guilt while i am supposed to just stand by. i am going to help you and you are going to shut your mouth about it, so help me god.”

jason shuts his mouth, staring at alfred in shock. his lips are pressed into a line and the tips of his ears are red, the angriest jason has ever seen him. even when jason had broke his arm doing dumb shit on the streets, even when jason had accidentally let the food squirreled under his bed go bad and the ants came, alfred had been unflappable. this show of emotion makes him uneasy.

“why are you here?” he asks quietly and alfred seems to deflate, straighten his spine into something more proper.

“because i think you need me. even if you think you don’t. now, sit down before you aggravate your injuries even further.”

jason sits on the sofa without any more complaining and watches as alfred sets the bag on the table, unzips it. out come a few containers of food that are placed in the fridge, accompanied by a disapproving click of the tongue at the emptiness.

“i do like to cook. i just haven’t done it for a while.” it’s hard to buy groceries when you’re on the move all the time, when you might have to leave the building in a few seconds and not come back.

“so you live on takeaway and pizza, i presume?”

“kind of,” he grumbles and alfred clicks his tongue again.

“i brought soup.”

“i’m injured, not sick.”

“soup cures many ailments, master jason. however, it does not cure broken knuckles.”

jason looks down at his still-bleeding hand and winces, thinking back to the broken mirror and mess in the bathroom. “uh.”

“would you like to share?”

“not really.”

alfred doesn’t say anything, but crosses the room with a disapproving sort of air. he sits on the sofa next to jason and gently takes the injured hand in his own.

“i don’t think they’re broken,” jason says quietly as alfred studies them. “just bruised and cut.”

“there’s glass.”

“i saw something i didn’t like.”

“one day,” alfred mutters as he reaches over to the medkit, “someone in this family will learn that there are other ways of solving problems than punching things.”

“can’t really talk it out with my demons, alf.”

“and you can punch them?”

jason winces again, half in chastisement and half in surprise as alfred digs out the splinters in his skin.

“i really… don’t need another lecture,” he says weakly. “nor do i want another heart to heart conversation. i’ve had three in the past few days and i’m done with that.”

“richard?”

“leslie, cass, and— uh.”

“ah.” alfred swipes his skin with antiseptic, making jason hiss. “cassandra did seem rather upset the other day.”

“what’s my use in life if i’m not upsetting people?” he says sarcastically and alfred flicks the side of his hand, sharp.

“stop that.”

“it’s merely an observation.”

“then stop observing.” he pulls the bandage tight and ties it neatly, tucking the ends under. jason flexes his fingers and then folds them under, feeling the twinge as the skin pulls.

“it’ll do.”

“pleased to see i meet your standard of care, master jason,” says alfred wryly as he stands, taking the waste with him. “it’s good to know i haven’t lost my touch.”

it feels surreal, the next few hours. jason sits and watches alfred move around the empty kitchen, grumbling when he can’t find anything helpful and then pulling out whatever necessities from his bag. soup goes on the stove to heat up, and jason is checked over for worse injuries. the bathroom is cleaned up without a word as he spoons soup into his mouth and stares at the television on low. it’s some sort of sitcom, something he doesn’t recognize. he clicks it off, tries to find something different.

“if you turn on the news, i will oversalt your dinner,” alfred calls from the bathroom. jason looks at the flickering screen with a frown; it’s turned down so quiet he can barely hear the sound from a few feet away.

“how did he—” he mutters as he turns it off entirely. alfred comes back into view, wiping his hands on a towel.

“i brought some of your things from the manor. from… before.”

jason stiffens. “i don’t want it.”

“are you quite certain?” alfred asks, rummaging around in the mary poppins-esque bag. he comes up with a stack of books, still in perfect condition. “they were some of your favorites, if i remember correctly.”

“i don’t— i don’t—” he doesn’t want a reminder of the things from before, doesn’t want anything reminding him of how he was happy, once, in that house with those people. “alfred—”

“they won’t be missed,” says alfred, and drops the stack on the cushion next to jason. the scarlet pimpernel is on the top, the cover worn in intimately familiar ways. he knows his name is scrawled in the front, a teenager’s chicken scratch, just like he knows there’s a chocolate stain at the back.

“you’re telling me that bruce won’t know they’re gone? there’s probably a tracker somewhere in these pages.”

alfred presses his lips together. “master bruce does not go into the room they were in. he hasn’t for a number of years. he will not miss them.”

jason really, really cannot process that information. he just can’t. it shorts out his brain to think about bruce mourning him like that, remembering him as anything more than a soldier sent off to die, mixes up with the fringes of the pit and makes him sick.

“oh,” he says instead, touching the tip of his finger to the lettering on the cover. “oh.”

“oh, indeed.”

“why did… why did bruce let it happen again?” he blurts out without thinking and regrets it as soon as the words fall from his mouth. alfred frowns.

“pardon?”

“the girl robin. he let her die too, sent her to her death.” jason clenches his fist, vaguely feels the pain shoot down his arm. “if he cared so much, why didn’t he just learn?”

alfred goes very still and very blank, a faraway look in his eye that makes jason uneasy again. “stephanie. you’re talking about stephanie.”

