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

Chapter Text

...have you ever burned

grief but found yourself
unable to brush

the ashes off
your skin—I know

the feeling. This familiar
holiness—this ritual

for the lost. Tell me, while
the air is still loose

between our fingers, loose
around our

necks: is the
blood on your hands

dry? Is it slowly
disappearing? Mine isn’t.

(from psalm of scattered ashes by ashley mares)


the joker is tall.

objectively, jason knows this, but there’s a difference between knowing it and craning his head at the man from the floor. he just goes up and up and up, a looming presence that ends in that gash of a smile and that glint of a crowbar. tall and large and something out of a fucking nightmare.

for a split second, jason has some sympathy for the people bruce fought, if bruce’s height seemed as menacing as the joker’s did in this moment. it is terrifying and jason shrinks back on himself involuntarily, the joker’s long form stretching out for miles and miles.

and then the crowbar comes down, too fast for all the distance it has to travel, and there is no room for any sympathy in jason’s mind anymore. there is just pain and more pain and the relentless repetition of bruce bruce save me bruce over and over again.

 

he can see the clock in the corner, staining everything red but that might’ve been the blood. could very well be the blood; it’s dripping down over his eyes but there’s nothing in him that can move.

the joker is still tall, his shadow splashed up the wall on the other side of the room. he’s getting ready to run because the clock is still ticking and if he doesn’t run now, he won’t be able to get away.

there’s only a few moments left for a rescue, a few breathless seconds ticking down on that burning blood-red bomb, but jason’s mouth is still wrapped around the word bruce and his mind’s still wrapped around the idea that bruce is coming.

the crowbar is abandoned on the ground by the joker’s feet. if he didn’t know better, he’d say the red tinge to the metal was blood. he knows better.

too fast, the clock counts down and suddenly there’s not enough time for a rescue, no chance. the joker slips out the door and jason slips into praying that the bat won’t come anymore.

jason is going to die.

his mom— sheila, that woman, the person who handed him over to the joker, whatever— is there too, the revolver kicked just out of reach of her body. she hasn’t moved in a long time. he hasn’t moved in a long time either, his chest barely rising with the expanse of his lungs.

it hurts. he wonders if she hurts or if she’s too far gone for that. he grits his teeth and throws out an arm, hitting her in the side. she flinches but stirs, uncurling herself from the fetal position and blinking blearily at him.

“out,” he manages to say, more of a gurgle than a word. “get out.”

she looks at him and then turns to the clock, her eyes wide. she looks weird in the light, weird through the thick blood on his face and on hers. with a growl, she rocks herself up onto her hands and knees and claws her way to the door. it opens without a hesitation, and sheila disappears into the night. safe.

jason can’t move. he should be able to get up and leave, rescue himself, but there’s nothing left in his body. if he’d been better, he could’ve done it. if he’d been better, he wouldn’t have even been in this mess.

the clock ticks again. he swears it’s gotten slower, an endless length of time stretching between seconds. he’s only got a handful of them now and they last a decade. he wonders how many times he could’ve been rescued in a decade, how many times he could’ve dragged himself across the concrete floor and collapsed outside the warehouse in a pile of dirt and blood.

another tick.

if bruce comes now, he’ll die too. there’s nothing left for batman to do, no way out of this. he desperately hopes bruce doesn’t come. he desperately hopes he does.

tick.

not even superman could save him now. even if jason could get the word out, he wouldn’t hear. he wouldn’t be fast enough.

tick.

jason is going to die.

tick.

jason is going to die alone.

 

Chapter Text

dying hurts, but coming back is worse. if dying is an explosion, then coming back is the gathering of every jagged piece, pressing each raw edge to the other until the open wounds fuse back together, the pumping of sluggish blood through strung-out veins, the cracking of breath against shredded lungs, every single bone snapping into place. it’s the uncurling of a clenched fist and the burning of the sun against eyes unused to the light and the wringing out of every muscle until the pain is no longer a feeling but the foundation of your body, stitched into every fiber of your dna.

coming back is so much worse.

 

he startles back to life with a heartbeat like a gunshot, the world rippling around his body in waves. it startles him and he jerks up as far as he can, his head cracking against something solid and knocking him back down on his back.

it’s dark. his eyes might be closed. he keeps them shut until he can make sense of the world, make sense of what’s happening all around him. something feels wrong. a lot of things feel wrong, but especially his mind. it’s like it’s split in two, a plexiglass barrier cutting right down the middle of his brain. he’s not sure what that means for him yet.

cautiously, he cracks open his eyelids. it’s still dark, but a softer kind of darkness. he can deal with a softer kind of darkness.

he tries to reach up to rub at his face but his hands stop, brushing against something padded. pressing his palms against it, he strains but nothing moves, nothing even budges. his fingers explore and do not get far; he can’t extend his arms in any direction.

jason is screaming before he knows it, shoving at the unmovable box he’s inside in a useless effort to push it away, panic flooding through his newly-awakened body and setting it alight. this goes on for a long minute, wordless screams and the beat of his fists, until he goes quiet.

he’s in a box, a padded one. it’s dark. he died.

he nearly chokes on the horror of being buried alive. he’s used to small spaces, used to inescapable ones too, but this is something different. he’s in the ground, six feet under a pile of dirt and in a coffin.

his stomach convulses and he retches, gags on bile because there’s nothing in his body to throw up. he turns his chin to the side and clenches his fists because he can’t move any other way, can’t curl up on his side like he wants to do.

a fucking coffin.

it takes a moment but his brain soon catches up, comes out of the spiral he’s been stuck in, and his training kicks in.

calm down, jay. pretend it’s an exercise. pretend it’s training and you have to get out. he heaves in a shaky breath and settles himself, making a mental checklist of everything around him.

they’d buried him in a formal suit— not the robin kind— stiff and starched under his hands. idly, he wonders who dressed him, if bruce had an explanation for all the broken bones and bruises, or if bruce did it himself. with a start, he wonders how there was anything left of his body to bury at all.

he drags his mind away from that thought, away from that damn warehouse and the red and the too-tall shadows thrown across the floor, and pushes himself into the present. deal with this first and then he can panic.

a suit. he’s in a suit with nice shoes on, the kind of shoes that pinch your toes when you walk. he kicks the top of the coffin experimentally but can’t get enough space to kick hard enough. he gives up on that idea. this would be so much easier if they’d buried him in his robin costume. it would’ve been a liability, though, so he gets why they didn’t.

he doesn’t have a utility belt but he does have a normal one, one with a buckle. it’s heavy and the clasp is sharp, maybe sharp enough to cut a hole through the coffin. with a wriggle, he unwraps it from his hips and loops it around his hand. he feels around the top of the lid for a place that seems thinner, easier to bore through. the satin is relatively easy to tear; he pulls it away until he can get to the wood underneath.

he’s not sure how long it takes. hours, probably, before he gets hit with a face full of dirt. he keeps going, clawing away at the wood with his hands and his belt until there’s a hole big enough for him to force his shoulders through.

it hurts again, splinters catching on old wounds that haven’t quite healed yet and scraping across his skin. the dirt is nearly suffocating, almost as suffocating as the sheer thought of being buried alive. the soil gets in his mouth, gritty and thick against his tongue. he spits it out and it makes mud; more dirt falls on his head and it’s all he can taste, all he can feel, all he can see—

human response is to panic. he’s pretty good at sidelining normal human responses, but not this one. still, he bites down on his fear and keeps digging. he’s not sure if six feet is a euphemism or not, but it seems like miles and miles until his scrabbling fingers find grass and then the clean air of the nighttime. he drags himself from his grave, still bruised from the joker and hands bleeding.

“bruce,” he says, barely a sound against the wind and the city, and collapses on the ground.

 

his mind can’t remember words but his body remembers the fighting, remembers how to twist and deflect and punch. it comes in handy when his hideout gets stumbled upon. someone tries to steal his measly pile of money but it’s the hand on the arm that makes jason lash out, kicking the man’s legs out from underneath him and toppling him to the ground.

don’t touch, he wants to scream. don’t touch don’t touch don’t touch me.

nothing comes out. the other man, the one trying to go for the cash startles, narrowing his eyes at jason.

he says something hesitantly, face scrunched up in confusion. jason flexes his fingers, stomping his foot when the man on the ground shifts. his heel clips the man’s pinkie and the man stops.

jason scowls, trying to make sense of the noises spilling from the man’s mouth. he doesn’t pick up anything important, nothing sticks in his brain, not until.

“—robin?”

jason freezes, wide-eyed. the man freezes as well, more words coming out all jumbled.

“b—” jason tries. “bat.”

“batman? —-robin?”

“bat,” he repeats, that desperate spark of hope lighting up in his chest. maybe he’ll take him to batman, to bruce, and this nightmare will finally be over. “bat.”

the man on the ground carefully pushes himself up to a standing position, keeping far away from jason’s limbs. he says something to the other man and they go back and forth for a while, a conversation that could be in japanese for all jason understands.

the men wrap up their talk and turn back to jason simultaneously. one says something to jason, making an ushering motion with his hand. jason looks at the hand and then back at the man. the gesture is made again, more urgently, and then reaches for him. shoving himself away, jason shrinks back against the wall, pressing his spine to the brick.

the man frowns and then puts his hands out. with one last word, both of the men leave the alley and jason relaxes, the first time in a long time.

it takes a while but a new figure appears in the mouth of the alley, a dark figure against the streetlights. jason jumps up from where he’d been sitting and rocks up on his toes, wildly searching for any familiarity in the stance.

it’s not bruce. he’d thought, at first, with the shadows but whoever it is is too lithe, too slim to be batman. his next thought is dick but there’s something wrong with the proportions. the figure shifts and jason realises it’s a girl, a woman, wrapped up in a cape.

later, he’ll learn her name. she’ll explain why she came and why she bothered, realise that her cape isn’t black but a wine-dark red, learn how to fight under her supervision. but for now, he watches her walk towards him, torn between apathy and suspicion. she doesn’t look familiar but she does look dangerous.

she stops a few steps away, almost within arm’s distance but not quite. she says something intelligible and frowns when he doesn’t answer. something else comes out; he thinks it might be a different language. he still can’t understand it.

“batman?” she asks and he can’t stop himself from lighting up, that desperate hope catching like a match against flint.

“bat,” he tells her and there’s a soft sort of sadness on her face. “bat.”

she nods and her arm shoots out in a flash, a prick on his arm registering before he can move. he can feel the sedative flush through his body after a minute, followed by the anger, but the lady just watches impassively. he falls to his knees and then collapses onto his hands, desperately, desperately trying to keep himself awake. trying to keep himself alive.

the water by his hands is a puddle of red light, red red red swallowing up until he falls.

 

the cave is large, sounds echoing strangely across the space and the smell of sulphur heavy in the air. there’s a wrongness, more than the smell, and it makes him want to vomit up everything in his body, turn on his heel and tear back through the tunnels until he reaches the surface of the world again.

talia’s grip is tight on his arm, her fingers locked into place. he could escape if he wanted but she’d catch him in a few seconds, drag him back all the way. going willingly is better, easier. he can bide his time.

besides, he’s curious. it’s niggling at him, and he’s curious about this secret place in the league headquarters that talia had snuck him away to.

he stares at the green lake as it bubbles, the smell of sulfur getting stronger with every pop. talia pulls him until the water’s almost lapping at his bare toes and then leaves him there. he should see where she’s gone to but he can’t quite take his eyes off the lake, the weird fog rising over the surface. it pulls at his ankles, stinging his skin with a vague sort of pain, but jason doesn’t rock backwards.

out, on the other side, there’s a body getting into the lake. he’s walking through the fog and letting the water swallow him step by step. a warning rises in jason’s throat because this is wrong, there is something bad about this water and the man should not be touching it. the warning gets caught in his throat, strangled and crushed until his shout is no more than a squeak caught up in the waves.

he shifts his weight and the person opposite goes under, his head submerging, and jason reaches for him because he’s going to drown.

something shoves at his back and jason pitches forward, too shocked to catch himself, and watches as the water rushes up to meet him.

he is swallowed up, his throat raw from screaming, and all he can see is green green green.

 

when he comes up again, all traces of red in his vision are gone.

 

Chapter Text

he scrapes his finger against the side of the matchbox, his nail catching on the rough surface and slicing at the skin. the stone at his back is cold and damp, unpleasant even through his jacket. something scurries in the darkness and jason represses a flinch as a shadow looms across the alley.

he should light this whole place on fire. he should soak it all in gasoline, every cracked street of crime alley, every rotted board and stinking room, and drop the match in his hand to the ground. he should make everything ash and grind it under his heel, the memories of a past life charred beyond recognition and beaten into the floor.

everything in jason aches to see it happen. he stops himself and pats himself down for a cigarette.

“you’ve got another one of those?”

he swallows his surprise and sweeps the alleyway, catching sight of a girl leaning against the corner. she’s skinny, made up so she looks older than she is.

“no,” he tells her gruffly because there’s no way she’s eighteen and no way she should be smoking. her eyes go sharp, keen.

“trade you for it,” she says. “won’t make you pay.” it’s easy, like it’s okay to trade sex for a cigarette because it’s fucking crime alley and it’s fine here, normal even, and it does nothing to put out that smoldering anger in his chest. he scrapes his finger against the flint again.

“how old are you?”

“old enough,” she says. he hands over the cigarette in his hand and the matchbox after it.

“no trade. you can have it for free.”

she shrinks back at that, out of reach of him now that she’s got what she wants.

“nothing’s for free.”

“i’m not going to have sex with you,” he tells her and there’s that green haze in his eyes again, the hum at the corners of his mind, the ache to burn it down. “you’re too young.”

she looks at him again and throws back the matchbox. “how old are you?”

“old enough,” he parrots back and watches the hint of a smile flit around her face. it makes her look younger.

he’s nineteen, or he thinks he is. he’s not sure; four years have passed but his body’s built like he’s twenty five and fuck only knows.

“why are you here?” he asks instead, that familiar anger twisting through his veins. he tamps it down because she doesn’t deserve it.

she jerks her chin towards the street, smoke curling from her mouth. “waitin’ on someone. you?”

“same.”

“what’s with the mask?”

he scratches at his chin and then at the corners of the domino. “didn’t want to wear the helmet all night.”

her eyes flick down to the hood at his feet, half-hidden by his legs. there’s a tremor that goes through her body as she edges away from him. “you’re him, aren’t you. the hood.”

“might be,” he says around the cigarette, the smoke bitter on his tongue.

“are you going to hurt me?” she asks, flat, and the green haze around his vision gets stronger. “please don’t. i’ll get you a cigarette back, promise.”

“i’m not going to hurt you.” she doesn’t look convinced, still terrified. “i don’t hurt fifteen year olds, as a rule.”

“not fifteen,” she mutters and then goes pale. “why are you here then?”

“told you. i’m waitin’ on someone too.”

she freezes. “are you gonna kill isaacs?”

“is he your boss?” he asks, idly playing with the straps on his holster. his fingers itch. she nods. “then yeah, i’m probably gonna kill him.”

her hands are shaky when they bring the cigarette to her lips, breath shaky when she exhales. “why the helmet?”

he shrugs and then fishes out another cigarette, lighting it up too. he’d kicked the habit when he went to the manor and picked it back up again somewhere, he can’t even remember where now, tehran or sarajevo or lima. after the pit, for sure. it calms the ragged edges of his body, shoves away the green fog that settles at the edge of his eyeline.

“i like being anonymous.”

there’s the crunch of gravel and the sound of an engine. jason flexes his fingers and then scoops up his helmet, setting it on his head.

“you should probably leave now,” he says in a low voice and she obeys without argument, slipping down the street and sticking to the shadows, putting as much distance between them as she can. he doesn’t blame her. he would’ve done the same a decade, a lifetime ago.

isaacs is out of the car almost before it’s stopped, too-shiny shoes beating out a staccato on the ground. jason drops his cigarette and fits his free hand around the handle of his gun.

“you,” isaacs sneers, jabbing a finger in jason’s direction. “you fucking thief.”

“isaacs,” he says evenly and the anger, the fog is already starting to build in his chest.

“you cost me half a mil, at least, do you know that? half a fuckin’ mil.”

and just like that, his patience snaps. “shouldn’t have trafficked children, then,” he snarls and lets the ring of a gunshot echo. isaacs jerks and then falls, blood blooming through his shirt. his goons are on jason in an instant, large and beefy and absolutely no match for him. that familiar green fog slides over his vision and he doesn’t care about anything, doesn’t care about the blood on his bruised knuckles, just the sound of flesh hitting flesh and the bang of a gun every once in a while.

when he’s done, there are bodies scattered around him except for one, a man with a broken arm. jason breathes in deep through his nose, his vision clearing, and then delicately picks his way over.

the man whimpers when jason stops.

“i’m not going to kill you,” he says in a bored tone, biting back on the giddiness and exhaustion that comes from a good fight. “as much as i want to, i’m not. you’re the one who gets to go back and tell everyone what happened, ‘kay? tell them i’m their boss now and if i find a single child around, i’ll put a bullet in their fucking head. did you get all that?”

there’s another whimper and jason takes it as an affirmation. without a goodbye, he leaves the alley, dodging puddles and garbage as he goes.

 

it doesn’t take long for him to become known, to become notorious. he systematically takes over the city’s drug rings, neighborhood by neighborhood, crime lord by crime lord, like a cancer eating away at the host.

he’s been careful to avoid bruce, to slip out at the first sign of a bat, but he can feel his luck running out. sooner or later, batman is going to find him and jason… jason will have to face him.

he’s split down the middle about it; the break in his brain is all but gone except for this hesitancy, this nervousness. most of him, the part that’s still drowning in the lazarus pit, warped and wrathful, is angry. there’s an itch in his body that will only be satisfied with violence, a fury that will only consent to be fed. that part of him wants to unload his glock into the bat symbol on bruce’s chest, bulletproof armor be damned. he wants to take off his helmet and let batman know he’s fucked, utterly and hopelessly fucked, by the boy he forgot. he wants to let bruce know that all you taste is blood when you die, all you see is red, sticky and hot and burning.

jason curls his lip over his teeth in a sneer, an involuntary action, and he wants to go.

fuck the tiny part of him that wants to run back home, the one drenched in blood and breathlessly waiting for a hero. that part of him died twice over, once at the joker’s hands and then again in the pit, and it’s time for bruce to own up for what he didn’t do.

there are so many bodies at his feet, every one the scum of the fucking earth, and jason’s got money and drugs to spare by the end of the night. most pills confiscated from men selling to children, some from dealers who tried skimming from the pot.

he lays a path of destruction, going through bullets like water, peppering the walls with with gunfire. he is making himself known. he is making himself unforgettable.

the blood pools at his feet, well on its way to drying, thick and half coagulated, staining the tips of his boots an ugly brown. it’s not his, this time, for once. except, it sort of is, in that he’s the one who spilled it even if the blood didn’t come from his body.

he looks at the body, also at his feet, and tightens his hand in the hair. some distant part of him, the small part that used to be robin, is horrified. this is murder in a bad way, in a cruel way, and he should be horrified.

instead, he is pleased. this man, this body now, gave kids things that made them desperate, and he put his hands on them, and sold them off to the highest bidder, and killed them when he grew tired of the fucking children he had built his empire on top of.

beheading him might have been cruel, jason muses as he still holds the drug lord’s head in his fist. it might’ve been cruel, but no matter what bruce says, it might be justice too.

jason likes this idea of justice.

 

seven more heads join the first and jason’s gang grows, intrudes on more territory, takes in more members as jason traces the abuse to the top and removes its head. efficient. dramatic. justice.

 

it all comes crashing down when jason spots a flash of green and yellow and red. he’s up on a rooftop, pressed against a chimney to stop the wind biting through his shirt. he’s waiting for a trade to go down, the exchange of weapons and drugs between crime lords. there’s a shift in the wind, the hair on his arms rise, and he catches sight of movement out of the corner of his eye.

three rooftops down, there’s a shadow that’s too fluid to be a shadow. from his place tucked away, jason watches as batman and robin sit on their own rooftop. they’re alert, scanning the ground beneath them, probably waiting for the same guys as jason.

jason did this countless times with bruce, perched on the roof of some building in the middle of gotham, staking out locations based on the sketchy trails of information bruce was so good at finding. boring as those nights were, they were some of his favorite times. they’d talk sometimes, jason chattering mindlessly about the latest book he’d read or what he was learning about in school. bruce was a good listener when he wanted to be and would ask all the right questions, making jason’s chest puff out with pride.

god, he’d been so dumb back then. a stupid boy who’d hooked on bruce’s every word because he seemed like the best person in the world, the smartest, the kindest, the most powerful. he’d been jason’s hero, after all.

batman shifts and present-day jason, red hood jason, presses himself farther back into the shadows of the chimney, praying he’s enough out of their sightline that he won’t be spotted.

not here. not now. he’s not prepared enough.

it’s like this every time. he gets amped up to meet the batman, the smell of the pit curling in his nose and his fingers itching to shoot, about to tear his own skin out if he doesn’t do something. he wants to hurt bruce so much sometimes that he can’t breathe, the taste of blood and dynamite and dirt thick in his throat, the shadows stretching out over the walls, the red wash giving way to green.

it all goes away as soon as he’s there, crouching in the dark with his finger over a trigger. he can’t quite seem to make his fingers move to depress the button that will light up the batmobile, can’t quite set his sights straight enough to shoot. the bloodlust leeches from his bones until he shakes, sick with uncertainty.

talia would think he’s weak. well, no, talia would be thankful he can’t kill her beloved. his instructors, they’d all think he was weak. spineless, he can hear them hiss, the word punctuated with the sound of fists hitting flesh. we do not fear anything. fear makes you weak. he certainly feels weak, here, like this.

there’s another shift on the wind and jason’s eyes snap into focus, centring on batman and his new robin. as he watches, bruce tugs the boy into his side, covering him with the cape against the wind.

it’s like a punch to the gut.

jason always knew at some level that he was expendable. street rats were a dime a dozen in gotham. bruce had money enough to adopt a hundred orphans if he wanted, fill up his giant house with prettier, smarter, more athletic robins.

jason wasn’t that stupid. he knew he was expendable. he just didn’t think he was replaceable.

but the new robin presses into batman and bruce settles an arm around the kid, a rare gesture of affection, and fury explodes so fully in jason’s body that it takes his breath away. there’s the scent of sulfur and the burn of acid on his skin and that sickly alien tint coloring the world again. it takes all of his self control not to wrench the gun out of its holster and take out the two on the other rooftop; the only thing that stops him is what stopped him with the bomb: that bruce wouldn’t know. jason wants bruce to know what’s happening, to understand with a dull horror that no one will save him now, that it is hopeless. jason wants bruce to feel what he himself felt on the floor of that warehouse, agony and helplessness and the red-tipped bite pain gives.

the drug lords can wait for another night. jason cannot stay here another second more. he wrenches himself from the roof with enough panic to make him quick and not enough to make him sloppy, lightly jumping from the fire escape to a balcony across the alley, to another fire escape. before he knows it, he’s on the ground running, bolting towards the shitty apartment where he’d set up home base.

halfway there, he pulls himself down a detour, a precaution in case shadows were following him, in case batman decided to turn his head at exactly the wrong moment. he crosses over his route twice, three times, squeezing down tiny alleys that his shoulders barely fit through and darting over wide, empty streets. his heart doesn’t slow, not once.

the apartment is more warehouse than home, more derelict than safe. there’s water damage in the ceiling, mold running down the garish wallpaper. the wind whistles through it at night and cold stretches through the windows. the door jams and he has to throw his shoulder against it to get it to swing open, tumbling over the ragged carpet until his feet give out.

it’s heartbreak, this. heartbreak and fury all warring inside him until he thinks he might be sick of it, throwing up the green lazarus acid until it burns away all of him with its green. he bites down on his cheek somewhere in the process and the taste of blood makes him gag for real, makes his heartbeat speed up again.

he hates them all, everyone who wears a bat splashed across their chest and batman most of all.

