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Of Broken, Blazing Wings

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                Jason wasn’t sure how long it took him to die. He’d blacked out as soon as the bomb went off. Batman’s report said that he found his body six minutes and twenty-four seconds later. Jason had no doubt this was perfectly accurate, because Bruce couldn’t torment himself over it if he didn’t know exactly how many seconds too late he’d been. So, depending on if he died of smoke inhalation like his death certificate said, it was somewhere between instantaneous and six minutes and twenty-three seconds.

                Jason wasn’t sure how long it took him to come back, either. He died on April 27. He was buried on April 30. A John Doe matching his description was found unconscious on the side of the road leading to Gotham on November 21 and remained comatose until January 18, when he disappeared in the middle of the night. Talia found him homeless and catatonic on March 2. Her doctors declared his full mental faculties restored on June 12. So, depending on how one qualified coming back, it was somewhere between three days and one year, one month, and fourteen days.

                It was easier to wonder how long it took rather than how. He spent enough time reliving his death in his dreams, he didn’t need to do it when he was awake, too. And no matter how much prodding or how many memory exercises Talia did, he couldn’t remember how he came back. All he could remember from before she found him were vague sensations of cold and hunger, which they agreed was probably from his time on the streets, and a feeling he could best describe as a white-hot headache.

                Considering his mysterious resurrection, they probably shouldn’t have been so surprised when his powers started manifesting.

                It was a normal training session. He was fighting two rookie assassins trying to make up for their lack of skill with their eagerness to kill. It should have been simple, routine. Should didn’t mean shit, though, and overconfidence and/or bad luck gave one of them an opening to throw a knife at his head. He had just enough time to realize he didn’t have time to dodge, and squeezed his eyes shut.

                Instead of darkness, he found blinding white light, and agonizing white heat, and deafening white noise. He couldn’t feel his body at all, and his mind felt as if it were exploding in an enclosed space, pieces of himself bouncing off the walls and crashing into each other and mixing with something that was already there. Something… something that was…

                Consciousness slammed back into him like a freight train. Between the migraine, the stars in his eyes, and the ringing in his ears, it took him about ten heartbeats to realize he was lying on the floor of the training room. It took another few to realize Talia was staring down at him with a forced sort of calm and asking if he could hear her.

                “What happened?” he mumbled.

                Talia tilted her head slightly. “What do you think happened?”

                Jason glared at her. “I think that I’m not in the mood for mind games. What happened?”

                 “I’m not playing mind games.” The ‘right now’ was unspoken. “I am not certain, and I wanted your perspective. From mine, it appeared that you used some form of telekinesis to stop the knife mid-air and collapsed from the effort.”

                Jason took a few deep breaths and tried to blink away the remnants of whatever the hell just happened. He couldn’t figure out if she was lying or not with a headache so… so… so white-hot.

                He closed his eyes and thought back to the earliest memories of his new life, if one could call them memories. It was the same general feeling, but back then he must have been too brain-damaged to comprehend what was happening. He wasn’t sure if he’d comprehended what was happening this time, either. Maybe it was the afterlife. Maybe the knife had struck true and he’d died and come back again. Maybe he had the superpower of coming back from the dead. Or maybe Talia was telling the truth, and whatever lived in that weird white place had given him life again and was ensuring that he kept it.

                He didn’t know, and that was all he told Talia. He got sent back to his room for the day to rest and think everything over. He wasn’t very successful at either. The next day, it was back to training, and during a lecture on proper balancing Talia threw a knife at him mid-sentence to make sure he was caught off-guard. Everything went white again, but this time he came back on his feet and in time to hear the knife clatter to the ground. Talia was so happy she did it again a few minutes later, and that time Jason passed out again.

                Jason’s training changed quite a bit after that. There was still some of the physical stuff to keep him sharp, but mostly they focused on strengthening his new power. He’d always been a quick study, so it didn’t take long before he was moving things that weren’t about to stab him. That didn’t mean it was easy, though. He passed out and saw white so much that he came up with a name for it- the White Hot Room. Sure, not the most creative or impressive name, but it’s not like he was saying it out loud. The less Talia, and by extension Ra’s, knew, the better. If they figured out how he’d come back to life, they might decide they had no more use for him and arrange an unfortunate accident. Telekinesis or no, he wasn’t sure he’d survive that.

                The telekinesis was one thing. He could handle it. He’d come back from the dead, it figured that he’d come back… different. At least he wasn’t eating brains or something.

                Then telepathy came around and kicked him square in the nuts.

                It started so subtly. Gut feelings about whether he was being lied to, noticing shifts in temperament he hadn’t before even with Batman’s training, strange dreams of people and places and things he’d never seen before. All easily written off with logic. Then one day he woke up in an empty room with ears full of whispers.

                It might not have been so bad if he had any thoughts to listen to besides those of professional murderers. He thought he’d seen the worst of humanity, but… It was one thing to see it. It was another to have a first-row seat to the thought process behind it. He spent most of that first day crying and throwing up and fighting the urge to kill everyone in the building. It would just get him killed, and a lot of it could just be fantasies never meant to be reality.

                Talia was worried. Not just ‘a useful tool isn’t working right’ worried, she was actually worried about him as a human being. It was… nice. Focusing on those surprisingly warm thoughts kept him from bashing his head into the wall until it all stopped. He told her he must have caught a bug or something. She cared about him, but she cared about her father and their plans more. He couldn’t afford to tip his hand.

                He learned to tune it out enough to function and tried not to flinch whenever he accidentally heard something that made his stomach churn. He could handle it. He was fine.

                Until one day he was brushing his teeth, looked at himself in the mirror, and realized how much older he looked. His cheeks were dusted with stubble, and he was getting taller and broader in the shoulders than he’d ever thought he would, what with the malnourishment and all. Hell, he might even be taller than Dick. He probably wouldn’t get as big as Bruce, but…

                 He spat out the toothpaste, put down the toothbrush, wiped his mouth, and stared at himself. He was seventeen, now. If the universe had any kindness, he should be starting his senior year of high school, getting used to balancing school and Robin again, this time with the added pressure of college plans. Gotham U would let him stay home, but even at fifteen he’d heard that the Literature program was shit. He’d talk with Bruce and Alfred about it. Maybe he’d even give Dick a call. Maybe he’d have a girlfriend (or boyfriend, he was still questioning) he could talk to. He’d be conflicted, stressed, probably injured, and so, so grateful for every second of it.

                He stared at the League of Assassins uniform he was wearing, at the blades meant to kill hanging from his hip. He stared himself in the eyes and saw a defeated resignation he thought he’d left behind on the streets. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to go home. He wanted-

                The mirror cracked. Jason took a deep breath and tried to calm down a little. His telekinesis was getting stronger, which meant his discipline had to as well. There was a flame burning inside him now, though, hot and angry and hopeful, and no amount of deep breaths was going to quench it. He finally looked away from the mirror and set off to find Talia.

                She’d given him a hundred excuses. Jason was legally dead, showing up could put Batman’s secret identity in danger. They didn’t know how he’d come back, and she wanted to be sure that he was stable and himself before she returned him to his family. He needed to make sure he could control his telekinesis before he surrounded himself with defenseless civilians. He’d only asked again once after his telepathy emerged, and the sheer pity she felt for him was so suffocating that he shut her out and didn’t ask again. Until now.

                He stalked through the halls, ignoring the assassins he passed by both physically and mentally as he followed the ‘scent’ of Talia’s thoughts. I really need to ask J’onn for some better telepathic terminology, he thought to himself as he went out the door to the garden. If I ever get out of here, that is.

                Talia was sitting on a bench beneath a pretty tree he didn’t know the name of, reading a book. She was thinking about Damian again. She thought about him a lot, but due to a reluctance to invade her privacy (stupid as that was) or getting distracted, Jason had never figured out if he was an apprentice of hers or if Ra’s had finally gotten the son he wanted or whatever. He couldn’t look into it now. Having to feel that pity again might make him balk, and he couldn’t do that today. He’d wait until she’d given her answer before checking to see how much of it was bullshit.

                He stopped in just the right spot to cast his shadow over the book and said, “I want to go home.”

                She continued staring at the book with a perfect poker face for a few moments before looking up at him. “You have lived here for over a year. Is this not your home?”

                Jason let out a bitter laugh. “It’s my fucking prison, Talia, and we both know it. I want to go home.”

                There was the pity, again. So much of it that it was actually leaking into her expression. “Gotham has changed since you last saw it, and Batman has changed with it. You would not find the home you remember.”

                Part of Jason wondered if it were true. Who knew what two years and losing a child had done to Bruce? He quickly shook the thought and switched tracks. “Look, I’m never going to remember how I came back, no matter how many evil sorcerers you bring in to jog my memory.” There had already been more than enough. If he had to feel one more twisted magical tendril try to claw its way through his head, he was going to kill everyone in the room. “And I’m never going to join your League, so you might as well cut your losses and just let me go.”

                Talia’s expression went cold again. “That is not an option, Jason, and we both know it.”

                “Believe it or not, most people consider not murdering anyone who tries to get out of the cult a perfectly reasonable option.”

                She finally put the book down to give him her full, annoyed attention. “This is no joking matter. I have invested far too much in your life to see you throw it away again.”

                “Yeah, well…” Jason raised his hand, telekinetically raising a few (relatively small, he didn’t want another trip to the White Hot Room) rocks with it. “I’m not sure you can stop me anymore.”

                There was still a little doubt. He’d barely had his powers for two months, and the League of Assassins was trained to go against metahumans. There was a lot of hope, though. He had years of training with the League’s greatest adversary under his belt, and at the rate his powers were strengthening he could be throwing cars by the time they found him. It was a gamble he was willing to take. The only question was if Talia would take it.

                She diverted her gaze slightly to the right, admiring the view as she thought. Jason fought down the urge to peek in her head as the seconds dragged on. It felt too much like cheating.

                Finally, she picked up her book and rose to her feet. “If you truly wish to return to Gotham, meet me at the cliffs. If you see sense, report to the training room.” And then she was gone, leaving nothing but the scent of her perfume behind.

                If Jason had any sense, he wouldn’t have tried stealing the tires off the Batmobile in the first place.

                The view from the cliffs was beautiful. Like something on a postcard. As a kid, Jason always thought those things were drawings or photoshopped. He lived in Crime Alley, how was he supposed to think a place that beautiful was actually real? His first (and only) vacation with Bruce had been quite the experience. Bruce once joked that the only thing he regretted with Jason was not recording his reaction.

                Guess he had a few more things to regret, now.

                Jason sat a safe distance from the edge and hugged his knees to his chest. Why was he even bothering to wait for Talia? Why not just leave now? The sooner he left, the greater the head start he got. Every moment he waited was another moment Bruce thought he was dead. He’d been wracked with soul-crushing guilt every time Jason so much as got a bruise. Just how bad did he get when he’d actually died?

                Jason felt something cold in the pit of his stomach. He knew how reckless Batman could be. He knew he needed someone watching his back. He tried to imagine Batman after Jason had died, alone, angry, grieving, and guilty. That kind of Batman would be beyond reckless. That Batman might have gotten killed, and Talia wasn’t telling him to spare his feelings. That Batman might have broken his one rule, and Talia still wasn’t telling him to spare his feelings. He didn’t know which was worse.

                No. That was a lie. He knew which was worse. Part of Jason always wondered if the world would be a better place if they took a few monsters out of it. He didn’t push Garzonas off that balcony, but he didn’t try to catch him, either. He didn’t regret it, no matter how much Bruce yelled at him. Scum like that was never going to get better. Scum like the Joker was never going to get better, and Jason didn’t like how much he liked the idea that Batman had finally realized that and decided Jason was the last person he’d ever hurt.

                He was so caught up in his thoughts that he let down his mental barriers and sensed Talia’s thoughts before her physical presence. He got a searing blast of pity before blocking her off again and taking a deep breath. He didn’t care what she had to say, but he’d let her say it anyway. He was going back home the moment her back was turned.

                Once she was within arm’s reach, she held a smartphone out to him. “Here. Research whatever you wish.”

                Jason eyed her suspiciously. “You had me come all the way out here for a Google search?”

                Her poker face was back in place. “A precaution. Your power is unstable, and you will not like what you find.” And then she was gone again.

                He hit the power button, half expecting it to explode. It looked like a newer model – no, it looked like a model from when he’d died. The newer ones probably had holograms and shit. Old or not, it had an internet connection and a working browser, and that’s all he needed. His thumb hovered over the screen, considering what to search first. ‘Batman’ would just get him rumours and second-hand sources at best. ‘Jason Todd’ would get a lot of articles about his murder, and he didn’t feel like a panic attack right now.

                He typed Bruce Wayne in and hit search. The photos grabbed his attention first, if only because of how old he looked in them. The Brucie mask was as bright and happy as ever, but there were grey hairs and wrinkles that hadn’t been there a year ago. He skimmed through the articles. Charity events, supermodel flings, blah blah blah… Nothing about him getting any serious injuries. Good.

                He saw an article titled Bruce Wayne Speaks About Grieving and Recovery, clicked on it thinking it’d be the same sob story about his parents he’d given hundreds of times, spotted his own name, and immediately closed it. He didn’t want to see that. It wouldn’t matter, once he got back home. Still, Batman was always lecturing him on knowing what he was getting into, so he reopened the browser.

                He looked up Alfred next. He wasn’t as high-profile and never got into social media, so Jason looked up Dick’s twitter to see if he’d mentioned him. He was relieved to see that Dick was still doing okay, and quite annoyed by how many stupid tweets about food and bad puns he had to scroll through until he found one from a few weeks ago declaring Alfred the greatest chef on the planet. Good. Alfred was still Alfred, and apparently Dick was coming around for dinner again. Barbara was okay, too, if her replies to some of Dick’s worse puns were anything to go by.

                Everyone seemed okay, or at least as okay as they could be. So why did Talia feel so bad for him?

                He typed in Batman and hit enter and glanced at the first news article that popped up, not expecting much.

                BATMAN AND ROBIN RETURN THE JOKER TO ARKHAM

                Did Google change their algorithm while he was dead? Why was a years-old article the first one to pop up? The last time they’d locked him up was… He checked the date. No. No, no, no, no, that couldn’t be right. It couldn’t. That was just a few days ago. That was impossible. He clicked the link and read through the article as fast as he could, looking for the April Fool’s! He didn’t find it. He went back and scrolled through the other articles he spotted. All of them told the same story.

                The Joker was alive, Batman had a new Robin, and Jason’s death hadn’t changed a goddamn thing.

                He closed his eyes and deepened his breathing. It’s all fake, he told himself. Talia’s trying to trick you into helping her bring down Batman. She had people create a fake browser that just shows a database of fake articles meant to wind me up. It’s a lie. It’s not real. It can’t be. Bruce loves me. He wouldn’t…

                But Bruce already had, hadn’t he? Dick’s old costume was barely cold before he shoved Jason into it. He’d seen more murdered children and grieving families than Jason could imagine, and he still refused to do anything worse than put someone in a body cast for a few months. Why was Jason surprised? Did he really think he mattered more to Bruce than the mission? Did he really think-

                He sent his mental barriers crashing down and reached out for Talia. In his right mind, he would have realized that she was too far away and given up. In his current state of mind, he found her almost instantly. With all the finesse of a sledgehammer, he dived down past the surface thoughts and tore through her memories. He thought of that feeling of overwhelming pity and tracked it like a beacon until he found-

                Talia steepled her fingers as she looked at the last DNA results. 100% match, just like all the others, and they didn’t have any more samples to compare. All the evidence suggested that the boy in her custody was indeed a mysteriously resurrected Jason Todd.

                She glanced over at him, still sitting on the examination table, gazing blankly at the wall. Pity welled in her heart at the sight. The few times she had encountered the second Robin, he’d always been overflowing with passion, whether it be a smirk and a ‘witty’ quip or a snarl and an attack more vicious than anything his predecessor was capable of. Something must have gone wrong with his resurrection, because clearly not all of him had come back.

                She turned back to the computer, closed the program, and reopened the hospital files she’d been searching through. If her hypothesis was true, it meant that Jason Todd had been alive and wandering the streets of Gotham for nearly two months, and her beloved had no idea. Would he have even cared? For all his apparent grief and claims of Robin being more than a child soldier, he’d certainly been quick enough to replace him. He hadn’t even bothered avenging his ‘son’. The more she saw of his failure at fatherhood, the more assured she was in-

                Get. Out. Of. My. Head.

                Jason gasped and fell forward. He barely felt the cool earth beneath his forehead. He didn’t notice it grow hotter and hotter as his mind reluctantly wrapped itself around the truth. He didn’t smell the plastic in the phone melting. He didn’t feel it flow over his hand in molten streams. He didn’t smell the smoke or feel it sting his eyes.

                There was only the knowledge that he meant nothing – not his life, not his death, not to Bruce, not to the universe – and white.

Chapter Text

                Jason stared at the cigarette and willed it to light on fire with all his might.

                It still didn’t work.

                He sighed and slipped it back in the box, and slipped the box back in his pocket. Why was pyrokinesis so hard? Telekinesis only took a few days to get a handle on. It had been months since he nearly burned down the countryside, and he couldn’t so much as light a candle. Consciously, anyway. Talia had to wake him up from a few nightmares with a face full of fire extinguisher. She’d tried to ‘help’ by locking him in a freezer for five hours, but all that accomplished was revealing he now had a completely stable internal temperature. Kind of required, he supposed.

                That was why he wasn’t sitting in this warehouse waiting for a pyrokinetic teacher, he supposed.

                She could have at least told me who it is, he thought to himself. All Talia told him was that Ra’s had found a telekinetic/telepath willing to show him the ropes, in exchange for his help on a mission, and that Batman would have already told him everything he needed to know about them. None of that boded very well, especially since Talia was still mad about him looking through her memories. He was mad at himself about it, too, if only because he’d tipped his hand on the whole mind reading thing. No wonder she didn’t want him around anymore.

                He noticed a mind approaching, and it noticed him back. He quickly threw up his mental walls, pulled one of his guns from its holster, and slipped into the shadows. He was reasonably confident that this wasn’t all an elaborate assassination attempt, but it never hurt to be cautious.

                He could hear footsteps approaching. Heavy footsteps. Too heavy. Whatever was coming was too big to be a normal human. Jason aimed his gun at the door the steps seemed to be approaching and tried to narrow down the possibilities. Usually, beings that could move things with their mind didn’t need a lot of muscle. It couldn’t be anyone reputable, given that they were willing to work with Ra’s, so who could-

                The door swung open. What walked through it was definitely not a normal human. He wasn’t human, period.

                Gorilla fucking Grodd was supposed to be his teacher? What the fuck, Ra’s?

                He’d never met Grodd in person. The Flash was usually the one that dealt with him. Batman was a paranoid bastard, though, so Jason had memorized his profile, along with every other supervillain he might run into as Robin. He had the brute strength of a gorilla, the intellect and cruelty of a human, and enough psionic power to go toe-to-toe with the Fastest Man Alive. His plan of attack as Robin had always been ‘call for help and try not to die’.

                Jason wasn’t Robin anymore, though, and if the seeds of his plan were to sprout, he needed to control his powers.

                “Gotta admit, I did not see this coming,” he said aloud, lowering his gun (slightly) and stepping into the light.

                It was truly impressive just how much disdain Grodd was able to put into his gaze as he looked Jason over. There wasn’t much to look at – standard assassin garb, a red mask, and enough weapons to turn any attempts at disarming him into a comedy. Jason felt something slam against his mental walls. He winced beneath the mask and redoubled his mental fortifications.

                “Did your master not tell you of me?” Grodd asked, as if he wasn’t laying a psychic siege.

                Jason bit back a retort. Showing insubordination would just pique Grodd’s interest, and the less he knew about him the better. “He told me he found a teacher. Wasn’t expecting it to be you. Could you cut that out?” he snapped, as another attack rammed into his mind.

                “Consider this our first lesson.” Another blow, strong enough to nearly knock a wall down.

                Jason’s hands automatically clenched, which was not ideal when one was holding a gun. He shoved it back into its holster and tried to shore up his defenses. “You could have at least got me dinner fir-“ He cut himself off with a hiss through gritted teeth. Telepath stuff wasn’t easy to describe in words, so the closest one he could think of to the latest attack was ‘wrecking ball’. Wait, that was two words. Shit, never mind, he needed to focus.

                Jason tried his best, and managed to hold out for a little while, but in the end, he just wasn’t good enough, which might as well be the title of his biography. A focused, concentrated attack on a weak point Jason hadn’t even known was there had his defenses shattering like glass. To his surprise, however, Grodd didn’t press the advantage, drawing back instead.

                The gorilla let out a grunt. “You are not completely hopeless.”

                Jason tried to rub at his forehead to alleviate his newfound headache. Even with the mask in the way, the action was soothing. “Gee, no need for flattery, Teach.”

                Grodd’s eyes narrowed as he looked Jason over again. “I was under the impression that your master does not tolerate glibness. How… curious.” Jason felt his mental presence start pressing in on his just reformed barriers. “Pique my curiosity further, and I shall have to satisfy it.”

                Jason was fluent in Supervillain Mologue, so he knew that translated as ‘Shut the fuck up before I give you a lube-free mind-fuck’. “Yes, sir,” he said, with as much sarcasm as he could get away with. He stretched out a hand and floated over a chair of his own to sit in.

                “There is an object I require that is currently stored in a nearby lab, and I do not want anyone to know I have it,” Grodd explained. “I will teach you how to properly utilize your power, and in exchange you will infiltrate the lab, take the object, replace it with a fake, and bring the original back to me.”

                Jason leaned back in his chair. “Well, that’s a nice first draft of an outline of a plan. What exactly am I stealing?”

                “Unimportant,” Grodd growled. “All you need to know is that it is stored in a black metal box with German written on it, and it will be heavily secured.”