“the black mask got her, didn’t he?”

“yes. it was…” he closes his eyes briefly, brow furrowed, “it was not our proudest moment. far from it.”

“he shouldn’t have let her be robin. he shouldn’t have let anyone be robin.”

“the situation was more complicated than that, master jason. he tried. he didn’t want anyone. master timothy was difficult, but he is so different from you. it wasn’t… it wasn’t too much of a reminder. miss stephanie, on the other hand. she was so much like you that it took our breath away sometimes.”

“then why?

“because she was stubborn. think about it, if you were in her place, wouldn’t you have done the same thing? if you were untrained and running around as a vigilante of your own making, and the robin was banned from his duties, wouldn’t you feel like you needed to step up?”

“you shouldn’t have let her.”

“we shouldn’t have done a lot of things, but we were worried. master bruce was worried— she was trying to fight without any training, no understanding of how to survive. just her and no one in her ear, no one to patch her up at home. it was safer, we thought.”

“safer until she ended up dead.”

alfred dips his chin in a jerky nod. “until that, yes. it nearly broke master bruce, yet again.”

“good,” jason says savagely, thumbing over a dried bloodstain on his pants. “he should’ve known better.”

“he couldn’t win, master jason. he tried to train you and you died. he tried to send stephanie home and she died as well. what else were we to do?”

jason doesn’t have an answer for that, not one that he can say without breaking something else with his other fist. alfred doesn’t deserve that.

“i wish,” says alfred, quiet. “i wish we had done so many things differently. i wish we had kept you both safe.”

“yeah, well. you didn’t, and now we all have to deal with the consequences.” he pulls on a thread on a throw pillow, teasing it loose until it’s long enough to wrap around his finger. “bruce has to live with the guilt of burying two sidekicks and i have to live with all the shit dying and being thrown in the lazarus pit does to your psyche.”

alfred takes in a tiny breath of air. “the lazarus pit?”

“mm. a big magic lake ra’s al ghul likes to bathe in to keep himself immortal every once in a while. i got thrown in and it made me like this, jacked and full of rage.”

“it changed you? physically?”

“i went in like i died,” says jason. the tip of his finger has gone white from the lack of circulation. it’s starting to hurt. “scrawny and malnourished. hurt like hell to go through the growing pains, but i’m all muscle now. taller than dickie boy and b, too.”

“your eyes are green.”

“it did that as well. when i think about it, alf, i feel murderous, you know?” he unravels the thread and flexes his hand as the blood rushes in. “it wants me to be angry. it fed all the rage there and i can still feel it. i can taste it when the lightning strikes now.”

“i was drinking tea,” alfred says after a second’s quiet, “when i got the call about mr. and mrs. wayne. a nice yorkshire. i can still taste that fear when i drink it, sometimes. it’s never really gone away, in all these years, but i’ve learned to swallow around it.”

“swallowing doesn’t do anything about the rage, though.”

“no, i suppose it wouldn’t,” he says around a sigh. “that one you’re just going to have to work out yourself. preferably with less explosions and less murder.”

“you don’t like my cleanup methods?”

“i don’t like the way you’re so willing to die again.”

“it’s all just borrowed time anyway. i just got a bonus.”

“stop wasting the bonus, then.”

jason sighs, resting his head on the back of the couch. he’s tired, bone deep, still sore and done with it all.

“did you put sleeping meds in the soup?” he asks, after he yawns for the fourth time in as many minutes. alfred isn’t smirking but it’s a close kind of thing.

“you need the rest.”

“don’t like medication.”

“i remember, but it’s non-negotiable when you’re healing. sleep.”

“thanks f’r coming, alf,” he slurs and there’s a hand in his hair again, warm and comforting. “‘preciate it.”

“of course, master jason. of course.”

 

alfred is gone when jason wakes up, groggy and blinking, but he’s left a fridge full of food and instructions on how to heat them up. something in jason’s chest twinges when he sees it, twinges more when he thinks about the original plan to blow up the manor.

soon enough, the cabin fever gets to him and he needs to get out, leave the four walls of this ridiculous house and find some place choked with smoke, gritty and less… suburban. he finds himself at the hot dog place a stone’s throw from crime alley, enough out of the narrows that it’s still open after a few decades, but close enough that it’s grimy. jason is unobtrusive here, unnoticed. he adjusts his baseball cap on his head as he waits for the chili dog to finish cooking, hands over a few grubby bills and settles in the corner booth with the cracked vinyl.

it squeaks as dick slides into the booth opposite, dressed down and a faint frown on his face.

“how the fuck do you all keep finding me,” jason growls, rubbing at his eyes with a hand. dick cocks his head.

“this was your favorite place to eat as a kid.”

jason blinks. “how do you know that?”

“you talked about it all the time,” says dick and then shrugs when jason blinks again. “and i’ve read your file.”

“i have… a file?”

“bruce wiped it, or tried to, but he can’t hide everything.”

jason doesn’t know how to answer that, so he doesn’t. he fixes his frown firmer on his face and glares.