 

later, they’ll ask him why he did it and he’ll say he doesn’t know, that it was the pit, that he wasn’t thinking right. it’s all a lie. he’s fully aware of what he’s doing as he dresses himself in the mock robin costume, tracks the boy across the city. he can’t stand it; the ache of being replaceable is enough to make him want to level a whole block of buildings.

he waits until batman is preoccupied with something else, wrapped up in something he doesn’t want his robin a part of. the boy’s on his way home, not paying attention around him. it’s his first mistake.

jason doesn’t try to hide the sound of his boots hitting the rooftop and the robin— tim, he thinks— whirls around, fingers twitching towards his belt.

“hello, replacement,” jason snarls and he squeezes off a warning shot that splinters the cement near tim’s feet. tim’s eyes widen under the domino, one hand going up to slap at his comms. with a growl, jason launches himself at the boy and they go flying, landing hard.

jason likes the feel of a gun in his hand, but more than that, he likes what it gives him. it gives him range, gives him distance. he doesn’t need a gun to kill people, but it’s a hell of a lot more comforting to be able to kill them from twenty paces away. he doesn’t need to step into anyone’s shadow to make them stop. doesn’t need anyone’s shadow to fall on him if he doesn’t want it to.

but tonight he likes the closeness, feeling the way the skin bruises under his hands. he can feel the way tim fights back, landing his own hits across jason’s chest. it’s something he needs, something his body is calling out for, a violent need to prove himself in blood and bone.

tim is a good fighter but jason is better; jason studied under so many people who taught him how to punch and much more. soon, tim’s stopped trying to fight, dropping to his knees and curling in on his body so everything important is covered.

jason stops then, chest heaving. tim doesn’t move, not even when jason tips him over onto his side. he’s still conscious, blinking blearily up at him. there’s blood on his face and bruises scattered across his cheekbone. there’s a strange twist in jason’s chest when he sees it, a mix of the deepest satisfaction and the strongest guilt.

“do you know who i am,” he asks and something in him is desperate for tim to understand. “do you know?”

tim blinks once, his eyebrows pushing together in the middle of his forehead. he doesn’t answer.

“was i good?” jason asks before he can stop himself, the words sliding out of his mouth. they taste like copper. it feels a lot like pleading.

tim shifts and looks at jason, really looks. something like recognition sparks in his eyes, just for a second, before his chin dips down in a nod.

jason clips him on the temple and he goes limp, sprawling across the roof. hands shaking, jason rips the the fucking r off tim’s chest and, after a second’s thought, activates the distress signal in the robin suit. it’s still in the same place.

he’s long gone before help arrives, his shadow long against the walls of his bedroom.

 

“is it all here?” jason asks, looking over the stack of money thomas handed over. thomas swallows hard.

“course it is, boss.”

he raises an eyebrow and the man babbles, promising that he didn’t skim any of the profit. it wouldn’t be the first time but jason believes him, just wants to make him squirm. the men around him are shifting uneasily as well, giving each other glances. the last man jason caught stealing was sent to the hospital, bones in his right hand shattered.

he doesn’t like stealing, almost as much as he doesn’t like selling to street kids.

thomas finishes whatever he’s saying and jason gives the stack another look, tucking it away in his pocket. “okay then. get the fuck out of here.”

thomas blinks. “uh… what? you’re not going to—”

“not if you get out of my sight in the next thirty seconds. all of you,” jason says, calm, and the men scatter, heading for the door. he turns away, stalking to the table with all the arsenal and looking it over.

“uh, boss?”

his hands freeze on the knife he’d just passed over. tilting his head up, he catches sight of a man hovering by the door. conners, he thinks.

“i thought i said to leave.”

“i know, hood, i just—” the man hesitates. “the girls were talking?”

“the girls?”

“yeah, you know. the hookers over on crime alley. those girls.”

jason bites the inside of his cheek. “what about it, conners.”

“they were saying that something’s about to happen. they don’t know what exactly, but they’re gettin’ antsy. said their johns ain’t right. said there’s something going on with the black mask.”

“did they say what was going on with black mask?” he asks, fighting to keep most of the anger that’s rising in his chest out of his voice. conners doesn’t deserve that, not right now.

“nah, boss. just that.”

“if you don’t have anything else that’s useful then go.”

conners nods and ducks out the door without any sort of goodbye, hurrying away. jason plays with the knife without thinking about, rubbing his fingers over the handle, as he muses over this. when he was younger, two lifetimes ago, the girls on the street were the best people to go to with questions. twelve year old jason thought they knew everything.

he drops the knife back onto the table and swipes his helmet from the chair, hooking his motorcycle keys around his finger.

crime alley is virtually unchanged; the only difference are the new faces milling about the dark dirty streets. it smells like piss, it smells familiar. jason grimaces as he walks down the road, face covered, because it feels like home and it feels like danger all in one.

there’s a group of three girls standing in the shelter of a doorway, done up in glitter and mesh. they look him up and down as he stops in front of them.

“well hello there,” the one on the left says, practically purring. her blonde hair’s piled up on top of her head, hanging down in curls around her face. “you got a face under that helmet?”

“won’t even have to take off the helmet if you don’t want to,” her friend adds, shifting towards him.

jason’s cheeks are hot. “that’s not why i’m here.”

“isn’t it?” the first girl asks, mild, and flashes a practiced smile.

“shut the fuck up,” the last girl says suddenly and she’s got a keen expression, watching him carefully. “it’s him, the man elise was talking about. the one who gave her a smoke.”

“the man half of gotham is talking about,” says the second. the first girl reaches up to feel at his arm and he only just manages not to jerk away from her hand

talia had asked once if it had been the warehouse or the childhood trauma that made him so jumpy, and it had taken too much effort to grind out an answer

“yes,” he had said, muscle ticking in his jaw, and she nodded like she’d untangled some part of him. he hated it when she did that, figured him out when there’s so much he hadn’t untangled about himself. she had reached out that day, careful, and he watched as she put her hand gently on his chest.

“see?” she said. “not scary. not hurting you.”

he hadn’t bothered to correct her.

here, in the present, he steps neatly out of her grip and congratulates himself on not breaking her hand. “i’m not here for sex.”

the second girl’s eyebrows fly up. “blunt,” she comments.

“elise said that too,” says the third.

“elise should think about keeping her mouth shut,” he snaps before he can stop himself and the girls’ faces go white, closed off. “fuck, that’s not— that wasn’t a threat. i’m not going to hurt elise. or any of you.”

“if you’re not here for a fuck, then what do you want?” says girl number three. he should really ask what her name is.

“what’s your name?”

“rose,” she says after a moment, her eyes darting quickly to her friends.

“okay, rose. what’s been making you uneasy recently?”

“recently? you.”

jason grits his teeth.

“hey,” someone says from behind him. he whirls around to catch sight of the girl from before, the one he’d given a cigarette to. she watches him warily. “oh, it’s you. guess you’re finally here to pick up payment, aren’t ya?”

he looks at her for a minute and she crosses her arms. they’re bare, and it’s cold enough out that a flicker of sympathy goes through him. behind him, he can hear the girls slink away, out of range but close enough to keep an eye on them.

“yeah,” he says after a second and something resigned slides over her face.

“knew it. nothing’s for free, not even a smoke, huh.”

“not that kind of payment. i already told you i don’t have sex with fifteen year olds.”

she tosses her head at the age, narrows her eyes. “what do you want, then?”

“information. i’ve heard some of you know what the black mask is after, and i want to know too.”

she tips her head to look at him. “are you, like, a batman copycat now?”

he stiffens, biting against the anger boiling in his body again. “hell no.”

“oh. he was here earlier, asking the same questions.”

fucking—” he cuts himself and drags in a deep breath, fighting down the urge to punch a hole in the wall. “did you tell him anything?”

“i wasn’t the one to talk to him. just saw him, over there.” she nods at a place down at the end of the street. “he was talking to some girls. they were trying to pick him up. do you think he’s handsome under the mask?”

“i don’t fucking care what he looks like,” he snarls and she takes a step back, eyes wide in fear.

“are you going to kill him?”

“who, batman?”

“yeah. or black mask.” something in her voice makes him stop, look at her from the corner of his eye.

“why?”

she shrugs, examining her fingernails in the dim light of the half-burned street lamp. “his men take girls, sometimes. young ones. we don’t see them after they go. if you kill him, maybe they won’t take us anymore.”

this time, jason does punch the wall, pulling back just enough so he doesn’t break his hand on the brick.

“fuck. fuck, okay. if you give me the information i need, i’ll make sure he stops. sound like a deal?”

“you gotta pay for your information,” she tells him. “me and the girls you scared earlier.”

“i didn’t mean to scare them,” he growls and raises an eyebrow.

“i don’t know if you know this, but you’re a very scary person. you just left a dent in the fucking wall.”

“i won’t hurt you. i don’t hurt innocent people.”

“mhm, i’ve heard that one before.”

“elise, right?”

she nods once. “you’re the red hood.”

“yeah.”

“you gotta another name?”

“no,” he says, voice hard, and she shrugs, unbothered. with a sigh, he pulls out a few bills and hands them over. they disappear into her clothing in a few seconds.

“there’s a shipment coming in, not sure of what, but it’s big. big enough that everyone’s on edge. think it’ll come next week.”

“thank you,” he tells her and she gives him a lazy salute before turning on her heel and making her way to her friends. jason moves into an offshoot of the street and drags a hand down his face, suddenly exhausted. it’s a bad idea to stay too long here, so close to where batman and his fucking posse like to hang around, so he pushes himself off the wall, puts his helmet back on, and starts on the rounds.

his men are scattered across the city, selling, and he likes to check up on them every once in a while just in case. it keeps them on their toes if they know he’s coming around, keeps them honest. well, as honest as a drug dealer can be. still, jason has rules. you don’t sell to children and you don’t steal money. some had learned that the hard way, watching as jason mowed down their bosses and stuck their heads in a duffel bag.

he’d needed to send a message to everyone. he’d needed to prove his place, and he fucking did.

he’s minding his feet, watching for puddles and needles on the ground, which is the only reason he gets any warning. there’s a shadow that shouldn’t be there, one that’s getting bigger.

jason wrenches himself to the side and just barely misses getting slammed into from above, rolls and comes up ready to fight.

“red hood,” nightwing says, teeth bared, and everything in jason stops. of all the people to come after him, he did not think he had to worry about dick fucking grayson, the fucking golden boy, the standard to which jason had always been held and always came embarrassingly short of. last he’d heard, dick was in bludhaven, playing policeman by day and superhero by night.

“what the fuck,” he grinds out and he’s still in his ready position because he’s not an idiot. “what the hell are you doing?”

“that’s what i should be asking you, isn’t it?” dick tells him and his voice is cold, colder than jason’s ever heard it before. “i have a lot of questions for you, hood.”

jason bares his teeth back even though dick can’t see it under his helmet. “too bad. i don’t answer questions from anyone wearing spandex.”

“you hurt robin,” dick says, eerily calm. it would be terrifying if jason was anyone else. “so either you answer or i kick your ass into the ground.”

“aww, did the big bad batman send you to do his dirty work?”

“trust me, once i’m done with you, you’ll wish it was batman who found you first.”

dick’s whole body is hard, tense with anger. he’s furious, jason realises, furious that tim got jumped. it stings more than it should, a thumb digging into the already-ragged edges of his hurt. dick never cared much about him, years back, never got angry when jason came back bruised and battered. had he even cared when jason had died? had he been this angry that jason had been crumpled on that warehouse floor?

“i’ll call that bluff,” he snarls, body thrumming with the anger of being replaced, and he’s aiming a gun at dick’s shoulder. dick’s faster than jason remembered and there’s an escrima stick crashing into his wrist, sending the gun flying. he dances out of the way before jason can retaliate, all grace, but jason is nothing but brutal. he knows the tricks, trained with him once upon a time, and so he knows how to dodge the punch levelled at his jaw.

it’s a dirty fight in this tiny alley, quick and fast. jason pulls out all the stops but he can’t ever go for his guns, too focused on not getting his face bashed in. he makes dick work for it though, makes it so they’re both breathing hard.

jason knows it’s punishment for what he did to the replacement robin, retribution, and it only makes him angrier. he catches dick’s leg the next time he goes to flip and pulls, hard, feeling dick’s ankle click against his palm. dick just grunts, swinging his other leg around to smash into the side of jason’s head. jason lets go and dick falls to the ground in a crouch, favoring his left leg.

“who trained you?” dick asks, huffing, and jason sneers from behind his helmet.

“wouldn’t you like to know.” he takes a step back, and another. dick doesn’t stop him but his eyes are furious under his domino. his mouth opens to say something and then he stops, tipping his head to the side, like he’s listening to something else.

it’s batman, jason thinks, on the other end of the comms. it’s time to fucking go. he pulls another gun out of his holster and points it at dick’s head, steady. dick goes very still.

“don’t follow me,” jason tells him, voice even, “or i will put a bullet in your head and won’t even blink. that’s your only warning.”

a muscle in dick’s jaw ticks but he nods once, looking like he wants nothing more than to wring jason’s neck. he can get in line.

he takes a wild route across the city yet again, sticking to the shadows and listening to his feet beat a wild tattoo across the ground. his head aches and his wrist smarts from where dick landed blows, bruises that will be hell to cover up during the day.

running past a bar, he skids to a stop and takes in the crowded setting. it’s saturday and everyone’s out, looking for something to stop the dull monotony of the week. it’s a perfect place to hide, a perfect place to keep out of batman’s way.

he stashes his helmet in the back alley behind the bar and peels off his domino, keeping it in the inside pocket of his jacket. he’s not covered in blood, thank god, even though his lip is split open. he’ll just have to fake it, fake confidence, and hope no one asks.

the bar is crowded, seedy in the kind of way that makes him confident they won’t be asking for any sort of i.d. it’s good; he doesn’t have any on him. the bartender gives him a look when he slides into an empty seat.

“beer. whatever’s cheapest. and a glass of ice.” he croaks and she hands him the bottle.

“what happened to you?”

“got in a fight.”

she glances at the beer and then his face, no doubt bruised. “too much to drink?”

he shakes his head, thinking wildly. “she said she didn’t have a boyfriend,” he says around a leer and then wraps his lips around the mouth of the bottle, taking a long pull. it’s enough for her; she gives a nod and then goes back to another patron, not concerned with him anymore.

it’s loud in the room but he doesn’t care, is thankful for the noise and the bustle. fishing a few ice cubes out of his glass, he wraps them in a napkin and holds it to his mouth. it makes his lip pulse, a dull throb against the pinch of cold, but it’s a good kind of ache. he settles back in his chair and sighs, working on loosening his shoulders. he’ll be stiff for a few days but it’s a better outcome than he’d hoped, going up against nightwing with no preparation.

the beer’s not bad, even if it’s cheap, and he nurses it as he watches the door out of the corner of his eye. he doesn’t think anyone followed him in here, but it can’t hurt to be on his guard. he’s not sure the last time he wasn’t on his guard. he slinks down and waits until the bar is half empty and his beer is gone before he goes back home, minding the shadows as he goes.

 

he’s on the docks, thinking about taking off his helmet to smoke because he’s bored out of his goddamn mind, twitchy and anxious. he hates this part of time. the dreary cold of gotham bay is miles and miles away from the oppressive heat of ethiopia but an empty warehouse is a warehouse. there are too many shadows here, too many corners for people to hide.

jason lets out a growl and kicks at the stone, wishing not for the first time that he had someone he trusted to do this part, sit around and wait while he intimidated his dealers. but his men are bound to him with nothing but a shaky tendril of fear, pilfered from other drug lords and gangs, and he doesn’t trust a single one of them to go running at the first sign of trouble.

there will be trouble tonight. it’s why jason is waiting and why he’s got knots in his stomach, but elise was talking about a shipment coming into dock today.

“not sure what,” she had said as he passed her a twenty. “maybe people. maybe guns. maybe drugs.”

“that’s not a lot of information to go on,” he said dryly and she shrugged.

“it’s more than what you had at the beginning of the night, isn’t it?”

she’d caught him there so he’d found someone else who would know, now that he knew what to lean on. but no one could tell him a time, just a general frame of reference, so here he was: lurking on the pavement wet with seawater and trying not to scratch out of his skin.

a sound is all he gets as warning, the barest rustle of a cape he wouldn’t have caught if he wasn’t listening. jason barely has time to wrap his hand around his guns, drop his weight and shift his feet, and bruce is standing in front of him.

bruce is furious, he already knows, because bruce is making a production out of it. if batman cared about getting him out of the way, he wouldn’t stand in front of jason like this, ready to fight without keeping to the shadows.

not for the first time, jason’s glad for the coverage the helmet gives him; he doesn’t know what emotions are on his face but he sure as hell knows he would rather claw off his skin than let bruce see them.

oh, bruce is fucking angry and he wants jason to feel it.

the cowl’s on, of course the cowl is on, but jason can read his body language. there’s not a spark of recognition there, nothing in his stance that shows he’s standing in front of his formerly dead son. anger spreads across jason’s skin.

“batman,” he bites out, thumbing along the curve of his pistol. “glad you could join me.”

“red hood,” bruce says in his gravelly batman voice, low and threatening. it sets jason’s teeth on edge, the green haze and the sulfur smell of the league’s cave overwhelming his senses, but he forces himself to relax. he’s not prepared to fight bruce tonight and there’s no way he walks out of this without going to arkham if he doesn’t play it right.

“let me guess, you’re here to teach me a lesson about playing with toys that aren’t yours, am i right?” bruce’s lips thin. “you should train your robins to be better. or stop fucking training kids at all.”

“he’s not just a kid.”

the anger in jason flares up again and he bites his cheek so hard he can taste blood. it turns his stomach. “fuck you,” he spits out before he can help himself, the words as thick and coppery as the blood on his tongue. “is that what you’re telling yourself to make it alright? truly, fuck you.”

bruce tips his head to the side the tiniest bit. “you’re going to pay for that.”

“for telling you to fuck off? never took you for a prude.” behind him, he can hear the sounds of shuffling feet, the telltale sound of a ship heading for the harbor. it’s time to wrap this up. he shifts his weight, planting his feet solidly. “listen, i know there’s nothing you’d like more than to try your hand at beating me to a pulp and let me assure you, it’s mutual, but there are bigger fuckin’ fish to fry tonight and i don’t have the time.”

bruce’s body goes still and jason can read the curiosity there. he hates himself for knowing bruce so well. he hates himself for hating that bruce doesn’t recognize him.

“what kind of fish?” bruce says after a moment and the words are rough with effort, like it’s taking everything out of him not to attack right now.

“there’s a shipment of something illegal coming in in a few minutes and i know you’d hate to scare them away.”

a muscle in bruce’s cheek ticks and he reaches up to his ear. “o, what do you know?” he says, quiet, as jason watches, his arms crossed over his chest in a fake veneer of ease.

“understood,” he snaps and then looks over to jason with nothing short of hatred. “you’re not lying.”

“i’m not, so you can fuck off and leave me to this,” jason says in a bored tone. “or, i can shoot you in the chest. i know it won’t kill you with all the fucking kevlar there, but it’ll put you out of commission long enough for you to keep out of my way. on second thought,” he says and he’s got his gun in his hand before bruce can lunge away, aiming his shots for the weak parts of the armor. bruce stumbles.

“fuck you,” he wheezes, because kevlar or not, getting shot from this close of a range is going to hurt like a bitch.

“stay out of my way, batman,” jason replies and finally lets the ugly anger leech into his words. it tastes like sulfur on the way out. “i’m going to kill you next time.”

he’s gone before bruce can get enough breath to respond, weaving his way to the docks just in time to see the shipment come in.

it’s guns, and jason commandeers the whole thing, taking out three of the men in charge before anyone has time to react. the lackeys listen to him pretty well after that, not complaining as jason’s men finally get there and pack everything away. it’s gone in minutes, out of the hands of the black mask and in his own.