                Jason always hated it when Batman kept him on a need-to-know basis, and he’d thought the sun shone out of Bruce’s ass. When it was a dangerous supervillain bent on wiping out all of humanity keeping him on a need-to-know basis? He was seriously considering walking away and tracking down Martian Manhunter for training. But then Bruce would find out, and Jason wasn’t ready for that. He might never be ready for that.

                “Fine,” he sighed. “Can you at least tell me what lab it’s in?”

                “The local LexCorp branch.”

                Ah. That… In a way it was better, because Lex Luthor was an asshole that deserved to have his shit stolen. In a way it was worse, because Lex Luthor was an asshole and anything he thought was worth developing was not something any sane person would want in Gorilla Grodd’s hands. Except…

                “How come Luthor’s got a container with German on it?” Jason asked.

                “I believe he… procured it from an Austrian scientist that shortly thereafter died in a tragic accident.” Grodd rose to his feet again. “If you are as skilled as al Ghul claims, that will be more than enough information for you. You shall meet me here tomorrow morning at nine o’clock for our next lesson. I would advise you to rest and muster as much strength as possible.”

                Jason bit back the urge to get the last word in as Grodd left. Once he was gone, he slipped out the window and started swinging and grappling his way back to the motel. He tried not to think about anything but the route and not slipping to his death. This wasn’t Gotham. He didn’t know the roofs and alleys like the back of his hand. It was a nice distraction.

                Once he was back in his shitty motel room (which Talia no doubt meant as punishment, but he actually found familiar and almost comforting), he pulled out the laptop he’d been supplied with and started his research. Finding the blueprints for the building was insultingly easy, which meant that Lex had probably made a few unofficial additions that he wanted to throw people off the trail of. Once he’d memorized what the layout of the building was supposed to be, he looked for Austrian scientists with mysterious deaths. Unfortunately, Grodd hadn’t given him enough to work with, which he was fully aware was the point.

                Hacking into the LexCorp servers would be riskier if he tried it here, out of range of their local network, so he had little choice but to close the laptop and go to bed. Loathe as he was to admit it, Grodd was right. He’d need rest if he was to get through whatever psionic bootcamp the gorilla had planned for him.

                Just one problem: Going to sleep meant relaxing his mind, and that meant letting down his mental walls, and that meant letting in all the stray thoughts of the hundreds of people in telepathic range. The din had him automatically wrapping his pillow around his ears to try and block out the noise. At least their thoughts aren’t as bad as the ones I had to deal with at the compound, he tried to assure himself. A particularly nauseating fetish immediately rose above the clamor for a moment before he threw his walls back up. Except for that guy.

                Exhaustion won out at some point after three. Next thing he knew, it was eight, his alarm was blaring, and he still felt tired. Ah, well. He was used to operating without much sleep. He ate a couple ration bars, reset the traps on his duffel bag, put his mask back on, and was back at the warehouse with fifteen minutes to spare. Nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of not quite sticking a landing and nearly falling off a roof to your death to get you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

                Grodd arrived at precisely nine o’clock. As soon as he was inside, Jason heard something whistling in the air behind him. He ducked and barely dodged the crate flying toward his head. It came to an abrupt stop mid-air and remained there as Grodd took a seat.

                “I am not here to teach you to dodge,” he growled. “Stop it with your mind.”

                “Is this how all our lessons are gonna start?” Jason asked.

                Grodd threw the crate at him again. Jason stopped it and let it fall back to the ground. Or, at least, he tried to. Grodd had other ideas, and it got within a few inches of his face before he stopped it again and willed it to remain in place. He felt his metaphorical telekinetic muscles flex and strain as Grodd applied more and more pressure. The crate started creaking. He got sick of the game and gave it a hard mental shove. The crate exploded into twigs and splinters, which Grodd finally allowed to fall.

                “You have some strength,” Grodd reluctantly admitted. He gestured to a non-exploded crate. “Open this.”

                Jason was tempted to do it with his hands just to be contrary. His desire not to get his head ripped off won out, so he tried to will the crate open. He was, for the record, technically successful. The crate was definitely open. In fact, he’d gone above expectations and sent a good chunk of the siding flying off along with the lid.

                Grodd didn’t ascribe to that point of view, unfortunately. “As I thought.” He paused. Jason wasn’t used to reading gorilla faces, but even with his telepathy blocked out he knew somebody mulling over how much to admit when he saw one. “Whatever you have in strength, you more than lack in dexterity, both telepathically and telekinetically. If you are to be an assassin, you cannot use brute force to overcome obstacles.”

                Much as he might like to, Jason couldn’t exactly deny that. He knew exactly how many times dexterity and skill won out over raw strength. He’d done it enough as an underfed tween, and it was how Grodd could have found out all his secrets less than a day ago if he hadn’t felt so polite. So, he kept his mouth shut and let Grodd put him through his paces.

                It was hard. And weird. Grodd had clearly never articulated some of the techniques he was trying to teach out loud. There was a point where Jason had to pinch himself because he realized a superpowered gorilla was telling him to use less tuba and more oboe to open a can of soup. Eventually Grodd got sick of his obvious, barely-restrained laughter and just shoved the thoughts directly into his head. It made things clearer, even if the sensation made Jason want to claw his brain out of his ears.

                Hard and weird as it was, though, Jason had always been a fast learner. By the time Grodd called it quits for the day, he was able to somewhat reliably lift the lids off of crates and managed to cleanly open a soup can once, and he never even went to the White Hot Room. Now that he thought about it, that only really happened when he was straining himself, and the exercises were finicky, not straining.

                Jason emerged from the warehouse and blinked in the sunlight. He checked his burner phone and realized it was nearly four in the afternoon. His stomach immediately growled, as if it hadn’t realized he was hungry until it was provided with proof that he should be. He slipped back to the motel, changed into civilian clothes just interesting enough to blend in (nothing shouted ‘suspicious’ like being completely bland, at least to anyone who knew what they were doing), put his laptop and wallet (complete with fake IDs) in a messenger bag, and set off toward LexCorp.

                As expected, there was a diner so close to the building that it was still in range of the Lex wi-fi. There were a lot of pencil-pushers and low-ranking executives in the offices above the labs, and they’d want somewhere they could grab lunch and browse their social media feed on a secure connection. Or, at least, what they thought was a secure connection. Jason wouldn’t put it past Lex to keep tabs on what his employees were doing. It was probably hidden in the terms of service to make sure nobody read it before agreeing.

                The lunch rush was over, now, so Jason had no problem finding a booth in a corner to minimize on prying eyes. He gave the menu a quick glance, ordered a burger, said please and thank you to the waitress, and opened his laptop. First, he opened up a text document and wrote a boring introductory paragraph to an essay on the causes of the American Revolution. He needed something to alt-tab to whenever somebody went by. It hurt him a little inside to purposefully make grammatical and historical errors, but he was playing the part of an ordinary high school senior. Ordinary high school seniors weren’t reading Tolstoy in middle school.

                Next, he had to get on the LexCorp network. He had the generic company password he’d been taught typed in and was about to hit enter before he remembered that that password was from almost three years ago. There was a chance that it would still work, corporate bureaucracy being what it was, but the risk was too high. Instead, he opened up an innocuously named program that would brute force the password and cover its tracks. He was in within a minute.

                 He scrolled through the file list. Nothing on any experiments, not even the legal ones. The labs were officially listed, so that data must be kept on the lab computers. It doesn’t matter, anyway, he told himself. I don’t need to know what it is. I need to learn to control my powers, and this is my only option right now.

                His waitress came over with his burger. He alt-tabbed back to his essay and moved his laptop to the side to make room for the plate. He was immensely grateful that she didn’t try to make conversation, opting instead to just give him his plate, tell him to enjoy his meal, and leave him to his work. Clearly, she was used to dealing with people trying to reach a deadline during their lunch break. He started eating his burger with one hand and opened up the security files with the other. The fact that they were there when the lab files weren’t meant that it was probably a misdirect, but the grain of truth within should be enough to get inside the building to a computer that did have the information he needed to get in the labs.

                By the time he was finished eating, he had a plan. Not a flawless one, exactly, but a plan nonetheless. A plan that he could technically do that very night. He was already exhausted, though, so it would be better to postpone it to another day when he could get some more rest. Plus, he didn’t want to wrap this up too soon. Grodd would probably bail the second he had his container, and Jason still had too much to learn.

                He closed his laptop, paid the bill, left a generous tip, and walked out of the diner. The sun was setting, now. The smart thing to do would be to go back to the motel and try to get some sleep so he was ready for whatever Grodd had in store for him tomorrow. He dropped his walls to check on the telepathic chatter and immediately decided against it. Better to wait until people started going to sleep. He could still hear them dreaming, but it was always far-away and muted enough to be ignored.

                The question, then, was how he would pass the evening. He found his answer in the thoughts of a mugger scoping out victims. He gave him a psychic jab to throw him off his game and hurried back to his motel to change and grab his grappling hook and weapons.

                He crouched on the edge of a roof, overlooking the city, and found himself missing Gotham’s architecture. There wasn’t a gargoyle to be seen, and he kinda felt like talking to someone. He hadn’t talked to someone without having to carefully consider every word and gesture since… since before. He shook off the thought. It didn’t matter. He was being stupid. Being on patrol again was bringing back old memories and making him sentimental.

                He reached out with his mind, metaphorical ears pricked for malice and distress. Telepathy made something easier, at least. It actually felt like cheating. He would have been sorely tempted to not use it and give the criminals a fair chance if he wasn’t worried about missing something and unknowingly allowing an innocent to get hurt.

                This city was nowhere near as bad as Gotham, but he still had plenty to do to while away the time. A drug dealer got both legs broken, the mugger from earlier got his fingers crushed under a dumpster lid, a drug dealer dealing to kids out of desperation got a perforated kidney and unsubtle telepathic suggestion to change his ways, yadda yadda yadda. It was… weird, being back on patrol alone. He kept automatically looking over his shoulder to see how Batman was holding up, or starting a team move and having to do some fast thinking to change it into a solo one. Maybe that’s why he didn’t kill anyone. Or maybe he was still too scared to.

                It was one thing to imagine killing the madman that had tortured and murdered you. It was another to look another living, breathing human being in the eye and pull the trigger. It was yet another to do it when you knew what was going through their head and just how terrified they were.

                Jason sat on the edge of the roof of the apartment he’d just rescued from robbery and checked his phone. It was nearly midnight. No missed calls or texts from Talia or his… or any other numbers he recognized. Considering the few texts he’d gotten, the missed calls were probably scams, too. There wasn’t too much he could do about that, and the psychic static had gone down a good few decibels, so he decided to do one last sweep and then go back to bed.

                He closed his eyes and focused. There were a couple students trying to finish assignments due tomorrow, one saleswoman trying to finish a presentation due tomorrow, a kid up past their bedtime hiding under the covers with a flashlight and a good book, a man coming home from a late shift excited to see his daughter so he could…

                No. Hell no. Fuck no.

                Jason reached out toward the daughter, just to be certain, and… God. God, she didn’t even realize that what was happening to her wasn’t normal. He shifted his mental gaze a few rooms over to see if he needed to ‘take care’ of the mom, too. He didn’t. She had no idea. She’d overlooked every red flag, rationalized every bruise, denied all the things screaming in her face that this wasn’t the life of white picket fences she wanted it to be.

                The stone of the roof cracked under Jason’s fingers. He heard the crash of a dozen windows breaking, and a few seconds later the tinkling of the shards shattering against the sidewalk. He took a deep breath, dropped down to the ground, and went to intercept him.

                Jason waited for him in a dark alley two blocks away from his apartment. He had to psychically cut himself off again, or else he would have run out and killed the sicko right in the middle of the street with who knew how many night owls and security cameras to bear witness. Plus, it meant he could focus solely on deciding exactly how much he should make him suffer as he heard his footsteps draw closer and closer.

                He had a plan when he finally arrived. He made sure his mental walls were firmly in place, grabbed him, slammed him into a wall, pressed his gun under his chin, and-

                And he’d miscalculated. In his anger, he’d forgotten all those lessons on gun safety and had his finger already on the trigger. That alone might not have meant anything were it not combined with the man’s proximity and terror shredding through his mental barriers as surely as Grodd had. For good and ill, Jason had always been an empathetic person, easily affected by the emotions of others, and becoming a telepathic person cranked it up to eleven. His body’s startle response activated, and in the process his trigger finger accidentally applied those five pounds of pressure needed to fire.

                Jason was already pressed against the opposite wall, nearby dumpster levitating in front of him as a shield, by the time the body hit the ground and he realized what had happened. Once he did, he put the dumpster back in place and swallowed down the bile crawling up his throat.

                “Stop it,” he whispered to his thundering heart and lungs that refused to take any breaths deeper than a kiddie pool. He’d known he was going to kill him the second he noticed him. He’d made peace with the idea of killing months ago. There was no longer a mind to infect him with its terror. He quickly shut himself off once he realized that he was now the one infecting other minds with terror. He needed to stop shaking and get away before people started investigating their sudden bad feeling.

                There’s something you need to do first, said the practical part of him. And, This is why you need training. You can’t give everybody around a heart attack every time you kill someone.

                I don’t want to kill again. I can’t. He was so scared and he felt the bullet-

                He shut down that part of himself quickly. Last time he listened to that part, it ended with a crowbar and a bomb. It was the part that had Batman tacitly allowing graveyards to be filled with innocents. That part of him died in that warehouse, and he’d keep telling himself that until it became true.

                He knelt next to the man (his name was Tyler – no, no, it didn’t matter, stop it) and patted him down until he found his wallet. He ignored the photos (that would actually make him throw up, and he couldn’t leave any more evidence) and rifled through until he found some business cards. He flipped one over to the blank side, pulled out a pen (for all that he was wrong about, he remembered Batman’s lessons about being prepared), and wrote in as neutral a font as possible, Check my hard-drive. Monsters like him always had something on their hard-drive, and that girl wasn’t going to get the help she needed if her mom didn’t have irrefutable proof shoved in her face. He slipped the card into his shirt pocket, put the wallet back where he’d found it, and grappled away.

                He couldn’t stop shaking. His mind’s eye was stuck on loop and strong enough that it was practically superimposed on reality. He broke into a pharmacy and stole some sleeping pills before he went back to the motel. He knew he wasn’t getting a wink of sleep otherwise. He made sure to get the no-dreaming kind. If he had a nightmare, he might just burn the entire city down.

Chapter Text

                “I have a plan,” Jason said as soon as Grodd entered the warehouse.

                 He’d had a plan for weeks, now, but Grodd didn’t need to know that. He might not have brought it up for another few weeks if Grodd’s impatience weren’t becoming so apparent.

                Grodd raised an eyebrow, or the gorilla equivalent. “A plan to fulfill our agreement?”

                Jason nodded. “I snuck into LexCorp and hacked their systems. I know where your Maltese Falcon or whatever is, and I know how to get past their security.”

                “Why didn’t you just read their minds?” Grodd asked.

                Jason was suddenly very glad for the mask, and for all the defensive telepathic training, because the urge to kick himself was so strong that it definitely would have showed. Holy shit, that would have been so much easier. “I… don’t want to rely too much on my powers,” he said aloud. It’s not like it was a lie. “Plus, this is LexCorp we’re talking about. There might’ve been someone with the training to notice me, and then they might’ve gotten suspicious about you being involved.” Also not a lie.

                “To each his own,” Grodd grunted, which was Supervillain Monologue for ‘I think you’re wrong but I don’t want to argue right now’. It meant that in a lot of languages, actually. “How long will this plan take?”

                “No more than an hour,” Jason smirked.

                Grodd regarded him with carefully cultivated blankness as he took his usual seat. Finally, he said, “Do it tonight. This shall be our final lesson.”

                And there was the reason Jason hadn’t brought it up the moment he had all the pieces in place. Ideally, he would have drawn it out until he felt completely in control of his powers. Practically, he was lucky Grodd hadn’t already gotten sick of waiting and tried to kill him. He’d just have to make do with the training he had, figure the rest out himself, and try to use sheer brute force to defeat any more experienced telepathic opponents. Judging by what little Grodd had said on the subject, and by the far more numerous things he hadn’t said, he had a lot of raw power. Maybe too much.

                Luckily, Grodd’s lesson didn’t leave much room to dwell on that idea. Getting unforgivingly tested on every single thing he’d worked on in the last month or so by a teacher that thought it wasn’t a real test if he wasn’t in constant danger of dying was… actually kind of fun, really. Jason had always liked learning and showing off how much he’d improved. He couldn’t help but grin beneath the mask as he lifted crates, smashed them to wood chips, put up telekinetic barriers strong enough to stop a hail of gunfire, and whatever other tests Grodd could come up with. The more delicate stuff was more of a pain, and he nearly went to the White Hot Room during a telepathic spar, but overall he felt pretty good about it.

                “Do supervillains do report cards?” Jason asked once the final exam was concluded. “Ra’s doesn’t, but I figured he might be an outlier.”

                “Your progress is acceptable,” said Grodd, once again ignoring Jason’s attempts at humor. It was probably a good thing. If he acknowledged it, he’d be reputationally obligated to kill him. “Wait.” He got to his feet and lumbered around a corner and out of sight. The temptation to reach out and see what he was doing had barely grown to a tickle by the time he came back, black box with German writing in hand. “Here is the decoy. I shall be here at midnight to receive my payment.”

                Jason took the box and held it under one arm so he could give a mocking-in-the-right-light salute. “Yes, sir.” He quickly slipped into the shadows, out the window, and onto the roof.

                When he was certain nobody was looking, he took off his mask so he could take a deep breath of fresh air. Or, at least, what seemed like fresh air compared to what he’d gotten used to in Gotham. At this point, he was pretty sure all the air there had trace elements of fear toxin and Jo-

                He leaned back so that he was lying down and covered his face with his hands. Deep breaths. Think of calming imagery. He remembered the smell and taste of Alfred’s hot chocolate, the smell and feel of a new book, Bruce’s cool shoulder cushioning Jason’s feverish cheek as they watched a movie. That had all been calming, once upon a time. Those memories were tainted now, because they were paving the path to a warehouse in Ethiopia. And he knew, deep in his heart, that no matter what path he took in the future, he’d never be that happy again. Happiness and peace and family were only reflections in the rear-view mirror, growing further away and more distorted by the second.

                He didn’t realize that his vision was going white at the edges until he felt hot tears against his skin, bringing him back to reality. He let his hands fall to his sides and blinked in the sunlight. Why was he freaking out so much? He’d thought about the Joker before without having a panic attack. What the hell had triggered him?

                In another time, he would have shrugged it off and moved on, in the grand Bat tradition. That wasn’t an option anymore now that his panic attacks could accidentally kill people. He tried to imagine himself back in the office of the therapist he’d seen a couple times before he decided beating the shit out of people was a much better way to deal with trauma. Not the greatest decision, in hindsight. He couldn’t even remember her name, but he did remember her asking him to recount the events leading up to one of the episodes he’d actually been able to talk to her about. She’d suggested that him not finding the book he’d been looking forward to at the store put him in a negative mindset and left him more open to triggers.

                He had no idea how accurate that had been, but he couldn’t come up with a better explanation at the time. He wasn’t quite sure what would have put him in a negative mindset today, though. He’d aced his final exam, no matter how reluctant Grodd was to admit it.

                And what was the cost of those skills?

                Jason struggled to swallow past the sudden lump in his throat. He refused to look at the box. He refused to wonder what was in the actual box. He refused to think about how much destruction it could cause. He only let himself think that the Flash had been stopping Grodd’s plans for years. He’d be able to stop this one.

                Will he be able to stop it before people get hurt?

                Jason sprang to his feet, grabbed the container, and headed back to the motel to store it safely until nightfall. He needed to go on patrol and not think about anything beyond the hunt.


                The clock on the screen hit ten. Jason shut his laptop and put it down in a particularly shadowy spot on the roof where nobody would see it. One last check in his backpack confirmed none of his supplies had dematerialized in the last five minutes. No point procrastinating anymore.

                He quickly made his way to an openable first-floor window just out of sight of any security cameras. Regulations said that all such windows were supposed to have motion-detecting alarms to let security know when it was opened, but the alarm on this particular window had been broken about a week ago and maintenance hadn’t gotten around to fixing it yet. Even the most state-of-the-art security systems were only as reliable as the people in charge of them, and few people lost money betting on human error.

                With the locations of all the cameras in his path memorized, it was easy to sneak over to a computer with access to the security network and feed a loop to the cameras he couldn’t avoid. From there, it was a simple matter of dodging cameras and guards and using some nifty League of Assassins tools to feed the scanners the biometric data he’d procured from ‘accidentally’ bumping into the appropriate scientists on the street.

                Everything was going smoothly. So smoothly that it made Jason anxious. Whenever things seemed to be going exactly how he wanted, it was usually because the universe was winding up for a good throat punch.

                He opened the door to where the container was supposed to be, fully expecting to find nothing or a bunch of security guards or anything else unexpected. Instead, he found what he’d wanted; a perfect match for the decoy in his bag. He walked over and pulled out a scanner to make sure there weren’t any surprise pressure plates on the table. All he found was that his skill in reading both out of his peripheral vision and in German was as good as ever, because he finally couldn’t avoid taking in some of the words on it.

                Words like biohazard, handle with care, and extremely contagious.

                Fuck.

                Jason closed his eyes and tried to take a deep, calming breath. Goodbye, willful ignorance, it was nice knowing you. He could handle the idea of handing a vaguely dangerous package over to someone like Gorilla Grodd. It was an egg he could break to make the omelette of making Batman see sense and helping him make the world a better place. But now it was in the grey area of vagueness where he knew just enough to pique his curiosity and have to know more.

                He grabbed the box and replaced it with the decoy, because whatever he chose to do next, he’d rather do it knowing Lex Luthor would get a burst blood vessel down the line when he realized he had a fake.