“i thought you lived in bludhaven.”

dick crosses his arms over his chest, leaning against the vinyl. “i do.”

jason makes a show of looking around. “this sure looks like gotham.”

“and?”

“why are you following me to shitty hot dog places in the narrows?”

dick plays with a straw wrapper, twisting it around his finger. jason’s uncomfortably reminded of his own fidgeting a while ago, trying to talk to alfred.

“you tried to kill b,” dick says eventually, low and threatening.

“technically, i tried to kill the joker. and myself. b was just in the way.”

“and how did that work out for you?”

“what does it matter to you?”

dick smoothes out the wrapper, thumbing at all the wrinkles in the paper. they don’t go away, just sort of flatten out, and go soft.

“it matters because it’s my family that’s hurting each other.”

“oh, am i part of the family now? that’s cute.”

“you never were not part of it, jason,” dick says. “even when you were dead. you can’t just… you can’t just stop.”

a muscle ticks in jason’s jaw. “that’s fucking funny coming from you. you, who never wanted anything to do with me until i was more of a threat. where was all this family talk when i was twelve and needed help, huh? or when i was fifteen and waiting for a rescue? don’t talk to me about family, dickie.”

“listen, i’ve already— i’ve already admitted that i fucked up with you, okay. i fucked up in big, huge ways, and that’s why i’m trying to fix it now. it’s why i reached out to tim, and god, i should’ve done better with steph. i can’t— i can’t fix the past, but goddamn it jason, i am trying now and you are making it exceedingly difficult.”

“maybe i don’t want anything to be fixed. i like it how it is.”

dick sighs, long and low. “fine, then. fine. but i’d like to, fuck, be able to talk to you without getting worried that you’ll punch my lights out? how’s that, at least for a start?”

jason glares at the coffee stain on the sticky table, faded against the yellow top.

“reconciliation,” he grinds out, low enough that dick tips his head to the side.

“what?”

“nothing. it’s nothing. i’m not going to punch your lights out. just kick your ass a little if you get in my way.”

“then we have an understanding,” dick says, wary. “and you know i’ll stop you if you try to kill anyone again. i have to.”

“fucking bats and their fucking high horses,” hisses jason and dick rolls his eyes.

“not a bat. not anymore.”

“you’re in the same area.”

“as you so lovingly pointed out earlier, i live in bludhaven.”

jason narrows his eyes at him, at the tiny smirk playing on his lips. “don’t make me break our agreement thirty seconds in, dickothy.” dick snorts. “i’ll play nice with you and the replacement and the replacement batgirl, okay? i can’t promise b but i’ll try with them.”

“okay. i— okay,” says dick, crumpling up the straw wrapper and dropping it next to the napkin dispenser. “but if you ever make cassie upset again, i will kick you off the top of wayne tower, capisce?”

“no offense, but i think she can handle herself a lot better than you can.”

“sure,” he answers easily. “but i don’t care. stop being an asshole to her; she doesn’t deserve it. any of it.”

“aww, are you trying to be protective?” jason asks, nasty, and dick cuts him a look.

“she lived sixteen years of her life as a goddamn weapon, jason. she’s deadly when she wants to be, and you making her constantly upset is not going to end up well for you, or for her. so yeah, i’m a little protective.”

they pause as the food is set down in front of them, messy and greasy and delicious. jason has never quite been able to find chilli dog as good as this place, no matter how hard he’s looked. his fingers sink into the bun as he lifts it to his mouth, sauce dripping everywhere.

“fine,” he says. “i won’t fuck with her. the replacement is fair game, though.”

dick frowns as jason takes a bite, but doesn’t argue. he’s picking his battles, jason supposes, which is fine enough for him.

“aren’t you going to eat?” he asks, motioning to dick’s plate. dick shakes his head.

“i’m a vegetarian, mostly.”

“you… are?” this is news to jason. “since when?

dick shrugs, flicking at the paper that hangs over the side of the basket. “since a while. meat is expensive and i’d just… rather not.”

“you’re the ward of a billionaire. i think you can afford meat.”

“i usually don’t take b’s money, in general.”

“well, that makes you an idiot. why’d you order a dog if you’re not going to eat it?”

dick shrugs again. “plausible deniability. something to do with my hands. dunno.”

“i’ll eat it,” jason decides and snatches the hot dog out of dick’s reach before dick can react, leaning back on the booth and shoving the last of his own food in his mouth. “c’n le’ i’go t’ways.”

“ew,” dick says with a horrified look on his face. “alfred would have your head if he saw you do that.”

jason swallows with difficulty, smiling smugly. “wouldn’t. he’s too guilty about the whole death thing.”

“hn.”

“you sound like bruce,” jason tells him and dick’s horrified expression gets stronger.

“fuck.”

“you’ve already got the playboy image down, now you’re all poised to take over daddy’s company.”

“please stop,” dick begs, his face in his hands. “just stop talking forever.”

“nah.”

“fuck you.”

“fuck you right back,” says jason easily and finishes off the second hot dog. “thanks for the chit chat, dickie boy, but i’ve got shit i need to do. not all of us can take an extended vacation any time we want.”

“i’m off duty until wednesday.”

“mmhm, sure.”