“listen up, boys,” jason drawls, flipping one of his pistols idly in his hand. “the black mask is not going to be happy you let his stuff get stolen, is he? you all know what he does to men who fail him and it ain’t pretty. so because i’m such a benevolent man, i’m giving you guys once chance: you can come work for me and not get your chest bashed in for no reason, or you can go crawling back to your boss and pray he doesn’t kill you. what do you say?”

they’re smart enough and they dutifully follow jason’s men away, sending half-sullen, half-scared looks jason’s way. he stays there, both hands on his holster until he’s the last one in the warehouse. he hurries away before he can take note of the shadows.

except, the night’s not over yet. something slices through his jacket and he whirls, his eyes catching sight of a black that’s too dark.

“you’re still here,” jason says, wildly trying to keep his voice level. “god, you don’t ever listen, do you?”

“who the hell are you?” bruce snaps and it’s angry and impatient and so unexpectedly painful. it feels like a knife to a chest, like bruce had taken a batarang and dug it straight into jason’s heart.

for a moment, everything is red washing away the green, everything is pain and laughter and the crack of bones. everything is thick red hot blood covering his head like a blessing, like a curse, copper sliding down his face, a hood of blood and agony and there is no escape.

jason blinks once, twice, and the blood smeared across his face is replaced with bloodlust, the hood a metal helmet and the pain something he inflicts instead. he is not a broken child on the dirty floor of a warehouse, he is bruce wayne’s worst fucking nightmare.

“you can’t fucking take a hint, can you?” he snarls and his arm is lashing out, a punch to the bat symbol over bruce’s sternum where he shot him not ninety minutes ago. batman grunts and jason’s dancing away but not fast enough. bruce catches him by the arm. something snaps in jason’s wrist but he can’t feel it, too swallowed up by the lazarus pit and his revenge.

he’s gained muscle since he last trained with bruce, gained height so he’s nearly eye to eye with batman. it’s a different type of fighting now; jason can throw his weight around instead of having to run away. he can take a punch better, he holds more power behind his fist so there’s a danger to his anger now.

jason slams his fist into bruce’s chin from below, making bruce stagger. it’s enough distraction to wrench his arm away and then jam his foot into the soft place where the leg meets the thigh. bruce grunts again but doesn’t let himself stumble, gets a jab to jason’s ribs. jason isn’t wearing that much armor, enough to be bulletproof but not batman’s fist-proof. it knocks the wind out of him and the green slips for a half-second, pain filling his body and making him gasp from the memories.

“no,” he spits out, striking blindly and running after his hands connect, praying whatever he did keeps bruce off his tail long enough for him to regain his composure, figure out what to do. he runs through the narrows, passing by almost-familiar faces that blur together, the devil on his heels. he can’t bear to check behind him, can’t bear to face the cruel smile of whatever’s chasing him.

“hood,” someone shouts and he skids to a stop, catching sight of elise who’s gesturing wildly. “hood, over here.”

“bat on my tail, need to hide,” he says roughly, trying not to let too much of his fear bleed through. he’s not sure he succeeds. elise, to her credit, doesn’t ask any questions, just closes her hand around his hurt wrist and yanks him to a door.

she pulls him through the dingy building and climbs the stairs until they get somewhere near the middle, dropping his wrist to fumble for a set of keys. the apartment he tips into is small and damp; he can see mold running up the walls in a distant sort of way.

elise is locking the doors.

“that’s not going to stop him,” he tells her and he sounds dazed even to himself. elise doesn’t stop, turns around and leans against the wood.

“it’ll slow him down for a while,” she says, confident, and he doesn’t have the heart to tell her that’s a fucking pipe dream. “why’s he chasing you?”

jason’s heart is still beating fast, but it’s slowing down. his head’s not spinning so much and his lungs aren’t trapped in his chest, refusing to take in air. elise is pale, under her makeup.

“i’m a villain, remember,” he says around clenched teeth. she doesn’t flinch.

“you’re not, though.”

“i’ve killed people, elise. a lot of them. i’m a drug lord.”

“you haven’t killed me.”

“batman doesn’t—” he catches himself before he can finish that thought, rearranges it. “batman doesn’t care who i’ve killed, only that i have.”

“you were helping,” she insists, her palms pressed to the door as if she can stop bruce if he wants to get in. “so what does it matter.”

“i’m going to kill him,” jason blurts out, the words acidic and heavy. his domino itches, his wrist twinges, and he feels like he’s going to implode on himself if he’s not careful. he takes off his helmet so he can scratch at it, sets the hood on the floor by the sofa. “i almost did tonight.”

elise frowns deeper. “you want to… kill batman?”

jason lets his head drop onto the sofa, his teeth digging into his bottom lip and sulphur heavy on his tongue. “so fucking much.”

“why?”

he looks at her and scowls, scraping his fingers down his face. “i could tell you why, but i’d have to kill you for real this time.” she doesn’t flinch. “it would take all night.”

“i charge two hundred for a whole night,” she says, as flippant as she can with her chin trembling. jason’s got twice that on his person; he tosses it on the table.

“here,” he replies. “just let me stay here for a while and you can have it all.”

“no sex?”

“no sex. remember?”

she pouts at him, flipping her hair away from her shoulder. “i’m not fifteen.”

“too young. do you have any beer?”

“no, i’m too young,” she shoots back but unglues herself from the door and ducks through a corridor. jason follows, taking in the spartan kitchen and the stacks of dirty dishes.

“how many people live here?”

“six,” she says and hands him a six pack of the cheap stuff. it’s cold from the fridge and he drinks half of a can in a couple of gulps.

“awfully small for six people,” he tells her as soon as he’s done drinking. she shrugs.

“awfully expensive for any less.”

“fewer,” jason corrects absently, itching at the edge of his mask. he wishes he could take it off but that’s too risky, for her and for him. she tips her head in confusion. “the right word is fewer.”

“don’t care.”

he cracks open another beer, a desperate sort of energy flooding through his body. “thanks for letting me crash. and for the beer.”

“are you going to drink them all?” she asks, a little dubious. he looks at the four left.

“probably.”

“janie will be mad,” is all elise says before heading back to the living room. jason scoops up the rest of the cans and follows her in. the alcohol’s settling strangely in his body, making him maudlin and tired, and he would stop if there was any way to get his mind to settle.

there’s not, though, so he drinks his way through the whole thing, slumped on elise’s couch with the weird stains, and tries not to think about how his once-father didn’t even recognize him.

 

his wrist is swollen when he wakes up in the morning, red and pink and hot to the touch. it hurts like hell too, when he jars it in any way. elise lends him a scarf to wrap it in for the journey home, tying the ends around his neck in a makeshift sling. he resolves to slip her some more cash when he has the time.

he’s clumsy with one hand and it’s nearly impossible to wrap in a bandage by himself so he just leaves it, lies on his back in the middle of his floor and stares at the ceiling.

he had been fifteen when he died. he’d still been fifteen clawing out of his grave, however long he’d been in the ground. jason had come up exactly as he’d come down, battered and bruised and broken. you don’t do a lot of growing when you die, he figured, or a lot of healing either. pain sparks in his fingertips to match the ache in his wrist, a phantom memory of the scrape of his coffin against his hands. agony.

he’d been fifteen when they threw him into the pit too, scrawny and malnourished still, patterned all over with scars from being robin and being dead and being a kid in crime alley. but the pit had changed him; he’d come out solidly built, like his body remembered how old he should be and filled out all at once. that had been agony too, on top of the noxious poison, too many years worth of growing pains as his bones all stretched and his muscles bulked. child to adult in a few minutes. somewhere in the distant part of his brain, he wonders if this is what he would have ended up looking like if he hadn’t died, or if he would’ve carried the weight of constantly being hungry in the smallness of his body. he wonders if the lazarus pit had made him the most dangerous version of himself, the perfect weapon, body and soul. he’s not quite sure where his brain is in all the mess, teenage hormones mixed with what it means to be adult, no buffer between growing and grown up. just green and ache and a childhood stolen twice over.

it shouldn’t be a shock that bruce didn’t recognize him. it shouldn’t, jason is miles and years and lifetimes away from the boy who had once worshipped bruce and idolized dick. bruce thought he was dead still, they all did, and there’s no reason for him to recognize the grown man who fought him as jason todd, former boy wonder.

but still. jason had been his son once. even with the effects of the pit, all the consequences, jason had thought bruce would recognize him no matter what, like a father should. the ache of being forgotten, of being replaced and unknown, rocks through his body, so sharp it takes away his breath for a moment, pins him to the ground. it’s been so long since he’s felt anything besides anger and tiredness, so long since the space between his ribs was taken up by anything but fury. it’s painful too, this hollowness that’s flooded with hurt. the absence of anger aches.

he lays there, his wrist clutched to his chest, watching the light play softly on the cracked ceiling. the taste of copper and sulphur are heavy on his tongue, mixing together and sneaking down his throat so he thinks he’s going to choke on it. there are worse ways to die, he supposes. he would know.

 

the pain in his wrist doesn’t subside over the duration of the day. if anything, it grows, and he’s had worse but he’s not willing to have his dominant hand fucked up because of stubbornness.

he waits until it’s almost unbearable, until he finally gives into the fact that he can’t will the injury away, before he shoves his feet into shoes and stomps his way to the only place he knows will most definitely help a legally dead man. he jams a hat on his head to hide the white streak, just in case.

the clinic is almost unchanged, just a little dingier than years previous. the front room is filled with wary-looking people, desperate in a tired sort of way. jason weaves through the chairs until he reaches the receptionist.

“can i help you?” she doesn’t look up from her computer.

“i need to see dr. thompkins.”

“do you have an appointment?”

“i— no.”

“is it an emergency?”

“no, i fucked up my hand.”

she heaves a sign and reaches for a clipboard, sliding it over the counter towards him. “fill that out, bring it back to me, and we’ll fit you in when we get the chance.”

he takes it and ambles to an empty seat, staring down at the intake questions. they’re all basic, innocuous, but not a single one can be answered easily. not even his fucking name.

he puts peter johnson down for that one, grasping at whatever alias comes first. he decides he’s going to be twenty two, because it’s easier than explaining why a nineteen year old is jacked, built like a house. it makes him nearly dick’s age, he realizes, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

he looks up and away from the paper, scanning the room instead. his gaze catches on a shadow, a girl across the way, near the door. she’s slight but he can still read the potential power in the way she holds her body. she knows how to fight, this girl, and something about that makes him uneasy. she must feel his eyes because she looks at him, her hair brushing her chin and her eyes dark with interest.

it’s not a sexual kind of interest, not any kind of interest he’s ever been on the receiving edge of. she looks at him like he’s a particularly fascinating book and she loves to read, her eyes roving over all his secrets as they’re laid open. his heart rate spikes, the instinct to fight rushing through his body.

this girl is dangerous. he wishes he had brought his guns. he wishes he was wearing his hood.

as he stares, she fishes for her phone and stares at it for a moment, glancing first at him and then at the door leading to the examination rooms. with a tiny wrinkle of her nose, she turns gracefully on her heel and slips out of the waiting room.

he lets out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding, his fingers white around the pen. it’s a miracle it didn’t snap.

methodically, he scratches in answers on the rest of his sheet, making up whatever shit comes first to mind, keeping one eye on the door to see if that girl comes back.

 

it’s a long time before it’s his turn to duck into a tiny room, crowded with medical equipment and a dinosaur of a computer. he sits on the end of the cot, the paper wrinkling under his legs, and nervously adjusts the ballcap on his head. he’s somehow unknotted the scarf, unwound it from his neck and arm so it’s open to the air. there are bruises around the bone, where bruce’s grip had been too tight.

leslie walks through the door without so much as a hello, her hair wound up in a bun and frowning at a familiar clipboard.

as much as anything’s changed in gotham, she hasn’t. her face is still the same, focused and tired, but compassion clear in her eyes. she’s wearing a white coat over simple clothes, and she’s even wearing the same perfume, a scent that he didn’t know he recognized until he smelled it again.

he blinks at her, startled, and just like that, jason is fourteen again, sitting unhappily in the back room as he waits for leslie to set his arm in a cast. it’s a sharp memory, uncomfortable, and he digs his teeth into his bottom lip to drag himself into the present.

“right, who are you?” leslie asks, brusque. it’s a rhetorical question because she’s still looking at his form, reading it with her eyebrows pushed together. “peter johnson, twenty two. what’s wrong with you today?”

she looks at him and it makes him flounder for a second. “i, uh, hurt my wrist. i think it might be broken.”

“hmm,” she says and looks at where it’s held against his stomach, taking in the swelling and discoloration. “we’ll have to take an x-ray to be sure.”

“okay.”

“do you have insurance?”

“i have cash,” he says honestly and she pauses, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. “i can pay.”

“how did you hurt it again?”

“i fell,” he lies easily and her eyebrows go up. “i was playing basketball and i tripped. landed on it wrong.”

“hmm,” she murmurs again. “that’s the story you’re going to stick with?” he nods, plastering a pleasant look on his face. she lets out a sigh. “okay, fine. i’ll take a look at it. you’re going to have to take off your shirt so i can take your vitals.”

“that’s not necessary,” jason says after a second. “i just need my wrist wrapped.”

“it’s procedure,” she tells him and it leaves no room for argument. he sighs and negotiates out of his top, wincing when he has to pull his arm through the sleeve. leslie doesn’t say a word when his skin comes into view, she’s too professional for that. she does click her tongue, a tiny sound that makes him fight down a blush.

the pit wiped away all his scars, his robin scars, his death scars, the scars his dad left before jason could fight back, that awful, awful autopsy scar that ran down the center of his chest where they split his ribs open, the white starbursts on his fingertips where the coffin wood had dug into his nail beds. they’re all gone, his skin new and unmarked but he’d accumulated new ones since then, almost as terrible, layered over his body. he hadn’t been popular in the league and abroad. he’d had to fight to stay alive.

on top of those scars are bruises, bruce and dick’s handiwork, in a patchwork of colors and ages. jason resists the urge to cower, lets the pit leak across his vision to keep himself defiant, and crosses his arms as best he can.

“you fell,” leslie repeats after a moment, voice skeptical.

“that’s right,” he tells her.

there’s a steely edge to her tone. “down the stairs?”

he shrugs. “does it matter?”

“should i call the police?”

his skin prickles and he runs his tongue over his teeth for a second, thinking.

“i really don’t want to hurt you, doctor. i just want my wrist wrapped and to disappear from your very nice clinic without anyone remembering i was here.”

“waltzing through the front door wasn’t the best strategy, in that case.”

“i don’t waltz,” he says with a thin smile. she tips her head to the side.

“should i know who you are?”

“i think you have a suspicion already, and i’d rather not have any information leaked to certain people.”

she holds the form up in the air. “is any of this real?”

“i really did hurt my wrist and need it to be wrapped,” he tells her calmly. “and i’ll pay in cash.”

“why here?”

“because,” he says, giving her a look, “usually you don’t ask so many questions.”

that makes her pause and he instantly knows he’s said too much, showed too many of his cards. he shouldn’t be familiar with this clinic or with leslie; she shouldn’t know that they’ve met before. it’s a stupid mistake.

“take my vitals, doctor,” he tells her calmly and she moves toward him, stethoscope in a hand that’s not trembling at all. he sits quietly through the examination and the x-ray. his wrist isn’t broken, thank god, just wrenched. he refuses a cast but she talks him into a splint.

“just for a while. it’ll stop it from hurting every time you move,” she argues. he lets her put it on. “don’t… do anything strenuous for a few days. let it heal.”

“easier said than done.”

she ties the bandage with a little more force than strictly necessary and he bites down on a wince.

“if he asks,” she says with her voice hard, not looking at his face, “what should i tell him?”

“if i give you an extra hundred will you keep it a secret?”

“i don’t take bribes,” she snaps at him, color high in her cheeks. “i’m a doctor. i don’t do that.”

and oh, that one hurts more than he thought it would, the memory of a warehouse painting his vision with red, that woman just out of arm’s reach, him paying for her sins with so much of his blood. he grinds his teeth and pushes it away, pulling himself forcibly into the present. leslie is looking at him curiously.

“don’t say anything,” he bites out, getting to his feet far too fast. he fishes out a few bills and tosses them at leslie, stalking towards the door.

he can feel eyes on him as he pushes through the still-crowded waiting room but he ignores them, right up until the heavy weight of an unwelcome pair settles on the back of his neck. he jerks his head up and scans the crowd and there. she’s back, the eerie girl, and she’s watching him with that interest again. he scowls at her for a second and then escapes into the grimy gotham air, taking the long way to a safe house across the city to lay low for a while.

 

he keeps his feet quiet as he crosses the floor, using the training that’s become second nature to him. there’s a robin across the room, his back to jason, and he’s looking at the wall. the stains there, maybe, or maybe someone left something of importance. whatever the reason, jason doesn’t like it. robin is in his territory, his meeting house, and if there’s a robin, a bat isn’t far behind.

time for a little pest control, he thinks. he scrapes his foot deliberately across the ground on his next step. it’s loud in the empty echoing space, unmissable.

tim whirls around and jason can see where he’s gone pale under the domino. he’s nervous, jason knows, but he’s not terrified. it’s weird, a mystery to puzzle over later. the energy in the room crackles, tension flooding the space between them like it’s a tangible thing, like jason could drown in it if he takes a wrong step.

“hello boy wonder,” he drawls out and robin’s back goes stiff. “missed me?”

“red hood,” tim says evenly but jason can hear the tiny break of fear in the words. it makes him grin under his helmet.

“surprised they let you out of the house by yourself,” he says, lazily circling around with tim as the center. tim follows him with his eyes. “or did you want another ass kicking?”

tim swallows. “who are you?”

“million dollar question, isn’t it. everybody wants to know.”

“fine then, what are you doing here?”

jason takes another few steps, edging the tiniest bit closer. tim turns to keep him in his sightline.

“me? this is my territory. what are you doing here?”

tim’s eyes are keen under the mask, curious despite the tremble of fear he can’t quite keep from showing in his limbs. it makes jason sneer to see that fear, makes him proud of himself in a fucked up way.

“i’m doing my job.”

abruptly, all the laughter goes out of jason’s body. “job? if you knew what was good for you, you’d tear off that fucking mask and burn the damn thing. take batman with you and burn him too,” he snarls and tim flinches, closer than jason remembers him being. he could take tim out, if he wanted, in a second. drive his fist into tim’s face in no time at all.

he’s barely processed the thought, barely rocked up on his toes to hurl himself forward, when there’s a figure dropping down in front of him. she’s lithe, catlike, and jason wonders why selina is shacking up with the replacement for one wild second. and then he catches sight of the insignia and lets out a laugh.

“oh, that explains everything,” he says, mean. “they’ve let you out because you have a babysitter.”

tim doesn’t respond but jason can see him scowling over batgirl’s shoulder. he shifts his gaze to the girl and blinks for a second, shock running through his body like a livewire.

it’s barbara’s costume, unmistakably hers, but the proportions are all wrong. her hair’s black instead of bright red, eyes brown instead of hazel, short and compact instead of wiry and long.

“fucking hell,” he croaks before he can stop himself. “they replaced her too.”

tim stiffens but the new girl doesn’t seem to register the insult. she cocks her head in a way that doesn’t seem all the way right and her eyes are bright with interest. understanding clicks into place.

“you,” he says and the girl nods.

“me,” she answers and crosses her arms. “you?”

“what the fuck is going on,” jason demands and of all the things to unsettle him, he didn’t think it would be batgirl’s replacement that would do it. but yet, it feels like he’s been winded, like all the air’s been knocked out of his chest. “what the fuck?”

“how do you know batgirl?” tim asks. it sounds far away; jason is still staring at the weird girl from the clinic playing dress up in babs’ costume. “o, got any ideas?”

“o?” jason repeats but neither of the two are listening to him, far-off expressions on their faces. he wonders who’s on the other side of the line, but whoever it is, he has had enough. “listen,” he says and he pulls out the two guns from his hip holster, aiming one at each of them. “listen to me. you are going to tell me what the hell is happening and then you’re going to get the fuck out of my sight, or i will make you very, very sorry.”

“you already almost killed me once,” robin complains and jason could shoot him right there if it wouldn’t cause more problems than it’s worth.

“i will do it the fuck again,” he grits out through clenched teeth and tim’s expression goes wary. “who is she?”

“batgirl.”

“where’s— where’s the first one?”

both of them just look at him, expressions caught between confusion and fear. he shakes his head.

“never mind. what the fuck are you doing here?”

“investigating,” batgirl says, enunciating every word clearly. she looks briefly to robin after speaking and he gives her a tiny nod.

“wrong answer,” jason snarls back. “you’re trespassing. get the hell out of here, before i shoot you.”

“you keep threatening that,” tim mutters and jason doesn’t think, aims his gun to the left of tim’s head and squeezes. the sound is deafening and both of the bats flinch, ducking down with their arms over their heads.

“get the hell out,” jason repeats, angry now. “before big daddy bat comes and i have to kill him.”

batgirl goes very, very still and looks at him in that keen way of hers. “kill batman?”

“batgirl,” tim says quietly. he’s got a hand on her arm. “batgirl, c’mon.”

“don’t kill,” she tells jason, scolds him, really. “don’t.”

“he let me die,” jason snaps, far too furious to watch his words. “why shouldn’t i do the same?”

robin cocks his head at that and jason can practically see his mind working. before jason can do or say anything, he yanks on batgirl’s arm and she lets herself be led out of the building.

jason watches them leave, chest heaving, and slips away too before he can be found again.