                He hacked into one of the lab computers. For once that night, he’d have to be a bit cautious, since this was his first time on the server. It was easy to find the information he needed, since LexCorp didn’t have a whole lot of files in German. He was no epidemiologist, and even the English translation mostly went over his head, he knew enough to know that the virus sitting in his backpack was very much A Bad Thing. The only good thing about it was that it wasn’t airborne, and according to the files it wasn’t for lack of trying. Apparently, Lex was planning on perfecting the virus, unleashing it on the populace, and then looking like a hero when he created a cure.

                Jason shut off the computer and leaned against the desk. He couldn’t do this. Grodd was going to use the virus to wipe out as much of humanity as he could. Even if Jason warned the Justice League and sent along all the information Lex had on it, thousands of people would be dead by the time they synthesized a cure.

                But if Jason didn’t do it, Grodd would kill him. He knew his telepathic signature well enough to track down, and he’d never taught him how to hide it, probably for this exact reason. Jason might technically be the stronger psionic, but Grodd was the more skilled one. He might be able to beat him in a physical fight, with the right tricks, but that was a big fucking might.

                Jason looked at himself in the dark computer screen. Seeing himself dressed like one of Ra’s’ pet assassins already made him feel sick. If he went through with this, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to look himself in the mirror again.

                He slipped back out of the building without any incident. Good. He needed to devote as much brainpower as possible to planning how the fuck he was supposed to kill Gorilla Grodd. Running away would just delay the inevitable. Better to make a stand here and now. He could set some traps in the warehouse. Maybe he could get him angry enough to make stupid mistakes.

                Victory was possible. Not probable, and barely teetering on the edge of plausible, but definitely possible.  

                Out of habit, he left his mind open, so he realized that Grodd was already in the warehouse long before he arrived. He quickly closed himself off again, swearing and praying that he hadn’t noticed his current emotional state. Of course this is the time he chose to be early. Okay. No chance to set up any traps, then. There goes plausibility. It was too late to turn back, so he continued, the box in his backpack feeling heavier and heavier with every swing.

                He stopped at the door to try and compose himself. Here he was, about to enter another warehouse with a supervillain lying in wait in order to try and do the right thing. Whoever or whatever had brought him back to life was either laughing its head off or performing a facepalm of cosmic proportions. He closed his eyes. Maybe it was just willful thinking, but he could have sworn that all sensation in his body felt more distant, the black of his eyelids went a few shades paler, and he heard a discordant choir of white noise pulse in his mind like a heartbeat.

                Jason had an idea. A stupid idea that could backfire horribly on everybody in the vicinity. An idea that was dead last on his all too short list of resorts.

                Jason opened the door and walked in.

                Grodd was waiting. He said nothing as Jason approached. It figured that the one time Jason could have used a supervillain monologue as a distraction, Grodd decided to just let him sweat.

                Jason took off his backpack and pulled out the container. Grodd’s eyes lit up as he reached out to take it. Jason’s stupid insightful brain noticed how his hands dwarfed his own, and noted how easy it would be for Grodd to snap his neck like a twig. Last chance, his self-preservation instinct whispered. Just hand it over and walk away. If you don’t, he will not make your death quick.

                The virus wouldn’t make any of its victims’ deaths quick, either.

                It was simple math. One life that had been mentally preparing for its end since he was ten years old, or thousands with hope and dreams and the ability to bring good things into the world rather than just take the bad things out. The equation had a big red strike through the equals sign.

                The box crumpled in his hands with a groan of metal and tinkling of glass. The virus wouldn’t survive exposure to an uncontrolled environment.

                Jason had just enough time to erect a shoddy telekinetic shield around himself before Grodd realized what he’d done. A huge gorilla hand immediately tried to wrap around his neck. The shield was small enough that Grodd technically succeeded, and Jason did feel some pressure, but he could still breathe and focus on defending his mind from Grodd’s onslaught.

                He’d suspected that Grodd was holding back during training. He hadn’t realized just how much. Within ten seconds Jason realized that he couldn’t hold out. Not if he stayed on the defensive, anyway.

                He let his walls drop and threw himself at Grodd’s mind with all his might. For the first time, he succeeded at breaking his walls. His pride in that, already marred by the fact that Grodd was taken by surprise and not defending himself, was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer hatred he found in his mind. His loathing for humanity was intense enough that Jason felt like it was about to tear out of his chest.

                Grodd quickly took advantage of his shock to kick him back out. “Why?” he growled aloud. “If al Ghul wished me dead, he would not have sent a child.”

                “This isn’t about him,” Jason grunted. Even with the force field, he didn’t have much room for talking. “This is all me.”

                Grodd tilted his head quizzically. “Conscience, then?” He laughed. “You won’t last long with one of those. Allow me to speed up the process.” He lifted Jason off the ground and threw him, his already formidable strength helped along by a telekinetic push.

                Jason’s shield held as he went crashing through the wall and rolled to a stop on the street outside. He didn’t break anything, but he’d still rate the experience a 2/10, would not recommend. He sprang to his feet and dodged to the side as Grodd came leaping out through the hole in the wall and slammed his fists down where his head had been. Jason pulled out a gun and opened fire on him. A moment later he heard the bullets bounce off a shield and hit the ground in a series of plinks, and felt Grodd attack his mind again.

                Jason spotted a sturdy-looking car parked nearby and, without any thought on how impossible it should be, telekinetically threw it at Grodd. It distracted him and gave Jason enough breathing room to throw a shock shuriken at him. Grodd was too busy redirecting the car to notice. Jason barely dodged away from the car, and the shuriken hit Grodd in the shoulder. He let out a pained roar and ripped it out. He was too big for the electric charge to incapacitate him, but it did throw him off enough for Jason to try and telekinetically crush his skull. A dirty move, sure, but after that look in his mind Jason wouldn’t shed any tears over his death.

                 Something happened. Grodd clutched his head and screamed, and stupid, stupid Jason was so focused that he forgot to keep his mental walls up. A wave of agony crashed into him like a tsunami, and Grodd wasn’t far behind, crashing into him physically and psychically like a truck.

                There wasn’t any room for thought with fingers clawing through his mind and slamming his head into the concrete. Only instinct. It kept him alive, and nothing more. The pain of having his thoughts and memories ripped apart kept him too dazed to kick Grodd out, and he had to get Grodd out, he couldn’t let him-

                Jason bounced after Batman, adrenaline still thrumming through his system. He grinned and changed course when he spotted Alfred holding a post-patrol snack. “Hey, Alfie!”

                “Hello, Master Jason.” Alfred turned to Bruce, who was now sitting at the computer. “Master Bruce, must I remind you that you have a meeting tomorrow morning?”

                “I remember,” Bruce grunted, already looking through files.

                Jason grabbed a sandwich and sat down to enjoy the show.

                “Must I remind you, then, that a good night’s sleep is imperative to making a good first impression?”

                “I won’t be long.”

                Alfred looked at Jason as if he was the camera on The Office before continuing. “I vividly recall you saying that this is an important deal for Wayne Enterprises to remain on the cutting edge of

                Even with a cracked skull, Grodd connected the dots. Jason felt his surprise and glee at learning Batman’s true identity as surely as if they were his own. Perhaps, in turn, Grodd felt Jason’s panic and horror. Jason couldn’t check. He was too busy enacting his last resort.

                He latched onto Grodd’s presence and dragged him down with him into the White Hot Room.

                It was his first time going there on purpose. It was still incomprehensible and overwhelming, but he felt a bit more collected and aware. He quickly realized that this was not a good thing.

                He’d always had the vague feeling that there was something else in there with him. He tried not to think about it, and it was easy not to when it never actually did anything. It was just… there. When he couldn’t stop himself from wondering what it was, he thought that maybe it was sleeping.

                Well, if it had been sleeping, it was definitely awake now.

                If there could be ripples in a weird mind room, then they were crashing into Jason hard enough to make getting thrown through a wall feel like a gentle kiss. If there could be the concept of space and positioning, then it was rising between Jason and Grodd. If mysterious beings that lived in weird mind rooms could have gazes, then it rested solely on Grodd.

                Jason would have felt sorry for him if its very presence weren’t already maxing out his capacity for emotions with terror.

                What happened next was… Jason didn’t know what happened next. He’d thought everything involving the White Hot Room was incomprehensible and indescribable before. Now, it was… ineffable. Too great for a finite mind like his to understand. Like he’d been thrust into a Lovecraft story that ended with him gibbering in a straightjacket for the rest of his life. He might well have, if he hadn’t been abruptly yanked to a far-off corner where Grodd’s presence was nearly as distant as physical sensation. Even so, he suspected he’d have nightmares about what he little he managed to sense.

                Next thing he knew, he was awake, lying on his back on hard concrete with something heavy on top of him. He could barely breathe, the usual migraine was making itself as home, and his body ached with the promise of bruises, but he was alive, in one piece, and relatively sane. He couldn’t sense Grodd at all, so he felt safe enough to lay there, staring up at the light-polluted sky, until he felt he could move without throwing up. He lifted his head up and realized the thing on him was Grodd’s arm.

                He’d already thrown the arm off and scrabbled back a few feet before he realized what Grodd’s physical presence and mental absence must mean. He slowly rose to his feet with minimal swaying and walked toward him, wincing as each step sent shockwaves to his brain. He knelt next to Grodd’s head. His eyes were closed, and his expression was that of someone sleeping. Cautiously, just in case this was all some weird telepathic trick, Jason reached out and pressed his fingers against his jugular. Or, at least, where he hoped the jugular was. He wasn’t exactly an expert on Gorilla physiology.

                He found a steady pulse, eventually, and, when he leaned in close, he could hear him breathing. Jason mentally swept the area with a fine-toothed comb, and with an eye-crossing amount of effort he sensed a whisper of a ghost of an echo of a dream. Grodd’s body was alive, but his mind was all but obliterated.

                Jason stood up again and clasped his hands together to stop them from shaking. He’d known that going to the White Hot Room would end badly. That was why it was a last resort. This was probably the best way it could have possibly ended. Jason was unharmed (mostly), hadn’t set anything on fire or destroyed anything (besides a wall and a car), and Grodd wasn’t telling anyone that Batman was Bruce Wayne for the foreseeable future.

                None of that changed the fact that Jason had been brushing shoulders with some sort of eldritch fucking horror for months, and said horror was the most likely candidate for the source of his powers and resurrection.

                No time to think about that, he scolded himself as the sound of sirens drew nearer. You need to get out of here.

                He did so, grappling and swinging back to the motel. Or tried to, anyway. He got about halfway there before he had to acknowledge his shakiness and the flashbacks running on loop. He sat down on a convenient roof and ripped off his mask so he could breathe.

                What does it want?

                Why did it pick me?

                If it wanted to hurt me, wouldn’t it have done it already?

                Maybe it was trying to protect me from Grodd.

                Maybe it didn’t like an uninvited guest in its room.

                Maybe it’s coming up with a punishment for me for bringing somebody else there.

                Maybe it’s all in my imagination.

                Then what the fuck happened to Grodd?

                Jason pulled out his phone. The screen was cracked, but it dialled Talia’s number just the same. He hugged his knees to his chest with one arm while he waited for her to pick up.

                Finally, the phone clicked. “Hello? Who is this?” she asked. Standard assassin call etiquette. You never knew who might get their hands on an agent’s phone.

                It was a testament to how fucked up his life was that the sound of her voice had Jason relaxing and letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “It’s done. I’m ready for extraction,” he said.

                A pause. Jason would have wished he could read her mind if the thought of using his powers didn’t make him want to scream. “We’ve received no word from your teacher.”

                “He’s not gonna be talking any time soon.”

                Another pause. “Define ‘soon’.” Did you kill him?

                Jason shrugged, for all the good that did over a phone call. “He’s not dead, technically, but it’d take a miracle for him to wake up again.”

                “I see. Do you need a medic?”

                “No.”

                “Are you sure?”

                Damn. I must sound as bad as I feel. “I didn’t say I was fine, I said I don’t need a medic,” he snapped.

                An exhale of static came over the line. “Very well. You will be picked up by car. I will send you the coordinates when this call is finished. You have done well.”

                A puzzle piece clicked into place. “Wait. Is this what you wanted all along?”

                “What do you mean?” she asked.

                “Did you want me to kill Grodd?”

                Another pause. Jason could feel the tension in it, this time. “It was an outcome I deemed acceptable.”

                Jason knew her well enough to notice an odd emphasis on I. “And what about your father? What was he hoping would happen?”

                “That is no business of yours,” said Talia, and Jason knew that he’d hit the nail on the head. “Proceed to the pick-up location as soon as possible.” She hung up before he could ask any more awkward questions.

                He dropped the phone and rested his head on his knees. So, Ra’s wanted him dead. That explained why he chose Grodd, instead of some other morally dubious telepath/telekinetic. Jason couldn’t think of any off the top of his head, but he was sure there must be some out there who weren’t practically guaranteed to try and kill him. It was a classic Uriah gambit. Put an underling you don’t like on a suicide mission so that you win no matter if they die or succeed. At worst, Jason would become a more skilled asset. At best, two possible threats to Ra’s’ plans would kill each other.

                Jason’s phone pinged. It was the coordinates. They weren’t far from the motel. He was feeling a lot steadier now, so it would be easy to grab his stuff and leave this all far, far behind him.

                Should he, though? He was back in the US. There wasn’t anything stopping him from grabbing his fake IDs, getting on a plane to Gotham, and going home. At that moment, he didn’t care about being replaced and unavenged. He just wanted to see Bruce and Alfred again.

                But… what if that was what it wanted? What if Batman had somehow pissed it off and it decided the best way to hurt him would be to bring his dead sidekick back and… and… do something bad. But then why give Jason any free will? It was a stupid theory with a lot of holes, but now that it was in his head, it wouldn’t leave.

                At least with Talia, he didn’t have to worry about losing control and hurting anyone who didn’t deserve it.

                The car was already there when he arrived. He knew it was the right one, because, to his surprise, Talia herself was in the driver’s seat. He waved to her as he approached, put the duffel bag in the trunk, and sat in the passenger seat.

                “You forgot to change,” said Talia, starting up the car.

                Jason looked down and realized that he was still in his black infiltration garb. At least he wasn’t wearing his mask. Then he remembered that that was because he’d completely forgotten about it on a random rooftop. “Just don’t get pulled over, and it’ll be fine,” he said.

                Talia drove in silence for a few minutes. Jason stared out the window at the nearly empty early-morning streets, counting streetlamps and reading every sign he could, like he usually did during silent car-rides. Talia still knew something was wrong, even if she didn’t say anything about it.

                Eventually, he got tired of listening to her increasingly ludicrous theories and said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

                “I didn’t-“ Talia’s hands clenched around the steering wheel, and she started using some anti-telepath techniques. “I told you not to do that anymore.”

                Jason sighed and leaned his head against the window. “I know. I’m sorry. I just…” I’m just scared of closing myself off because I don’t want to lock myself in with the thing that turned one of the most powerful telepaths on the planet into a drooling vegetable. “It’s been a long day.”

                Things were blessedly quiet for another few minutes. Once they were out of the city limits, Talia said, “Do you need time to recover before we find you a pyrokinetic teacher?”

                Jason couldn’t stop himself from shuddering at the thought. Talia immediately pulled the car over to the side of the road. Before he could ask her what she was doing, she was resting the back of her hand against his forehead. He swatted it away. “For the- I’m not sick, Talia!”

                Talia narrowed her eyes and gave his face a thorough once-over. “You are clearly not well, Jason. You refuse to tell me your mental state, so I can only check on your physical wellness.”

                Jason took a few deep breaths before he spoke. “I’m… I don’t want pyrokinetic training. I don’t want any sort of meta training. The less I use my powers, the better.”

                Talia’s surprise spiked through her techniques. “Why?”

                “I don’t. Want. To talk. About. It.”

                Jason closed his eyes and listened to Talia’s fingers drum against the steering wheel in thought. “We’ll discuss this when you feel better,” she said, starting the car up again.

                “Wait.” He opened the car door and went back to the trunk. He rifled through the duffel bag until he found a bottle of sleeping pills. He went back to his seat and held the bottle up so Talia could see what it was. “You really don’t want me to have a nightmare right now.”

                “I understand.” She pulled back onto the highway. “Sleep well.”

                Jason dry swallowed slightly more than the recommended amount and watched the terrain fly past until sweet oblivion claimed him.

Chapter Text

                Even after he’d gotten some sleep and was thinking a lot straighter, Jason stood by his decision to use his powers as little as possible. He shouldn’t have been using them so much in the first place, considering he knew nothing about how he’d gotten them nor the price tag attached. For all he knew, every time he telekinetically grabbed something out of reach some puppy on the other side of the universe died horribly.

                He’d use his powers in matters of life and death, but otherwise he’d much rather rely on his own skill and prowess. He’d done just fine as a vigilante without superpowers, and he could do it again.

                Talia wasn’t as confident in his abilities. He supposed she had a point, given the whole murder thing. She had him training harder than ever in every field she could think of. He liked gunplay the most, because every time he pulled the trigger it was a middle finger to all of Batman’s stupid ideals. Some of the exercises she had him doing could have killed someone less capable. Jason was more than up to the challenge.

                The days started blending together. So much so, in fact, that it came as a complete surprise when Talia handed him a box tied closed with ribbon and said, “Happy birthday.”

                It took him a couple seconds to realize that, yes, it was August 16. He was eighteen. A legal adult. It was… weird to think about. He’d functionally been an adult ever since his dad died and his mom (Catherine, not Sheila, never Sheila) couldn’t take care of him anymore. Bruce and Alfred tried to give him his childhood back, and even amidst the rage and betrayal he could appreciate that, but it was futile from day one. He just redirected the sense of responsibility into being Robin.

                “Uh… thanks.” He took the box from her and swiftly opened it. Within lay a dagger with a wavy blade – no, a kris. He took it out of the box and gave it an experimental twirl. It was a thing of beauty in both appearance and balance. With a lot more enthusiasm, he said, “Whoa. Thanks.”

                “You’re welcome.” Her expression morphed into one that he’d never seen on her before, but nonetheless set off all sorts of alarm bells. “My father thought a valuable asset like yourself needs a worthy weapon.”

                And there went Jason’s good mood. “I’m not his asset. Or yours.”

                Talia’s jaw clenched slightly. Such a brazen display of emotion had Jason instinctively shift into a more combat-ready stance. “He would like to change that,” she said. “He has asked me to bring you to him so that you may discuss your future.”

                 Shit. He wasn’t surprised, except at the fact that Ra’s hadn’t given the order earlier. It still sucked. “I’m guessing he isn’t interested in my college plans.”

                Talia closed her eyes for a moment before she spoke. “No. Let me make this clear, Jason. If you want to stay here, you must see him.”

                “And if I don’t?” Jason asked.

                Talia didn’t say anything. She just stared at his face intensely, as if she thought she’d never see him again and was trying to memorize every detail.

                Jason suddenly understood. She was trying to tell him, as directly as she could while allowing herself plausible deniability in case anyone was listening, that if he didn’t want to spend a long time under Ra’s’ thumb or a short time dying painfully, he had to leave now. She wasn’t happy with any of those options, but at least she was giving him a choice.

                “I understand,” he said, doing a little staring of his own. He was actually going to miss her. She’d been as good to him as somebody as morally bankrupt as her could be. He had no doubt that Ra’s would have tried to snatch him up a long time ago if she hadn’t tried so hard to protect him. As far as mother figures went, he’d had much worse.

                He was sorely tempted to hug her goodbye. Before he could, she said, “Go pack your things, then. We’ll leave tonight.” Then she turned and left the training room.

                Jason had to stand there staring dumbly at the door to process what was happening. This compound wasn’t his home. It never had been. The idea of leaving should slot perfectly into place. It wasn’t supposed to feel like he was trying to jam a square pet into a round hole. It wasn’t home, but it was familiar and relatively safe.

                He pushed those rebellious feelings down and went back to his room to pack. Unwanted attachments or not, he’d been preparing for this for a while. Part of his training had been ‘independent study’, i.e. getting dumped in the middle of a strange city with meager supplies and an objective he could just about stomach. Said supplies usually included money and a fake ID, and Jason had ‘lost’ a good amount of both in his pockets when it was time to hand everything back to Talia. Along with his surreptitious raids of non-perishable food from the kitchens, he was confident he could make it to the nearest settlement. He’d figure things out from there.

                Getting past security wasn’t exactly easy – the compound was meant to keep people in as well as it kept them out – but with a year of observation he was able to do it without setting off any alarms or using his powers. Once he was clear, he steered clear of the main road and, unless the sun had changed direction when he wasn’t looking, headed west. He’d seen a river there. If he followed it far enough, he was bound to find some sort of civilization before he starved to death.

                The terrain was uneven, littered with tripping hazards, and far too exposed and devoid of cover for a runaway’s liking. And yet even with so much energy devoted to maintaining his footing and keeping his senses peeled for pursuers, his stupid brain still managed to do some thinking. It didn’t even have the decency to think about practical stuff, like what route he should aim for and a backstory for his travelling identity.

                He thought about how it was his eighteenth birthday. If he’d listened to literally anyone he’d trusted and not gone after Sheila, he’d be preparing for college. He’d probably be buried in all the gifts Bruce got him to make sure he had everything he might possibly need before moving out. At this time of day, they’d probably be having a small get-together with whatever superhero friends he might’ve made over the years. That was the real birthday party, not the gala Brucie Wayne was (possibly legally) required to throw. Jason would put off getting ready for it for as long as he could before Alfred came knocking at his door with a tux and disappointed expression.

                Or maybe teenage angst and desire for independence would’ve driven a wedge between him and Bruce, just like it had with Dick. Maybe all the bullying would’ve gotten to him and he’d start hating school and drop out like they all expected him to. Maybe the Joker or some other villain would have still found a way to get him alone and helpless and dead. All those situations were about as likely as the pipe dream making his eyes and throat burn with tears.