“you’re welcome for the hot dog, by the way,” dick calls after him and jason flips him the bird over his shoulder.

“don’t push your luck.”

dick’s laugh follows him out the door and into gotham, a warm sound against the concrete and the wind and the chill in jason’s bones.

 

it’s way too early for him to be out on patrol again but he has no choice; the red hood hasn’t been seen in days and people are going to talk, sticky-fingered thieves are going to creep into his territory. he hasn’t built up his empire for all this time only to have it be torn down in the blink of an eye.

so, he straps the helmet to his head and crashes through the door of his headquarters, scaring the shit out of every lieutenant idling by.

“hiya, dickheads,” he bellows into the room. “what did i miss?”

 

he’s on seventh, breathing far more heavily than he should, when he spots the smudge of color against the buildings.

“would it kill everyone to stay away from me?” he growls, stubbornly refusing to press a hand to the ache in his side, and tim slinks into the light.

“yes,” he says flatly. “why are you out?”

“i’ve got shit to do.”

“it hasn’t even been a week since the explosion.”

“i realise that.”

“you cracked two ribs.”

“i realise that too, dumbass,” jason snaps. “they’re taped. they’re fine.”

“agent a will kill you if he finds out you’re here,” tim tells him, voice mild. jason huffs, instantly regrets it when it pulls at his ribs.

“agent a is not the boss of me anymore.” tim makes a neutral noise, almost a hum, and it’s enough to make jason annoyed again. “what do you want?”

“s’just patrol. saw a disturbance, came over to check. b’s busy doing something so it’s my job.”

“do they let you around by yourself now or is your little babysitter around?”

tim scowls, crossing his arms over the r symbol on his chest. “batgirl has other priorities.”

“ooh, big boy robin on his first solo assignment.”

“it’s not the first,” tim mutters, almost quiet enough that jason doesn’t catch it. “what are you up to?”

“real subtle, replacement.”

“i’m just asking,” he says with a mullish expression and jason wonders, for the first time, exactly how old this kid is. not older than seventeen, surely. maybe even sixteen. jason doesn’t remember being sixteen. he’s not really sure if he ever was, really, just fifteen for a long while and then nineteen all of a sudden. “it’s polite conversation.”

he blinks, coming back to the present. “i have shit to do,” he repeats. “shit that doesn’t involve any bats or their sidekicks.”

tim frowns. “partners.”

“whatever you wanna tell yourself, kid.” he checks his watch, touches his fingers to the ammo snuggly sat at his waist. “but i gotta go. sayonara, sidekick.”

it’s a fat chance he’ll get to the docks without being followed but he tries, hopping on his bike and taking the windy way to his destination. he’s not sure what kind of transport robin has these days, his own bike or if he just uses the batmobile and a grapple. either way, jason goes fast enough to shake a tail, knowing he’ll probably pick up a few strays along the way. batman can’t resist sticking his nose in any of gotham’s unsavory business, doubly true when it’s jason’s unsavory business.

the building he’s aiming for is an office building, nicer but still not super nice. it’s on the boundary of bad gotham and good gotham, right on the road that leads from the suburbs to the center of town. in other words, a perfect place for a cocky wannabe drug dealer to set up shop trying to take over jason’s territory. jason hasn’t even been gone a week and this fucker had tried to make off with a quarter of his dealers and a good chunk of his merchandise. rude, honestly. jason was going to teach him a lesson. he meets no resistance as he moves through trying to find headquarters; the men recognise him and surrender instantly, shrinking away from the red of his helmet.

they’re on the third floor, corner office. the man— jason’s pretty sure his name is johnson or something— looks up as soon as jason kicks open the door and goes pale.

“well, won’t you look at this,” sneers jason, idly twirling a gun in his hand. johnson takes a half-step away from the desk. “someone told me there was a thief in the building.”

“a… thief?” the man repeats and flicks his eyes to the doorway opposite. “i don’t— i don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“you stole from me, johnson. i don’t like stealing.”

“i still don’t—”

“all the stuff in the rosalia warehouse, gone. the men guarding it turned up in your crew three days later with shinier guns and new cars.”

“oh, that.”

“yes, that,” jason hisses. “unless… there’s something else i need to hear about.”

the man flicks his eyes to the door again and swallows. “no. there’s… there’s nothing else.”

jason raises an eyebrow and fires a shot into the wood of the desk near johnson’s hand, making johnson cower away from the splinters and yelp. he doesn’t stop jason from shoving open the door, doesn’t do anything but whimper, and jason stops in the middle of the doorway.

“what the hell is this?” he yells as he crosses to the couch and the curled-up figure there. it’s a girl, he can see that from a few steps away, and she’s barely moving. something in his stomach roils. “for fuck’s sake, johnson.”

“i don’t— i don’t— i don’t—” the man babbles behind jason but jason doesn’t pay attention, leans over so he can see if the girl’s dead or alive. she’s still breathing, a good sign.

“what the fuck,” he bites out and the girl stirs at the sound, blinking hazily. his stomach drops again.