 

he tugs his hat over his head, a gotham knights one this time, and heads to the nearest public library. it’s the dingy one in the bad part of town, but jason doesn’t mind. no one will look at him twice here, in his ripped jeans and day-old stubble.

bruce used to take him to the library, the fancy one where there were too many windows. it smelled different there, like old books and money and displeasure. jason had scrubbed his hands on his thighs like he could wipe the smell of the narrows off him and hadn’t dared to touch anything. it worked until bruce had dropped him into an overstuffed chair by the big glass wall and handed him the most interesting books in pristine condition. it had been a good day, that one.

jason pulls himself out of the memory with his chest aching and veers towards the too-old computers all in a row. he could’ve done this on his phone, maybe, but there’s a very good chance bruce has alerts out for any suspicious activity on any of their names. barbara’s probably was on there too, so public library it is.

it takes forever to log in and he has to stop himself from drumming impatiently on the table, running wild with nervous energy. he wants a smoke. he hasn’t had a cigarette in what seemed like weeks.

barbara gordon he types into the search engine and waits again, the page loading at an excruciating pace. he clicks on the first headline that comes up.

police chief’s daughter shot by joker! the gotham gazette blares and everything in jason grows cold. it’s dated after jason died by a few months.

“fuck,” he says to the screen, trying not to vomit over the keyboard. his hands are shaking. “fuck you, bruce.”

jason can accept that bruce didn’t love him enough to kill the joker. he hates it, wants to punish bruce for it, won’t excuse it, but he can accept it somehow. it fits in with the truth that jason’s suspected ever since he arrived at the manor: he’s expendable in a big way.

but barbara was different. jason would’ve bet anything bruce would go after the joker for barbara. the fact that he didn’t, that he let the joker kill jason and then come back to hurt someone else they loved is like a slap to the face, a kick to the ribs when he was already down.

something snaps in his hand and he’s broken the library card he’d negotiated for in half. idly, he’s glad it wasn’t the computer he punched; a monitor is a lot more expensive to replace.

it’s been nearly five years since the joker left him in a puddle of his own blood. four since he shot a bullet neatly through barbara’s spine, if the headline is anything to go by. the joker has been alive for five whole years, allowed to live and breathe and not hurt, while jason has been in red and green agony.

he manages to get himself out of the library before his vision goes emerald, manages to leave the area before he breaks everything and everyone around him. it’s a library; they don’t need his rage and hatred like that. he heads down the narrows blindly, hoping to find someone to sink his fist into, avoiding the shadows at the edges of the alley for fear of what lies within them.

 

days later, he’s on the side of town he usually avoids like the plague. it’s populated by cops, right where gotham goes from shithole to shining skyscrapers, but it’s where the girls had said they were dealing to kids again. outside his usual scope but he wasn’t going to let any kid get hooked on heroin on his watch.

he yawns and it cracks his jaw with the wideness. he rubs at a spot of blood on his jacket. it’s late, or early, and the sky by the horizon is a lighter blue, a sign of an upcoming dawn. he’s bone tired, ready to sink into a bed and not come up for ages, when he spots someone moving. they’re silhouetted against the dawn from where he’s sitting and so the black stands out where it should blend in.

jason crouches against the chimney as he watches but it’s not bruce; the form is too small and flexible for that. they move gracefully but with none of the flourishes dick is so fond of, just single-minded efficiency. the new batgirl, then, the one that makes him the most nervous.

as he watches, she teeters on the edge of a parapet and hooks her grapple onto a gutter, swinging towards an open window and slipping in. he can see her relax in a chair, swinging her legs happily over the arm, and something in jason just knows it’s her home.

he should leave. he should run away from this place and the girl proudly wearing a bat on her chest, avoiding her knowing eyes at all costs. she could read him like a book, too easily, and it’s terrifying. but he has to know, is the thing.

he has to know what happened to the first batgirl. barbara was one of his favorite people, back before. he’d idolized her as much as he did dick, ate up every piece of attention she ever gave him. she was a lot freer with it than dick was, saw him as less of a nuisance and more of an overeager little brother.

so instead of slipping away, he waits. to his surprise, the girl doesn’t stay; she sits up after a bit and stands, stretching against the window before climbing back out. the light goes out.

jason’s moving across the rooftops in the space between one heartbeat and the next, focusing on the square of window that’s still unlatched and loose. he slides in quiet and careful, putting silent feet on the floor. the room is still dark but he can hear the hum of computers on his left, a lot of computers. again, what the fuck. he takes a step into the apartment.

“i know you think you have the upper hand because you have guns and i’m in a wheelchair,” someone says calmly and jason freezes because he knows that voice. the overhead light snaps on, living him blinking against the sudden brightness, and there she is, watching him steadily across the room. barbara continues, “but that’s the furthest thing from true. this doesn’t stop me from throwing a mean right hook.”

“you’d have to reach me first,” jason says back, his mouth running on autopilot because he’s still staring, still trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. it sparks something nasty in her expression and belatedly, he wonders if this had been a very bad idea.

“even worse for you, i’m not alone,” she says and doesn’t wait for a reply, tips her chin towards the hallway and calls out. “nightwing, we have a guest.”

“fuck,” jason mutters under his breath and the footsteps are too close; he’ll never get out the window and away from dick in time, not without killing himself. he squares his shoulders and plants his feet instead, ready.

dick’s voice floats through the hall, soft and more amused than jason has ever heard it be. it twists something in his body. “guests? is cass back already— you.”

the last word is a snarl, bitten out as dick enters the room and spots jason. he’s in civvies, sweatpants and a holey t-shirt, but his mask’s still on his face, like he just got back from patrol and hadn’t had time to take it off yet.

“me,” jason agree, pouring as much boredom into his voice as he can to hide the shock, hide that they’d gotten the jump on him for once. dick’s tense, holding himself still and putting himself between jason and barbara. jason raises an eyebrow. “you and batgirl, huh? that’s new.”

“not batgirl,” barbara says, peering around dick’s body. her hair’s piled on top of her head, still as red, and eyes still as curious. “but how would you know that?”

“i know a lot of things, sweetheart,” he says lazily. it doesn’t fool anyone.

“what are you doing here?”

“don’t worry, i’m not here to shoot her. do you think i’d announce my presence like this if i had?”

dick stiffens at the word shoot, sneer twisting his mouth into something ugly.

“you didn’t announce your presence at all. i caught you,” barbara says calmly, nudging her glasses up her nose. “so if you’re not here to shoot me, why are you here?”

there’s no good explanation for his presence here, none that would satisfy anyone including himself. he shrugs instead.

“don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“you do if you don’t want me to kick you out the window,” dick snarls and barbara rolls her eyes.

“oh my, someone’s gotten edgy, hasn’t he?” jason says. dick makes an aborted move towards him, like he was going to attack and thought better of it.

“self preservation isn’t one of your talents, is it?” barbara mutters and jason wants to laugh, wants to cackle with the irony of that statement.

“humor is a good coping mechanism.”

“why are you here,” dick asks, voice even and deadly, and jason’s reminded of just how dangerous he can be.

“call it curiosity.”

“it kills cats, i’ve heard.”

“good thing i don’t dress up like an animal, then.”

“why are you curious about me?” barbara asks and she nudges dick aside so she can look at him straight on.

“wasn’t. i went after batgirl,” he tells her and turns back towards the open window, one hand on the ledge when barbara speaks.

“jason,” she says sharply. “jason todd.”

he can’t help himself. he turns on instinct, his body half towards the exit and half towards the apartment. it’s been so long since he’d heard his name out loud.

“that’s not my name,” he says after a second, a heartbeat too late, but babs is smirking like she figured out the world's biggest puzzle.

dick’s scowl, if possible, gets deeper and he shifts to attack again. “no,” he says with a shake of his head. “no, that’s not funny.”

“no one’s laughing, dick,” she replies calmly.

dick jerks his head back enough to glare at her while still keeping jason in sight. “barbara. don’t.”

“it’s him, it’s jason.”

“stop saying that,” dick yells and his hands are shaking. jason thinks his own are too. he slides a foot back, quietly, and then another. he only needs a few seconds’ distraction and then he can run away, escape, get the hell out of gotham. it’s funny, this, that all he wanted was to be known, and as soon as his name was spoken, he wants nothing more than to hide.

barbara’s still trying to reason with dick, voice calm, but she catches sight of jason framed against the window.

“don’t move,” she orders and dick’s whirling around to face him head on, ready to spring and disarm.

“jason is dead, barbara. that’s the red hood, he kills people, he’s not— he can’t be— that’s not—”

and all of a sudden, jason’s patience runs out. he lets out a growl, scrabbling with the clasp of his helmet so he can pull it off. he’s still got his domino on and dick stares at him when he sees jason’s face, biting on his bottom lip.

“you got older,” babs says after a second, evaluating him from head to toe. “and bigger. tim thought it might be you.”

“tim should learn to mind his own business,” jason snarls and she rolls her eyes.

“it’s not him,” dick says firmly and there’s something desperate in his voice. “you’re not jason. i would know, i would know.

barbara wraps her hand around his wrist, tugging him close to her. “dick—”

dick doesn’t listen, pulls his hand free and disappears from the room, almost too fast for jason to see. he blinks and it washes the room in emerald for a split second.

“he never could bear to be in the same room as me,” he says, mean, and barbara gives him a sharp look.

“don’t start.”

“i’ll start whatever the hell i want to,” jason snaps back. “perks of revenge.”

barbara lets out a long sigh, adjusting her glasses. “you were dead, jason.”

“trust me, i’m aware.” he barely represses a shudder at that memory. babs twists a strand of hair around her finger and sighs again.

“nobody took it particularly well.”

“what, did dickie realise that he loved me after all? did he weep at my funeral, like a good older brother?”

“he wasn’t at your funeral,” barbara says and it hits his chest like ice, feeding the pain there, feeding the anger.

“fucking—”

“he was off world at the time. unreachable, even though we tried. he came back two weeks after and was absolutely devastated.”

jason vaguely remembers that, vaguely remembers bruce mentioning the titans going off on some uber undercover mission before jason ran off to ethiopia and got himself murdered.

“devastated, my ass,” he mutters and barbara looks like she wants to argue, decides against it.

“how are you still alive?” she asks instead and his mouth twists into a sneer, ugliness a habit at those memories. he flexes his hands.

“i don’t know, and if i did, i wouldn’t be telling you.”

“then where were you?”

jason ignores this, crosses his arms over his chest. his helmet’s dangling from a finger. “who’s the new girl?”

“cass.”

“cass?”

“doesn’t work like that, todd,” babs says around a glare. “it’s an exchange of information, not an interrogation.”

“it could be an interrogation, if i wanted it to be.”

“again, just because i’m in a wheelchair doesn’t make me any less dangerous.”

“again, i have a gun.”

“you won’t shoot me,” she says and it’s so confident, it’s almost insulting. he raises an eyebrow.

“i could. very, very easily.”

“you couldn’t.” she raises her hand and ticks off reasons as she speaks. “they’d all come after you if you killed me. you’re a good fighter, but i doubt you could handle everyone at once.”

“i handled it before.”

“you didn’t actually kill tim. which, for the record, we’re going to have words about that when it’s not six in the morning.”

“how do you know we’re having words ever again?”

“because,” she says, easy as anything, “you need me.”

he stiffens. “i don’t.”

“you will. somehow, somewhere, you’ll need me and it’s better to be on my good side.”

“i don’t need anyone,” he spits out. “haven’t needed anyone since i got blown to pieces in that warehouse or since i clawed my way out of my own damn coffin. i don’t need you, or dick, or any of the damn bats, and you should leave me alone or i’ll fuck you up too, same as i did to the replacement robin.”

“jason, i don’t— clawed out of a coffin?” barbara says, her eyes wide, but he’s too far gone to care about explanations now.

“tell bruce i said fuck you.”

with a growl, he shoves his helmet back on his head and vaults out the window because if he stays in that apartment for one more second, he’ll tear his own skin off. he doesn’t need any-fucking-one, not when he’s got his helmet and his guns and green anger burning through his body.

 

he locks himself in his most innocuous safe house and doesn’t leave for three days, peering suspiciously at every shadow that flies across his window. it’s a barren apartment building in the normal part of gotham— if normal exists in this city at all— where people still half think batman is an urban legend and buy their weed from equally normal dealers. it’s safe, not quite the furthest opposite from who jason is, but enough so that he’s not facing the door with a shotgun in his hands.

even so, his pistols are always within reach and he jumps at night, wondering if the careless mistakes he’s made since getting here will finally catch up with him. he lists them off in his head, a recitation of crimes like he used to do for his instructors, awaiting a slap for every admittance.

one: he came back to gotham without a real plan, with just the foggy outlines of an idea. two: waiting to kill bruce face to face. three: tim. tim was a mistake because it put him on their radar, left him with a smaller amount of space to move. talking too much to babs and elise and leslie, four five six.

he got himself caught by the joker, he died in that fucking warehouse, he was stupid enough to be alive and then be alive again. a hundred, thousand, million mistakes.

the setting sun bleeds red through his window and it drives him out of this house, hungry and tired and so fucking insane that it’s go outside or slam his head against the walls. he shrugs on his jacket and tucks his domino into his pocket, just in case, his pant leg brushing against his holster with every step. there’s a diner, not in crime alley but right on the border, that he used to go to with his mom—his real mom, with catherine—as a treat. he thought it was the height of luxury at eight, with waffles piled high and smothered in whipped cream. he’d found out otherwise with bruce, been to restaurants that required a three piece suit to even step foot in the door, cracked vinyl booths and dingy red tables nowhere in sight.

but jason liked this place, likes it still, with the waitresses that call him honey and don’t mind if there are a few bruises on his face. he orders the biggest breakfast and some coffee, curling his hands around the warm mug when it comes.

“rough night?” his waitress asks when she slides his bacon and eggs in front of him. her name tag reads darla.

“rough life,” he says, voice thick. she laughs and puts down an extra plate of waffles he didn’t order. “what’s this?”

“on the house. you look like you haven’t eaten in days.”

“i haven’t,” he replies and drowns the waffles in maple syrup. “been sick.”

“you should be drinkin’ tea, then, not coffee. dairy’s not good for congestion.”

“i wasn’t congested and i’ll drink it black.”

“acid’s not good for you either.”

“darla,” he says, giving her a look, and shoves half a sausage in his mouth. she gives him a look back but tops up his cup as she saunters off. he eats quickly but carefully, eating around his plate in careful bites. the food hits his stomach strangely but he keeps eating, determined to finish, determined to keep his strength up.

the diner is crowded; he watches idly as he chews, logging the biggest threats and the best exits, what he’d do if so and so happened, how many people he could take out before anyone noticed. he hates thinking about that last one, hates that it was beaten into his head for years. he hates how many times it has saved his life.

the food goes sour in his mouth and for a wild instant, jason thinks about putting his head between his knees so he doesn’t vomit.

“you okay, sweetheart?’

he drags his eyes up from the sticky tabletop and glances over at darla, shrugging a shoulder. bruce had called him sweetheart once or twice, during late nights when jason was shaking apart from a nightmare. jason scowls at the memory.

“can i get a dr. pepper?”

“sure enough. is it a fashion thing?”

“huh?”

darla nods at his head and his fingers find his hair, tracing the white streak there.

“that skunk stripe. it a fashion thing?”

he sighs. “don’t call it a skunk stripe.”

“looks like one,” she tells him and goes off for his drink before he can answer. his hair had been shocked through with white when he came out of the pit. it had startled him the first few times he’d caught his reflection, made him jump. talia told him it was pretty normal, that her father had it too. jason wasn’t sure he liked anything connecting him with ra’s al-ghul, but he hadn’t really had a choice, had he.

“you could always dye it, if you wanted,” talia said lazily, when she caught him twisting the white in his fingers for the umpteenth time. “it would make you less memorable.”

jason dropped his hand. “it doesn’t matter. i’m just getting used to it.”

he had liked the idea of being memorable. besides, how he looked was the least of his problems during those days; he was far too concerned with surviving, with making sure blows didn’t break bones when they landed and stitches didn’t get ripped out.

talia shrugged. “your choice.” and then she’d left. his hair grew without him realising it and he hadn’t noticed the white fading, being swallowed by the dark roots of his hair. the black showing through had sent him reeling back from yet another mirror with his heartbeat pounding, looking at the ghost in front of him.

he had looked like bruce, is what it is. he had the same eyes, the same coloring. the same dark hair falling into his eyes. jason hadn’t realised how much the white had made him look different, kept him from making the connection between himself and the man who used to be his father.

“we look like we’re family,” jason said to the bruce in the mirror and promptly vomited into the sink. he’d wiped off his mouth, driven himself to the closest store, and had dyed his hair white in the bathroom, bleach splattering his shirt as he desperately tried to keep himself from tearing out the strands by the handful. he’d kept it dyed ever since then, no matter how memorable he made himself look.

and bruce still hadn’t recognized him. his stomach twists again.

“yeah, it’s a fashion thing,” he says, here in the present, when darla drops a dr. pepper on the table. “found it on instagram. thought it looked cool.”

she nods like he’d said something she didn’t quite understand but believed anyway, her fingers twitching like she wants to touch it. “knew that might be the case.”

“nothing gets past you, darla.”

“that’s right, including the fact that you’ve had four cups already. i’m cutting you off.”

“that’s bad service,” he teases and his fingers drop from his hair to the table. “i’ve got a long night ahead of me.”

“midterms, huh?”

jason smiles, thin, and bitterly wishes that was the case. that all he had to worry about was the number of pages still unwritten or the classes in the morning. instead, he has scars and sleep deprivation and a strong sense of paranoia everywhere he goes.

“something like that.”

 

what he has, in fact, is intel on black mask and a pocket full of extra bullets. he sits in the rafters of the warehouse, tucked away in the corner, and listens to the goons move around underneath him, preparing for whether black mask has planned. the man in question isn’t here, due to arrive any minute. jason flexes his fingers in anticipation.

his mouth is dry, the taste of bile coating his tongue. as much as he makes his living on the drug trade, he hates it. it simmers across his body like a fire and all jason wants to do is light up the warehouse, light up the city.

not for the first time, he imagines pulling a matchstick from the box and lighting it up, throwing it to the ground, and watching the whole thing go up in flames. the black mask’s empire would crumble and him with it.

jason may be impulsive but he’s not stupid; he’s playing the long game and that does not involve burning them all away at this moment.

they’re not quiet, the drug dealers. they’re laughing, shoving each other, shouting. spreading out their ownership of this space like it belonged to them because they thought it did, thought it was theirs to stomp over.

not anymore. jason fits his helmet over his head and drops to the ground, letting his boots slam into the cracked concrete.

“evening, boys,” he growls, voice contorted by smoke and green and the metal around his mouth. the men startle back.

“who are you?” someone brave barks and jason rolls his shoulders, loosens the muscles there.

“i’ve a feeling you’ve guessed that already.”

they exchange glances.

“listen, man,” one of them says, shifting forward a tiny bit. “i don’t know you you think you are, but you’ll clear out of here if you know what’s good for you.”

“you ain’t scary in your helmet,” someone else laughs, all bravado. jason knows this but it still makes his fingers flex again, tighten around the holster of his guns.

“where’s your boss,” he asks instead of shooting, instead of lighting a match to the whole thing.

the men exchange glances again. “i don’t think—”

“just tell me,” he snarls.

“drama suits you,” black mask says smoothly, stepping out from a doorway in shadow. “i liked the falling. it was a good entrance.”

“thanks,” jason says, snarling behind his own helmet, “but i’m not here to get rated on my dramatics.”

“of course, of course. you’re here to intimidate, i presume? mark your territory like a dog?”

“i’m here to strike a deal.”

black mask snorts. “a deal? with me? after you’ve decimated half my men and stolen half my buyers?”

jason tips his head to the side, his fingers on the handle of his gun. “i could eliminate the other half.” the men around him pale at that, sending looks black mask’s way.

“you must be young, to be so arrogant.”

“it’s not arrogant if it’s true.”

“confident, then,” black mask amends. “what are you here to ask me, hood?”

there’s a bang and a yell, smoke pouring in from a door. jason knows that smoke, knows what’s going to happen and it makes him angry.

“ambush?” black mask muses, a finger stroking along his chin as he flicks his eyes across the ceiling, watching for shadows. jason shakes his head, guns in his hands.

“not my plan. batman’s unwanted.”

batman lands in the middle of their huddled group like it’s a goddamn movie, like he’s been waiting for the perfect moment to show himself. jason suspects that was just it. robin lands behind him a half second afterwards, back to bruce and facing jason. jason fights down a growl and kicks his foot out, trying to sweep robin off his feet.

“fucking bats,” he snarls out. bruce’s shoulder twitches but he doesn’t turn, engages the black mask in a fight instead of even looking at jason. there’s very little that jason hates more than being ignored, being pushed aside, and bruce’s unwillingness to interact makes something in him snap.

“your boss is an asshole,” he tells tim, nasty, and tim gives him a thin-lipped smile.

“so’s yours.”

“i don’t have a boss,” says jason and fights as best as he can to land a punch on bruce, get past robin and kick batman’s ass for maybe ruining his whole operation. robin’s good when he’s not surprised, good when he’s prepared and not ambushed, and it takes a lot of effort to try and get anywhere. despite the green haze, jason doesn’t want to shoot just yet; if he pulls out his guns and fires, it’ll start a shootout with him directly in the middle. he doesn’t have a death wish, not like that.

he lands a good hit to robin’s stomach and the boy doubles over involuntarily, groaning. jason steps neatly past him and kicks viciously at the backs of bruce’s knees, hoping to make his legs buckle. bruce twists his head to look at him briefly and moves away so jason and the black mask are looking at each other.

“looks like we won’t be working together, after all,” the black mask says and then glances to where robin is fighting at least five men, his lips curled in a sneer. “i killed one of bat’s birds once, guess i have to do it again.”