                He had to stop thinking about what should and might have been. If he wasn’t careful enough, what actually was would kill him. Again. And he really didn’t want to see what the thing in the White Hot Room would do then.


                It took Jason four days to reach a village. It was a tiny place without a so much as a bus stop or any fluent English speakers, but Jason remembered enough Urdu and had enough rupees to get some supplies and directions. The people there didn’t seem very surprised to see a young (mostly) white man randomly show up. He must be far from the first assassin to make a pitstop on the road to freedom. That made it far more likely that Ra’s had eyes on the place, though, so he left as quickly as he could and didn’t light a fire that night. Hooray for dormant pyrokinesis making warmth a non-issue.

                The next day, paranoia and a pinch of loneliness had him open his mind to see if anyone was around. There wasn’t a single mind in range. It was nice. He could pretend that he was a normal human on the run from assassins led by a centuries-old maniac. It also let him enjoy the scenery and actual, real fresh air. He could see why people found the idea of backpacking through Europe so appealing, even if he was pretty sure he was somewhere in Pakistan. Once he got out of runaway assassin territory, he might be able to pull off the ‘stupid rich American kid taking a gap year’ persona.

                A couple days later, after another stop in another tiny village, assassins started getting in telepathic range. The early warning system made them easy to avoid, but it still had him picking up the pace a little. The villagers told him there was a town with a train station not far to the north. Once he got there, he could stow away on a train headed west and lose himself in a big city. From there, he could prepare to go back to Gotham.

                Walking through the wilderness gave him lots of time to plan and plot and all that good stuff. Theoretically, he could try and make a new life for himself far away from Gotham and try to move on. Theoretically, he could also randomly transform into a snowman, according to quantum mechanics. He was going back. For good or ill, Gotham was where he belonged. It needed him. It needed somebody to paint its streets red with the scum Batman refused to stop.

                That wouldn’t be enough, though. Not even simple revenge would be enough. The thought of killing the Joker, no matter how painfully, was never enough. It had to be Batman. Jason didn’t want revenge, he wanted to be avenged. He wanted to know that his death meant something to someone. He knew it was selfish, and irrational, but Bruce’s rationalizations were what got them in that situation in the first place.

                It wasn’t going to be easy. He had to subdue the Joker, one of the most dangerous and unpredictable people on the planet, and arrange a situation where Batman, Bruce Wayne, possibly the most stubborn person Jason had ever met, would break his most important tenet. He couldn’t come up with a proper game plan for either until he familiarized himself with Gotham’s current criminal climate. He couldn’t start that until he had access to the internet, and he couldn’t do it properly until he was back in the city.

                Still, imagining hypothetical victories was more than enough to pass the time. There wasn’t much else to do, besides ensuring he didn’t die of thirst or a sniper round to the head.


                In the end, Jason didn’t actually have to stow away. He forgot to put his walls up again and got an eyeful (mindful?) of some people who really needed their pockets picked, and was able to afford a proper ticket to Karachi. It was big enough for him to get lost in the crowd, have an airport with flights to Gotham, and provide a good supply of more people he could guiltlessly steal from.

                The most difficult thing he had to deal with during the train ride was boredom. Considering all the other stuff he’d had to deal with in his life, he sucked it up and tried to catch up on his sleep. He doubted he’d get another chance any time soon.

                Once he arrived, Jason used the last of his rupees to get a cheap smartphone. With internet access, and an embarrassing amount of Google Translate, he was able to look through local social media to see what parts of town he should avoid. He immediately made a beeline for them.

                He’d run out of clean clothes days ago, and walking in the sun for so long gave him quite the tan, so he was able to blend in fairly well. He did get a few weird/worried looks, but that might just be because he was six feet and two hundred pounds of intimidating muscle, which was still mind-boggling to think about. Whatever had brought him back must have done a lot more than just healing his wounds.

                He shook the thought out of his head before he started seeing white. No White Hot Room. No powers. He’d do this by himself.

                No powers made it a bit harder to find a target. A lot of the people obviously eyeing up targets of their own were probably just trying to survive, or provide for others. It had been so long since he patrolled without telepathically cheating that he couldn’t tell the difference between them and the truly malicious anymore. He’d have to work on that. It wasn’t like there was anyone he trusted that could tutor him.

                Maybe I should go up on the roofs, he thought. I’m not used to patrolling on street level. It might just be a perspective thing.

                A metallic rattle came from an alley just ahead. Jason narrowed his eyes and lightened his step as he approached. A peek around the corner showed an empty soda can rolling out from behind a dumpster. It might have just been the wind or a rat or something, but now that Jason was listening for it, he could hear the faint rustling and grunts of a one-sided struggle. He wrapped a hand around the hilt of the kris in his pocket and silently stalked toward the sounds.

                Hidden behind the dumpster, he found a man crouching with one hand wrapped around a young woman’s throat and the other trying to pull her pants down. She was clearly trying to fight back, but with her face turning blue from lack of oxygen she didn’t have much strength left.

                Jason took the man by surprise and kicked him hard in the head. His skull collided with the wall with a sickening crunch, and he slumped over on top of the woman. Jason quickly pulled him off her, and let out a quiet sigh of relief as she started breathing again. He let her catch her breath while he checked the man’s pulse. Still alive. For the moment, anyway. There was blood trickling down from his scalp, and who knew how much damage Jason had done to his brain. Ah, well. When it came to dead rapists, the more the merrier.

                The woman’s heaving gasps subsided into something vaguely like normal breathing. She sat up against the dumpster, eyeing Jason warily. “Are you all right?” Jason asked. She just looked confused. He mentally kicked himself and repeated the question in Urdu, or at least the best translation he could come up with.

                She nodded. “Who are you?” she asked. Her voice was still hoarse, unsurprisingly.

                Jason shrugged and silently started rifling through the possibly dying scumbag’s pockets. He found the wallet quickly. Not exactly a windfall, but enough to get a room for the night. He’d have to do a bit more hunting if he wanted to buy food, and even more to start saving up for a plane ticket.

                “Is he dead?” the woman asked.

                Jason checked again. The pulse seemed to have slowed, though that might just be wishful thinking. “Yes,” he said. “If you want him to stay alive, you should call…” Shit, what was the word for hospital? That was a pretty fucking important word to know. “… someone.”

                She stared at the man, her expression becoming the blank of somebody feeling too many emotions too intensely to choose which to express. “No. I don’t…” She closed her eyes and hugged her knees to her chest.

                Jason hesitated. It had been a long time since he’d comforted a victim. He got plenty of experience as Robin, but that was different. People already trusted Robin, even if it was a different kid in the tights. Plus, he’d been a small, non-threatening kid in bright colors. The last thing this woman probably wanted right now was a strange, intimidating man trying to give her a hug.

                Step one was to remain crouching. No need to start towering over her. “Is there anyone you do want to call?” he asked.

                The woman nodded and pulled a phone out of her pocket. Satisfied that the guy wasn’t waking up any time soon, Jason started to walk away. “Where are you going?” she asked, panicked.

                Jason looked back at her. She’d pulled herself up to her feet, though her legs were shaking enough that she had to lean most of her weight on the dumpster. “Do you want me to stay?” he asked.

                Her jaw worked as she bit the inside of her cheek, chewing over her words, before saying, “Why did you help me?”

                I’m practicing so that I can become a vigilante and enact my vengeance. Jason couldn’t say that. Literally. He didn’t know the words in Urdu. “It was… the good thing to do.” She looked suspicious. Jason would have been suspicious, too, in her shoes. He had been suspicious when he was in similar shoes. “And I needed the money.”

                She nodded in understanding. “Could you… stay? Until they come get me?”

                “All right,” said Jason. “But we shouldn’t stay here.”

                “Right.” The woman moved to leave the alley and stumbled badly enough that Jason automatically gave her his arm to hold onto. He surreptitiously looked her over for any injuries he might have missed. He couldn’t see anything, so he hoped it was just residual fear and an adrenaline crash.

                Shaky as she was, the woman clearly knew where she was going as she led Jason out of the alley and down the street. He kept an eye out for any more threats while she used her free hand to send a text. They got some weird looks, and some worryingly appraising ones, but some certified Bat-glares from Jason kept them at bay.

                The woman stopped at a bench and sat down. “They’ll pick me up here.”

                “Got it.” Jason sat next to her.

                They sat in silence long enough for fourteen people to walk by. That was when he heard the first quiet sob. He was honestly a little relieved. Crying meant that she was letting herself feel the emotion, and if you could feel it you could start to work through it. Even if he himself didn’t subscribe to the whole ‘healthy coping mechanism’ thing, he knew it was important for other people.

                A car swerved and came to a stop in front of them. Jason gripped his kris again and glanced at the woman. Her look of immeasurable relief had him relaxing. Another woman and a man jumped out of the car and rushed to her, speaking rapid-fire Urdu that Jason couldn’t have kept up with if he’d tried.

                With his promise fulfilled, Jason silently got to his feet and walked away. He’d pulled out his phone to find a new neighborhood to patrol when thundering footsteps came running up from behind him. He resisted the urge to immediately throw a knife at the noise and casually glanced over his shoulder to see what the commotion was, like any normal person would.

                It was the man from the car. He slowed down once he made eye contact with Jason, and Jason came to a stop as well. If they were going to have a confrontation, good or bad, it might as well be now.

                “You saved my sister,” the man said. Now that Jason could see him up close, he could see the family resemblance. “How can I repay you?”

                Jason shifted uncomfortably. “That… isn’t needed.”

                The man’s gaze hardened. “Yes, it is. We repay our debts. I don’t have much money to spare, but I do have… connections.”

                Jason gave the guy a more thorough once-over. Even on the other side of the world, low-level thugs had the same look. “I don’t want…” Wait. There was something Jason wanted. “Do you know any…” Shitting Jesus Christ, what the fuck was the Urdu word for armorer? “… makers of… hard… clothing?”

                The guy, understandably, looked incredibly confused. “Hard clothing?”

                “Body armor?” Jason tried in English. It didn’t help. With a sigh and a sense of defeat, Jason pulled his phone back out and opened up Google Translate. It was marginally less humiliating than starting an impromptu game of charades in public. In Urdu, he said what he really hoped was the proper word for ‘armor’.

                Understanding dawned on the guy’s face like a beautiful sunrise. “Oh, armorer. Yeah. She isn’t cheap, though. Like, really not-cheap.”

                “I’ll work something out,” said Jason.

                The guy gave him a look that communicated the phrase ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you’ so clearly that Jason had to check that his mental walls were still up and gave him the address and directions. Jason left without saying goodbye, because he physically could not pass up the opportunity to be dramatic.


                The armorer, indeed, was really not-cheap. Abbasi was, however, a practical woman. Some of her discerning clientele (aka crime lords) weren’t happy with her prices and were making comments about what a shame it would be should certain events befall her. She needed some extra muscle, so she agreed to make Jason some custom armor in exchange for him standing around the workshop looking intimidating for a while. It didn’t sit very well with him, but he couldn’t be picky. He couldn’t just walk onto the Gotham crime scene without custom armor. He needed to stand out to get Batman’s attention.

                He settled into a routine. Wake up, eat, patrol, stand guard/enforce, eat, more standing around/enforcing, eat, more patrol, check the internet for news about Gotham, sleep, rinse and repeat. The days started blurring together again. The only sign of the passage of time was the increasing number of rumours of vigilante activity. He started switching lodging as often as he could afford without dipping into the plane ticket fund. Once that fund was secure, he made up his mind to hop on the first flight as soon as he got his armor.

                Then Robin died.

                He wouldn’t deny feeling a certain giddiness when he saw that his replacement had, himself, been replaced. The new girl definitely had the classic Robin attitude, if the few photos he’d seen of her were any indication. Then, as suddenly as she’d appeared, she vanished, and Gotham social media started buzzing with rumors that Black Mask was bragging about killing her. Of course, it could just be rumors, and she might have simply retired to live a normal, happy life. That explanation, however, failed to account for the increase in criminals Batman nearly sent to the morgue instead of the hospital. The final nail in the coffin was seeing the new Batgirl and reinstated replacement Robin looked to be kicked out of Gotham entirely. Bruce wouldn’t start surgically cutting people out of his life over a happy retirement.

                Jason knew a sign from the universe when he saw one.

                “I need my armor now,” he said to Abbasi.

                She scowled at him. “You haven’t earned a full set, yet.”

                Jason resisted the urge to drum his fingers impatiently against his leg. Abbasi wasn’t the sort of person he wanted to show weakness to. “How much have I earned, then?”

                He could practically see the calculations going on in her head. “A helmet and chest plate. One custom, one plain.”

                Well, it was better than nothing. If worse came to worse, there were always telekinetic shields. Only if it came to worse, though. “Fine. Make the helmet custom.” If people were paying attention to his head, they weren’t paying as much attention to what the rest of him was doing.

                Abbasi pulled out her sketchbook. “All right. What do you want it to look like?”

                Jason had given that a lot of thought. He couldn’t be Robin anymore, so he needed a new identity, and that came with a new, fitting costume. He’d considered going with Red Hood and a featureless red helmet. The Joker had taken everything from him. An old alias was the least Jason could take back.

                Then he thought more about it, and realized the perfect name was staring him right in the face. What did you call a dead bird that was reborn in flame, stronger than ever?

                “Make it look like a phoenix head,” he said.

                Robin was dead. Long live Phoenix.

Chapter Text

                Gotham was different than Jason remembered. Logically, he’d known it would be. Three years and a giant earthquake would do that to a city. Even the skyline was different. All the buildings seemed smaller, though that might just be because he’d grown a foot since he was last there.

                And yet all it took was one stroll through Crime Alley to see just how much had stayed the same. The same desperation, the same casual cruelty, the same sort of skinny kids running for cover the second they saw an adult approaching. All that had changed was that he was one of those adults now, and the only crime boss he heard people complaining about was Black Mask.

                If Jason had any doubts about who to target before, they were gone now. He’d be killing two birds with one stone, and avenging two birds at the same time.

                It only took him three days to slot the final pieces of his plan into place. In theory, it was fairly simple. Pose as a crime lord carving out a piece of Black Mask’s empire, get Batman’s attention, drop enough hints to make him realize who he was, capture the Joker, put a gun in Batman’s hand and another to Joker’s head and tell him to choose, and see if he could kill Black Mask along the way. Obviously, things would go wrong, but if worse came to worse there was always the White Hot Room. Frankly, letting his soul be devoured by an ineffable being was a lot more appealing than letting Batman let the Joker live.

                Or you could just go home, whispered the stupid part of him that was supposed to be dead. The manor’s a cab ride away. Just go home and see Alfred and Bruce again. They’ll be so happy to see you alive again.

                If they’d be so happy, then why did they replace me?

                It was probably for the best that the Replacement was out of town. Jason had gone three weeks now without any superpowered meltdowns, and he’d hate to break that streak.

                Of course, things started going off the rails almost immediately. The plan was to leave an anonymous meeting time and place with Gotham’s biggest drug dealers. The first one he targeted was best contacted through his lieutenant. Then he saw what said lieutenant was getting up to, and a disgusted telepathic scan showed that he’d serve the world much better as the message than the messenger. Then, well, Jason didn’t want anyone to feel left out, so he tracked down the others’ lieutenants and found that they were just as big piles of shit.

                He adapted. He found other ways to contact the bosses, cleaned up the murder scenes, and resolved to keep his mind completely closed off for the meeting. Killing everybody there would just have new scumbags popping up to take their place. Crime couldn’t be stopped, but it could be controlled. Better to have someone like Jason controlling it rather than someone like Roman Sionis.

                The meeting went great. Nothing like a better offer, cool leather jacket, and duffel bag full of severed heads to get people’s cooperation.

                Re-railing number two came when he actually saw Batman for the first time. It was only for a moment from several roofs away, yet still the sight of him had Jason’s eyes completely blurring with tears and the rooftop railing he was leaning on crumple beneath his fingers with an awful metallic shriek.

The loss of control had him making some recalculations. If seeing Batman affected him that badly, how the fuck was he going to deal with the Joker? Should he get one of his new ‘employees’ to grab him? They might actually pull it off, considering the Joker had done nothing but mope around in Amusement Mile lately. But then how would his confrontation with Batman work if either he or the Joker couldn’t be present?

                He couldn’t come up with any solutions, except to cross that bridge when he came to it.

                Jason didn’t have much time to think it over after. He was too busy defending his new drug ring from Black Mask’s wrath, which was quite significant. It was only a matter of time before he realized normal thugs wouldn’t do the trick and brought in metahuman outside help. Hopefully by that point the Joker would be dead and Jason would be back at Batman’s side.

                Then, for once, there was a good disruption. Word reached Jason that Black Mask was getting a shipment of some very fancy toys. Another chance to fuck with him, and also cloudy with a high chance of Bats. Jason had seen him around a few more times, and he was reasonably certain he could face him without telekinetically breaking anything.

                Security on the ship was impressive, by normal standards. Nowhere near good enough by Gotham standards, though. Jason was able to plant the explosives and wheel the kryptonite out without so much as a guard looking over their shoulder. Exploding the kryptonite would just have Black Mask hiring scuba divers to collect the shards. Superman already had more bad guys with kryptonite to deal with than he deserved.

                By the time his people confirmed the cargo was delivered to the right warehouse, Batman still hadn’t shown up. If he took much longer, Jason would have to switch roofs to maintain the right dramatic lighting.

                It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t show up, he assured himself. Blowing up Black Mask’s cargo is still a win.

                It didn’t stop him from feeling like the first time he’d tried to throw a big birthday party and literally none of his classmates showed up. Yeah, sure, it had been over five years since then and it wasn’t like he was friends with any of them, but it had still been a dick move. He might just have to pay them a visit as Phoenix. They were assholes, they were probably up to some fucked up shit nowadays.

                Then a shadow moved in the corner of his eye. He turned to look, and the shadow resolved itself into a familiar silhouette. Then another one, less familiar and far less welcome.

                Shit. What the fuck are you doing here, Dickface?

                Jason ducked down into cover and took a deep breath. He shouldn’t be surprised. He really shouldn’t. He’d seen all the reports of Nightwing in Gotham since his death. Why hadn’t he taken the next logical step and thought that he and Batman had finally put aside their differences and were willing to work together again? Why wouldn’t they, once Jason wasn’t around to be their own personal Apple of Discord?

                He gritted his teeth until it felt like they were about to crack and shoved those thoughts aside. This didn’t have to change anything. Well, not much. He wasn’t sure he could shake both Batman and Nightwing off his tail. He was, however, very sure that the two of them could handle that little surprise of Black Mask’s he’d been meaning to neutralize.

                He could do this, so long as he kept thinking of them as Batman and Nightwing instead of Bruce and Dick.

                He rose to his feet and hit the detonator. The boat went up in flames, and less than a second later the shockwave had his feet stumble ever so slightly and his heart thundering in his chest. Nothing quite like seeing the thing that murdered you to get the adrenaline going.

                Between the moonlight and the firelight, he’d be looking unmistakeably Phoenix-y when Batman or Nightwing noticed him. The moment he saw Batman look his way, and the unmistakeable shift to a running stance, he was off.

                If Jason allowed himself to, he could almost imagine this being another training exercise. A chance to let loose, have fun, and prove himself without worrying about being in danger. More like an improvised dance than a chase. A jump here, a grapple there, a backflip to make things interesting…

                If Jason allowed himself to, that is.

                The illusion was dispelled when he felt a grapple wrap itself around his leg while he was mid-jump. Instinctively, he pulled out his kris and cut the cord before it could go taut. So much for no danger, he thought. Helmet or not, a fall like that could’ve given me a concussion.

                He also thought, If all this doesn’t give Br- Batman the right sort of suspicions, I don’t know what will.

                 The warehouse wasn’t too far, thankfully. Fun as it was, Jason was out of practice in Gotham and couldn’t have outrun them forever. He threw himself at a window feet-first, creating a small telekinetic shield beneath his feet to absorb the impact of breaking the glass and hitting the ground. He didn’t like having to do it, but he would’ve sprained an ankle at best otherwise and it gave him enough time to find the right crate before Batman and Nightwing got themselves in safely. As safely as they ever got themselves anywhere, anyway.

                He used the kris to pry open the crate, and yep, that was definitely an Amazo. Black Mask must have spent a fortune on it. Jason took more than a little pleasure in turning it to face where he was 99% sure his pursuers would be approaching from and hitting the on switch. Oh, what he would give to be a fly on the wall when Sionis found out.

                Sticking around to watch the show was also pretty appealing, but Jason had a job to do. He snuck around to the front door and left just as he heard Amazo give his pre-programmed greeting in Supervillain Monologue.

                They’ll be fine, he told himself to shut up the unwanted pangs of guilt raising complaints.

                He followed the path his people had taken to the warehouse. Surprisingly, they’d actually done a good job of covering their tracks. Batman would have a hard time following them if it weren’t for the big-ass radiation signature.

                He dropped down to the ground next to the inconspicuous guard at the door. The guy had clearly been in the city for too long, because he didn’t even flinch. “Evening, boss,” he said conversationally.

                “Evening,” Jason returned, opening the door while watching him carefully. One of the perks of a full-face helmet – nobody could see where you were looking. The guard remained unperturbed, which confirmed that the shipment was secure. Jason still checked just to be sure, and not one ingot was out of place.

                He leaned casually against the grate while he pulled out his phone and dialled the number of one of Black Mask’s lieutenants. Sure, he wouldn’t be able to see the pose, but Jason hoped it would translate through his voice.

                The guy picked up promptly. “Hello?” he said loudly to be heard over the muffled screaming in the background.

                Jason grinned as he said brightly, “Hey there, Jerry, it’s Phoenix. You might’ve heard about me. I wanna talk with your boss.”