“hood?” elise mumbles and everything goes red again, the familiar hot rage welling up in his chest until he can hardly think straight. he pivots on his heel in a whirl, aiming his gun at johnson’s chest before johnson can do anything.

“you motherfucker,” he roars and johnson hoists his hands up, babbling again. “she’s a girl.

“i didn’t do it,” johnson yells back, voice high and panicked. “it wasn’t me, i swear!”

jason switches off the safety. “you’re the only one here.”

“i’m not, i’m not, it wasn’t my idea! he told me— he told me that i could have half the money if he did what i asked him to do and he dropped her here and i didn’t know what to do.”

“who.”

“oh dear,” someone purrs from the door before johnson can answer, deep and oily. “i wasn’t aware we were having company.”

“black mask,” jason sneers and switches targets, puts his sights directly between the mask’s eyebrows. “what a fucking surprise.”

“you were dead, hood. you can’t blame me for trying to create some order before chaos descends, now can you?” he spreads his arms wide and shrugs. “as for the girl, i didn’t know she was one of yours. my apologies.”

“she’s a friend,” he says through gritted teeth. black mask shrugs again.

“she’s just drowsy. she’ll be fine in the morning.”

“i should kill you right now,” he says and his finger itches to pull the trigger, to erase the stain of the mask from gotham forever. it would do everyone a favor, it would.

the black mask grins, an eerie, gross thing. “i’d like to see you try.”

there’s a clatter from somewhere nearby and the mask rolls his eyes. “fucking hell, more company?” he mutters as robin bursts in the room, cape flying and eyes wide under his domino.

“took you long enough to show,” jason says sourly, his aim not wavering. tim looks at it all.

“hood, what are you doing?”

“executing justice.”

“i didn’t realise the mask was named justice,” tim says after a second and it takes everything in jason not to groan.

“you,” he replies, “have been spending too much time around nightwing.”

“run off, little bird,” the black mask says, bored. “the adults are talking.”

tim scowls, opening his mouth to retort and snapping it shut when he sees elise behind jason. “uh, what—?”

“she’s been drugged with something. don’t know what,” says jason and tim nods, quick, hurrying over to her side. “be careful. and don’t think i’ve forgotten about you,” he snarls, this time at johnson who squeaks. he squeaks again when a shadow drops onto his shoulders and knocks him flat on the ground. it’s not even a fight; batgirl straightens after a second and cocks her head to the side.

“hello,” she says to the room at large. “no guns.”

“yes guns,” jason says. “he’s scum.”

“batman’s rules.”

“do i look like i give a fuck about batman’s rules? he’s a fucking snake and if i shoot him, he won’t hurt people anymore. i, for one, don’t see how that’s a bad thing.”

“ooh, aren’t we edgy,” black mask says, half to himself. “you’re losing your touch, hood. you should’ve shot me ages ago, if you were going to do it.”

“shut up, sionis.”

“no kill,” cassandra insists, stepping closer. behind him, tim makes a distressed sort of sound.

“uhhhh, hood? her pulse is really low. like, dangerously. we need to get her out of here.”

“a real sophie’s choice,” says the black mask. he’s got his arms crossed over his chest and he looks almost bored. “are you going to shoot me or get your little friend there to a hospital? decisions, decisions.”

“nice try, but it doesn’t take me thirty minutes to fire a bullet. guess it’ll have to be both,” says jason and squeezes the trigger.

jason can only remember what happens next in flashes, like freeze-frames instead of a film reel: there’s movement at his right. the black mask’s eyes go big. johnson screeches in terror and reels back. tim shouts something intelligible. something barrels into him and his aim goes wide. cassandra drops to her knees with a grunt.

“batgirl,” tim breathes and it takes a second to see the hand clamped around her hip. the mask, behind her, lets out a disbelieving laugh. “you shot her.”

jason is completely and irreconcilably fucked.

“she got in my way,” he says gruffly, on autopilot, as he readjusts his aim.

“okay,” says cass. it’s strained.

“you’re not okay,” tim snaps. he’s still half behind jason so jason can’t read his expression, can’t see what he’s doing.

“will be okay,” she insists and looks back to jason. “no guns.”

“yeah, yeah, sweetheart. i’m still not going to let him go.”

“you’re an asshole, hood, you know that right? shit— o? we need— yeah, like yesterday.”

“batman?”

“he’s coming. so are the police and an ambulance.”

the mask slides one foot back towards the door. “well, this has been entertaining but—”

“no!” cass shouts just as jason fires his gun again, this time into the soft meat of the mask’s calf. he goes down with a shout, his hand clamped around the new hole in his muscle.

“it’s just to keep him from running,” jason says sharply and cass glares at him from under her own domino. she’s pale around the edges but hasn’t made a noise of complaint since the first involuntary sound.

“bad idea,” she tells him and swings her head towards the door where batman has appeared.

jason is so fucked.

bruce takes a look around the room, taking in everything, and then looks at tim. “robin, report.”

it’s fucked up that something in jason still wants to respond to those words, how he catches himself opening his mouth under his helmet and then snapping it furiously closed.

“medical attention is on its way for batgirl and this girl—”

“elise,” jason interrupts.