“again? what?” jason yells as the action shifts once more, the goons in the room finally getting their footing. he’s not sure who shoots first, someone to his left, and he hurtles out of the center of the fight. it takes a heartbeat to get his back to a wall and another heartbeat to settle his arm to shoot straight. it’s a quick fight, dirty and cramped, and jason lets off a round of bullets almost before he can think.

bruce is in the middle of the fight and tim’s sticking to the edges, disarming combatants and knocking them out one by one, dancing away from jason only to come swanning back in a moment. the black mask is catty corner from jason, trying to push his way to the door.

it’s chaos, is what is is, utter chaos. it’s the kind of fight jason hates because it’s so hard to stay on top, so little chance of coming out of this unhurt.

he slams his elbow into the face of someone who’s lunging for him and shoots a hole neatly through the thigh of someone else. it’s a familiar ritual, a familiar pattern. they used to put him up against twenty men when he was training with the league. across the room, batman’s shadow looms so tall.

jason twists to get a better shot when there’s a pop, too close to his right for him to duck out of the way. it feels like a spear going into his shoulder, and then it’s white hot pain spreading out across his skin, dragging down his arm and pressing up into his neck. his hand jerks and then drops to his side without his permission. he bites down and tastes sulphur, tastes iron and gunpowder, tastes salt.

it’s not the first time he’s been shot but it’s different from close range, more piercing, hitting the soft muscle where his arm meets his chest and lingering there. he tries to lift his right arm again and gasps when it sparks, metal against bone, fire against gasoline. blinks. blinks again, and watches the shadows play on the wall, his heart thundering in his chest and bleeding out at his shoulder.

robin’s face swims in front of him, some strange expression creasing the forehead above his domino.

“hood, you need to get out of here,” tim shouts. jason looks at him dully, still trying not to choke on the flavors coating his teeth. “oracle, i need backup. you need to go.”

behind robin’s head, the fight is cooling down there are bodies strewn on the floor, most of them still breathing, and batman on the other end. he’s still engaged with someone but he’s about to win, jason can recognize the signs even half blind with pain and bloodlust.

“jason,” robin says firmly but quietly, snapping jason’s attention back to him. “leave.”

jason pitches forward and runs yet again from bruce. he’d be sick of it if he wasn’t trying to keep himself upright, keep himself from thinking too hard about the bullet in his body he’ll have to pull out sometime soon. he turns his eyes from the tall shadows playing on the wall and lets gotham welcome him into her grimy arms, adrenaline pumping but not quite enough to stop his shoulder from screaming.

his nearest safe house isn’t far away, a couple of blocks and a few turns, up the fire exit of one building and over the roof, down the other side. he slips into the grimy complex and takes the stairs three at a time as fast as he can.

it’s only when he’s standing in the stark light of his bathroom that he starts to calm down, adrenaline leaking out and leaving his muscles shaky. it makes the pain roar, every movement fucking agony, as he prepares himself for minor surgery sitting there on his bathtub.

“you’re going to hurt yourself more,” someone says and jason jumps, lunging towards his gun.

“what the fuck,” he nearly shouts, aiming through the door into the bedroom. there’s a rustle and then robin appears again, domino still on his face. “what the actual fuck.”

“you can’t take it out yourself,” tim explains, his hands raised placatingly. he looks calm but he’s watching jason with a wary expression, like jason’s an animal who might bite.

“how did you find me?”

“followed you,” tim says grimly and takes a step closer. “jason, let me help.”

he tightens his grip on his gun. “i don’t like you, why the fuck should i let you help me?”

“because you can’t get that bullet out yourself and there’s no one else to do it for you,” tim answers, fingers scrabbling at his mask. “c’mon, we don’t have long. bruce will be wondering where i went after a while.”

jason grunts but dips his head in a nod, dropping his gun and laying it on the floor. tim smiles, thin.

“thank god. now take off your jacket. where’s your medkit?”

“over the sink,” jason says as he maneuvers his arm out of his sleeve as best he can. “why are you helping me?”

“already told you. you can’t do it yourself.”

“i kicked your ass.”

“i’m aware of that,” tim tells him wryly and kneels on the tile, peering at his arm. “i’m bad at keeping grudges.”

“i’m not,” jason says around bared teeth and it makes tim hesitate the smallest amount. it doesn’t scare him away, however, and he prods the bullet hole with some tweezers. jason jerks away, an explosive movement, and lets out a dream of curses. “motherfucker, what the hell?”

tim is watching him again, that same wary expression on his face, not moving. jason feels like a cornered dog like that.

“it’s going to hurt.”

he looks down and spots his arm, covered in blood down to his wrist, pooling on the floor. it’s too much blood.

jason shakes, too much excitement on too little food, too much pain on top of everything else. his heart beats too fast and there’s the red, red blood smeared across his skin, the red on the robin costume bright against the black, too much red.

“jason,” tim says. “jason, you need to calm down.”

he zeroes on his face and there’s the green, the blessed cursed green, making everything hazy and sharp at once. jason wonders if he opens his mouth if the fog from the pit will snake out, flooding the bathroom and burning everything it touches, drowning the red in emerald instead.

“you’re going into shock.” tim is still talking but it’s distant, like it’s underwater, like he’s at the surface of the green lake and jason is sunk at the bottom, watching the replacement take away everything that was once his.

his arm snaps out, his good arm, and robin is pressed against the wall, jason’s elbow at his neck.

“tim,” someone says and it’s not jason and it’s not tim himself, and jason looks back to see dick in the doorway, his jaw square and grim. the fucking golden boy, in the flesh, washed out in the dull fluorescence of jason’s bathroom and leaping to the rescue of robin. jason leans harder on tim’s neck.

“jason,” dick says carefully, “let him go.”

“i don’t want to.”

“let him go and you can hit me as hard as you want, okay?”

“it’s not you i want to hit,” jason lies.

dick’s jaw gets harder at that, his lips pressing together for a second. “jay.”

don’t,” jason spits out and the room is spinning, blood still circling his wrist like a bracelet, like a handcuff, like hands keeping him pinned down, “call me that.”

“i’m sorry,” says dick and it’s placating, enough to make jason’s skin itch. “let him go.”

“if i don’t?” jason asks but it’s dizzy, fuzzy, and he’s still at the bottom of that goddamn lake, on the floor of that goddamn warehouse. “you gonna kill me to save him, boy wonder?”

tim’s face is growing red, a vein standing out on his temple, and jason doesn’t know what to do, can barely feel his arm anymore, can barely figure out what is happening. in all his dreams of revenge, he never imagined this.

“dick,” he says uncertainly and then his knees give out, toppling him to the floor.

 

he comes to in a wave in agony, his body on fire and pinned to the floor, and fuck, his heart is beating so hard he might pass out again. there’s a pain like a white light in his shoulder, pain like a poker in his legs, and something heavy stretched out across his chest.

“no, no, no,” he can hear himself saying, like repeating that prayer over and over can wash the taste of blood out of his mouth. “no, no, no.”

it’s the warehouse all over again, the crowbar slamming into the softness of his body, weighing his limbs down with broken bones. he can’t breathe; his own blood is drowning him, soaking into his lungs and crawling up his throat. he is fifteen and he is nineteen and he is ninety and he is dying, once more, he’s dying, and no one is ever saving him.

he plants his feet and bucks up, refusing to let history repeat itself, fighting through the hurt and the fear and the deadness of his limbs to move, refuse to meet his death crumpled on the ground.

“—ason, jason,” someone is yelling and there are hands on his face, a palm covering his jaw and pinning his head to the ground, muffling the dull roar jason had been screaming out. “for fuck’s sake, stop.

“scared,” someone pipes up from his right. the hand hisses, knees digging into the soft spot of jason’s stomach.

“i know that, thanks,” he says and jason blinks, opens his eyes. dick’s pale face swims into view, inches from his own.

“i need him to stop moving or this is going to do permanent damage,” tim says loudly, again from jason’s right.

“calm down.”

“yes, thank you cassie, i understand that’s what i need to do,” dick says and his voice isn’t quite annoyed but it’s not relaxed either. his fingers tighten on jason’s jaw, digging into his cheeks, as he turns jason to look at him again.

“did you hear that? you need to stop fucking moving or you’re going to fuck up your arm, okay? jesus christ, jason.”

“get off me,” jason spits out around dick’s palm. “fuck, get off me.”

“can’t, gotta hold you down so tim can pull this bullet out of your shoulder.”

“dick, i can’t— get off me, get off.

“scared,” the girl says again. “too scared.”

jason thinks he might vomit, think he might pass out again; his heart won’t stop pounding and no amount of breathing seems to get anything through to his lungs, and there are weird shadows on the ceiling that are looming too close—

“he’s hyperventilating,” dick says, cocking his head to the side so he can look at tim. “fear toxin?”

“there wasn’t any there tonight.”

“dying. before.”

dick turns back to jason and stares for a moment. jason’s sure he’s a mess, blood and sweat and tears soaking his face, lips bitten open, white as a sheet. and then dick’s weight is gone in a blink of an eye and jason is yanking his arm away from tim and the girl sitting on it and rolling away from them all. he puts his back to the wall and stands on his feet, only blanching a little bit when his left leg starts aching anew.

“we didn’t mean to upset you,” tim says lowly. he’s watching him, with dick and the new batgirl on either side, matching expressions. “or trigger you or whatever. we just want to help.”

“you don’t have to talk to me like i’m an idiot,” jason heaves out through his still-rapid breathing.

“we weren’t thinking,” says dick and jason wants to rip his hair out, scratch his skin off, drive his fingertips into the hole in his shoulder just to stop the restless jittering of his body.

“yeah, no shit.”

“we won’t hold you down, if you can stay still,” tim promises.

“and if not?”

“then we’ll knock you out,” dick answers and it’s just flippant enough that it makes jason be okay with the thought of relaxing.

“yeah, okay,” he says and slides down to the floor, all the fight gone out of his body. tim creeps forward and jason tilts his head for easy access, takes in a deep breath and holds it as the tweezers come near. he focuses on the grout in the floor instead of the searing press in his shoulder, calling on all the training from the league. he should’ve done that in the first place.

someone touches his left hand, the uninjured one, and he flinches, lifts his eyes to see batgirl slipping her tiny hand into his.

“what are you doing?” he asks her, voice tight. she shrugs.

“helping.”

“i don’t want you to hold my hand,” jason snaps and she lets go with another shrug.

“you do,” she tells him, confident, and he shakes his head. dick and tim are both smirking in a way that makes him uneasy, edgy.

“what?”

“nothing,” dick says and he’s still smirking, like jason doesn’t get the joke. dick settles himself more comfortably and lifts an arm, the girl settling into his side. jason raises an eyebrow.

“do you just— jesus fuck, replacement,” he breaks off as tim pulls out the bullet, finally. he’s gone white again and he digs his fingernails into his palm in an effort not to cry. “fucking hell.”

“you don’t have any anaesthetic,” tim says through gritted teeth. “otherwise i’d numb it.”

“assassins don’t use anaesthetic,” jason grumbles and tim’s hands pause.

“you’re an assassin?”

“i’m a lot of things.”

“i think i have numbing cream in my belt,” tim says, getting to his feet. “hold on.”

“just fucking sew me up already,” jason replies but tim’s already gone, disappeared out of the bathroom. “i’m never going to get you to leave.”

“he’s just trying to help,” dick says quietly from across the tiny room. his feet are about equal with jason’s knees, the girl— cass?— still curled up against him.

“i didn’t ask for his help. i didn’t ask for any of your help.”

“family,” cass says and he tips his head back to snort as derisively as he can.

“we’re not a family, sweetheart,” he bites out, vicious, and watches as dick’s arm tightens around her, protective.

“don’t talk to her like that.”

“aww, dickie. i thought it was redheads you had a thing for, but i guess any girl in a costume does it for you.” he looks at cass and raises an eyebrow. “isn’t this one a little young?”

something angry flashes in dick’s eyes, even as he tries his best to look at ease, and jason bites down on a vindictive smile.

“it’s not like that, todd.”

“what’s it like, grayson?” jason taunts as dick glares, cass watching them both with a frown on her face.

“big brother,” cass tells him fiercely, nudging dick’s calf with her foot. “don’t tease. mean.”

jason grins at her, putting as much edge as he can into his smile. “that’s me. i’m mean.” tim steps into the room with a bottle in his hand, eyes wary, and kneels next to jason again. jason looks at the pair over tim’s head and makes his voice go saccharine. “what’s with the weird speech pattern? something wrong with you, sweetheart?”

cass’ eyes go sharp and dick’s face gets angry again.

“fuck, jason. i’m going to beat your ass again if you don’t fucking shut up.”

jason winces as tim starts to sew up the bullet hole, the pain dulled but still there. it makes him anxious, jittery again, too much blood on the floor. it reminds him of too much. he looks at dick instead, pastes that lazy smile on his face like it’s a shield, vomits words instead of his dinner.

“look at you, finally acting like a brother should,” he says, sharpening his words like the knives he keeps in his belt. “did my death fuck you up? make you guilty because you weren’t a good big brother?”

dick’s lips thin out and he goes completely still in the way that means he’s furious, means he’s probably imagining slamming his fist into jason’s face.

“go,” cass orders, shoving his hip. “out.”

he lets her usher him out, wordlessly, and she shoots jason an angry look as she goes. jason laughs.

“was it dying that made you an asshole, or were you always like this?” tim asks mildly as he ties the thread, leaning away with a carefully neutral expression on his face.

“it’s a talent and i’ve had a lot of practice.”

“dick doesn’t deserve your anger.”

jason rolls his eyes. “he does, and more.”

“listen,” says tim, carefully, “i don’t know all the history between you two, or what dick was like back then, but i do know that he’s a good person, okay? he’s a good person who tries to be a good older brother to me and cass, and you dying messed him up in ways he won’t talk about. so if you can just lay off him for a while, that would be nice.”

“newsflash, replacement: my dying messed me up in ways you won’t ever imagine and i’m allowed to be exactly as much of a dick to him as i want.”

tim lets out a sigh, rubbing at his face with a hand. “this isn’t— there isn’t time for an argument about this and we have to finish fixing you.”

“you patched up my shoulder, didn’t you? what else?”

“you’ve got something on your thigh too. i think it’s just a scratch but we should look at it, just in case.” he pauses, cheeks a tiny bit pink. “i need you to take off your pants, though.”

“do you now?” jason quips angrily but works his dirty jeans off his legs, hissing when the rough fabric scrapes against his skin. his thigh is a mess of partially-browned blood and tim doesn’t hesitate in cleaning it up, pouring peroxide over the skin and making it sting.

“it’s just nicked,” tim confirms, dropping a bloody balled-up paper towel on the floor. “bullet went past you but not through.”

jason grunts, putting a palm over his eyes. he’s starting to feel light headed again; he’s got a sneaking suspicion he lost too much blood. recovery’s going to be a bitch.

“don’t faint on me now, todd,” tim grumbles, hands working fast. “you’re almost there.”

the witty retort jason was going to say dies on his tongue; he’s too tired to form the words. there’s a few more seconds of sharp pain and then tim is leaning back on his haunches, wiping his hands on his thighs.

“done,” he says, satisfied. “c’mon, jason. don’t sleep on the bathroom floor.”

“gonna,” jason mumbles. everything is blurrybright, the light reflecting off the tile in weird ways and going fuzzy at the edges. he might be fuzzy at the edges.

“jason, no—”

he tips to the side and lets his cheek rest against the cold floor, watching as someone else enters his bathroom.

“up, todd,” dick says and his voice is weird in ways jason can’t explain, too tight and too loud and too distorted. jason flinches when the hands wrap around his arms but the hands don’t let go, tug him to his feet.

“oof,” tim says from under his arm. “he’s heavy.”

“no shit,” dick replies, and together the two of them drag him to the bed. he’s asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, exhaustion and pain pulling him into unconsciousness.

 

he wakes sometime later, still hazy. the sunlight is painting his ceiling in gold and he turns away from the brightness. someone is by his side and puts a hand to his hot cheeks, feeds him a pill and pours cold water down his throat. jason drinks until it is gone and then sleeps once more.

 

“nnngh,” he says elegantly, coming awake all of a sudden, head stuffy in the way sleeping pills make him feel. there’s a chuckle and a shift from somewhere next to him.

“good morning, sleeping beauty.”

“morning, fuckface,” he says but his head’s jammed into the pillow so it comes out as more of a groan. he twists to peek one eye out towards his unwanted guest. “what the hell are you doing here?”

“making sure you don’t die again,” tim says cheerfully, still typing away at his computer. “you lost quite a bit of blood.”

“i was shot,” jason replies and shoves his head back into the pillow, only to pop back up. “wait, i thought you had to get back to b— to the manor.”

“i did. was there all day and i just switched places with dick.”

“dick was here all day?” jason asks, uneasy. tim hums. “how long was i out.”

“fourteen hours, give or take a few minutes.”

“huh,” says jason and then makes a face. “i need something to drink.”

“on the nightstand,” tim says and points to the full glass. jason guzzles it, feeling absolutely parched and like death warmed over. he should know.

tim glances up from his screen and stares at jason with a blank stare, before giving a start. “oh, i forgot.”

he disappears into the rest of the apartment and jason flips over on his back to idly watch the sunset, wincing when he jars his shoulder and his leg. it’s a dull ache, probably made duller by the painkillers he’s been given. he’s always liked this safehouse, liked the glimpse of the harbor he could catch outside the window. he’ll have to abandon it, now that the bats know it exists. he can’t have them around, rubbing their dirty little hands all over his space.

tim steps back in and he’s got a bowl of soup arranged on a plate, with half a baguette on the side.

“here you go,” he says and hands it over. “courtesy of alfred.”

jason nearly upends the bowl in his bed. “alfred made this for me?” he asks, suddenly shaky, his empty stomach twisting unpleasantly. tim drops back into his seat.

“no,” he replies, looking a little uncomfortable, “i snuck it out of the refrigerator.”

jason relaxes a bit into the pillow, shifting his grip so he can scoop soup into his mouth. alfred’s the one flaw in his plan, the one thing stopping him from burning everything to the ground. not even the pit can twist alfred into something to be destroyed.

as much as he craves going home to the kitchen in the manor, he can’t bear the thought of alfred knowing who he’s become, what he’s done. can’t bear the thought of alfred grieving a second time, jason’s fault over and over and over again.

he takes another bite of soup.

“so,” tim says. he’s looking at his computer far too intently to actually be doing any work, the fingers of his left hand tapping quietly on the armchair. “so.”

“spit it out, bird brain.”

tim drums his fingers again, this time on his keyboard, and looks at jason sideways. “i don’t… i… i talked to barbara.”

“uh huh.”

“she said— she said you said you dug yourself out of your own grave.”

jason freezes, soup hot against his tongue. he swallows with some difficulty. “what about it.”

“did you really? dig out of your grave.”

jason sticks the spoon in his mouth instead of answering, licking it clean as he thinks about what to do. “maybe,” he answers finally, closer to a growl than actual speech. “maybe not. why, you want to try it?”

“i checked the file. they did an autopsy on you. you were dead when you went into the ground.”

“i’m aware of that,” jason says and curls his lips around the memory of the crowbar, sets his teeth against the memory of metal in his mouth.

“so how did you come out alive?”

“fuck if i know.”

“were you like this when you... uh… came back?”

jason gives him a look. “like what?”

the tips of tim’s ears are a little pink. “you know. uh, jacked? you weren’t when you went in.”

“oh my god,” jason mumbles and then takes another bite of soup. “why, you wanna die to see if you’ll grow any taller?”

“just wondering.”

jason sighs. “i got thrown in a lazarus pit for a while.”

“a lazarus pit?”

“jesus fuck, replacement, do you ever fucking shut up? yes, a fucking lazarus pit. now, are you done talking about my traumatic death or will i have to punch the lights out of you to get you to stop?”

tim goes a little more red, looking down at his hands instead of jason. “i’m just curious.”

“take your curiosity somewhere else,” he all but snarls, his hands shaking around the bowl. “i don’t fucking want to talk about it.”

“okay,” tim mumbles and he’s flinching away from jason the tiniest bit, wary. that should embarrass jason, maybe, make him feel anything other than the annoyance that’s currently filtering through his body, but it doesn’t. he doesn’t care.

they sit in silence, the sun slipping down the horizon and turning his bedroom dark. it nags at him, more than the apathy and the annoyance, that he can’t figure out what is going on.

“why the hell are you here?” he asks finally, when it’s too much of a pain to keep quiet. tim doesn’t look at him for the longest time, long enough for jason to wonder if he heard at all.

“why wouldn’t i be here,” he says blandly, and jason snorts.

“don’t act stupid with me, bird brain.”

“i’m here because it’s my fault you got shot.”

“hell yeah it is, but that’s not the reason.”

tim chews on his lip, like he knows what he wants to say and knows it won’t go over well. “because i’m tired of people dying when i could stop it.”

jason huffs out a laugh, more bitter than joyful, and scrapes his spoon against the side of the bowl. “you’re in the wrong business for that.”

“and also because i know painkillers can mess you up, and you especially. i read your file,” he finishes awkwardly.

“of course you did.”

“it’s a precaution.”

“you know i can still shoot a gun, even with my shoulder all fucked up.”

tim’s eyes get a tiny bit wider. “yeah.”

“just checking.”

jason finishes his meal and swallows down the painkillers that are pushed into his hand. they’re not the sleepy kind this time, not a high enough dosage to knock him out. he wonders how much they had to give him last night; his tolerance is higher than most. but maybe not higher than bats.

jason lolls his head around to look at tim when the light’s almost completely gone. he’s still on his computer.

“shouldn’t you be suiting up?” he asks and tim starts, blinking around in the gloom.

“what?”

“for patrol. won’t bruce be expecting you?”

“oh. huh. yeah, probably.”

“that means get the hell out of here, kid. i don’t want him finding where i live.”

“trackers in the robin suits,” tim says blankly as he shuts his laptop. “he’ll find you if he looks for me.”

jason drops his head back against the pillow. “figured as much,” he says, sour. he’ll definitely have to dump this safehouse now. tim gets up, stretching, and looks back at jason.

“don’t go out tonight,” he warns. “you’re still healing.”

“don’t i know it, fuckface. now fuck off.”

“i—uh. someone will be back?”

“what?”