                Something got smashed in the background while Jerry pondered this statement. “What, am I supposed to just believe you?” he finally said.

                Jason sighed dramatically. “You got me. I’m just some random schmo that happened to stumble across this here crate of kryptonite.”

                More foreground silence and background screaming. Then, “Hold on a sec.”

                Everything got muffled, like Jerry had placed a hand over the speaker. Things got clear again as a huge inward breath came over the line, as dire a portent of things to come as any prophecy. “I DON’T KNOW WHO THE FUCK YOU THINK YOU ARE, YOU LITTLE-“

                Black Mask sounded even more unhinged than Jason remembered, which was quite the accomplishment. Jason interrupted him before he convinced him he needed to die sooner than planned. “I don’t want to get all philosophical, but I think that I’m the guy with your Kryptonian contingency plan. I also like to think of myself as a professional, so how about we leave the screaming for the people we pay to deal with it?”

                Jason swore he could hear Black Mask’s teeth grinding, and he could definitely hear him breathing heavily, or maybe a winded bull had somehow gotten on the line. “You wanna be professional?” Sionis growled. “Fine. How about you take one big fucking professional look at your situation? I own Gotham, and I ain’t sharing. The only way you’re staying in one piece is if you kick in with me and take whatever scraps I feel like tossing you, or you get the fuck out of my city.”

                Jason gave an exaggerated hmm. “You sure know how to make an offer sound tempting, Roman. It’s a miracle I got so many of your people to jump ship. Sadly, I gotta decline.” He took a piece of kryptonite out of the crate and started tossing it up and down. Again, Black Mask wouldn’t be able to see it, but the sense of smugness would no doubt come through in Jason’s voice. “Ah, but enough of the pleasantries. I didn’t call just to brag. On a scale of nothing to a trillion dollars, how much do you want your kryptonite back?”

                Black Mask was actually speechless for a moment. “You’re seriously fucking trying to sell back the shit you stole from me?”

                “I prefer to think of it as returning your lost property and requesting a modest finder’s fee.”

                “You want modest? Fine. Ten grand.”

                Jason genuinely laughed. “You really are trying to fill the Joker’s shoes, aren’t you?” Just saying the name had all his mirth instantly evaporate, and it must have been noticeable in his voice, so he quickly changed tracks. “How about ten million?”

                “FUCK NO!”

                “Have you seen what Superman can do? If you get Batman desperate enough to call him in, you’d be looking at way more than ten mil in property damage.”

                “Batman isn’t going to go crying to Superman for help,” Black Mask sneered. “His reputation is all he’s got. Nobody’s gonna be scared of the guy that needs his alien boyfriend to come clean up his messes.”

                The emphasis on ‘boyfriend’ had Jason adding ‘homophobe’ to the list of reasons Black Mask sucks. “Right, they’ll all be afraid of Superman instead, and I’m sure that will be very helpful to you while you’re rotting in prison. I’m in a good mood tonight, though, so let’s go with five.”

                “Five hundred thousand.”

                “Six million.”

                “Fuck you.”

                “Is that an offer?”

                “It’s a fucking threat if you keep this shit up. One million.”

                “Three.”

                The winded bull came back on the line for a solid ten seconds. “Fine. Where’s my goddamn kryptonite?”

                “You’re a big boy. Come and find it.” Jason hung up, dropped the burner phone to the ground, and ground it to shards beneath his heel. It didn’t need to be functional for the call to be traced, and he sure as hell wasn’t using that number anymore.

                He went back outside and said to the guard, “You can all go now. I’ve got this.”

                The guard didn’t even question it. “Yes, sir.” He was gone with a speed that showed why he’d survived this long.

                Jason went back inside and placed the lid back on top of the crate. Black Mask’s people wouldn’t take too long to get here, especially since they wouldn’t be bothering with gathering the funds. Sionis put in quite the performance for someone who never had any intentions beside killing Phoenix and taking the kryptonite for free. Batman and Nightwing wouldn’t take long, either, so Jason had to start preparing fast.

                To his dismay, the warehouse had jack shit that he could use to make traps. He knew he’d chosen one of the more inconspicuous and common warehouses, but come on. Sure, there were the ingredients for some nasty League of Assassins style surprises, but he didn’t actually want to kill anyone. Well, maybe whoever Black Mask sent. Unless the Joker himself walked through those doors, though, it wasn’t worth risking Batman or Nightwing’s lives.

                So, he wound up just pacing around impatiently, wishing he’d brought an extra burner to play sudoku on, and fighting down the urge to reach out telepathically. He couldn’t risk sensing Batman’s mind. If he did that, then the temptation to dive deeper would be too strong and he’d find out once and for all that Bruce never loved Jason as much as Jason loved Bruce. He didn’t know if he could survive that.

                He snapped back to reality at the muted sound of approaching footsteps. He immediately slipped into the shadows and pulled out one of his guns. Showtime.

                He had to admit to feeling rather flattered when Mr. Freeze himself came through the door, freeze ray in one hand and briefcase in the other. Black Mask was finally upping his game. He’d even sent an actual briefcase to keep up the illusion of honoring their deal.

                Freeze scanned the room. Jason sneaked behind him and casually leaned against the wall before he spoke up. “To what do I snow the pleasure?” He chuckled as Freeze whirled around to face him. “I know, I know, I just couldn’t resist.” He really couldn’t. Seeing a familiar member of his old rogues’ gallery brought back memories, and with memories came the urge to make bad puns. It was a nice urge, even if it was born from trying to be more like Dick.

                “Where is the kryptonite?” Freeze demanded, pointing his freeze ray or cold gun or whatever he called it nowadays at Jason.

                Jason pointed his own gun. “Where’s my money?”

                Freeze gestured to the briefcase.

                Jason hoped he could tell he was rolling his eyes beneath the helmet. “Yeah, that’s a very nice briefcase, but for all I know it could be holding your gummy worm collection.”

                Freeze didn’t flinch, but his subtle change in expression told Jason that whatever was in that briefcase was a lot worse than money or gummy worms.

                Let’s get this over with. “Tell you what,” said Jason “You put the briefcase down, I point you to the kryptonite, and we both see if we’ve got what we wanted.”

                “Very well.”

                Freeze carefully placed the briefcase on the ground. Jason pointed to the crate with the kryptonite in it. Jason watched him carefully out of the corner of his eye as they each approached their ‘prize’. Freeze went around the crate to make sure he could keep an eye on Jason as he opened it. Or maybe he just did it so he had a clear line of fire. He certainly was fingering his freeze ray to an almost obscene degree.

                Jason knelt down to open the clasps on the briefcase. Freeze lifted the lid off the crate and gawked at the glowing green kryptonite. Jason took advantage of the distraction to stand and kick the briefcase so that it fell open facing away from him. The trap activated with a hiss, releasing a cloud of something very unhealthy-looking. Even with the distance and filters on his helmet, the smell had Jason’s throat burning.

                Mr. Freeze realized what had happened. Jason dodged just in time to avoid the first blast.

                On the one hand, the fight should be easy. He’d been able to beat Mr. Freeze even as Robin, albeit with backup from Batman. Pyrokinesis made things a lot easier. He wasn’t sure how much good a stable body temperature would do against something capable of freezing people solid, but hey, if that didn’t bring out some fancier fireworks then he didn’t know what would.

                On the other hand, he was out of practice with dealing with anything greater than street-level thugs non-lethally. Even if Victor Fries’s coping mechanisms made Batman look like the picture of healthy recovery, Jason didn’t want to kill him. Which was really too bad, because Victor clearly didn’t feel the same way.

                Freeze’s second blast grazed Jason’s sleeve, leaving a trail of ice on the leather. He was gratified to see it immediately start steaming, and very annoyed when said steam threw his aim off and made his gunshot hit an innocent crate of some sort of grain instead of the freeze ray. Maybe it’s for the best, he thought as he started closing the distance between them. Exploded freeze ray goop is a pain in the ass to clean up.

                Jason barely had time to shove the gun back in its holster before he had to do a handspring to avoid another icy blast while still maintaining his forward momentum. He didn’t have many non-lethal long-ranged options, besides aiming for unimportant bits, which wouldn’t work on Mr. Freeze because it’d breach his suit and kill him unless a custom containment cell was on hand to throw him in. Jason somehow doubted one of those was lying around here. So, close-range beatdown it was.

                Or, it would have been.

                Jason was still a foot away from Freeze when Batman and Nightwing came crashing in through the window. Damn it. Had it been that long already? Time flies when you’re fighting supervillains, Jason supposed. The distraction gave him a second to come up with an exit strategy. The idea he came up with was experimental, dangerous, reckless, and all sorts of other negative adjectives, yet somehow, somewhere in his bones, he knew it would work.

                He lunged at Freeze, ‘accidentally’ leaving the perfect opening. As expected, Freeze pulled the trigger. Jason got hit point-blank with sub-zero… whatever the hell it was Freeze’s gun shot. Whatever it was, the moment it made contact with Jason it turned to steam. A lot of steam. Enough to act as a smokescreen as Jason grappled out the open window.

                He didn’t stop running until he was back at one of his safehouses, and he didn’t let himself relax until he’d done two thorough sweeps for anyone tailing him. He refused to do a telepathic sweep. That little pyrokinetic trick was more than enough weird power use for the day.

                He checked his burner phones. Nothing that couldn’t be dealt with by sending a few threatening texts to the right people. He did a patrol of the neighborhood. Nothing that he hadn’t sanctioned. He even washed the dishes in the sink. He seriously considered trying to give the safehouse a proper cleaning. He thought better of it. He hated leaving jobs unfinished, and cleaning this shithole would take him all night when he really needed some sleep for the shitstorm on the horizon.

                Nothing left to do but think. God fucking damn it.

                He changed into an outfit that vaguely resembled pajamas and buried his head in the pillow. Go to sleep, brain. I know you’re tired. Just go the fuck to sleep.

                I finally used pyrokinesis on purpose. How did I do it? Could I do it again?

                I need to get ready for any other supervillains Black Mask hires. Would Poison Ivy work with him? Probably not. He doesn’t seem the eco-friendly type. Then again, I didn’t think Mr. Freeze was the type to work with him either.

                Has Bruce figured it out yet? Did I give him enough to work with? No, I don’t think so. What did I give him to work with? I’ve taken over a good chunk of the drug trade, I know how to plant explosives, I’ve clearly got training in parkour and grappling hooks and a familiarity with Gotham architecture, and I was able to somehow negate Mr. Freeze’s attack. Oh, and I’m calling myself Phoenix. At most, he’ll have suspicions. Maybe check my grave. Is there anything to check there? Did Talia cover it up?

                  With a snarl, Jason got up and rummaged through the bathroom cabinet until he found some sleeping pills. He really shouldn’t be taking them so much, but fuck it, how else was he supposed to get any sleep in a city full of memories and screams for help?

Chapter Text

                Now that the gauntlet was officially thrown, Jason expected Black Mask to hit him hard. In his opinion, the best defense was a good offense, so he hit him first. He blew up drug labs, shot up meetings, took over the protection racket for a few neighborhoods (and ‘accidentally’ forgot to collect), kicked as many pimps as he could out of Crime Alley, and caused several trucks full of various illegal cargo to mysteriously vanish.

                He did everything he could think of to mess with Black Mask, and Black Mask… did nothing.

                Sure, Jason faced resistance. He lost some good people in the various struggles across the city. Not morally good, obviously, but reliable and not easily replaced. But it was all… scattered. Unorganized. Just the criminal equivalent of a bunch of middle managers trying to protect their slice of the money pie. Jason didn’t hear so much as a whisper of Black Mask planning a counterattack, not even from his accidental bouts of telepathy.

                Jason could only come up with two reasonable explanations. One, Black Mask was keeping his plans under tight lock and key. That was teetering on the edge of reasonability, because he didn’t seem the type to resist bragging about what he was going to do to that Phoenix motherfucker. Two, he was sitting back and hoping Batman would get him. That was a bit more likely. Maybe Batman was trying to do some research and word of it got to Sionis.

                Joke’s on him, though, because a confrontation with Batman was exactly what he wanted.

                In theory, he should really secure the third member of their little reunion sooner rather than later. Who knew how long the Joker would stay docile and mopey until he got bored of it and decided to reclaim his throne? Better to nab him now and keep tied up in a locked room until the right time. Also, Jason would have all the time he needed to enact every fantasy he’d ever had about making the Joker suffer.

                In practice, the very thought of being within a mile of the Joker had Jason’s fight-or-flight instincts going haywire. He’d toyed with the idea of having someone else capture him and point a gun at his head on a live feed so that Jason didn’t have to be that close, but too many things could go wrong and it was too… impersonal. It had to be raw, visceral, and right in front of Bruce’s face to get through that thick skull of his, and it had to be just the three of them. If anybody else interfered, helpful or not, Jason didn’t think he’d be able to stop himself from shooting them.

                It was all a great big mess of emotions. Jason would deal with it when he had to, and not a moment sooner. For now, he had an empire to burn.

                So, here he was, about to drop in on a meeting unimportant enough that he couldn’t even remember who was having it, except that they worked for Black Mask and the guys doing the talking had rap sheets bad enough to get their names metaphorically carved into Jason’s bullets. Just another day in Gotham.

                He was running so much on auto-pilot that he nearly didn’t look down and notice that somebody was already in his spot.

                She was a bald, dark-skinned woman with the posture and intense gaze of a tiger preparing to pounce on her prey. Jason would bet every dollar of blood money he had that this was Onyx, the Assassin-with-a-capital-A-turned-heroine that Batman didn’t seem to mind operating in his city.

                Jason could probably leave the meeting to her. He probably should. But… What was it that Batman saw in her, that he didn’t see in the Replacement or Batgirl?

                He dropped down next to Onyx with just enough noise to alert her to his presence. “Hate to break it to you, but I called dibs on this beatdown,” he murmured lightly.

                She didn’t flinch or startle, but she did tense up and give him a calculating and suspicious once-over. “Phoenix,” she whispered, lip curling in distaste. “What are you doing here?”

                “Same as you. Unless you’re here to just watch, in which case I’ve really gotta question your taste in shows.” He looked down at the meeting. “Look at them. They aren’t even yelling. Where’s the fun in that?”

                They perched for a while in silence. Jason could practically hear the gears turning in Onyx’s head as she determined who she should be fighting here. He didn’t know enough about her to know what her decision would be, so even while he kept his posture relaxed, he wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his kris.

                Finally, she asked, somewhat incredulously, “You… want to team up?”

                Jason shrugged. “Just for now. The enemy of my enemy, right?”

                Onyx’s stare became a full-on glare. “You are the enemy. I know what you’ve done.”

                Even with his mental walls firmly in place, the righteous anger radiating off of her had Jason’s grip on his kris tightening. “You really wanna fight here? Right above a bunch of idiots who never learned not to rest their finger on the trigger?”

                Onyx didn’t look down to see if he was lying. Interesting. Either she’d already seen the appalling lack of gun safety for herself, or she thought Jason was the greater threat. “Better that than helping a crime lord kill people.”

                It was too late to leave without feeling like he’d lost the argument, and he genuinely wanted to see her in action, so he decided to go for the Obi-Wan version of the truth. “I’m not interested in killing stupid rabble,” he scoffed.

                Jason wasn’t surprised by her perfect poker face. If Talia’s drills were anything to go by, it was a standard part of Assassin training. He was, however, a little surprised by how unsettling and refreshing it was to have no idea how somebody was going to react. Onyx seemed as likely to agree as she was to attack him. He’d get to see her in a fight either way, so it was a win-win situation in his book.

                “Fine,” Onyx said quietly, and dropped down right on top of a bodyguard.

                Jason grinned beneath his helmet and followed suit, driving a gravity-assisted elbow into the biggest bodyguard’s collarbone. He felt it snap, and the man let out an ear-piercing scream before Jason headbutted him hard enough to knock him out. The gunfire started quickly, so Jason made sure to use lots of jumps and flips so that he was in constant motion and harder to hit. He wasn’t too worried. These weren’t exactly Gotham’s finest.

                As such, he was able to pay a good deal of attention to Onyx. The best way to describe her fighting style was ‘unarmed League of Assassins with the edges filed down’. He recognized most of her moves from his training sessions with Talia, but she always stopped herself before she got to the lethal parts, transitioning so smoothly into the next move that you’d never notice it if you didn’t know what to look for.

                She was good. Very good. He could see why Batman wanted her around… except he’d also seen footage of the new Batgirl in a fight. If you were only going to have one other vigilante helping you, why go with ‘very good’ instead of ‘how the fuck is she not a meta’?

                Because there’s no way Cassandra Cain getting adopted when Batgirl showed up was a coincidence, and another Robin just died. Onyx isn’t his kid. He doesn’t mind the idea of her getting killed as much.

                The thought had him freeze long enough for a bodyguard to get a hit in, punching him hard in the stomach. Without armor, it would’ve knocked the wind out of him. With armor, he was able to immediately sweep the guy’s legs out from under him and give him a kick in the head for the bruise he’d have to deal with.

                The fight would have been easy with just one of them. With two, it was over before Jason could really have any fun. What a pity. Once the last guy went down, Onyx went to work binding their hands with zip-ties and checking their vitals. She must have considered fighting together one hell of a bonding activity, because she was hardly paying any attention at all to Jason even though he was in the perfect position to shoot her in the back.

                It almost made him feel bad about what he was about to do.

                He located his targets and, with speed that would make a Spaghetti Western protagonist jealous, pulled out his gun and unloaded two bullets into each of their skulls.

                The gunshots were still ringing in his ears when Onyx tackled him to the ground. By the time they hit the ground she had a bruising grip on his wrists that had his fingers automatically dropping the gun. She stared down at him with a mixture of shock, horror, and hurt that had him almost feel a twinge of guilt. “You said you wouldn’t kill them!”

                Jason could hear the smirk in his voice as he said, “Technically, I just said that I’m not interested in killing stupid rabble. Those two weren’t just rabble.”

                As with most attempted exploitations of loopholes outside the courtroom, it did not get him out of trouble. If anything, Onyx just looked angrier. She was also in the perfect position to break his wrists, which would not be conducive to a climactic showdown with Batman in the near future.

                Jason pulled a leg up sharply and kneed her in the back, hopefully somewhere close to the kidneys. She winced and softened her grip just enough for Jason to yank an arm free and shove her off. They both quickly jumped to their feet and stood facing each other.

                Jason weighed his options. He could try leading her on a merry chase through the city until he could find a way to lose her, but she looked mad enough to follow him to the ends of the earth right now, so that wasn’t really feasible. Trying to talk her down wouldn’t be helpful, either. He’d have to fight her, and anybody Batman approved of would keep fighting until they physically couldn’t.

                Jason sighed quietly to himself before he charged at her.

                It felt like it had been ages since he’d fought somebody with such a similar fighting style to his own. At first, he thought it reminded him of training with Talia, but then she tried a move that was pure Robin and he realized it actually reminded him of training with Bruce in the Batcave. No need to worry about getting killed, and not really wanting to hurt his opponent in turn. Just a martial dance of attacks, blocks, dodges, and parries.

                The realization had bile rising in his throat and snapped him out of the near-trance he realized he’d fallen into. Between all the flips and lunges, they’d gotten out of the warehouse and onto an empty street. Who knew how long it would stay empty, or if it was only empty now because its occupants had already ducked away to notify Black Mask of the perfect opportunity to take out two serious threats at once.

                Jason had to end this, fast.

                “Sorry about this,” he grunted as he blocked a punch and put her in an armlock. Before her retaliatory strike could hit, he pulled out his kris and stabbed it into her shoulder, trying his best to avoid anything vital.

                Onyx didn’t scream, but she did take a sharp inhale through gritted teeth and her strike lost a lot of power. Jason pulled the kris back out as smoothly as he could and backed away. She didn’t move to follow, focusing on examining her wound as best she could in the dim streetlight.

                Jason sheathed his kris. “Well, it’s been fun, but-“

                Thud.

                Jason froze. It had been years, but he knew that sound. Once upon a time, he’d considered it one of the sweetest sounds he’d ever heard. Batman only landed loudly when he was too angry to care about being noticed. Usually he was mad because Jason was in danger, and the thud heralded a spectacular rescue followed by hugs and at least a week of guilt-induced bonding time.

                Oh, how the tables turn.

                “Phoenix,” Batman growled.

                Jason closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He couldn’t let himself feel all the things trying to tear their way out from behind his ribs, except the anger. Once he had honed himself to a razor edge on it, he opened his eyes again. Onyx was gone. Weird. She didn’t seem the type to run… unless Batman had signalled her to.

                He turned around. “Batman,” he said in return. His voice had dropped at least an octave since they last spoke, so the twinge he thought he saw in Batman’s jaw must have just been wishful thinking.

                “Who are you?” Batman demanded.

                Had he figured it out already? How? No, he couldn’t have, all he had were suspicions, and he wanted to see if Phoenix would confirm them. “I’m what this city needs,” said Jason.

                “Gotham already has enough murderers.”

                Oh, good, Batman was making it easy to hate him. “In case you haven’t noticed, that number’s gotten a lot lower since I got here.” He was sorely tempted to mention the ‘If you kill a killer’ line, but that would be too incriminating.

                “Do you honestly think that you’re helping people?”

                Jason snarled at the incredulousness in his tone. “Yes, I am. Haven’t you seen by now that you can’t stop crime? Isn’t it better to have someone like me in control of it than someone like Black Mask?”

                Batman’s lips thinned into a hard line. “From where I stand, I don’t see much difference.”

                His disapproval shouldn’t hurt. Jason had nothing to prove. Batman didn’t know who he was talking to. There were a thousand reasons his mind shouldn’t be scrambling to come up with an argument to convince him, to get him to let out a grunt that was his version of saying ‘You have a point’, just like the old days when he was by his side and they could overcome any obstacle as long as they were together.

                Jason grabbed the hurt by the throat and twisted it into anger.