“—elise. mask has a gunshot wound to the leg.”

batman turns his cowl towards jason, the lenses wide and expressionless but still somehow disappointed. “hood?”

“she got in the way. i was aiming for sionis.”

“hn.”

he really, really hates that sound. bruce is already turned away, speaking to cassandra in tones too quiet for jason to hear, tim is fretting over elise, the mask is writhing on the ground and no one will even look at jason anymore, won’t talk to him because of the smoking gun and the two fired bullets into skin and jason—

jason cannot do it anymore.

“this is bullshit,” he says and leaves, not sticking around for any of the confrontation that's coming his way. elise is in good hands; they’ll take care of her far better than he ever could and she’s better off without him nearby.

it’s easier to breathe on the streets, even with all the smoke and grime. it’s more familiar. the rules are the same here, when there’s not the shadow of the bat overhead. no one cares if he points a gun out here, not unless it’s them he’s pointing at. simple. easy.

dick is going to kill him. bruce is going to kill him, and tim and babs and cass herself, when she’s strong enough again. it’s not even his damn fault.

the adrenaline starts to wear off and the ache starts to deep into his bones again, reminding him just how close to death he was only a few days ago. he ignores it, for the time being, and picks a building to climb, a tall enough one that he’ll end up over most of the smog.

it’s cold there, even with his jacket, and he shivers as he swings his legs over the edge and stares out to the skyline.

gotham isn’t pretty like this. jason has never thought so, no matter what bruce likes to think. it’s dirty and crowded, the lights tinted an ugly green through the pollution. it’s a hateful, harmful city and he— and he—

he wants to leave.

the thought hits him like a punch to the chest. he’s always been a gothamite; he thought the city had been in his bones, in his blood. he had thought he could always come back and she would open up her arms to him, reach in and take him back as her son. instead, she had wrung him out, demanded every last good thing in him and twisted it into something ugly.

he should’ve known. that’s what jason’s mothers do, isn’t it?

he slips off the helmet, needing a breath, and drops it by his side. there’s a faint taste of metal in the air, not exactly like blood but close enough to be uncomfortable. he pushes the breath out through his teeth, hearing it hiss.

does gotham really need him? he likes to think it does but he’s not so sure; eight months in and barely anything has changed. he thought he could purify it with fire and blood, but instead he’s just dirtied his hands in ways he won’t ever be able to scrub clean. he’s fucked up his place here in ways that won’t ever be able to be fixed.

he could leave. he doesn’t owe gotham anything anymore.

he should leave.

it settles in his body like a blessing, a release. he tips his head to the sky and pulls in air, lets it sit on his tongue. it’ll take a minute to gather everything, put his affairs in order, but then, he can just… go. find somewhere that’s never heard of batman or robin or the red hood. be however old the fuck he is, pick an age and stick to it. he could disappear. he’ll never be normal, but he can be something that isn’t this.

it’s a good feeling.

 

tim finds him when he’s clearing out his second-most stocked safe house, clearing away all the money and the weapons he can take with him, destroying what he can’t. he’s leaving the smaller, less stocked caches where they are, just in case, but these ones need to be disassembled.

“what are you doing?” tim asks, dropping down from a fire escape on light feet. jason cuts a look at him.

“spring cleaning.”

“it’s november.”

“and? time is a social construct.”

he watches him work for a long moment, half in shadow, before speaking. “cass is fine.”

“okay?”

“it hit her in the side, a graze.”

“i don’t know why you think i care, replacement.”

“because—” he cuts himself off and shakes his head, sharp. “i thought you might. care, i mean.”

“yeah, well. you’re an idiot,” jason says, half heartedly sneering even as the guilt settled on his shoulders eases, just a bit.

“you’re going, aren’t you.”

it’s not a question. jason doesn’t ask how he knew. in the dimness of the alleyway, the red in the robin costume looks as deep and dark as blood, framing tim’s face in a way that makes jason queasy. the green is almost invisible but still there, still present.

he wonders if he’ll ever be free of those damn colors or if he’ll be doomed to see them swiped across his eyelids every time he blinks.

“yeah. yeah, i’m leaving.”

“when?”

“none of your business,” says jason on instinct. “but, uh. soon.”

“does b know?”

“nope,” he answers, popping the p. “he’s not my babysitter.”

to anyone else, tim’s face seems neutral, but jason spent years learning to read seemingly neutral expressions. he can see the disagreement there.

“it’s none of his business either.”

“anything in gotham is his business, to him,” tim says doubtfully.

“which is part of the reason i’m leaving.”

“where will you go? bludhaven, with dick?”

bludhaven is too close, too much like gotham. still in the reaches of bruce’s enormous shadow.

“hell no. dick would kill me, and then kill me again for hurting cass.”

“dick’s not like that,” tim says, stubbornly loyal, and it shouldn’t hurt but it does.

“dick is exactly like that,” he retorts and turns his head back to where the moon should be, if it weren’t covered in clouds. “why are you bothering me again?”

“figured you would want to know the news about elise.”

“you did, did you?”

“you seem pretty fond of her. she’s okay, or will be. she’s sleeping off the rest of whatever they gave her in leslie’s clinic, safe. the rest of the girls are okay too.”