“later. to check on you. me or dick, or babs maybe. we’ll come check.”

jason blinks at him. “why the hell would you do that?”

“because you were shot, twice?” tim says with a slight frown, examining jason like he’s a puzzle to figure out. “you can barely move.”

“i don’t fucking need your help,” he snarls. “shit, i didn’t ask for this.”

“we’re not just going to leave—”

“replacement,” jason says lowly, his body flickering with anger, “i will fuck you up if you don’t stop talking. fuck. off.”

tim makes a face but he shuts up, backing out of the door without another word. jason slings his uninjured arm over his face and seethes, the pain and annoyance fusing into something short-tempered and uncomfortable. he’s restless like this, confined to bed next to a window that could very well shatter inwards in a bat-sized explosion.

he gives tim an hour to clear out, praying he’s not hanging around nearby. grinding his teeth together, he hauls himself up until he’s sitting with his legs over the edge of the bed, and then plants his feet to stand. his thigh twinges and his arm aches, but it’s not too bad.

there’s nothing really in the apartment that he desperately needs; he grabs his helmet and leather jacket, unearths some of the petty cash he has stored and shoves it into his pocket. shoes and his holster are next and he’s out the door in a matter of minutes, stomping away down the hall. he doesn’t spare a last glance towards the safehouse, just ducks his head down and keeps walking.

he gets a block in the gotham twilight before he registers a body beside him, a shadow that keeps to the edge of his sightline.

“jesus,” he says, jerking his head around. “what the hell?”

batgirl frowns at him, about an arm’s length away, in civvies. “no go.” she takes a step towards him and he matches it backwards, keeping the same distance between them.

“what the hell,” he repeats.

“babysitter,” she tells him. he narrows his eyes at her.

“what the fuck is wrong with you? are you not able to talk or something?”

“no,” she answers, her lips thinning. distantly, he remembers dick getting angry at him for asking the same thing last night and he aches with curiosity,

“fuckin’ weird, sweetheart,” he drawls and takes another step back. his back’s to a fire escape now and if he can move fast enough, he can scramble up over the rooftop before she realises. he tenses and she darts forward, her hand wrapping around his almost-healed wrist with a grip that’s surprisingly strong.

“no,” she snaps. “no go.”

“you’re not in charge of me,” he snaps back, trying to yank his hand away. she doesn’t let him go.

“call tim,” she warns and her eyes are devious. “call dick.”

he growls but it doesn’t faze her, just makes her tighten her fingers. the muscles in his wrist protest.

“blackmail,” he says and she flashes a smile, finally dropping his arm.

“yep. home.”

“how ‘bout i promise to go home if you leave me be?”

her gaze sweeps down his body for a second and she shakes her head. “no. i go… with you.” he sighs, and then takes off with long strides back towards the apartment. “not easy to trick.”

“i get that, sweetheart,” he grinds out. his leg aches and his shoulder burns and maybe they were right, maybe he shouldn’t have left.

cass stops in her tracks. “oh,” she says, almost surprised, and tilts her head to the side. “come.”

“come? come where?” she veers off at the end of the road, not towards his apartment but to a few cars parked by the sidewalk. there’s one that looks a little more dinged up than the rest, a tad bit older. cass digs in her pockets until she pulls out a set of keys, unlocks the door manually and then waves at jason.

“in.”

“i thought i was going home,” he says, even as he slides into the passenger side, bitting down on the slice of pain that goes through him. she shakes her head again and peels out of the parking spot far too fast for comfort. jason has been in his fair share of scary driving, participated in it as well, but cass is a whole other level. she moves with little regard for herself or the other cars, drifting in and out of them with her foot pressed down on the gas. “what the fuck,” jason bites out, hand clamped on the door. cass hums.

“hurry,” she explains. “need to help.”

“would it kill any of you to explain things every once in a while?” he asks dryly as they weave through more traffic.

“yes,” cass says and then angles her face towards him so he can see her smile. jason sighs.

“did you think i might not take kindly to kidnapping?”

“good kidnapping.”

“there’s no such thing as a good kidnapping,” he responds and peers out the window. they’re going into town again, into the richer part of gotham, and suddenly he realises where she’s taking him. “i don’t want to go to barbara’s.”

“go.”

he pulls at the handle, not at all surprised when he finds it locked. “no.”

“she’ll… watch you. help.”

he flexes his hand and weighs his chances if he breaks the window. “i don’t need anyone’s help,” he says and she clicks her tongue, her own hands tight on the wheel.

“you do,” she says, with so much sincerity he almost believes her himself.

“listen, sweetheart,” he snarls out. “i don’t know who the fuck you think you are, or what your deal is, but you don’t fucking know me. i don’t need your help, i don’t need anyone’s help, and you can leave me the fuck alone, capice?”

cass doesn’t reply, presses a button on the dash instead. something beeps.

“o,” she says. “coming.”

“how long?”

“now,” says cass and pulls into a parking spot, shutting the car off and turning to look at jason in one smooth motion. “out. up.”

“hell, no.”

“it can be easy,” she says and each word is careful, considered. “or it can be… difficult.”

“you don’t scare me,” he says and she smiles, a little tiny thing.

“i do. i should,” she tells him.

“i’m leaving.”

her arm shoots out and hits something on his neck, makes his whole body go weak. he’s been around the league enough to recognize a well-placed nerve strike and he grinds his teeth again in frustration when his body refuses to move. cass hauls him out with some difficulty, shoving him into the elevator and pressing the button for the penthouse.

“fuck you,” he says from where he’s slumped against the mirrored wall, furiously trying to force his muscles to respond by sheer will. “truly, honestly. fuck you.”

cass doesn’t blink. she stays quiet until the doors open and then drags him out by his legs, dropping him at barbara’s feet.

“you stay,” she orders. “i go.”

she’s gone before he can push himself up unto his elbows, red with anger and embarrassment. the motion pulls at his shoulder but it’s not enough pain to get him to settle down, to stop.

“welcome back,” babs says, voice flat. jason seethes, the full range of movement trickling back into limbs little by little.

“who the fuck does she think she is?” he demands and she gives him a look, her eyebrow arched. he hates that look. he hates everything about this, including the humiliation still running through him.

“that’s cass. she does what she wants.”

“bitch,” he spits out, still numb through half his body. barbara throws a pen at him; it pings him in the forehead and falls into his lap. “what the fuck?”

“don’t call cass that,” she snaps and there’s fury in her eyes. “don’t call anyone that, but especially not her.”

“what is everyone’s fucking problem,” he says instead, on the verge of yelling. “leave me the fuck alone.”

“you were shot sixteen hours ago. you shouldn’t be by yourself.”

he climbs to his feet, ignoring the way his shoulder aches, and balls his hands into fists. “who the fuck do you think you are, to make that decision?” he sneers and barbara blinks behind her glasses. “no one. you’re fucking no one.”

“jason—”

“i don’t know what the hell you all think, but i didn’t come back to gotham to play happy little family, okay? i didn’t come back to ignore everything that happened to me, everything that this family fucking did, i came back to make you— make him— pay for it. understand? so leave me the fuck alone. if i see another bat anywhere near me, i will fucking empty my gun, i don’t even fucking care.”

“there’s only two bats, technically. the rest are birds. or, kryptonian legends.”

jason whirls around so fast it almost makes him dizzy, glaring at where barbara is across the room. “don’t make me punch you.”

“i’d like to see you try,” she says, too calm. he thinks about it, the fingernails cutting into his palms. he’s good— incredible, actually— but barbara is smarter, even if he’s stronger. no doubt she’s got something up her sleeves that will make him regret everything.

or, it could be a bluff. whichever the case, he’s not dumb enough to call it.

“good fuckin’ bye,” he snarls and twists for the door again.

“they call her ‘the one who is all’,” says barbara, and her voice freezes him into place. “cassandra cain. maybe you’ve heard of her.”

he’s heard of her alright. it’s impossible to be in the league of shadows and not hear whispers about it, rumblings of anticipation or fear, depending on the person. he cocks his head back towards her.

“cain? as in—”

“yes.”

no one had ever been clear on what the one who is all had done to claim the title, what her skillset was. it makes jason nervous, makes him antsy. she’s dangerous and he doesn’t know how.

you should be afraid of me, she’d said. now he’s definitely afraid.

“she stays the fuck away from me, barbara. all of you, but especially her.” he says the words carefully, letting each one land in the quiet of the room, and then he storms out, slamming the door behind him.

he weaves his way around gotham as best he can, avoiding any shadow of a bat and ignoring the bone-deep ache that starts to radiate in his thigh. he crosses over rooftops and under overpasses until he’s twisted a winding trail that is sure to confuse anyone trying to track him. when he’s finally satisfied that he’s alone, when the pain in his body is too much for him to handle, he ducks into yet another safehouse. this one’s a little more higher class, a little more out of place. it’s not anything special, but it’s not a dingy one room in crime alley either. it had come with furnishings, and he’d bought it under an alias buried under a different alias, no chance of anyone figuring it out.

he makes himself lock the door and sweep the apartment for bugs, just in case, before he lets himself collapse on the sofa. digging out the burner phone he’d stashed in the side table, he punches in the number he could recite backwards and forwards and waits for the other line to pick up.

“talia,” he says. “i need some information.”

 

the last of the painkillers flush out of his system and he is in agony. he thought it was bad before but without a buffer, it’s almost unbearable. he drags himself from his bed around midnight, aching and on fire. throwing open the freezer, he leans his head against the drawers and lets the coolness wash over his body, breathing slowly. he pushes a hand against his stomach and tries to move it, tries to let his breathing go long and steady. it’s easier to wish the pain away when you’re concentrating on something else.

long and low, in and out, expand and contract. breathe, breathe, breathe.

he sits until he starts to shake from the cold, little tremors running down his body that jar his wounds. finding the phone he ditched last night, he flicks down the short list of contacts until he finds the one that he needs, teeth digging into his lip.

“hello, stranger,” elise says, her tone so sugary it makes him want to gag. “how can i help ya?”

“it’s me, elise. stop using that voice.”

“who?”

he grimaces at his ceiling, half of him hanging off the couch. “me. red hood.”

“hiya!” she says, voice shifting back to her normal cadence.

“i need you to do something for me.”

“what is it?” she asks, a little suspicious. he can’t blame her. “i’m working.”

“elise, it’s an emergency.”

there’s a pause and some rustling, like she’s walking away from the street. “okay. what do you want me to do?”

“i need you to find me some painkillers, any type will do. well, no, not any type but something. and then i need you to bring them to this address.” he rattles off his current safehouse, praying to god it’s the right apartment number.

“why do you need painkillers?”

“just bring them,” he says, almost a growl. “as fast as you can. go to danny on fourth, i know he’s got something that’ll help.”

“hood—“

“elise,” he snaps and she shuts up. pushing away the twinge of guilt that runs through him, he continues. “make sure no one follows you.”

“okay.” she hangs up, sharp, and he winces. she doesn’t deserve his rudeness, not like that. he’ll have to make it up to her later, somehow. he calls danny while he’s at it, telling him what exactly to give elise and then throws the phone on the floor, grinding his teeth together and trying not to bite through his tongue.

time slips and slides weirdly, stretching out and folding in until he doesn’t know how long it’s been since he hung up, minutes or hours or days, and it doesn’t matter. he’s going to be here forever, sunk into the sofa with his shoulder burning.

jason has spent a lot of time learning to manage pain. bruce had drilled it into him as robin, a matter of necessity and a matter of pride. batman didn’t show pain, didn’t show fear, and neither had the first robin, so jason learned to ignore it like he had once ignored his hunger. he had been a kid, though, and he’d slipped often, buckling under the threat of anything and crying when he couldn’t take the pain.

he’d cried in the warehouse, about halfway through. the tears had dried up before the joker had finished and hadn’t come again as jason had watched the timer blink down. he’d been too broken by then, his body in too many pieces to be able to sob.

the league of shadows had been a whole other ballgame, a whole other set of parameters. jason learned how to deal with his hurt really fuckin’ quick, or risk more consequences. he’d swallowed down so much agony in those days that it had almost overtaken him. he’d leaned into the pitmadness to stomp it down, biting into anger so pain couldn’t bite into him, destroying so he couldn’t be destroyed.

it’s tempting now, to latch onto the green fog at the corners of his brain and let it eat away at his senses until the white hot feeling in his shoulder went away. he would do it too, if it weren’t for the knowledge that giving into the anger like this will only make it worse later, make the decaying of his chest accelerate. if elise wasn’t about to walk into the room, he’d let it go.

there’s a sharp knock on the door and it creaks open before jason can voice permission, elise’s shadow looming over the couch before she rounds the furniture into view.

“what the hell happened to you?” she asks, her face slack with shock and apprehension. if she had wanted to be angry at him, it’s slid away from her now. he grimaces and pushes up to a seated position.

“i got shot,” he answers. she looks at him up and down.

“where?”

“arm. leg.”

“i don’t see any blood.”

“it’s old,” he says and she frowns, obviously trying to figure out which arm. “it’s been bandaged up.”

“good, cause i’m not digging no bullets out of anyone,” she retorts, dropping a bag of pills into his lap. “not even for you.”

“remember when you were scared of me?” he asks wryly. “let’s go back to that dynamic.”

“who’s gonna take care of your sorry ass and bring you pills when you get in trouble then?”

“i’ll make do.”

she glares at him from where she’s standing. “or you could stop getting yourself shot,” she tells him and he rolls his eyes.

“that won’t happen anytime soon. not planning on hanging up my hood,” he says grimly and throws the pills into his mouth, swallowing them dry. “not with b still around.”

“b,” repeats elise and she sits carefully onto the couch next to him. “batman?”

“yup.”

“oh. you know batman?” her voice is so deceptively innocent, it’s like a billboard announcing her curiosity. jason should be annoyed, should snap at her, but he’s too tired. the fourteen hours of sleep he’d gotten earlier seem so long ago now. “how do you know batman?”

jason scrubs at his eyes for a minute, belatedly realising he’s not got a domino on. elise hasn’t mentioned it, isn’t really even looking at him.

“how old are you? i mean really.”

“nineteen.”

“yeah and i’m fucking three hundred,” he says and leans his head back against the sofa, closing his eyes. “for real.”

she’s quiet for a second. he can feel her fidgeting. “sixteen.”

“god, seriously?”

“yeah.”

“i was younger than you when i died,” he says and he can sense her confusion like it’s a physical thing, a third presence in the room.

“you’re not dead, hood.”

“i was. came back to life.”

“so you’re a zombie?” she says after a moment and he cracks his eyelids to look at him. she’s gaping at him, her whole body turned towards his. he snorts.

“no.”

“did you flatline? is that what happened?”

“no, i mean like i was blown up in an explosion, buried, and then crawled out of my goddamn grave a year later.”

“i don’t— how—”

“don’t know. never figured that one out. probably because some asshole deity has a vendetta against me personally. ‘fuck the world and fuck jason todd in particular,’ probably,” he says sourly and she flinches.

“jason? your name’s jason?”

“oh, fuck. forget you heard that.”

“can i still call you jason, though? i’m tired of just saying hood.”

he blows out air in a long rush, feeling the tiniest bit dizzy. the painkillers must be kicking in, making everything soft and fuzzy. “if you don’t tell anyone else, i guess.”

“you crawled out of your grave?”

he shuts his eyes again. “mmhm. used to have the scars to prove it.”

used to?”

“that’s a whole other story.”

“batman killed you?” she asks after a moment, a nervous edge to the words. “i thought he didn’t— he didn’t kill people.”

a grim sort of satisfaction goes through jason when he realises what she’s saying. he presses his lips together at the thought of destroying batman’s legend, taking apart the mythos that surrounds him. batman not killing people was important to bruce.

“it’s complicated, elise.”

“was he the one to set the explosion?”

“no,” he says, short, and his fingers are aching for a smoke, the first time in a while. he wonders if she’s got a pack on her. “he didn’t get there in time.”

“oh.”

“and then he didn’t kill the person who murdered me,” he continues and the words taste like blood coming up.

“who—”

“the joker.”

“fuck. he’s still alive?”

“nice and safe in arkham,” jason hisses around a sneer, opening his eyes to glare at the ceiling above him. “can’t even get in there to kill him myself. i’m stuck here waiting for him to break out so i can snap every bone in his fucking body, and then batman after him.”

elise flinches so hard he can feel it reverberating through the couch.

“sorry,” he mutters, more to put her at ease than any real remorse.

“you talk a lot for someone slumped on the couch,” she tells him, trying for bravado and not quite ending up there. he snorts anyway.

“drugs fuckin’ me up.” he’s going a little ragged on the edges, brain slowing down. he blinks hard to get rid of the lag and drags his tongue over his teeth. “fucking hate them.”

“must be real messed up to be popping pills.”

he lolls his head to look at her. “i got shot,” he says as dryly as he can. “hurts.”

“sure,” he hears her say but he’s too sleepy to answer, too sleepy to do anything else except let himself drift away, sluggish and tired and pain dancing at the edge of his mind.

 

he vomits when he wakes up, the aftereffects of medication on an empty stomach, and wakes elise from where she’d fallen asleep on the other side of the couch.

“what—” she mumbles and he heaves into the sink again, fingers white on the counter. “s’wrong?”

“nothing. fine,” he huffs.

“don’t sound fine.”

“bad reaction.” jason pauses for a second and evaluates himself. the nausea’s gone almost as fast as it passed, and he’s weaker but not ineffective. his shoulder hurts where he’s leaning on it, and his thigh aches too, but it’s not unbearable. he hoists himself up and turns the water on full blast, ducking his mouth under the stream instead of getting a cup.

“nguh,” he says when he’s done rinsing, dragging a hand over his lips. “fuck.”

“morning to you too,” elise grumbles, untangling her hair with her fingers. “how are you doing?”

“better.”

“you just threw up.”

“better,” he insists. “needed to get it out of my system.” he looks at her for a second, head tipped to the side. “if i take my shirt off, will you get the wrong idea?”

“depends on why you’re taking your shirt off.”

“i need to change the bandage.”

she shrugs and deliberately turns away, flipping her hair over her shoulder and continuing to work her fingers through her hair. jason waits a beat and then works his shirt carefully off his body, wincing when it jars the bullet wound on the way over his head. the bandage is neat around his arm; whoever had wrapped him up had been a professional. dick, then, or tim. he scowls at the idea of them manhandling him when he was unconscious.

it doesn’t take long to clean everything out, but he runs into a problem trying to wrap himself back up.

“elise,” he says, resigned. “i need your help.”

“what?”

“i can’t do this by myself.”

she glances back at him and smiles, standing and coming over to where he’s sitting.

“damn, hood,” she tells him, waggling her eyebrows and pretending to leer. he sighs.

“please stop.”

she’s looking at his chest still, he playful expression dimming a little as she takes in the lines cutting across his body.

“i thought you said you didn’t have scars anymore?”

“didn’t have an autopsy scar. that one got wiped away.”

she freezes for a second and then blinks up at him, carefully neutral. “are you not a human?”

he blinks back. “what?”

“are you one of those aliens?”

“i don’t understand the question.”

“last night you— you said you had died, and that you used to have scars, but you don’t any more. is that, like, a freaky alien thing? it’s okay if you’re not human, i don’t mind.”

“oh my god. no, elise, i am not an alien. i’m just a human with the shittiest luck.”

“humans don’t come back to life.”

“don’t i know it,” he grumbles and digs the palm of his hand into his eyes. it makes black spots appear behind his lids. “i wish i could answer your question but i can’t, okay? as far as i know, i’m 100% human, no freaky shit, and i definitely died, and then i didn’t.”

“if you say so.”

“can you wrap me up so i can put my shirt back on?”

she mumbles a yeah and he shows her how to wrap the gauze tight enough, how to tie it neatly so it won’t come undone. she’s a quick learner and her fingers are nimble as they knot the ends, tucking them safely under the bandage.

“maybe superman would know,” she says after a long silence. jason peers at her.

“know what?”

“why you came back. what’s wrong with you.”

“he won’t know, trust me.”

“you sound so sure about it,” she replies and he gives a soft grunt, snagging his shirt and shrugging it back on.

“he doesn’t know, and he’d tell batman either way.”

she’s not listening to him, playing with an empty wrapper that he’d left on the table. “i saw him once, back before— when i was little. we went to metropolis and i saw him flying. his cape was so red.”

jason doesn’t like to think about superman, about any of the justice league, the people he’d thought of as a strange mix of aunts and uncles and colleagues and heroes. he doesn’t usually let himself think about them; it hurts a little too much. they’d left him too, in some way. he has no doubt they’ve pledged their help to bruce, would fight jason if bruce asked them to.

he swallows and it tastes a lot like betrayal.

“i don’t like red.”

elise snaps out of her daze to narrow her eyes at him. “you’re the red hood.”

“yeah.”

“you named yourself after a color you don’t like?”

“mmm,” he says, folding up the dirty bandages. “that’s what you do. you name yourself after the thing you hate as a reminder. it keeps you going.”

“huh,” she answers. “sounds stupid.”

jason smiles at that, the tiniest quirk of his lips. “yeah, probably is.”

“what is your favorite color, then? green?”

“no,” he answers, too quickly. she looks at him again. “no, i don’t like that either?”

“blue?”

“nah. too… stuck up.”

“what is it? c’mon, jason, you’ve got to have a favorite color. everyone does.”

jason blinks a few times and drops the linen on the table, looking at the way the blood marrs the surface.

“white,” he says finally. “i guess i like white.”

 

he gives himself a few days to recover, to let his shoulder and thigh heal. it pulls at his skin, this quarantine and he knows his teachers would’ve had his head for stopping, but they’re not here to enforce their rules. and as much as he hates himself, as much as he hates everything, he knows there’s not any good in killing himself like this.

it’s not a total loss; he keeps himself busy reading the files that talia had sent over, all the information on cassandra that she had been willing to share. it’s a lot and jason takes his time going through it all. he comes out on the other side with a healthy fear of the slight girl and a burning desire to plant his fist in david cain’s smarmy face. he’ll do it too, after he’s cleaned up everything that needs to be done in gotham. he’ll track down cain and give him hell for how he treated a child.

jason’s anger won’t stop him from doing everything in his power to stay away from cassandra and her mindreading. body reading. whatever. he doesn’t want her near him.