                Batman was already closing in by the time Jason drew his gun and pulled the trigger. One handspring/dodge later, he was kicking the gun out of his hand. Jason used the momentum to add some extra oomph to a roundhouse kick to the ribs. The armor took the brunt of it, but it gave him a little breathing room to collect himself before Batman charged him again.

                If fighting Onyx was a walk down memory lane, actually fighting Batman again was somebody ripping a cobblestone out of memory lane and smashing his face in with it. Jason had to constantly adjust the angles of his blocks and attacks because he kept expecting Batman to be way bigger than him, rather than a scant two inches, and remind himself that he was in the same weight class and needed to fight like it.

                Part of him was excited to finally experience first-hand what Bruce could do when he wasn’t holding back. Granted, he was always holding back so that he didn’t kill his opponents or cripple them (unless he was really mad), but no matter his claims to the contrary Jason always knew that Bruce took it easy on him during training. In hindsight, it made sense, since he’d been about a hundred pounds soaking wet. Now was his chance to prove… No. He had nothing to prove. He just wanted an excuse to beat the crap out of Batman.

                Batman met the challenge, hitting him with a strength and brutality Jason found difficult to believe… at first. As the fight went on, Batman’s blows lost more and more force, his grapples became more and more gentle, and his snarling expression became more and more blank. Even with half his face covered with the cowl, Jason knew that blankness. Bruce was feeling something with far too much intensity to deal with at the moment (or, ideally in his mind, at all) and was doing his best to shove it into a mental closet and throw the key down the garbage disposal.

                Maybe Jason wasn’t the only one struggling not to drown in memories.

                Eventually Batman’s performance deteriorated to the point where he took so long to respond to a punch to the head that Jason was able to impulsively grab hold of the cowl and yank it off. They both froze as they processed what had happened.

                Bruce looked… old. Jason had noticed the signs in the press photos, but that was nothing compared to seeing him in person. Without the Brucie smile and concealer and flattering angles, Jason could see just how tired he looked. He’d seen him look more energetic when he’d stayed up so many nights working that he swayed whenever he stood.

                Jason couldn’t think of a more appropriately dramatic moment for this. “Let’s keep it even,” he said, reaching up and taking off his helmet.

                A lot of expressions flashed across Bruce’s face. Surprise was not one of them. “Jason,” he breathed, and somehow it looked like part of him had come back to life while another part curled up and died.

                All of the quips and insults Jason had prepared for the occasion died on his lips, strangled by the lump in his throat. “Yes,” he said simply.

                Bruce took a step forward, hand reaching toward him. Jason squashed down his stupid, irrational first instinct to run forward and hug him. He didn’t squash his much more reasonable second instinct to pull his secondary gun out and aim it at him.

                Bruce looked between the gun and his face a few times, like he was a robot who’d encountered a serious error and was stuck in a loop until somebody came along to program an appropriate response. “What are you doing, Jason?” he asked. He didn’t sound angry. He didn’t even sound disappointed. He just sounded… confused. Lost.

                It took every ounce of self-control Jason had not to read his mind, because this all had to be an act. If this was really Bruce’s reaction to seeing him again, that meant he actually cared, and that didn’t make any sense, because he’d replaced him and let his killer hang out with all his friends in Arkham. It was all an act to make him let his guard down, but he couldn’t let himself find proof in Bruce’s mind, because there was some small, vital part of Jason’s being that needed to believe in him to survive.

                “I’m doing what needs to be done. You’ll see soon enough.” Jason put the gun away and pulled out his kris instead. He hacked off a few locks of his hair and put them in one of the plastic evidence bags he always carried around with him, because once a Bat, always a Bat, at least when it came to paranoia. He threw the bag on the ground between them. “There. Now you don’t have to go rummaging through my trash for a DNA sample.”

                Bruce’s expression was going blank again, but he did glare suspiciously at the bag. “How do I know that hasn’t been tampered with?” He almost sounded like he was trying to convince himself that there was a chance this wasn’t the real Jason. That the real Jason was still whatever loyal martyr he’d rewritten his memories to paint him as.

                Or maybe it was just the Bat paranoia. “Nice to see some things never change,” said Jason. He didn’t bother trying to disguise the bitterness in his voice.

                Bruce looked back up at him with that lost look, and Jason couldn’t take this anymore. If he had to spend another minute with Bruce, he was going to either hug him or shoot him, and at the moment both seemed equally awful. He threw down a smoke bomb, grabbed his helmet, grappled to the nearest roof, and ran as fast as he could for as long as he could.

                As usual, his body gave up before his heart did. His tired legs refused to move fast enough to jump over a fence, resulting in a failure that would have been the height of comedy had it happened to anybody except him. His fell back, slammed his head into the roof, and everything went black, then white, then to an endless sky of stars, then to a Gotham sky of smog, darkness, and a few scattered lights that were probably satellites rather than stars.

                His head ached like he’d just made a visit to the White Hot Room. He sat up slowly, wincing, and rubbed the back of his head. It felt wet. He managed to repeat the thought It’s probably just rainwater ten times in the second or so it took to bring his hand in front of his face. It wasn’t rainwater, unless somebody had dumped a whole bunch of red dye in a cloud.

                In a way, the injury was actually welcome. It gave him something to focus on. He could berate himself for not putting his helmet back on instead of for every single other fucking thing he’d done that night. He could concentrate on the pain in his head instead of the pain in his heart. He could go through the list of tests for concussion instead of going through his conversation with Bruce over and over and over and over again.

                He was able to happily focus on all of those things and more until he was back in one of his apartments, bandage wrapped around his head, blood washed out of his hair, acetaminophen in his system, and a Lifetime movie marathon on to keep him awake in case he was too concussed to realize the severity of his concussion.

                Once all his unwanted thoughts and feelings and other such bullshittery had distracted him enough to completely lose the plot of the current movie (though he suspected, spoiler alert, that the main character was going to leave her controlling husband for the dashing bookstore owner), he buried his face in the couch pillow and muttered to himself, “It could have gone worse.”

                All he got in reply was the sound of his neighbors arguing and a swell of whimsical music from the TV’s crappy speakers.

                “It could have gone worse,” he repeated. “He believed you. He didn’t capture you. You didn’t go with him. You stayed in control. Nobody died that didn’t deserve it. How could it have gone better? What did you think was going to happen?”

                He had no answers. Only loud neighbors, stupid movies, and all the aches and bruises he’d collected that night, inside and out.

Chapter Text

                For the next few days, every time Jason turned a corner or opened his eyes, he half-expected to find Batman waiting for him. Whether he believed he was really Jason or not, Phoenix was still a murderous crime lord, and Batman generally didn’t let those hang out in his city if he could help it. The other half of him expected Bruce to run every test and investigation possible to determine if and/or how Jason was alive, which was going to take a while.

                The other half was right. Batman barely showed up in Gotham at all, except to answer the Bat-Signal. With him presumably holed up in the Batcave, Onyx out of commission for the time being, Nightwing and the other Bat-Brats keeping their distance, and Black Mask continuing to bide his time, everything was going smoothly for Jason and his newfound business ventures. It was, quite frankly, far more nerve-wracking than if things were going wrong. Smooth sailing in Gotham just meant the city was about to throw a hurricane at you.

                Well, if things were about to go up in flames, Jason was lighting the match himself.

                When he finally managed to win over a defector who actually knew where Black Mask’s hideout was, he decided to go give him a little housewarming gift. He made sure Black Mask spotted him before he pulled the trigger on the rocket launcher.

                Satisfying as the theatricality of it all was, it did kind of bite him in the ass when it turned out Sionis survived the blast. Whatever. He was never Jason’s priority, anyway. He’d just wait until Bruce finished up his investigation, confront him with the Joker, and then… then… Jason wasn’t going to think about the and then. Not when it depended so much on such an uncertain outcome.

                Until then, though, he was still going to do everything in his power to fuck with the sadistic asshole. Right now, that meant stopping a delivery that was supposed to be passing at any moment. It should be a routine job. The category of ‘should’, however, also included not shooting rocket launchers at vengeful psychopaths unless you were damn sure it would kill them, so Jason was fully prepared for things to go on an express elevator to hell soon enough.

                He heard a truck approaching. A careful look around the alley corner confirmed that it matched the description he’d received. He pulled out a gun, waited until the truck was in range, then shot out the tires. It came to a stop with enough horrible screeching to make everyone in earshot either run away or come and see how they could profit from it. Jason would wrap this up quickly.

                That thought instantly got proven wrong when the truck’s doors opened and a weird were-hyena thing and a guy with a fucking swastika emblazoned on his chest stepped out. Jason had to scour his memory pretty thoroughly to remember that they were Hyena and Captain Nazi, supervillains that had never set foot in Gotham before, as far as he was aware.

                “Well, I can honestly say I wasn’t expecting this,” Jason said. “What, did Black Mask throw darts at a list of supervillains or something?”

                 The two had closed the distance between them by that point, so Jason had to quickly dodge out of the way of a slash and a punch. “We are not joining forces with Black Mask,” Captain Nazi declared. “Black Mask is joining forces with us!”

                Jason rolled his eyes under the helmet. “Thank you, that distinction matters so much to me right now,” he said, dodging another of Hyena’s attacks. Under other circumstances, he might give more thought to Captain Nazi’s boasting and try to figure out how exactly they came to team up. Right now, though, he was too busy trying to figure out how he was not going to die in the next five minutes without using his powers.

                Going with such obscure opponents was actually working in their favor, because Jason couldn’t remember much about them. He knew that Captain Nazi was a Nazi that got experimented on to the point that he could pose a threat to Captain Marvel, and Hyena was some kind of were-hyena that fought Firestorm. That was about it. Not a great starting point to come up with a plan of attack mid-fight.

                Batman’s advice for these kinds of situations had always been ‘call for help and wait for me’. That wasn’t exactly an option now… or was it?

                Captain Nazi just had to keep up the trash-talk and interrupt his train of thought. “Indeed, it does not matter to you. You shall be dead soon enough.”

                Jason dodged another of Hyena’s attacks, kicked him away, and opened fire on Captain Nazi. Nobody in this part of town was going to call the police about a crashed truck or gunfire, separately, but the two combined might just do the trick. Especially if they took a look and saw who Phoenix was fighting. Gothamites disliked non-local heroes and villains butting into their city as much as Batman did. And if word reached the police, there was a good chance it would reach Batman, too.

                The bullets, as expected, didn’t do much except have Captain Nazi finally join in the fight instead of standing around monologuing. In a way, the fight was fun. Going up against nothing but mediocre thugs was a chore, so it was nice to finally find a challenge. In another way, it was very much not fun, because he was toe-to-toe with two metas while constantly having to suppress his own powers. The urge to just telekinetically crush their skulls became more and more appealing with every blow.

                You don’t know how you got your powers, he told himself as Hyena’s claws left a painful gash in his thigh.

                You don’t know if they have a price. Captain Nazi punched him in the helmet hard enough to make it crack.

                You don’t know what’s in the White Hot Room. There were too many stars in his eyes for him to see who it was that threw him into the side of the truck.

                Reason and logic sounded a lot less reasonable and logical as he slid down the dented metal to the hard concrete, the impact jarring what he was almost positive was at least one broken rib. Thank God or the thing in the White Hot Room or whatever the hell was responsible for Batman choosing that moment to intervene.

                For the first time since he’d died, seeing Batman didn’t make Jason angry. The sight of his familiar silhouette landing and rising to his feet between Jason and his opponents hit him with waves of relief and certainty that everything would be okay now, because Bruce was here.

                He quickly dismissed those feelings and staggered back to his feet. “You’re late,” he grumbled.

                Batman looked back at him for a moment, jaw clenched. If he’d been considering replying with a quip of his own like in the old days, he thought better of it, turning back to Hyena and Captain Nazi and slipping a hand into his utility belt. Back in Jason’s Robin days, that pocket held his shock batarangs, but who knew how Batman’s organizational system had changed since then. So long as he hadn’t started sorting his books alphabetically instead of by genre, Jason didn’t care.

                Jason reached into a pocket of his own for his Kris, and the two of them took a single heroic step forward before everything went straight back to hell.

                At first, Jason thought the world had turned upside down. Then he wondered if his telekinesis had gone haywire again and was lifting him upside down. Then he suspected that he had somehow become capable of feeling the Earth’s rotation and flight through space. Then Batman growled, “Count Vertigo.”

                Ah. Fuck. “How many fucking bad guys did Black Mask scrape from the bottom of the barrel?” Jason grunted. He heard footsteps rapidly approaching and tried to dodge. He did succeed, technically, because the hit didn’t connect. He just hadn’t intended on losing his balance and falling to the ground in an undignified sprawl. The laughter that followed was definitely human, so Jason assumed he was dealing with Captain Nazi.

                He closed his eyes and rolled away before he got hit by another attack. Closing his eyes helped with the nausea, but it still felt like his head made twice as many rotations as the rest of him and his ribs screamed in protest.

                “I hope you’ve got a plan, old man!” he called out. He pulled out his kris and made a wide slash toward the approaching footsteps he heard. He nearly lost his grip on it when it made contact and practically bounced off. Captain Nazi could walk off bullets, of course a knife wasn’t going to do much, no matter how much sentimental value it had.

                Batman let out a grunt. To 99.9% of the universe, it would’ve sounded like a sign of annoyance. To Jason, it was practically an angel’s chorus to his ears, because it meant that he did have a plan. There was, however, a certain gravel to it that meant it wasn’t going to immediately help Jason himself, so he had to hold out for a little longer.

                Easier said than done, he thought to himself as Captain Nazi lifted him by the front of his jacket until his feet were dangling what might have been an inch or a foot off the ground. Fuck if he knew. Losing any point of connection to anything physical besides Captain Nazi’s fists made the vertigo approximately seven thousand and fifty-three percent worse. Maybe if he took off his helmet he could throw up in Nazi’s face and use the distraction to… do something.

                “Any last words, Phoenix?” Captain Nazi asked, far too close for comfort. If it weren’t for his helmet, Jason would probably be able to smell what he’d had for dinner on his breath. Another of the helmet’s blessings was that he could roll his eyes undetected. If it weren’t for every villain’s insane need to draw things out with dramatics, Nazi could have already killed him and been off on his merry way by now. Instead…

                An unfamiliar, accented voice cried out, “Hyena! What are you doing?! Stop!”

                The world stopped spinning. Or, at least, Jason stopped being aware of it. He opened his eyes and looked over to see Hyena attacking Count Vertigo in a mad frenzy, and Batman dropping a piece of cloth that looked like it had been pulled from Vertigo’s cloak and slipping a syringe back into his utility belt. Jason didn’t have time to deduce how exactly those things came to be. If Captain Nazi decided to be smart, Jason would be dead before Batman could even take a step.

                Jason considered taking the non-lethal approach. Then he remembered that Captain Nazi was, you know, a literal Nazi. Having such an up close and personal view of his face dislodged a neat little fun fact from his memory – Captain Nazi’s weak point was his cybernetic eyes. They were probably the reason he’d been immune to Count Vertigo’s powers, so it was a nice little bit of irony that they’d now be his doom.

                A single flex of his hand told him that, courtesy of Hyena’s claws, he wouldn’t be able to stab as fast or aim as carefully as he’d like. Captain Nazi, having ascertained that his allies or comrades or whatever their relationship was were now out of commission, turned back to look at Jason with the smile of somebody who really needed to die as soon as possible, for both moral and self-defence reasons. Jason closed his eyes and visualized Captain Nazi’s eyes being violently shoved deep into his brain.

                The list of awful, horrible sounds Jason had heard was a very long one. The sound that told him he’d succeeded soared up the ranks to number two, right behind the Joker’s laugh. Captain Nazi’s grip on him vanished. Jason landed lightly on his feet and was already running by the time the body hit the ground with a thud that rang far too loudly in his ears.

                His broken rib must have subconsciously slowed him down. That must have been why Batman was able to catch up with him and cut him off so quickly. It couldn’t be that Batman was simply that much better than him. It was the rib. Definitely.

                “What was that?” Batman demanded.

                “Uh… an actual, literal, real-life Nazi?” Jason snapped. “Come on, even you’ve gotta admit Nazis are an exception to your one big rule.”

                “There are no exceptions. And that wasn’t what I meant. How did you do that?”

                Jason took as deep a breath as he could without aggravating his ribs to excruciating levels. He hadn’t given much thought to breaking the whole superpower thing to Batman, but he’d always intended on doing it after the Joker was dead, when Bruce saw him as a son instead of a threat. “Telekinesis,” he said simply.

                Ruining his plans was almost worth it just for the expression on what he could see of Batman’s face. “Telekinesis,” he repeated, as if he might have misheard Jason saying ‘telephone’ or something else that made no sense in context but was much more pleasant to think about.

                “Yup. Guess I picked some things up on the other side.” No way he was mentioning the White Hot Room. This conversation was already too big.

                Jason could practically smell the smoke coming out of Batman’s brain as he struggled with comprehending this new information and also make as many deductions as possible. “Things, plural? What other powers do you have?”

                Damn it, Jason really needed to watch what he said around the world’s greatest detective. “You’re about to find out, if you don’t get out of my way.”

                Batman’s jaw and fists clenched. “Jason…”

                Jason’s own fists clenched, regardless of the pain it caused. This would all be so much easier if he didn’t know any better and thought Bruce was angry at him. But no, he just had to know that anger was only one of the emotions making Bruce’s robot brain malfunction. His own brain felt like it was malfunctioning, too. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t have this conversation with Bruce right now, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to walk away either.

                “What happened to you?” Bruce asked.

                Jason stared at the ground. Even with the cowl covering his eyes, Jason could see the concern in his gaze. It was suffocating enough that he had to check that he hadn’t let his mental barriers down and started reading his mind. For a moment, he was tempted to let them down and see what Bruce was really thinking, because this… this had to be an act.

                He shrugged. “I died. I came back. I came here. What else do you need to know?”

                Batman’s mouth twitched in frustration. “Everything.”

                Jason laughed, harsh and loud as a clanging church bell. “No. You don’t need to. Trust me, you don’t even want to.”

                “Jason,” Batman said again, tired and lost and sad.

                For a moment, Jason wanted to tell him everything. About the White Hot Room, Talia, Grodd, all the sickening thoughts he’d never be able to unhear. All of it. It was a stupid moment.

                He pulled a gun out and aimed it at Batman. “Last warning, old man. Out of the way.”

                “I want to help you,” said Batman gently, like Jason was some traumatized victim he was trying to calm down. Jason wanted Bruce to help him, too. More than just about anything else in the world. Except…

“I think we have very different ideas of what that means,” he said. “Right now, my idea of you helping me is to leave me the fuck alone before I shoot you.”

                “Jason-“

                Once again, an idea came to Jason, along with a bone-deep certainty that it would work. He shoved the gun back in its holster, ran to the right side of the roof, closed his eyes, and took a leap of faith, envisioning himself landing on a nearby building that was out of grappling range. He barely heard Batman’s startled yell over the wind whistling past his helmet, and before he could devote any more thought to it there was solid concrete beneath his feet.

                He quickly made his way across the city, ignoring his injuries. He couldn’t even feel the pain anymore, except in his head, and he’d gotten a lot of practice at dealing with that. He wasn’t letting anything stop him, now. If he did the ‘smart’ thing and waited for his wounds to heal, then by the time he was back on his feet Black Mask could be bringing in fucking Darkseid to take him down for all he knew. Batman knew it was really him, so he was fresh out of reasons to delay his plan’s endgame.

                Amusement Mile was more decrepit than he remembered it, and he remembered it after years of nobody except the Joker and his people wanting to get in spitting distance of it. Apparently even the Joker had given up on maintaining it. That’s good news, Jason told himself. He’s not in his right mind. I mean, he’s never in his right mind, but he should be easy to capture. If it feels like the setting of a horror movie, it’s because you’re the monster, not him.

                Finding the Joker was easy. Jason just had to follow the path of clown imagery. He had to stop in his tracks and close his eyes the moment he came into view, sitting on the ground with his back against some carnival stand too dilapidated to identify. It didn’t help, because Jason had relived his death so many times in flashbacks and nightmares that he’d memorized the sound of Joker’s breathing. You can do this. You can do this. Just knock him out, tie him up, drag him to the nearest safehouse, mail his hair to the manor, make a deal with Black Mask to get Batman in the right place at the right time, and beat the shit out of the Joker while you wait. You can even do it with a crowbar.

                He opened his eyes again, and fuck, the Joker was looking at him. Jason could barely even see his actual, morose expression beneath the maniacally gleeful one his mind was superimposing over reality. I can do this. I can do this. He walked forward.

                “Who are you?” the Joker asked.

                Which hurts more? Forehand, or backhand?

                Jason couldn’t do this. He had to kill him. He had to run away. He had to make him suffer. He had to do a million things, and all of them were mutually exclusive. In the end, the need that scratched and clawed its way to the top was the need to know why. Even with all the things he’d seen and the thoughts he’d heard, Jason still couldn’t understand how anyone could cause so much misery and destruction for so little reason. Asking why the Joker did the things he did was always an exercise in futility, so Jason only had one option to learn the truth.

                He let down his barriers and dove straight into the Joker’s mind.

                Jason was too overwhelmed for any sort of rational thought at first, but he was quickly overcome by a strange sort of calm clarity. Screw his plan. A mind like this couldn’t be allowed to exist for one nanosecond longer. The Joker had to die. Now. He had to be erased so thoroughly from the universe that nothing could bring him back. Not cloning, not magic, not even the gods themselves.

                Jason grinned as everything went white.

Chapter Text

                Batman leaned his head against the Batmobile’s steering wheel and let loose the great, shuddering breath that had been building in his chest since he’d first spotted Jason that night.

                Alfred’s voice came over the comm. “It appears somebody has entered the Batmobile. Is it you, or shall I enact the security protocols?”