“the… rest?”

“yeah,” tim says, scraping a toe against the ground. “there were a few more of them in another room.”

jason hadn’t even thought to check. “fucking hell.”

“sionis can go rot in arkham for the rest of his life,” tim bites out, voice fierce and angrier than jason’s heard him ever be.

“you knew her, didn’t you? stephanie.”

he flinches. “i— yeah. i knew her.”

“i’m… sorry. for your…” he trails off instead of finishing that sentence because calling the murder of a girl a loss is a fucking understatement. “it sucks.”

“it sucks balls,” says tim. “but, uh. thanks.”

“the rest of the girls are fine?”

“yeah. recovering. i think bruce is going to help them out. anonymously, of course.”

“you think?”

tim smiles for the first time that night and it’s bright against the gloom, sharp and deadly. it’s a robin’s smile. “i’ll make sure it happens.”

“thanks.”

there’s a moment, a single second, where everything that’s stretched between them evaporates— all the blood and revenge and guilt and animosity— and their shadows overlap on the ground, when jason feels regret. and then the moment slips by, gone in the next heartbeat, and they are back to where they started.

“if you need anything…” tim starts and jason cuts him off with a violent shake of his head.

“no offence, replacement, but if i ever see you following me again, i’ll kick your ass for the second time.”

“duly noted. you’re, uh, good at that.” he pauses, considering, and rocks back on his heels. “you were, for the record. good. it was, um. it was a hard standard to live up to, in a lot of ways.”

there‘a a beat of silence where jason can’t speak, can’t force air around the swirl of complicated emotions taking up residence in his body. he clears his throat. “did i— did i fucking ask?”

tim’s grin turns wistful, still sharp but soft around the edges. “no. no, i guess you didn’t. i thought you should know anyway. see ya around, jay.”

“you don’t get to call me that,” jason bellows after his swinging figure and just barely catches the cackle that echoes back to him.

 

he raps on the window of the newly-familiar window and slides it open without waiting for an invitation, landing on the floor with a soft thump. it’s dark, all the computers powered down for the morning, but jason’s not stupid.

“give me one reason why i shouldn’t kill you right now,” babs says, flicking on the overhead light. jason blinks.

“because you wouldn’t be able to move my body by yourself?” he offers and sighs when her face doesn’t move. “barbara, i need help.”

she stares at him for a long moment, incredulity sliding onto her features. “what the fuck makes you think i’d help you after what you did, to bruce and cass? you shot my batgirl, todd. that’s not something i take lightly.”

“she jumped in the way!”

“wrong answer, dumbass. you have ten seconds before you’re in world of pain, so i’d get the fuck out of my apartment.”

“wait, wait, wait,” he rattles off, his hands up in surrender. “wait, it’s not a favor for me, not really.”

“you’re not helping your case.”

“it’s for the girl, the one who was in sionis’ office.”

barbara stills, a begrudging expression on her face. “thirty seconds.”

“i know her and she won’t take anything bruce gives her. she’ll think they’re are strings attached or refuse it because it’s pity, and i don’t want her to get hurt again. i don’t know what to do, but you’re a genius and almost fucking omniscient, and i thought you might have an idea on how to get her to metropolis, if she’s willing to go.”

“metropolis?”

“she mentioned it once. i think she’d like it there. please, barbara.”

she chews on her lip for a good long while, staring down jason. “okay,” she says finally and pushes her glasses up her nose. “okay, i’ll think of something.”

“thank you.”

“it’s not for you, todd. it’s because she doesn’t deserve to go through what she did and nothing more. i’m still debating throwing you from the window, but i’ll help your friend.”

“that’s all i needed.”

“you have a lot of gumption for someone on everyone’s shit list.”

“being an asshole is my special talent,” jason says and she rolls her eyes.

“you are not wrong about that one.”

“thank you, barbara.”

“told you that you’d need my help someday, you shithead. you should’ve listened.”

“i don’t listen to bats anymore.”

she laughs, low and happy for just one minute. “i’m not a bat now, i’m the fuckin’ oracle and you better not forget that.”

“i won’t.” he edges back to the window and then pauses, looking at the shape of her in the wheelchair, her shadow long and large against the back wall. “the thing with the joker, i was doing it for you too. it was mostly for me, but some of it was because of you.”

“i know that too, jason. for the record, i’m not entirely sure if i agree with bruce on that point, but.”

“but?”

“it sounds ridiculous, but i decided it wasn’t something worth fighting over after a while. i’d already lost my legs to that clown, i wasn’t about to lose my family too.”

“i don’t think i can do that, barbara.”

“i know that too,” she tells him with a sad sort of smile. “that was me. i can’t tell you about you.”

“that’s a first for you, isn’t it?” he mutters and slings a leg out the window.

“maybe,” she admits, begrudgingly. “now get out of my apartment. you’re still not forgiven just yet.”

he lifts a hand in goodbye and hurdles down to the ground.

 

“you’re leaving.”

jason looks at the statue of the gargoyle, to the shadow that detached to become batman, and then away again.

“well, yeah.”