 

he takes off earlier than usual on the night he designates as his comeback, ansty to make his presence known and take back his territory. it’s still mostly light outside, the sun slipping down over the horizon and the promise of darkness coming, but bright for now. he winds his way to elise’s apartment with a burger in his hand.

“what’s that?” she asks after he’s scared her half out of her wits by knocking on the window. he shoves the brown bag at her.

“a thank you. didn’t know what you’d like, so i got you a basic cheeseburger.”

“you didn’t have to do that,” she tells him but she’s already unwrapping the food, taking big bites out of the sandwich. “it was fun. like a sleepover.”

he laughs, settling himself better on the windowsill so there’s no chance of falling off. “usually, you’re not bandaging bullet wounds at sleepovers.”

“well, before.”

“fair enough.”

she chews for a minute, thoughtful, and then hesitates. “i, uh. i did have a question.”

“how shocking,” he says, deadpan. it barely gets a smile out of her and that makes nerves settle in his stomach. “a question about what?”

“what you told me that night— i was just wondering, um. how old were you? when you died, i mean,” she says, all in a rush like she’s worried he won’t let her get the words out. “you didn’t actually say, the other day.”

he blinks, shifting on the window. “i didn’t?”

“nope.” she pops the p, determinedly not looking at him as she fishes around for the carton of fries. “you don’t have to tell me but i was just wonderin’ cause you said you were younger than i was. but if it’ll make you mad, you don’t have to tell.”

“it’s not going to make me mad, elise,” he answers even though that’s a little bit of a lie. it won’t make him mad at her, for her curiosity. he taps his fingers against the ledge. “fifteen. i was fifteen.”

she drops the carton, the contents spilling out over her sheets. “shit, jason.”

“yeah,” he says, around a mouth that’s strained. she’s staring at him with her eyes wide and pitying, making him want to squirm.

“that’s even younger than robin. shit, that’s terrible.”

he pauses, his entire body freezing in place without his permission, adrenaline rising up in his body. “robin?”

“yeah, the girl.”

“i don’t… i don’t know what you’re talking about.”

her forehead wrinkles into a frown. “you don’t?”

“i thought— there’s just the one robin. the current one.”

“yeah, but before him. there was a girl for a while, a really brief while. she had blonde hair and was kinda chatty? i didn’t meet her but my friend did; she told me robin was really nice. it’s a shame what happened.”

“what happened?” he repeats, a little hollowly. no one told him about this. in all his research, he hadn’t heard anything about a girl robin.

“she died. it was, like, all over because it was a big deal.”

“she… died. how?”

“i’m not sure, no one really—”

“elise, how the hell did robin die?” he snaps. something desperate is rising up in his chest, something desperate and terrible. “elise, tell me now.”

she gives him a little bit of a frightened look, shifting back on the bed. “‘black mask. someone— i heard she got herself caught by black mask and he tortured her until she died. batman was pissed about it.”

everything goes perfectly still for a second, sharp like the tip of a knife, before everything in jason explodes.

he hisses at the sound of “batman”, choking on blood and sulfur and fury most of all, the terrible desperation in his chest blooming out until it takes over his body. his shoulder aches and his thigh hurts and he can feel the slamming of a crowbar, and everything in the room is painted red.

“jason?” elise asks in a small voice. he looks at her and can’t see much, just barely registers the fear on her face.

“i have to go,” he snarls and he can feel himself shaking, feel himself turning inside out. he scrabbles from the window ledge and is gone before elise can move, throwing himself down to the ground as his vision sharpens, that slow leak of pitmadness turning into a flood against his vision.

he pauses just long enough to snag his motorcycle and then he’s off, blood hammering furiously through his veins, high on adrenaline and fury, his knuckles white on his handles. the wheels eat up the pavement underneath him and he pushes himself faster. he hits a bump and copper fills his mouth; he’d bitten through his cheek. it makes everything worse, makes him remember red nights he doesn’t want to remember. he leans into the green instead, lets the lazarus pit fill his body.

it’s reckless, this plan. more than that, it’s a throwing away of all his other carefully made plans, but he can’t bring himself to fucking care, not after tonight.

he dumps the bike in the bushes and punches his code into the hidden entrance; it opens and had he not been single-minded in his drive, he would’ve been surprised. instead, he bares his teeth and aims his guns at the cameras he knows are there, sending bullets neatly through the lenses as he stalks down the hallway.

the cave is brightly lit and jason barely notes the changes around him, furiously searching for his target, for bruce’s big frame. bruce is half out of his seat, half-dressed in his batsuit, shifting into a fighting stance but jason’s already got his finger on the trigger. he squeezes off a shot, a warning, and it shatters the chair’s headrest as bruce pitches himself away.

“you let another one die,” jason screams, following bruce’s body with his gun, fingers wrapped so tightly around the butt that he thinks it might be dented under his hand. “you fucking killed me and you still let another stupid fucking robin get killed?”

“how the hell did you get in here?” bruce growls back, rummaging around his belt. “who the fuck—”

jason cuts him off. “is that why you keep us robins around, huh, bruce? are we collateral damage? replaceable little idiots that you can let die?”

bruce moves suddenly and there’s a hit to jason’s hand, knocking the gun away. jason hadn’t realised he was that close. he manages to dodge the next blow, lands his own on bruce’s jaw.

there’s a brief scrabble, fists flying. they’re both fighting dirty, striking out at whatever body part is in reach. something cracks against his cheek and jason’s momentarily glad for his helmet, less glad for his jacket when bruce gets him in the diaphragm where he’s least protected.

“i knew you were a fucking asshole, but this is far beyond anything i thought,” jason sneers, half wheezing, throwing his leg out to try and tangle with bruce’s. “you got two kids killed and you don’t even give a shit, do you?”

“you don’t know anything,” bruce grunts and there’s a sharp pain in jason’s thigh. it feels like a knife, like a batarang.

“why are they still alive? if you care so much about protecting the innocent, why are the men who killed your robins still alive, huh? you fucking asshole.”

everything goes green again and jason gets the upper hand, manages to make bruce pull back enough that jason can get another gun out. bruce stops when he sees it, freezes in place as jason presses the barrel to his forehead.

“answer me honestly, bruce. were we all just collectibles to you? pretty little robins that you can push in front of you at the first hint of danger?”

“you don’t know what you’re talking about,” bruce says around a sneer, his whole face almost unrecognizable with fury, with hatred. jason presses the gun harder, tightens his grip.

“targets. it’s why you dressed us up in bright colors, isn’t it.”

bruce doesn’t answer, just glares at him in a way that would’ve made a younger jason cower. but jason’s not young anymore, isn’t cowed by harsh looks, and he doesn’t waver.

there’s a clatter and the pounding of feet and suddenly they’re not the only ones in the cave; sounds are bouncing off the walls, overlapping voices. jason doesn’t blink, whirls around so his back is to the wall and bruce is in front of him, jason’s gun tucked under the hinge of bruce’s jaw.

“look, bruce. it’s your little army, come to save their fearless leader,” he grinds out. his gaze slides over tim and cass’ worried faces. “do they know what you’ve done? do they know that two people died because of you?”

“stop,” cass says, her fingers twitching, and jason knows he doesn’t have much time left.

“don’t move,” he warns. “don’t you dare move.”

“cassandra,” bruce says and jason doesn’t know what he’s communicating to cass, what she reads in bruce’s body, but she steps back.

“do you know how many times i almost killed you? i put a bomb in the batmobile, did you know that? didn’t set it off because i wanted you to know it was me.”

“stop,” tim says, his eyes wide and terrified. “jason, stop.

bruce goes rigid, his chin tipping back slightly. “jason?”

“oh,” says jason. he can’t stop himself from laughing, a bitter thing that gets caught on his teeth as it comes up. “oh, didn’t they tell you?” he looks back to the two in front of him and shakes his head, still laughing.

“jason,” tim tries.

“i guess they didn’t. surprise, dad, it’s your son.”

“jason died,” bruce says, voice low. “i buried him.”

“i came back,” jason sneers. “i came back and the joker’s still alive and you replaced me and killed another fucking robin. you don’t learn from your mistakes, do you?”

bruce growls, low in his chest, and brings his hand up too fast for jason to react, shoving jason’s arm away. cass moves at the same time, getting around jason and hopping onto his back, her arms locked around his neck. tim takes the gun out of his hand and dismantles it smoothly. he throws the parts in opposite corners of the cave, far away. jason’s a little bit sad at that; he had liked that gun.

“take off your helmet,” bruce snaps. “now.”

“you going to let go of me, sweetheart?” jason says, faux sweet, to cass, watching bruce’s face darken, and she tightens her hold.

“no.”

“suit yourself.” he fumbles with the clasp at the back and pulls his hood over his head, peeling off the domino after. he lifts his chin, cocks an eyebrow. “does it kill you that you didn’t even recognize your own son?”

bruce doesn’t reply, just looks at him for a long moment before turning to tim, face perfectly blank.

“you knew?”

“i— yes,” tim says after a second. the back of his neck is red. “we were going to tell you eventually.”

“we?” bruce’s eyebrows fly up. “did everyone know but me?”

“no, not… everyone. alfred doesn’t.”

bruce nods once, curt, and he turns away. “disarm him and kick him out,” he orders and cass’ grip loosens as she drops down. her hands are quick, efficient, but jason barely notices as she finds all his guns, his knives, his arsenal.

“is that it?” he yells at bruce’s retreating back, angry again. “i come back from the dead, hellbent on revenge, and you just walk away?” that wild, bitter laugh rises up in him again and he doubles over to choke it out. “oh, fuck you.

“what do you want me to do, jason?” bruce asks, whirling around, a voice like thunder.

“i want you to admit to your mistakes and fix them.”

“how.”

“do the right fucking thing and kill the joker. kill the black mask.”

“that’s not the right thing, that’s murder.”

jason pulls himself up, wrapping his hands around the table nearby and throwing it against the wall. it crashes, the sound filling the cave and making everyone wince, except for jason and bruce. they look at each other for a long second, the space between them vast and unable to be crossed.

“go to hell, bruce,” jason says quietly he stoops to grab his helmet, jams it on his head, and then stalks out the way he came.

 

he lights three of the mask’s warehouses on fire down by the harbor, watches the flames lick up the side of the walls with a giddy sort of satisfaction. he almost does the same to the wayne tower downtown and it’s only because he knows about the safety precautions that he doesn’t. instead, he flips off every camera he sees and veers away from any bat that tries to come close.

 

dick’s sitting in his kitchen window one morning, his legs dangling over the edge and brushing against the carpet.

“shit,” jason bites out, jumping. “what the fuck.”

“you tried to kill bruce,” dick says calmly, his head tipped to one side.

“how did you find me?”

“barbara owed me a favor.” his gaze is steady, heavy with some emotion jason can’t read. it makes jason nervous. “you tried to kill bruce and you didn’t.”

jason drops two pieces of bread into the toaster. “the little mindreader was there.”

“she’s not a mindreader.”

“body reader, then. whatever it is, it’s freaky.”

“jason,” dick warns, voice pitched low and dangerous. jason smiles a sharp smile, catches the warning in his teeth. “why’d you do it?”

“which part?”

“all of it.”

the toast pings up and jason snatches it from the toaster with the tips of his fingers, dropping them onto a plate. he dips his knife into the butter.

“you know,” he says as he scrapes the blade against the bread, listening to the crunch, “i’m gettin’ real tired of being interrogated every time i see anyone. gettin’ real tired of seeing everyone, too.”

“we all have questions.”

“you’re a dumb fucker if you think i’m answering any of them,” jason says and takes a bite out of his toast. dick doesn’t say anything, waits for him to chew and continue. “i don’t owe you anything.”

dick raises an eyebrow. “you fought me, multiple times.”

“consider that payback.”

“payback for what?”

jason rolls his eyes and contemplates throwing the plate at his head, letting it shatter against dick’s thick skull and knock him backwards off the ledge into the street below. he’d survive. maybe. jason can’t be bothered either way.

“there’s a long list of grievances, dickie boy. i could send you an audit, if you want.”

“grievances,” dick says evenly and jason sighs, taking another bite.

“you’re a shitty brother,” he tells him, a spark of glee going through him when dick can’t quite hide his flinch. “i don’t know what you’ve told the replacement to make him think differently, but you’re a fucking terrible brother.”

“i didn’t—”

“you didn’t care about me back then and you sure as hell didn’t care about me when i came back,” jason says angrily, his voice snapping like dry kindling that’s been set aflame.

“you tried to kill—”

“i lived on the street for weeks trying to find my way home.”

dick’s mouth snaps closed and he stares at jason for a second, throat bobbing. quietly, finally, he says, “we didn’t know.”

“you knew me before i died. you knew i idolized you and you didn’t fucking care. i don’t owe you anything, dick. not answers, not my time, nothing.”

dick blinks twice, digs his fingers into the wood of the windowsill. he’s angry, jason can read it in the lines of his body, but he doesn’t let it out.

“what about tim? do you owe him something for trying to kill him?”

“he took my colors,” jason says after a moment. “he replaced me. so, no. no, i don’t owe him anything either.”

dick lets out a humorless laugh and shakes his head, his hair brushing his ears as it swings. “you’re impossible, fuckin’ impossible.”

“i’ll give you this one for free, how about that? i tried to kill bruce because the world would be better off without him, better off if his stupid crusade was over. it doesn’t bring anyone justice, it just gets people killed.” he leans forward in his chair, watching dick’s face grow pale. “but more than that, i tried to kill him because he deserved it, for what he did to me and that other girl, whatever her name was—”

“stephanie,” dick interrupts woodenly. “her name was stephanie.”

“if bruce had cared, he wouldn’t have let her die too. he wouldn’t have turned around and made the same fuckin’ mistakes again.” he sticks the rest of the slice in his mouth, still contemplating throwing the plate at dick. dick doesn’t move, doesn’t slink from the apartment like jason hoped he would. instead, he grinds his teeth.

“god, you don’t know anything, do you? do you know what happened when you died? do you know what happened to bruce?”

“clearly nothing, considering he did it again.”

‘“he was a wreck, jason. like i’ve never seen.”

“i don’t care,” jason says through gritted teeth. dick doesn’t stop, keeps talking to a point over jason’s shoulder with blank eyes.

“it was terrifying. he didn’t care about anything. didn’t care about himself. it took months for us to pull him back, rein him in until he wasn’t teetering on the edge of disaster anymore. and then, just when we thought he was okay, steph came along.”

jason’s fingers are digging into his palm, cutting crescents into his skin, his hand curled so tightly into a fist that his knuckles are starting to ache.

“she was so much like you, jay, in all the ways tim or i wasn’t. bright and loud and headstrong. she cared so much, for everyone, and it scared us all to pieces. bruce tried to do what he didn’t with you, tried to keep her safe by sending her home, and it didn’t matter in the end, did it?” dick’s eyes find jason then, steady and tired. “she’s still dead and we’re all still so fucked up over it all.”

jason hates this. he hates it all, the arguing and the rancor that flows from him every time he opens his mouth. the only part that’s satisfying are the dirty parts, the quicksharp words and the fast hard blows he throws in equal measure. it’s what comes after, the rebound, the quicksharp stories dick and barbara and tim all reflect back onto him that he hates the most. he can feel them picking at every single string he’d carefully woven into his fury, all the half-whispered tales of replacing and not good enough and how dare he. he breathes with the anger, draws in a gulp of air and holds it until the anger settles in his chest, safe.

“you should’ve killed him,” he snarls out, just to watch dick flinch again. “the joker and the black mask. they should be rotting in a ditch right now.”

“i tried,” dick says back. “i did.”

“you didn’t.”

“i did.”

“then who the fuck is the green haired fucker sitting in arkham, dickhead? is it a copycat?”

“i killed him when i found out about you,” dick tells him, his jaw tight. “beat him to death. figured that would be fitting. they resuscitated him.”

“jesus fuck.” the skin under jason’s nails give and he can feel blood drip down his palm, thick and slow. “why didn’t they let him die?”

“too many reasons,” dick says and there’s something grim in his face, something that makes jason feel uneasy.

“they should’ve.”

dick shakes his head, sharp. “no.”

“this doesn’t change how much i hate bruce,” jason says, his lip curled over his teeth. “doesn’t stop me from wanting revenge.”

“whatever, jay.”

“don’t call me that.”

putting his hands up in a wordless apology, dick swings his legs over the windowsill and then pauses. “i— i am sorry, if it counts. for how i acted, back… back when you first came.” his mouth twists in an expression jason can’t place, all the anger seemingly flowing out of him. “it was wrong of me.”

“it was.”

“i’m sorry.”

“that doesn’t change anything either,” jason says after a second. his rage is getting slippier, harder to hold.

“i know,” dick answers around a sigh. “i know.” he pauses. “b’s staying out around the docks this week. he’s got a case that’s based there. just so you know.”

“is that so i can avoid him or find him easier?”

“either. both. i don’t care.”

“i don’t need your help.”

dick gives him a tiny smile, a sliver of the world-famous grin he’s known for in so many circles. “consider it payback.”

and with that, he hops out onto the fire escape and swings down the steps before jason can think of anything to say.

 

his phone rings and jason answers, recognizes the number and doesn’t hesitate. it’s talia, cashing in a favor that’ll take him halfway around the world if he plays his cards right.

he plays his cards right and boards a plane to somewhere halfway across the world three hours later, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder and packed with weapons. talia greets him, already in her seat, looking like she just stepped off a magazine cover. jason earnestly does not think about when he washed his jeans the last time.

“you rang?” he says as he drops into the chair opposite, lets his bag fall to the floor.

“i need help.”

“thought you had minions for that,” he replies and she just looks at him, one eyebrow arched. he takes the hint; he is one of her minions. “where are we going?”

she hands him a folder, slim and yet still heavy, and turns her head to watch out the window. he reads as their plane takes off from the ground, leaving gotham and all her grime without a second glance.

 

it’s a dirty mission, long and drawn out, dusty and sticky. he has to burn his clothes after he’s done; they’re so drenched with blood and dirt they’re unsalvageable. standing in the dark of the desert at night in his cutoff sweats and nothing else, he feeds his clothes to the fire and stares blankly at the flames.

there will be a new scar on his back, spanning his shoulderblades, and one across his palm where he caught the sharp end of a sword, but for now they’re open and stinging. his whole body aches, his eyes prick with the grit he can’t quite rinse out, but he’s content somehow. satisfied. it’s easier here, far away from the people who make him seethe.

“you did well,” talia says, her voice low in the quiet.

“thanks for calling me,” he says back and doesn’t look around to where she’s standing. “i needed…”

she hums, cutting him off, and she’s at his side. her clothes are so white they’re almost glowing in the light of the moon.

“coming home,” she starts and tips her chin up to look at the stars, presenting her profile to him, “is never easy.”

“you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, talia?”

“you’re not the only one to try and kill their father.”

jason snorts, poking at a log so it falls over in the fire. “father,” he scoffs, lips curling into a scowl.

“legally, he adopted you.”

“legally, i’m dead.”

“and look how well that turned out.”

he cranes his neck to look at her. “do you have a point to all of this? or are you just trying to stop me from killing your beloved?” he can’t stop the last words from coming out bitter; talia’s obsession with bruce has never made sense to him. talia’s eyes flick up to to the sky then back down to the horizon, steely.

“i don’t think anyone can stop you, jason. not if you really wanted something.”

he doesn’t know how to answer that so he doesn’t, just stands in silence long after talia leaves, watching the logs break down into ash. there’s a feeling in him that he can’t quite place, something wrong that’s niggling at his mind, eating away at him, making him nervous.

 

he gets back to gotham in midmorning, timing it so everyone will be asleep. less chance of getting picked up on the feeds that way, but he still keeps his sweatshirt hood up as he slips into a safehouse down closer to the center of town.

he can see wayne enterprises from his window, he realizes with a frown, and shuts the curtains. maybe he should egg the building. that would send a message, some sort of message.

the cafe down at the bottom of wayne tower used to have the best muffins, back before. jason used to try and wriggle his way into going in to the company any time he could, just so he could sit down in the cafe and eat a few throughout the day. or, sometimes, he’d take them up to bruce’s office and bribe the secretary into letting him sprawl out on the floor behind her desk, playing on his gameboy for hours. bruce would come out from his meetings and laugh, telling jason that alfred would be upset if he ruined his dinner, and then would cram a whole muffin in his mouth. it’s a content sort of memory, a warm one, even through the haze of death.

lisa, the secretary’s name was. jason wonders if she’s still working there. he wonders if the muffins are still that good.

jason’s moving almost before he decides to leave, crossing the span of his apartment in a few strides. his heart’s beating wildly, far more than it did a few days ago when he faced off against a whole squad of men in a faraway desert. somehow, this feels more reckless. it’s midmorning, barely past ten. bruce usually doesn’t even get up from bed until ten, won’t be into the office until eleven, coasting on the appearance of being a playboy. jason can at least make it to the cafe and see if their muffins are as good as he remembered without being spotted.

he rummages through his closet and finds a collared shirt with the tags still on; he’d bought it cheap just in case he needed to look nice for some recon or shit. it’s unobtrusive enough with the sleeves pushed up and some nicer jeans, his hair half-heartedly brushed. at least now they won’t clock him as suspicious among all the business brats.

“what the fuck am i doing,” he mumbles to himself as he jogs across the street, cutting around a few taxis parked on the corner. there are probably cameras everywhere. barbara will find him in a heartbeat if she knows to look. this apartment is done for good. still, he ducks his head and steps into the wayne tower lobby, breathing against the flood of memories that come to mind, sharp and painful now.

the cafe got an update sometime in the past couple of years, the tiny parisian tables being replaced with soft chairs and edison lights hanging over the middle of the space. jason blinks at the decor for a moment and gets in line behind a group of men in suits. he blends right in.