                “It’s me,” Batman growled, ignoring the masochistic voice in his head telling him he deserved the electric shock and knockout gas.

                “Excellent. Are you… well enough to give a report?”

                Batman lifted his head. As unappealing as talking was at the moment, Alfred deserved to know that Jason was… No, ‘all right’ wasn’t the term. “I arrived on the scene and found Phoenix fighting Captain Nazi and Hyena. I interceded on Phoenix’s side, and Count Vertigo interceded on theirs. I injected Hyena with adrenaline and hit him with a piece of Vertigo’s cape, causing him to attack him. Phoenix killed Captain Nazi and escaped.”

                “Are Hyena and Count Vertigo in custody?” Alfred asked.

                Batman mentally kicked himself. “I… don’t know. I was too focused on pursuing Phoenix. Check the police reports.”

                Alfred didn’t take long. “It appears that they were not at the scene when police arrived. Captain Nazi was, however. How, precisely, did Phoenix kill him?”

                “Telekinesis. Apparently, he developed superpowers after his… after his death.”

                Batman counted the seconds of Alfred’s silence. It lasted approximately twenty. “You spoke with him, then?”

                “Yes. I…” He took a deep, calming breath. He couldn’t let himself be overwhelmed by his emotions. He had to think about this rationally. He was Batman. It was his job. Even if he was talking about his son’s murder. “He didn’t give any details. From what little he said, I believe that he has at least one more distinct power, and that he does not know how he obtained them.” Guess I picked some things up on the other side. For all the things that had changed in Jason, so much had remained exactly the way Bruce remembered, including his tone of voice when he was trying to pass the truth as a half-truth.

                “Ah.” Alfred’s voice was even, but Batman could sense the tension in that one word. “I suppose that should not be a great surprise. There are few methods of resurrection that do not involve the supernatural.”

                “Do… Do you think that whatever resurrected him is also affecting his behavior?” Bruce regretted the question as soon as he asked it. How could Alfred know? Magic was one of the few things not within his purview. He was just looking for reassurance that his son hadn’t become a murderer of his own volition.

                “I could not say,” said Alfred delicately. “However, I fear I must say that, as much as I loved – love that boy, it would not take much to convince him to cross certain lines.”

                Bruce’s first instinct was to deny it. To say that of course Jason would never do any of this. But Jason was no longer nothing but a memory to be protected. Jason had grown up in Crime Alley, had always held so much anger in his heart, had at best watched Felipe Garzonas fall to his death and done nothing. He’d had nightmares about what Jason might have become if he hadn’t taken him in. Now he was seeing it first hand.

                Alfred’s voice dragged him back out of his thoughts. “Even if that is the case, all is not lost. Judging by the reports, he’s been more akin to Robin Hood than the usual crime boss. I presume that your conversation did not end on good terms?”

                “It did not.” It was difficult to think of worse terms than Jason literally flying away to escape the conversation. Was that another power, or was he doing it telekinetically? Maybe he should ask J’onn.

                “Best to give him some space for the moment,” Alfred suggested. “He’s always been much more amenable to discussion when given time to cool off.”

                “Right.” It was true. Bruce had learned that the hard way when he tried going into Jason’s room to apologize and received a copy of The Count of Monte Christo to his face for the trouble. The memory drove the usual spike of grief into his heart, out of habit. He’s alive. He’s not dead. If you handle this right, he’ll be throwing classical literature at you again soon enough.

                “Are you certain you do not wish to inform anyone else of Phoenix’s identity?” Alfred asked.

                Bruce considered it. He knew that everybody would want to know that Jason was alive. Even if he’d never gotten particularly close with Dick and Barbara or anyone from the Justice League, and never got to meet Tim and Cass, they’d want to know. They’d probably give Bruce an earful for not telling them the second the DNA results came back. With Onyx’s shoulder still healing, it would be helpful to have more hands on deck. It made sense.

                It was sensible in the same way that creating Robin had been. The same sensibility that got both Jason and Stephanie killed.

                “I’m certain,” said Batman. “They’ve already got enough on their plates.” I can do this myself. If anyone gets hurt, it will be me. I’ll tell them when Jason’s safe and himself again.

                “Very well. Might I suggest you retire for the night?” You’re in no state to patrol. Go home.

                Batman started up the Batmobile. “No. I need to find Vertigo and Hyena before they cause any more damage.” It was a decent enough excuse. Taking out his anger on criminals would be much more productive than using a punching bag back at the Cave.

                It didn’t matter, in the end. He didn’t even get to the crime scene before Alfred’s voice came over the comm again. “Batman, there appears to be a fire spreading through Amusement Mile that the fire department cannot put out.”

                Batman whispered a silent curse. “What do you mean, they cannot put it out?”

                “The reports say that all water sprayed on it evaporates on contact, as does foam and chemical flame inhibitors.”

                Just like Mr. Freeze’s attack. Jason had pyrokinesis. No wonder he’d gone for the Phoenix moniker. Why start a fire, though? And why Amusement – Oh.

                “Was the Joker there?”

                 Alfred paused a moment. “According to the most recent reports, yes.”

                Batman did a U turn and barreled toward Amusement Mile as fast as his well-trained driving skills could take him. Now that he was looking, he could faintly see smoke billowing into the sky amidst the smog and darkness.

                It didn’t make sense. Jason was smart, even when he was overwhelmed by his emotions. There were a thousand ways he could have killed the Joker without endangering innocent lives. And if he did want to kill the Joker, why wait? Why not do it the moment he arrived in Gotham? Was this all some strange bid to get Batman’s attention? He could have just sent a message to the manor if he wanted that.

                He pulled to the side of the street once the flames came into view. They were almost blinding against Gotham’s usual gloom. He blinked the spots out of his eyes and stepped out of the Batmobile. The fire didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary, for all that was worth. The harsh heat on the exposed parts of his face seemed hotter than usual, but that could just be his imagination.

                A familiar tingling sensation brushed against his head. Somebody was trying to use telepathy on him. He immediately started mental defense techniques, and used what little brainpower was left over to wonder what was going on. Had Black Mask hired another meta to deal with Phoenix? Was this why Jason had started the fire? Or was the fire started by another meta?

                His focus was nearly shattered when the wall of fire opened before him, as if he were Moses’ antithesis. The logical part of him – the Batman part – said that this was almost certainly a trap, and that he should leave and contact the Watchtower for advice from a trustworthy pyrokinetic. The Bruce part of him said that trap or not, Jason was probably in there.

For once, Bruce won out. He grabbed a gas mask from the Batmobile and entered the gap. It closed behind him, and continued to do so as he continued. It was a long, hard, and extremely hot walk, even with his heat-resistant gear. It was hard to tell how much of his sweat was from the heat, and how much was from the stress. There was definitely a good deal of stress, especially when he realized that he wasn’t just dealing with inextinguishable fire. All of the carnival structures that hadn’t already been burned to ash were in the air, floating, burning, bending, and shattering. He saw some pieces of utterly molten metal twisting around each other like angry snakes. What looked like the remains of a rollercoaster were almost doing cartwheels against the sky, making terrible crunching and screeching sounds as they went.

                Batman activated his comm. “Agent A, contact me in half an hour. If I don’t respond, contact the Watchtower and tell them I need help dealing with a powerful pyrokinetic, telekinetic, and a telepath of unknown power.”

                “Do you mean three individuals, or one with all three powers?”

                Batman thought it over. Did Jason have telepathy, too? It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. Telepathy and telekinesis often went hand in hand. If Phoenix were going through his victim’s minds looking for the bad, it would certainly make him feel more justified in killing them. Jason always had a nasty tendency to overwhelmingly see the worst in people. Had he read Batman’s mind without him noticing? No, he couldn’t have. If he had, he would have seen that Bruce only wanted to help him. Wouldn’t he?

                An awful explanation for the current situation reared its head in Batman’s mind. What if Jason had decided to read the Joker’s mind? Even J’onn, who had no personal grudge against the Joker and centuries of telepathic experience, had struggled with what he found in there. Perhaps seeing into the mind of his killer caused Jason to lash out and lose control. That had been dangerous enough when Jason didn’t have superpowers.

                “Batman? Are you still there?”

                Batman shook himself. “The number of individuals is unknown. I need to concentrate. Batman out.”

                Thirty-four footsteps later, the dark silhouette of a kneeling figure came into view. They looked to be the same size as Jason, and wearing a similar helmet, but it was too indistinct to be certain. Batman ignored his foolish paternal urges and approached slowly and cautiously. “Phoenix?” he called out.

                The figure showed no sign of having heard him.

                Batman stayed silent until he was close enough to see that it was Jason, and there was nothing else in the small fire-clearing but scorched earth and ash. “Jason,” he said, trying to achieve the perfect balance of gentleness that would show he meant no harm but not make Jason think he was pitying him.

                The gentle brush on his mind became a chokehold. Batman redoubled his focus on his defenses, barely having enough spare brainpower to notice himself automatically clutch at his head and fall to his knees. It quickly became obvious that the telepath wasn’t letting up any time soon, and the odds of there being another fireproof meta hiding nearby were very low, so he crawled over to Jason, grabbed him by the shoulders, and yelled, “Jason, stop it!”

                The pressure vanished, and Jason’s helmet moved ever so slightly to look at him. It was something, at least, but it was still far too small a reaction to be normal. If Jason were fully snapped out of whatever trance or daze he was in, he’d be trying to escape the hold, or at least tense up a little.

                It could be worse, he tried to assure himself. At least he’s not trying to hurt you.

                “Jason, I need you to take off your helmet,” he said, slowly and clearly. It was too hard to read Jason like this without being able to see his face. He’d try to take it off himself, but he’d taught Jason too well for there not to be some sort of nasty surprise for anyone who tried without knowing the correct, precise sequence of movements.

                It took a conscious effort not to tighten his grip on Jason’s arms as the helmet came off seemingly on its own, dropping carelessly to the ground in a way that only worsened the cracks already in it from his fight with Captain Nazi and Hyena.

                Even with the domino mask hiding his eyes, Batman knew that something was very, very wrong. Jason’s expression was entirely blank. Batman remembered training his poker face quite vividly, and it would take more than a few years to improve it to this level. Jason always let something through, even if it was only noticeable to Bruce and Alfred. It was why he’d always gone for a smug smile instead. He’d been very good at that.

                Batman reached up and pried off the mask. Jason’s eyes were red-rimmed and unfocused to the point that Batman wasn’t sure he could really see anything. He jerked a finger across his field of vision and didn’t get so much as an instinctual glance.

                Batman took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and released it. This was obviously a delicate situation, and he had to remain calm. “Jason, I know you can hear me. Please look at me.”

                Jason blinked, and his gaze focused in on Bruce’s eyes – or, at least, where his eyes should. Bruce quickly yanked off the cowl. He had to maximize every connection they had. “Good. That’s good. Can you talk to me?”

                Jason was silent for a solid ten seconds before he rasped, “Hi.”

                “Okay. Can you tell me what happened?”

                “I killed the Joker.”

                This time, Batman couldn’t stop his grip tightening. He closed his eyes, took another deep breath, and reassessed the situation. He’d already considered this scenario, and he thought he’d prepared for it. What he hadn’t been prepared for was Jason seeming so… empty. He’d been ready for a grin, for laughter, maybe even for tears. Clearly, there had been tears at some point, but they had run dry now, and they’d left nothing behind.

                Now wasn’t the time for confrontation. Part of Bruce hoped that the time for this confrontation would never come. Part of him felt a sense of relief more profound than any he’d felt before. The Joker was dead. If anyone deserved to – No. Nobody deserved execution. If Batman stopped believing in that, who knew what else he’d stop believing in? He shoved that part of him away, along with the part insisting that the confrontation needed to happen here and now. The likelihood of Jason seriously hurting or killing him, even accidentally, was far too high.

                “We can talk about that later,” said Bruce. “Right now, I need you to put this fire out, okay? If you don’t, a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt.”

                Jason’s gaze unfocused again, and stayed that way. Batman gave him a gentle shake until he was looking at him again. “I can’t,” he said, far-away and almost dreamily. “It’s too small, and it’s too big.”

                Batman wasn’t sure he’d ever heard a sentence that made less sense. “I don’t understand.”

                “Neither do I.”

                Batman didn’t know what to do. The only thing he could come up with was trying to snap Jason out of it by attacking him, but doing that would probably get him killed, and that would just make Jason’s state worse. Bruce sighed and let his head hang.

                “Are you angry?”

                Bruce lifted his head again. Jason’s face was still too blank, his voice still a void, but it was something. It was familiar. Jason asked that question a lot back when he’d first arrived at the manor, couldn’t read Bruce’s mood, and still thought all adults dealt with anger by using the closest living thing as a punching bag.

                Bruce gave the familiar response. “Not at you.” He was angry at whatever had given Jason so much power and so little control, at all the people that had hurt Jason to the point that he thought killing was good, and most of all he was angry at himself for not being there for Jason before, and not knowing how to be here for him now.

                “Would you have done it, then?”

                “Done what?” Batman asked.

                “Killed him.”

                Batman felt like his brain was in danger of overheating, and not just from the fire. A new hypothesis formed, one that made as much sense as it made bile rise in his throat. “Is that what you wanted? You did all this so that I would kill the Joker?”

                “Yes. Would it have worked?”

                “No,” Batman said instantly, and just as quickly bit his tongue. There was a time and a place for stubborn integrity, and in front of somebody possibly possessed and definitely powerful and unstable was not one of them.

                Jason let out a quiet, breathless laugh. Batman couldn’t tell if it was progress or not, especially when it was followed up by, “I wasn’t going to just ask you.”

                Batman had let down his mental defenses, and Jason was too fast for him to put them back up in time. It wasn’t the first time somebody had succeeded in invading his mind, but it was the first time somebody had done it so… clumsily. It didn’t feel like Jason was trying to hurt him on purpose, but he was like a bull in a china shop fumbling his way to his goal. Batman’s vision went white, and when it came back into focus, he was standing in an apartment with the weight of a gun in his hands, watching Jason put his own gun to the Joker’s temple.

                It was honestly one of the worst illusions Batman had ever seen. Everything but Jason and the Joker was out of focus, like a cartoon that didn’t have the budget for detailed backgrounds. If that weren’t enough to show that Jason wasn’t thinking straight, the foreign emotions brushing against Bruce’s own did the trick. Jason was a maelstrom of emotions moving too quickly and strongly to be properly defined.

                At the very least, this illusion allowed Jason’s face to finally show some kind of expression, and Bruce almost wished to have unnatural blankness back. “This is how it was supposed to go,” Jason explained, voice raw. “The only way you can stop me from killing the Joker is to shoot him, or shoot me. Make your choice.”

                Bruce knew the choice Jason wanted him to make, and he knew the choice he would have actually made in this situation. They were polar opposites. If he told the truth, who knew how Jason would react, and if he lied, Jason wouldn’t believe him and react just as badly. Best to do the thing he’d do if this were real; create his own choice.

                “If this is what you wanted, then why did you kill him?” he asked.

                “I… It doesn’t matter,” Jason snarled.

                “Neither does this,” said Batman, brandishing the gun in his hand. It didn’t look real, either. Too nondescript. “It never happened, and it’s never going to happen. The Joker’s dead. You won. It’s over.”

                Jason shook his head. “No. It’s not over until you…” His expression started going blank at the same speed the illusion lost what little detail it had. Bruce knew in his gut that this was not a good thing.

                “Until I what, Jason?” he prompted.

                “You’re right.” Jason’s voice was dull again, and the illusion grew paler and paler. “It doesn’t matter.” A discordant chorus whispered in Batman’s ear, and the heat returned. “You need to go.”

                “No,” Batman said instantly.

                Jason’s blankness vanished, replaced by naked terror. “No, no, no, no, no,” he muttered. “You can’t. You have to go.”

                “I’m not leaving you,” Batman growled. “Tell me what’s going on.”

                Jason kept shaking his head, wet eyes reflecting the bright light surrounding them. The whispering was getting louder, and the heat was almost at unbearable levels. “I… It’s too much. I got out of the Room, but it’s still too much. You aren’t used to it. You have to get out.”

                Bruce blinked and opened his eyes back in reality, facing a blank-faced Jason.

                He took a deep breath, and tried to think things through as logically as possible. The first thing he did was figure out a timeline of events. After killing Captain Nazi, Jason decided to enter the endgame of his plan and capture the Joker. Something went wrong, and Jason killed him. The emotional fallout caused his powers to go haywire, starting a fire, telekinetically affecting everything in reach, and… getting overwhelmed by others’ thoughts? That would explain why he seemed so unaware of his surroundings. When Batman got in range, he let him in because… Because he wanted to see him? It seemed the most likely reason, as difficult to believe and wonderful as it was.

                So, in essence, Jason was having something like a superpowered panic attack and subconsciously wanted Bruce there for him. If he ignored the superpower aspect, that was familiar territory. He could do this.

                He cupped Jason’s face in his hands and said, “Jason, focus on my voice.” He realized that wasn’t going to work, so he pressed his forehead against Jason’s and banished his mental defenses. “Focus on my thoughts.” For once in his life, he tried to think happy thoughts. It was surprisingly easy, with a warm, breathing, living Jason right in front of him. They’d work everything out, somehow. They could worry about the details later.

                He couldn’t suppress a smile when Jason’s mind brushed against his, then metaphorically crept in through the front door to take a cautious look around. Whether due to Jason’s mental state or his inexperience, the connection worked both ways. Bruce could vaguely sense what Jason was feeling. Even that vague sense gave him a headache. That didn’t hurt as much as the fact that the emotion Jason felt at seeing Bruce’s happiness at having him back was disbelief.

                It took a great deal of self-control not to try and throw Jason back out when he started digging a little deeper in Bruce’s mind. It took even more when Jason lingered on the memories of Stephanie. He moved on quickly enough, though not before the sense of anger and grief grew so strong that Bruce couldn’t tell how much of it was his and how much was Jason’s. He lingered over Cass and Tim, too. Cass didn’t get too much of a reaction, just a touch of wistful longing for the idea of having a sister. Tim, however, got a blaze of range strong enough to make Bruce choke. It ebbed slightly as he realized Tim had practically forced himself into the role of Robin, but there was still a sour taste in his mouth strong enough for Bruce to taste.

                Then he reached his death. Bruce felt him avert his eyes at the memory of finding his body, and he didn’t look back until he was confronting the Joker. Jason was pleasantly surprised to see how differently it might have turned out had Superman not been there to stop Batman, and even more when he saw Bruce jump out of the helicopter and leave Joker to what should have been a watery grave.

                They came back to reality abruptly enough that Bruce would have stumbled had he been standing. While it could be wishful thinking, he could swear that the fires had grown dimmer and cooler. What wasn’t wishful thinking was that Jason’s eyes were clear and focused on Bruce, even if they were growing wet with tears.

                “Are you all right?” Bruce asked.

                Jason laughed bitterly. “Have I ever been all right?”

                “I’ll take that as a yes,” Bruce said drily.

                Jason looked dumbfounded for a moment, and Bruce feared that he’d gone too far. With all the things that had changed, he shouldn’t have expected to be able to go right back to their old style of banter. Then Jason smiled and let out a short exhale that was practically a laugh. “I’m… better.”

                Bruce decided that the chances of Jason stabbing him were worth it and pulled him into a hug. He didn’t hug back, and he was tenser than Bruce would like, but he didn’t fight it, so Bruce considered it a success. “We’ll figure this out,” he promised. He wasn’t quite sure what ‘this’ even was, but he knew he had to fix it. He was Batman. And if he couldn’t do it himself, he had connections with metas of every conceivable origin. Jason was worth far more than the embarrassment of asking for help.

                His attention was caught by movement in the corner of his eye. His subconscious immediately realized what it was and made his stomach turn to ice. It took his conscious mind a few seconds to catch up and realize it wasn’t a shooting star or plane, and it was on a trajectory straight to Blüdhaven.

                Jason sensed that something was wrong and pulled back to frown at Bruce. “What’s-“

                Everything happened so quickly that Bruce wasn’t sure which came first. Bruce realized it was a missile, the missile hit its mark, Jason screamed, and Bruce was sent flying. The impact with the ground sent his head spinning too much to register whatever happened next. All he knew was that everything went bright, then cold, and by the time he could see straight Jason was gone.

Chapter Text

                Jason opened his eyes to a sky full of stars and a killer white-hot headache. His brain was too busy being in pain to wonder exactly this came to be, so he just closed his eyes and waited for the worst to pass. It was a slow and gradual process, so he was only able to register everything that was wrong one at a time.

  1. Even with his mind wide open, there wasn’t so much as a blip on his telepathic radar.
  2. He couldn’t feel the ground or a bed or any kind of surface at all beneath him.
  3. He couldn’t feel any sort of wind, so wrong thing #2 wasn’t because he was falling.
  4. His normal ears couldn’t hear anything except for his heartbeat, breathing, and all the other sounds his body made to keep itself alive.
  5. The last place he remembered being was Gotham, which hadn’t seen a starry sky for about a century.
  6. The last thing he remembered feeling was thousands of minds – some deserving, far too many not – dying as quickly as they did painfully.
  7. Bruce had been not even a foot away when he had a reaction strong enough to send him right back to the White Hot Room.

                Jason opened his eyes again and turned his head. The rest of him followed suit, because he was floating in space without any ground or gravity or air resistance to stop him. At that point, his training kicked in and shoved the instinctive (and very reasonable) hysteria of What the fuck what the fuck why am I in space what the fuck how am I not dead what the fuck what the fuck WHAT THE- to the back of his brain in favor of detached logic.

                How did he get here? The psychic backlash of… whatever had happened must have tripped his fight-or-flight instincts, and for once flight won, in a very literal way. He supposed even his stupid outdated monkey brain realized you couldn’t punch death.