“why?” it’s as neutral as a question can be, no demands, just pure curiosity. jason grinds his teeth before answering.

“i shot your precious daughter, didn’t i? figured i could expect some retaliation and that it would be best to leave before i get a beating down from you. any of you. once was enough.”

“i am… not happy about the gun, but cassandra will be fine,” says bruce. jason snorts. “she’ll be unhappy to be benched but she has had worse.”

“you’re not handling this like i thought you would.”

bruce’s mouth thins out and his jaw squares. “i am trying to do things the better way this time.”

“so you are angry with me.”

“fairly, i think. considering you shot someone.”

“she moved—”

he holds up a hand. “i know. i’ve been told. i am still… upset, but.”

“but you’re not going to have someone kick me out of the cave this time?” jason finishes, only a little sour. “aww, b. are you trying to make me stay?”

“i’m trying for… reconciliation.”

“reconciliation,” jason echoes. “what a concept.”

“jay—”

“i hate this city. i can’t stay here any longer.”

bruce’s lips thin more. “gotham is your home.”

“gotham is bad for me,” he snaps. “gotham chewed me up and spit me out and expects me to die for her, again and again. she’s demanding and ugly and full of shit and i can’t stand it anymore. not like this.” not when he’s still scrubbing blood off his body and green filters through his mind most days and he doesn’t know who the fuck he is in any capacity. gotham won’t let him learn, won’t let him heal while he stays with her.

bruce jerks, the cape around him rippling. “i didn’t know you felt that way.”

“i didn’t either.”

bruce takes his eyes off of jason to watch the city, a tightness to his jaw jason can’t figure out. if bruce had been a different person, he would’ve said that bruce almost looked hurt.

jason watches him watch and thinks about how bruce refuses to leave this city that takes so much and gives up nothing. gotham means something to him it doesn’t quite mean to jason. he loves gotham with a stubborn sort of ferocity, painting himself as it’s judge, representative, and defender all in one.

bruce is exactly the kind of person who would understand jason hating gotham as jason hating him. jason’s not sure he does anymore.

“i’m not leaving because of you,” he blurts out in a rush. “i mean, well. yes, it’s about you and the trauma but more than that, it’s this fucking city. i can’t— i have to get out of gotham. it’s not… you.”

bruce looks at him for a long, long time. the silence isn’t comfortable but it’s not seething either, which is uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity. jason is used to snapping, to always being on guard around batman, leaning into his rage as body armor. this tentative peace is new.

“where are you going to go?” bruce asks quietly, almost inaudible over the noise of the city. “when you leave?”

“dunno. somewhere where they don’t know who we are.”

bruce nods and fiddles with his belt, pulling out a slip of paper and holding it out to jason.

“if you drop by star city,” he says slowly, “you might try giving this number a call. i think, uh. i think he’ll understand, a lot more than any of us ever could.”

jason stares at the outstretched hand and the pre-written slip of paper, and realises with a sinking feeling that bruce had planned for this. jason barely knew his next steps and bruce already was laying them out.

“no offense, but i really don't feel like joining another asshole billionaire’s ensemble.”

“it’s not oliver’s number.”

he takes it anyway, shoving it into the pocket of his pants, resolving to throw it away the first chance he gets. “whatever, b.”

he shifts his weight, tipping closer to bruce, and notices with a start that he’s slightly taller than him, a hair’s breadth but taller nevertheless. it feels weird, to be taller than your once-father figure, like there’s something wrong in the world.

jason bets he’s taller than the joker now. he hadn’t checked when he could, but he bets that his own shadow would be thrown just as long, just as menacing.

“i… should go,” he says, a weird sort of weight on the words. “i’ve overstayed my welcome.”

bruce looks at him sideways and pushes the cowl off his face, letting it fall to the back of his neck. he looks softer like this, but only just.

“me too. they’ll be worried,” bruce replies in his low, quiet voice. it’s almost fond.

“oh, uh. tell cass she might’ve been right. about what we argued over. she’ll know what i mean, i think.”

bruce squints at him but doesn’t argue. a strange sort of expression crosses over his face and his mouth opens to speak and then closes again.

“i wish this had never happened to you, jaylad.”

“i know,” jason replies carefully. “me too.”

bruce’s hand shoots out, quick as lightning, and his fingers touch under jason’s jaw, a gentle sort of affection, like a father would touch his son. jason blinks, too many conflicting emotions running through his body to know exactly what to do, so he just stays still. he just… soaks it in.

there’s a breath, a heartbeat, and then bruce’s hand falls away.

“be safe,” he rumbles and then he’s gone, his cape catching on the air and snapping, pushing him farther from jason.

jason watches until he’s just a dark smudge on the skyline and then turns his face into the rising sun. his helmet dangles at his side, its cherry red color inconsequential now, and his eyes tinted more blue than green. it’s morning and everything is new, ready for another day. he is leaving as soon as he can get his feet to go, putting gotham in his wake and finding better things ahead. for the first time since the first swing of the crowbar, he doesn’t feel bruised and battered anymore. just— ready. awake. reconciled.

tipping his chin up to the air, jason lets the brilliance of the sunshine paint his vision white.