“what can i get ya,” the barista asks in a slightly bored tone, her eyes a little glazed. jason glances at her and then back at the display,

“um. a chocolate muffin?”

“right, is that all?”

he squints at the drinks menu above her head. “and a cappuccino?”

“for here or to go?”

“to go,” he says after he checks the time. the barista nods and rattles off his total, far too much for a simple coffee and muffin but it is a little hipster. “can i put it on bruce wayne’s tab?”

it’s meant to be a joke. the barista doesn’t smile.

“no.”

“right,” he repeats and forks over the cash, stuffs the change in his pocket.

“everything will be out in a minute,” she tells him and glances at the next customer. “how can i help you?”

it’s when he’s stepping out onto the street outside of the building that it all goes to shit.

“jason?” alfred says, six steps away from him. “is that— they weren’t lying?”

the coffee jason had just spent too much money on slips from his hand and drops to the ground, spraying him with liquid.

“alf,” jason says thickly, far, far too many emotions going through him. “i—”

“my boy, where have you been?”

“dead, mostly,” he says without thinking and suppresses a wince when pain ripples across alfred’s face.

this was always the wrinkle in his plan, in every plan, the crack in the pitmadness that stubbornly refused to close. as much as he tried, he could never quite bring himself to hate alfred.

“you’ve changed,” alfred says in a little bit of a dazed voice. jason doesn’t remember him ever being this thrown, not even when someone dragged themselves home with broken bones and seeping wounds.

he looks down at himself, at the way he’s a lot farther from the ground now and the way his arms are thicker. “yeah. i grew.”

“your eyes are green.”

“i— yeah.”

alfred takes a step forward, quick like he couldn’t help himself. “what did they do to you?”

jason bites hard enough on his cheek that he tastes blood, the coppery flavor spreading over his tongue, and shoves his hands into his pocket.

“nothing worse than what was done before.”

“jason—”

“why are you here? is b— did you drop anyone off?”

alfred gives him a long look full of things he can’t parse out, emotions that make him nervous and seen all at once. alfred did always have a talent for seeing straight through jason’s soul. jason wonders if he has any soul left for alfred to see.

“master timothy required assistance.”

jason bites again. “oh.”

there’s a weighted silence. it seems almost like alfred is waiting for something but jason has no idea what, no idea what to do. there’s no space for rage here, no space for the fury that’s kept jason alive for the past few years, and he’s not quite sure what to do without it.

“alfred,” he says impulsively, dripping in coffee and that weird feeling from the desert. “everything that i think about... about them, i don’t mean it about you. you know that, don’t you? i’m just trying, i just—”

he’s desperate all of a sudden. alfred was always the one to see any good in him, more than bruce or dick. where bruce saw a robin and dick saw competition, alfred saw him as a scared boy from the narrows, trying his hardest to do something in the world.

“what are you trying to do, master jason?” alfred asks sadly and something shifts in jason’s head. he swallows, curls his hands into fists. he hadn’t even realise the quell of hope rising in him that someone would take his side was there until it died. alfred might have loved him once, but he was loyal to bruce first.

“i’m trying to fix things,” he snaps, then turns and walks away as quickly as he can. he circumvents his apartment for a while, just to make sure he’s not being tailed, and then collapses on the sofa in his front room.

he smells like coffee and the crumpled-up pastry bag is still caught in his fingers, an immensely stupid decision all along. tearing through the wrapper, he jams half the muffin into his mouth and chews. it’s dry, cakey, entirely unsatisfactory, and nothing like he remembered. he eats it anyway, every crumb.

 

it’s building up in him, all the emotion and rage, like he’s shaken up soda in a can, like’s he’s water in a pot over a hot stove, like he’s red numbers ticking down to an explosion.

he particularly hates that last thought. he can’t get rid of the image even though he’s not exactly sure what’s making him uneasy, only that nothing will make it stop. if he were a different person, if it was a different time, he might’ve swiped his finger through the powdery white dust in little bags or slipped one of the innocuous pills onto his tongue. instead, he throws them at his dealers and throws his dealers to the streets.

they know better to sell to kids. they do it anyway and he relishes the feeling of his fist on their skin, the excuse to let some of his jittery energy dissipate.

“ouch,” someone says from above him when the dealer is lying on the ground. jason scowls.

“fuck off.”

tim lands quietly in front of him, far too reminiscent of dick in the way he moves. he’s in full robin getup; the costume is different from the one jason used to wear. it’s more practical, longer pants instead of shorts, darker tones so the colours aren’t so bright. jason wonders if dick fought those changes as hard as he fought when jason tried to modify them.

“what did he do?” tim asks, jerking his chin at the man. jason looks at the blood pooling for a second and then shrugs.

“same as they all do. i don’t like getting high schoolers get hooked on heroin.”

tim nods thoughtfully. “did you have to beat him?”

“yes,” jason says around gritted teeth. “it’s him, or you. what do you want.”

“why do you think i want anything?”

“you’re robin. of course you want something,” jason answers. tim cocks his head to the side and folds his arms.

“maybe i’m just making sure you’re alive.”

jason lets out a snort. “real fuckin’ funny, replacement. what do you want?”

“where were you last week?”

“out.”

“where?”

“is this an interrogation or what?” jason grinds out, kicking the legs of the man instead of punching tim. that didn’t end so well the last time. “what is the point.”

“just— humor me.”

“i had an appointment.”

“an appointment,” tim says slowly, measuring out his words carefully. “with who?”

“a friend.”

“you’re not being helpful.”

“my apologies,” jason tells him icily.

“hood. it’s important, okay. who were you with?”

there’s blood on the ground, coagulating in small pools. it turns something in his stomach.

“an old friend needed some backup so she called me and i couldn’t really say no.”

“she,” tim repeats after a second, tipping his voice up at the end like a question.

“women can be bad people too.”

“hn,” tim mumbles and it sounds so much like bruce that jason’s fingers twitch.

“why?” he asks, nasty. “what’s got your hotpants in a twist?”

“we couldn’t find you and we got worried.”

jason laughs lowly, bitter and biting. “sure you fuckin’ did,” he sneers and swipes his foot through the blood, smearing it over the pavement. “now, leave me alone before i shoot you this time.”

tim gives him a look, long and complicated. jason can’t read it through the robin domino, probably wouldn’t have been able to read him with all their masks off. he lights a cigarette instead, giving the man on the ground one more kick. turning his back on robin, he walks into crime alley, pulling nicotine into his lungs and breathing out the smoke, grey against the night. tim doesn’t follow.

jason wanders around the neighborhood without thinking, letting his feet carry him without paying attention. it’s a bad choice; he glances up after a long moment and squints at the buildings, the breath catching against the smoke when he realises where he is.

the place is still a shithole, seven years after he moved out. it looks like it would fall over in a stiff breeze and he’d bet anything there are still rats in the walls. for all he knows, the bloodstain in the bathroom grout is still there from where he cracked his head on the tub. it had been his dad’s fault. everything had been willis’ fault back then, every damned bruise and beating. robin had felt a little bit like a refuge after that, because at least then he knew how to hit back.

sometimes, jason thinks he’s nothing but trauma layered onto trauma, all wound together and spooled, no substance there but agony.

“hey, hood!”

he jerks his head around and spots a familiar figure on the corner waving wildly. “elise, what the hell? what are you doing here?”

“i live here,” she says as soon as she gets close. he looks her up and down.

“i thought you lived on the other side of the narrows.”

“i did. they kicked me out.” she folds her arms across her chest. “skipped my rent too many months in a row.”

“elise,” he says in a low voice. “you could’ve said.”

“i’m saying now. besides, i don’t need any help.”

he lets out a sigh and finds his pack of cigarettes, hands them over to her wordlessly. she takes one and lights it.

“you can have the rest of the pack,” he tells her gruffly. he deliberately does not look straight at her but he can still see the emotions playing over her face, too quick to catch. the box vanishes into her bra.

“why are you here?”

“went for a walk,” he says and nods at the building in front of him, the shithole, maybe his least favorite place in gotham. “i used to live there. as a kid.”

“batman spends all his money on black capes, doesn’t he.”

jason snorts, swinging his helmet from one finger. “not exactly. it was before... before i met him.”

she breathes out a stream of smoke and taps her finger against the cigarette, watching the ash drift to the ground. “where were you this week?”

“why does everyone want to know where i was? what the hell is wrong with this city.”

“you missed a busy week,” elise tells him, flapping a hand in the air. “thought you would’ve been in the middle of it but you were m.i.a.”

“a friend called in a favor.”

“i thought you didn’t have friends.”

“i don’t,” he says and grimace. “but i still owed her a favor.”

elise tips her head towards him, a wicked gleam in her eye. “oh. must be a pretty decent lay if your booty call took you away for a week.”

“not a booty call.” not anymore. for so many reasons. “just a friend needing help.”

elise gives him a skeptical look. “pretty convenient timing for you to be out of town.”

“what the fuck happened?”

“arkham breakout. the streets were crawling with cops trying to round everyone up. it took days. a friend of mine swears she saw nightwing give the riddler a roundhouse kick to the face.”

“shit.”

“the mask was pissed,” says elise. “heard him screaming about it because it hurt all his sales. can’t deal with cops everywhere. i mean you can, but you’re a lot more likely to get caught. not to mention you have to watch out for the joker n’all.”

jason goes abruptly, desperately still, frozen in a hot sort of way. every inch of his body is on fire, all his nerve endings awake.

“what did you just say?” he croaks, somehow, and elise starts, turns to him with a worried look.

“the joker escaped?”

“and he’s still out?”

“yeah, i think—”

he growls, a sound more animal than human and elise’s eyes are wide, bordering on scared. some distant part of jason is apologetic but it’s all overridden by everything else, by the itching in his fingertips and the green between his teeth.

“i have to go,” he says over tight vocal chords.

“hood, what are you doing?”

“i have to go,” he repeats. “be careful, elise.”

“hood!” she shouts but he’s already running, already taking off like a beeline, swinging up onto a rooftop and almost flying into the grimy night.

 

everything in jason is desperate to just go, to pound his boots against the ground at a flat run, to light up gotham with his rage and vengeance until there are no shadows thrown over it at all. he could go out in a blaze of glory so bright it washed away all the ground-in dirt of his maybe soul, a smoking barrel to the joker’s head.

but it’s the joker and jason already did that once, paid the price for that mistake. this time, there won’t be any mistakes. this time, jason will get his revenge if it’s the last fucking thing he does.

 

he sneaks into the batcave in the afternoon, when everyone is asleep or out, playing at being a normal person instead of a vigilante running wild every night. the alarms aren’t terribly hard to disable; breaking in undetected was part of his training as robin and he still remembers the tricks bruce taught him. it’s quiet in the cave, silent for the vague rustling of the sleeping bats. jason’s vaguely surprised; he half expected bruce or tim or someone to be down here, clacking away at the computer. but it’s empty, everything neatly tucked away. he grinds his teeth at it all, what’s changed and what hasn’t, the way it feels familiar but not really. he’d take it all in if he had time, categorize every inch in a weird act of self flagellation.

he doesn’t have the time. he’s on a deadline, a hail mary mission hurtling down to the last few seconds. even still, his eyes catch on the case in the corner, the one that was new and out of place. he’d noticed it earlier, in the chaos of his last visit, in a distracted kind of way and he’s moving towards it, circling towards the front.

it’s his old robin costume, the spare they had kept in the batcave. the one he was wearing when he had died was probably too destroyed to be anything but rags, but here’s the spare, sitting in a glass case like a fucking shrine.

a good soldier, the plaque reads.

he only realises what he’s doing when his fist hits the glass, the leather of his gloves protecting his knuckles as they shatter the pane into a million tiny fragments. the anger he’d swallowed, packed away to do what he had to do, comes roaring back like a wildfire, bringing vomit up his throat with it. he snatches the domino from its place and throws it across the cave, emptying one of his spray paint cans over the front of the uniform. he paints and paints until the r insignia is almost completely obliterated, hidden under layers of red.

he moves to the computer next, scrawling out his message in the same bloody color, taunting and bright in the green overlay that’s been his constant companion, that has only gotten brighter in the past few days.

come and find me, he writes, angry and sharp, and then he disappears the way he came, ready for the endgame to begin.

 

being so close to his goal is a strange sort of exhilaration, he muses as he hurtles towards amusement mile. there’s a weird sort of nausea building in his stomach, excitement and terror all in one, green and red, and he’s not sure which one is going to win this time.

it starts to rain, heavy drops pelting against his body, and he almost slows to take the helmet off, let the water cool him off. the rain does weird things to the road, warps the reflection of the buildings for the split second before his boots stomp through the puddle. he keeps his eyes on the horizon in the distance. he’s not got long now, an hour at most until the bats catch up. it’s just slipping into darkness, the sun a burning red as it drops into the harbor.

the joker’s still out, hands bound to a pipe and full of drugs to keep him asleep. jason’s bones ache just looking at him, the taste of metal coating his teeth, and it takes every ounce of restraint he has not to wrap his fists around the joker’s neck. he takes a deep breath instead, calming himself, and gets everything ready. he sets up the room how it needs to be, drags the joker to the chair in the middle and locks him into place, fixes his helmet on his own head, and waits.

he’s trembling, head to toe, adrenaline and anger and everything else making it hard to control himself. it’ll stop soon, stop when he needs to be steady down the barrel of a gun, but for now he lets himself shake. the lights overhead are bright and they make everything look strange through the lenses of his mask, adapted for night and not fluorescents. still, he doesn’t take the helmet off. not now, not until this is finally over.

the joker starts to twitch and jason knows that he’s coming to, that the drugs are wearing off. he swallows hard, bile climbing up the back of his throat, and lets his fingers catch on his holster. there’s still blood dried on the joker’s face and skin, remnants from where jason’s boot clipped him in the chin, bruising along the side of his face, a few broken bones too. all things considered, jason thinks he’s shown great restraint. idly, he twirls the crowbar in his hand, watching the shadow spin against the ground. he reckons he can feel the coolness of the metal even through his gloves.

there’s a low cough that grinds against jason’s ears and then the joker’s head lolls to the side, peering at him through slitted eyes. there’s already a leer on his face, the leer that made jason roundhouse kick him in the first place.

“somebody’s got a temper,” the joker drawls and jason’s stomach turns at the sound. “ouch.”

“shut up.”

“what did i ever do to you?” he whines. “is this some sort of vendetta?” jason’s fingers tighten, stop spinning the crowbar.

“shut up or i’ll knock you out again.”

“bitchy,” says the joker. “who are you?”

“you’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“ooh, a mystery. i always enjoyed those.” he sneers, his eyes still half-lidded, and flexes his arms against the ties. “though not as much as some, and not from this side of the situation.” he looks at jason again, gaze catching on the helmet and then dropping down to the bar of metal in his hands. “what are you going to do with that?”

“nothing you haven’t already done,” jason says and tries not to let the satisfaction leak through. he’s close, so fucking close to this nightmare being over. he savors the feeling, breathing in deep through his nose, trying not to flinch at the way the lights play along the floor.

the joker looks smaller like this, tied to a chair in the middle of an empty room, his shadow mingling with jason’s. he’s so different from the menacing figure in jason’s memory, looming and tall, the grim reaper in bright colors and a painted-on smile.

“why’d you do it,” he asks quietly, before he even knows he’s speaking, the words dropping from his mouth. the joker tips his head to the side, that maniacal gleam ever present. “why’d you kill me?”

“if i had killed you,” the joker answers, eyeing him carefully, “you’d be dead.”

jason lets the crowbar fly, lets it thud against the pinstriped shoulder, lets himself lean into the green haze. “i came back.”

the joker spits on the ground, saliva tinged with pink. “you don’t say.”

“i was a kid and you beat me bloody and left me to die,” jason snarls, punctuating his words with a few swings. “for what? to make batman angry?”

“oh,” says the joker and he grins, understanding seeping into his body. “oh, of course. it’s you, the boy blunder.”

“why?”

he shrugs and winces when it jars his injured shoulder. “a lot of reasons, i suppose. breaking ol’ batty is a good one.” he cackles and it scrapes against jason’s frayed nerves, unravelling them even more. “but mostly because it was fun.”

fuck you.”

he clicks his tongue. “never had you pinned as a sore loser, little bird.”

a sound that’s out of place cuts jason’s retort off, makes him focus on the door instead. he holds his gun steady when batman’s head appears.

bruce freezes just inside of the door, his jaw tight as he takes in the scene. jason’s hand does not tremble.

“hood,” batman growls, far too many emotions packed into the name for jason to parse out. “what are you doing?”

“what should’ve been done years ago,” jason answers, matching bruce’s timbre. “getting revenge. getting justice.

bruce takes a step forward. “you’re going to kill him.” it’s not a question. jason’s fingers flex involuntarily.

“like you should have done, if you cared about me at all, in any fucking miniscule way.”

“jason—”

“names, b,” he reminds bitterly. “we have company.”

the joker laughs on cue, his high cackle that makes everything in jason go haywire with fury. bruce tenses too, distaste clear even with half his face covered.

“oh, a family reunion? how adorable,” the joker purrs, nails on a chalkboard, that damned laughter still threaded through his voice. “should we take a picture?”

“shut up,” jason snarls, kicking the chair so the joker topples over onto his side, unable to catch himself with his arms tied. his head slams against the floor and he’s quiet for a moment, dazed. bruce looks at the man on the ground and then back at jason.

“what are you trying to accomplish here?”

there are so many answers to that, jason can’t answer for a second. he chokes on it— the past few years, the blood he’s swallowed and spilled, every terrible thing that was wrung out of his body.

“i’m trying to—” what is he trying to accomplish? absolution, revenge, a good fucking night of sleep for once, pick one, it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same thing. he wants to scream so loudly it cracks open his jaw, all the rage pouring out of him like a waterfall, ugly and hurting and loud. he wants it all to stop.

the joker groans and it snaps him back out of that red haze, back to reality and the job at hand. “i’m trying to fix it,” he says, covering the desperation in his tone with gravel and hoping— praying— bruce doesn’t notice. “everything you left undone that’s rotted away.”

“i can’t let you kill him, jay,” bruce says softly and it’s the gentlest jason has heard him be in a lifetime. “i can’t let you do that.”

“why not? because it’ll damage my soul? spoiler alert, b, i’ve been dead already and it doesn’t fucking matter, none of it.”

“it matters. it matters to me.”

his finger itches, the kind of itch that can only be scratched by pulling a trigger. he aims a kick at the joker’s legs instead. “does it matter to you that he killed me? what about barbara? if you don’t care enough about me, what about her? he shot her, b. she’s in a wheelchair.”

“i’m aware,” bruce answers, brittle.

jason’s voice shakes when he replies, even if his hand doesn’t. “and that’s not enough of a reason to kill him? fucking hell, do you have any emotion at all?”

“he’s a robot,” the joker groans from the floor. “inhuman.”

“you’re one to talk, you bastard,” jason snarls and kicks him in the back, hard enough to shut him up. bruce’s mouth is twisted into something ugly,

“jason—”

“i’m giving you one chance, b,” he says. “one chance to kill him on your own terms.”

bruce’s jaw tenses. “i can’t do that.”

“it’s not a fucking choice.” he throws the gun at bruce and bruce catches it automatically, flinching when it hits his skin. “do it.”

“no.”

“fine then,” jason growls and bends down to grab hold of the joker’s collar. he yanks him up and steps back, using the joker as a human shield with another gun pressed to his head. “i’ll do it. you can watch.”

“no,” bruce repeats, his chest rising and falling rapidly, like he’s run four marathons one after the other. between them, on the ground, all three of their shadows mingle into something grotesque, huge and bulky. “no, jason.”

“do you know what it felt like, lying broken on the ground? do you know what kind of agony that is, to watch the seconds count down your death and know you’re not going to live? do you know how bad blood tastes and what kind of hell it is knowing that it’s the last thing you’ll ever taste? it fucking sucks.” he presses the muzzle of the gun harder to the joker’s temple, letting the lip bite into the pallid skin.

“you don’t have to do this.”

“i need this, b. i need it,” he says and he’d be crying if he could let himself, if he was a different person. “i can’t live with him alive anymore. it’s killing me.”

“jason, killing him is not going to make you any less angry, not at him and not at me,” bruce warns and jason inexplicably wishes the cowl showed his eyes just so he could see what emotions were there.

“you don’t understand,” he says instead of let me see your face or i want to come home or i am rotten through and don’t know how to fix it. “i wanted you to come and rescue me. i wanted you to stop everything that had happened and then i wanted you to fix it. it’s killing me that it’s not fixed.”

“this isn’t fixing anything. this is murder.”

there’s no green left in jason’s vision, just red like an aching heart, red like the color of fresh blood on concrete, red like the countdown clock that had announced jason’s demise.

“so? i’m a murderer. i don’t care. there’s no way in hell the joker is getting out of here alive, not unless i’m dead first. this is you choosing him over me, over your son.

“jason—”

“did you hear that, dad? you’re going to have to kill me if you want to save him,” jason spits and the joker is laughing against him, silent chuckles that haven’t stopped, and bruce’s face is so far away and the gun is burning in his hand. jason blinks to clear his head, just a little. “let me kill him, or kill me instead.”

“i can’t lose you again,” says bruce. “i can’t do that.”

“too bad,” jason replies and presses the trigger.

and then there’s a flash of steel and a hotbitter pain at his neck and there’s red red red blood pouring out and his gun is hot hot hot and his neck is burning and there’s red and there’s the the red timer counting down and there’s a shadow on the wall there’s two shadows on the wall three and they’re stretching and the clock ticks again and it’s red and the taste of copper in his mouth and there’s no green anywhere it’s just red and red and red and—

the clock ticks and the bomb explodes and this time jason does not die alone.

Chapter Text

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.