                How was he alive? He didn’t know how long he’d been in the vacuum, but considering Earth was nothing more than another speck of light in the sky and even the speed of light would take a minute or so to get that far, he should already be dead. His powers must have been subconsciously keeping him alive, somehow. Now he had to figure out how it did it, because his conscious mind was insisting that it should be impossible and it might just convince his powers to let him die.

                He must have created a telekinetic shield to maintain a bubble of Earth’s atmosphere or something. That explained why his blood wasn’t boiling. If that was the case, there was still the matter of oxygen. Helmet filters could only do so… oh, wait, he wasn’t wearing his helmet. He’d taken it off so he and Bruce could have their bonding moment, which he was not going to think about because crying would just waste air. Had he brought the helmet with him? He really hoped so. He’d gotten pretty attached to it.

                He shook himself. He had to focus. He swore the air was starting to taste stale. How was he going to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen? It couldn’t be that hard, right? Plants did it all the time, and he was smarter than a plant (most of them, anyway). ‘Oxide’ was in the name. The only difference was a carbon atom. Theoretically, it was just a matter of dislodging the carbon from the molecule. He moved large amounts of atoms all the time with telekinesis. This couldn’t be much different, right? Just a bit more… precise.

                Whatever you have in strength, you more than lack in dexterity.

                “Shut up,” Jason growled to the void. The memory just made him more determined. He’d proven Grodd wrong before by beating him. He could do it again by doing something he probably never even dreamed of.

                He pictured a bunch of carbon atoms leaving their oxygen partners as clearly as he could, which wasn’t much because atoms were, by definition, unfathomably tiny. He did his best to will the image into being. There wasn’t any visible sign of it working, but using the sun as a reference point (which was pretty difficult because it was about as blindingly bright as the White Hot Room) he did fourteen rotations without getting light-headed, so he assumed it was working.

                Now he had nothing to think about except how he’d gotten here. He closed his eyes and took advantage of his air supply to take deep, calming breaths. Time for more detached logic. From what he’d gleaned from Bruce’s and all the victims’ minds, some sort of missile hit Blüdhaven and wiped out most of the city, possibly including Dick. The thought shouldn’t be that upsetting. Dick was just the guy whose shoes Jason could never fill and hung out with him maybe a dozen times over the four years he was Robin. Any fond hair ruffles or nicknames or offers of emotional support were just Dick being nice, like he was to literally everyone.

                And yet a shuddering wave of relief swept over Jason when he realized that he hadn’t noticed Dick’s mind amidst the turmoil, and he felt certain that he would have had it been there. He’d probably been off doing stuff with the Titans or whatever group he was working with now that he wasn’t a teen anymore. He’d be fine.

                Bruce, on the other hand…

                No. He was fine. If he’d managed to get through the fires to Jason in the first place, he’d be fine. Jason usually hated getting his hopes up for anything, but if he didn’t get his hopes up for this, he wouldn’t have any hope at all. It wasn’t like with the Joker. He hadn’t wanted to hurt him, he just wanted to get away.

                Fuck, now he was thinking about the Joker. He shouldn’t be. He never had to think about him again. It was over. He was dead. Jason had won. Now he could move on and… and…

                He hadn’t put much thought to what he’d do next, but none of those thoughts applied to a situation where he killed the Joker himself, didn’t convince Batman of jack shit except that he was both a pathetic child and a danger to everyone around him, and accidentally launched himself into space. To be fair to himself, he wasn’t sure anyone would have prepared for that situation.

                He could try to start a new life. Leave it all behind, find a planet without any superheroes, and get to work helping people and shooting bad guys without any bad memories (or, worse, good ones) getting in the way. That could be nice, so long as he never wondered if he’d killed Bruce.

                Okay. New life was a no go. He’d probably die of old age before he floated past anything habitable, anyway.

                Back to Earth, then. The only question was whether he’d go back to Gotham or not. If Bruce was… No. Bruce was definitely alive, and it would take some fucking ludicrous mental gymnastics to fake wanting Jason back home that badly. He could go home, see Alfred again, try to… what? Be normal? Play the vigilante game by Batman’s rules? Pretend he’d never broken them in the first place?

                There was a reason Bruce hadn’t let himself think that far ahead. Not even Batman himself, the man that imagined every possible outcome in excruciating detail, couldn’t imagine Jason coming home and having it go well beyond the first few steps. Not without ‘fixing’ him, freeing him from whatever terrible influence he thought he was under.

                Was he under an influence? He didn’t think so. His current moral compass was perfectly explained by getting painfully murdered, replaced by his father figure, and left with a manipulative assassin fanatically loyal to her batshit father as the closest thing he had to emotional support. Right? The thing in the White Hot Room wasn’t controlling him. Hell, it had never even properly acknowledged him. He’d know if it was. Wouldn’t he? God fucking damn it, self-diagnosis was a bitch. He had no idea who to go to for help, either. Talia had been painfully thorough in her own investigation. If none of those assholes could figure out what was going on, the only way Jason could think of was to let somebody have a look around the White Hot Room. Only problem was that anyone he trusted in his head would also be someone he didn’t want getting brain-dead.

                He pulled his knees up and curled into a fetal position. What the fuck was he supposed to do? Maybe he should just keep floating through space until a Lantern or someone flew by to give him wise, life-changing advice. Then he remembered that Hal Jordan was considered one of the universe’s greatest and discarded the idea. Clearly, wise advice wasn’t their forte.

                It was impossible to keep time, so he didn’t know how long he spent wrestling with all his conflicting emotions and hopes and fears. All he knew was that it was long enough for thirst and hunger to set in. He could probably handle it telekinetically, but he’d have to do a lot more research on molecular models before he’d stake his life on it. It was time to go home, or at least back to Earth. He’d figure things out from there.

                He closed his eyes and willed himself to fly back as fast as possible. He opened his eyes to make sure it worked, and quickly closed them again. The sight of the stars blurring like he was in Star Wars hyperspace made him feel sick, and he did not want his legacy to be a cloud of vomit floating through space for eternity.

                He only opened them when he heard a roaring that signified he was back in an atmosphere capable of carrying sound. Once again, he closed them almost immediately, because apparently even telekinetic shields ignited during re-entry. His body may be immune to the heat of fire, but his eyes were still very vulnerable to the brightness of it. It was probably for the best, anyway. He couldn’t afford to have a fear of heights in his line of work, and watching yourself fall down to Earth through the entire atmosphere seemed like a good way to obtain one.

                On the other hand, this meant he had no idea where he was going to land. It didn’t matter, right? His shield would take the damage. Hopefully. No, it would. If he believed it would, it would, and if he didn’t, it wouldn’t. It would be easy. All he had to do was forget all his knowledge on acceleration and terminal velocity and also not wonder if the universe might be better off if the fall killed him. It wouldn’t make the universe better for Bruce, at least. Whatever doubts he had on how much Bruce had exaggerated his own positive feelings for the sake of getting Jason calm enough to put out the fire, he believed that much. It would have to be enough.

                What felt like hours of calming breaths later, he landed with a splash intense enough to sound more like a crash. The shield absorbed the impact, but it didn’t stop him from moving. It was only sheer, faster-than-lightning instinct that stopped him before he slammed into the bottom of the shield at terminal velocity. He didn’t know how exactly his instinct managed to bring him to both a safe and sudden stop. He wasn’t going to think about it, in case he came to the conclusion that it was impossible and his body immediately exploded.

                He finally opened his eyes properly and took in his surroundings. He was underwater. Not surprising, really. Statistically speaking, it was more likely than landing on dry land. On the plus side, it meant far less chance of curious locals coming to investigate. On the negative side, it meant he had literally no idea where he was and how to get to land. He couldn’t swim in an air bubble, and he didn’t want what little money and fake identification he had on him to get wet, so he used telekinesis to rise up to the surface.

                Seeing the familiar atmosphere-filtered light of the sun was more relieving than he’d expected. He let down the upper part of his shield and breathed in natural, salty air. One less thing to worry about. It was more than balanced out by all the other things he had to worry about now that he had to decide which direction to head in. If he floated here long enough, he could watch the sun to figure out which direction was which. It wouldn’t tell him which ocean he was in, though.

                He realized he’d forgotten to put his mental barriers back up when something came in range. A whole group of somethings, and something really was the right word. He’d never sensed minds like this. The closest he’d encountered were babies that hadn’t learned to talk yet. They were aware of their surroundings and had a lot of thoughts and feelings going, but it was all instinct and impressions and shapes rather than actual words. More than that, nearly all of said instincts and impressions and shapes involved swimming and eating fish and… being angry at dolphins? Not dolphins as a species, but very specific dolphins for very specific reasons.

                A few very confused and slightly worried minutes later, he spotted several dolphin fins dart above the waves as they came up for air. Wait. Was he reading dolphin minds? He’d never read the mind of any animal besides human… except for Grodd. Was it an intelligence thing? He knew cetaceans were smart, but he hadn’t thought they were telepathy levels of smart. Huh. You learn new things every day.

                Intelligent or not, they didn’t understand human geography, so they wouldn’t be able to help him figure out where he was. The sun had moved enough for him to see where west was, so he headed east. If he was in the Pacific, he’d end up on the opposite side of the continent from Gotham. If he was in any other sea, he’d be on a different continent. Unless some new inland sea had popped up in North America when he wasn’t looking. Wait, did the Hudson Bay count as one? Whatever. He’d still be in good ol’ Canada.

                He put his shield back up and went back underwater to start ‘swimming’ fast enough to hopefully get to dry land before he got thirsty enough to try drinking seawater, but not so fast that he accidentally caused any tidal waves. It didn’t take too much thought, and the scenery didn’t take too long to lose its novelty, so his brain found nothing better to do than try to process everything he’d been able to put off until now.

                Jason had killed the Joker. Everything from that moment and when Bruce showed up was a white blur, but he knew that with absolute certainty. If his powers had granted his wish, as they always seemed to whether he liked it or not, then there wouldn’t be so much as a blood spatter left. Was that a mistake? The Joker had been presumed dead so many times that nobody was going to believe it unless they saw his dead body for themselves, and even then they might think it was a cloned decoy or something. Everyone in Gotham would still be looking over their shoulder and jumping at the sound of shrill laughter for a long, long time.

                No point regretting it now. No point feeling anything about the Joker, except maybe relief. So why was Jason still…

                He needed his helmet. Being bare-faced left him too vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. He closed his eyes, held out a hand, and prayed that he’d brought it along with him. He sighed happily as he felt it fly into his grip. It was the last straw, though, because he was immediately overcome with exhaustion and a renewed headache.

                He slipped the helmet on and kept his eyes closed. The bubble would stay in place if he went to sleep, right? It stuck around in space before he was even consciously aware of it. He hoped he’d keep moving, too. If he didn’t, that was a lot of time wasted aimlessly floating. He knew he should stay awake for a while longer, hopefully until he came across a boat and was able to stow away, but he was just so… tired…

                In hindsight, he’d put it entirely down to exhaustion, but his brain decided to latch onto the memories of when he’d come back from patrol with Batman so tired he’d fall asleep on the medical cot getting his injuries treated or in the Batcomputer chair trying to type up a report. He’d always wake up tucked into his own bed. Having people to watch over him and do little things like that was… nice… He wished he had that again…

                Next thing he knew, he was staring up at a clear blue sky, lying on what felt like sand, the smell of salt and sound of seagulls, waves, and distant traffic in the air, and the thoughts of an entire city laying siege to his mind. He blocked them out and took in his visual surroundings as he slowly got to his feet. He was on an empty beach, and in the distance he could see what was either the Golden Gate Bridge or a very good replica. San Francisco, then? Far from the worst city to wash up in.

                His legs were unsteady, the rest of him was stiff, he was distractingly hungry and thirsty, he had maybe two hundred dollars on him, and he was in unfamiliar territory with no allies. It really said something about his life that he considered this situation pretty favorable. Then again, being able to apparently do whatever the fuck he wanted with telekinesis made most situations pretty favorable.

                He took off his helmet and armor and hid them behind a distinctive log of driftwood. Without them, he was just another big, vaguely threatening guy in a leather jacket. San Francisco had a lot of those, right? He sure hoped they did. If not… well, he’d need to get some more clothes, anyway. He set off toward the city.

                Step one: Research. As he walked, he patted himself down and found a burner phone. He turned iton and immediately winced at the number of missed texts and voice mails. Oh, yeah, he was kind of a crime lord, and he’d randomly vanished in the night without a word. That alone didn’t account for the volume, though. Did Black Mask smell the blood in the water and move to retake what he thought was his? Were they all freaking out about the fire?

                He ignored it and opened Google Maps. His plans had gone up in flames just like Amusement Mile. Tempting as it was to go back to Gotham just to put a bullet in Black Mask’s head, that city was full of triggers for him. If he encountered a bad one at the wrong time, he could do a lot more harm than killing Sionis would compensate for. His people were smart enough to get the hell out of dodge, and the ones who weren’t wouldn’t have lasted long anyway.

                Google Maps wasn’t loading. He flicked his eyes up to the top of the screen and saw that he didn’t have data on. He went into settings to turn it on, only to get a pop-up informing him that he didn’t have access to this service. He turned the phone around to get a better look at it. He could have sworn he’d gotten a data plan on this one. He tapped the home button, and his eyes were drawn to the inconsistency he now realized had been bugging him ever since he’d turned on the phone.

                The date said it was December 17th – a solid month after the last date he remembered.

                The realization froze him in his tracks. That couldn’t be right. Going into space must have messed it up. He went to his text messages to make sure and – Nope, the dates and increasing panic and anger in the messages were all in line with a month having passed without him even noticing. Had he spent an entire month floating in space? Or was it while he was asleep and adrift in the ocean? Or was it both? He’d blacked out – or rather, whited out – before, but the longest he’d been out was a day, and that was when Talia really pushed him by having him lift a tank. Ah, for the days when lifting a tank was hard…

                He resumed walking. It didn’t really matter how long he’d been gone, he supposed. In fact, this might be for the best. By now, things would have cooled down a little. Black Mask was a lot less likely to sic any more bizarre supervillains on him, and Batman… Fuck. As far as Batman knew, Jason had flown up into the sky and vanished from the face of the Earth for an entire month. Exaggerated lovey-dovey feelings or not, he was probably on one hell of a self-destructive rampage.

                If he hasn’t been dead for an entire month.

                All right. Change of plan. Jason tried calling the manor. All he got was a pre-recorded message politely reminding him that he hadn’t paid his phone bill, dumbass. He shoved the phone back in his pocket and picked up the pace. Once he got into the city proper, he put off admiring the architecture or getting his bearings in favor of finding a payphone. In this modern age of ubiquitous cellphones, it took so long to find one that he was seriously considering holding someone at gunpoint to help jog their memory on local phone locations.

                Finally, he spotted one. He rushed over and, in his haste and the finger-trembling realization that he’d probably hear Alfred’s voice on the other end, had to try a couple time to punch in the number right. Doubt set in as the phone rang. Had they changed their number? It wouldn’t be too surprising, considering how hard the paparazzi tried to get their hands on their private information. What if Alfred assumed he was a telemarketer and didn’t bother picking up?

                Click. “Wayne residence. How may I help you?”

                It was a good thing he was in public with people around. Otherwise he might have burst into tears at the sound of Alfred’s voice. “Hey, Alfie, it’s Jason,” he said, like he was calling to let him know he’d be staying at the library a while longer, and it hadn’t been nearing four years and his voice hadn’t dropped an octave and the world wasn’t a shithole.

                Alfred was only silent for a moment. “I do not believe I can properly convey how happy I am to hear from you, Master Jason.” To his credit, there was only the slightest of trembles in his voice on only a few words in the sentence.

                “Right,” said Jason, having completely forgotten what he’d been planning on saying in this call, if he’d ever had any plan at all. “I… just wanted to let you and Bruce know I’m still alive.” And also to know if Bruce is still alive.

                “I’ll be sure to pass on the message. Knowing Master Bruce, however, he will only truly believe it when he sees you in person.”

                “If he sees me in person,” muttered Jason, mostly to himself.

                Alfred still heard it. “You do not wish to see him?”

                Jason tightened his grip on the phone until he feared it would break and clamped down hard on his telekinesis. “No,” he lied. It sounded fake even to his own ears, so he switched tracks. “By the way, what actually happened to Blüdhaven?” He didn’t want to worry Alfred by telling about the whole space thing, so he was banking on the publicly available reports containing maybe half of the truth.

                Even through the phone line, Jason knew that Alfred knew exactly what he was doing, but took pity on him and decided to play along. “As with all things in this line of work, it was a rather complicated affair. How long do we have to speak?”

                Of course. “Is Dick dead or not?” he snapped.

                “He is alive,” Alfred assured him too instantly to be lying. “And should he follow medical advice, he shall be well again in short order.”

                Jason did not breathe a sigh of relief, because he did not care and he would not have Alfred thinking he did. Instead, he rolled his eyes and said, “So you’re saying he’s out of commission for a long time.”

                “If he were recovering alone, yes. However, I trust Miss Gordon to ensure his speedy recovery.”

                Good. Babs was almost as good as Alfred at tying uncooperative Bats to their hospital beds with guilt. Not that he cared or anything. “Right,” said Jason, again, because he’d run out of conversation topics. Bruce and Dick were alive. He’d accomplished everything he’d wanted to in this phone call. There wasn’t anything stopping him from hanging up now and moving on to… whatever it was he’d do next.

                He didn’t hang up, even as the silence stretched like an elastic band. The inevitable, painful snap came when Alfred asked, “Might I ask where you have been this past month? Master Bruce searched for you quite exhaustively.”

                Oh, don’t worry, I was just floating around unconscious in the vacuum of space and then floating around unconscious in the ocean. No biggie. “It doesn’t matter.” The words came out harsher than he’d intended. Alfred didn’t deserve that. “I…” I’m sorry. I miss you. I miss all of you. I want to go home. I don’t want to hurt you. I need help. I don’t know what to do. “I should go. Bye.”

                He hung up before Alfred could convince him not to and walked away. He had food and water to find, money to make, scumbags to kill, and a whole lot of planning to do. So long as he kept himself busy enough, he wouldn’t have any time to feel regret.

Chapter Text

                 Jason wasn’t back at square one. He reminded himself of this very often during his time in San Francisco. He had his helmet, fake ID’s that would hold up against ninety percent of scrutiny, several bank accounts full of blood money (not as many as before, but he couldn’t blame his people for taking a cut from the guy that left them out to dry), and enough crime to keep busy and have a little fun. Clearly, the Teen Titans were still too busy fighting aliens and demons up in their almost literal ivory tower to do much about all the low-level crime right beneath their noses, and the city knew it.

                Jason found himself spending a lot of time staring at that tower. From the outside, at least, it looked practically identical to the one he remembered back in New York. The one he used to dream of staying in for more than the occasional brief visit, once Batman stopped being so overprotective and let him join the team. In hindsight, it was a stupid dream, just like all the others. Even if Batman did agree, there was no way Nightwing and his friends would let him join. They tried to hide it and be nice to him, to their credit, but their bitterness and anger at him for replacing precious, perfect Dick Grayson was obvious. They weren’t going to risk letting Jason replace him in the Titans, too.

                 Apparently, though, none of that applied to the Replacement – Tim. Everybody welcomed him with open arms. Every time Jason stared at the tower, he wondered if the Replacement was there, where in the tower he’d be, how good the security was, how easy it would be to –

                And then he’d shake himself and find something to do. And every time he did, another piece of a plan slotted into place. As it grew more and more defined, he couldn’t stop himself doing a little recon and research on the tower. And once he did that, and once he finally saw the Replacement in the flesh and Jason’s costume, no matter how much it had been redesigned, the justifications came flooding in. He was already hearing rumors about a murderous vigilante in a phoenix-like helmet spreading through the city. Even without using his powers, he wasn’t exactly being inconspicuous. If the Titans weren’t complete idiots, which they’d have to be to still be alive, they were going to come after him. Better for Jason to go after them first. And if he just so happened to go after the Replacement first… well… it was for his own good, really. Maybe a good beatdown would make him see the light and give up Robin before it killed him, too.

                See? He had reasons besides the vindictive desire to make the Replacement suffer for stealing his life.

                 Once actual news reports starting coming out about the mysterious new vigilante that looked awfully like that crime lord in Gotham, Jason considered it his cue to enter stage left.

The security system clearly had a significant Bat influence, which meant Jason knew how to circumvent it. The interior of the building was smaller than he’d expected, which was probably because he was comparing it to his memories of the old tower back before his post-resurrection growth spurt. As much as he hated all the old feelings that came with the memories, he couldn’t just push them aside, because they were pretty damn useful in figuring out the layout of the place. It was almost eerie how similar it was.

                Now, if I were still Robin, where would I be?

                It took some imagination. His past visits to the tower were usually spent trailing after Nightwing like an excited puppy. That was one memory he could safely shove into the pit with all the other unwanted ones. Plus, the Replacement was a different person, with different interests and a different approach to Robin that everybody loved so much more than Jason’s.

                A hidden (to people besides Jason, anyway) camera went crunch and fell to the floor in a mangled ball.

                Jason reined in his anger. He didn’t want to use his powers against the Replacement. He wanted to beat him fair and square. There wasn’t any reason he wouldn’t be able to. He was bigger, stronger, more experienced, and a lot more ruthless. The only hard parts would be finding him and making sure none of his friends interfered. He could do the former without powers, too, and the latter… he wasn’t sure. A lot of shit had gone down lately, and he had no idea who was actually on the team besides the Replacement. Whoever they were, they wouldn’t be a problem if Jason found Robin first and played on the pride and unwillingness to accept help that Batman always made sure to accidentally pass on to all his students. With the right words, the Replacement himself would be keeping his friends out of it.

                Footsteps. Somebody was coming. Jason backtracked a little and hid in a storage closet so unimportant that nobody had bothered to close the door. He didn’t let himself get a good look at what was actually in it and instead focused on the footsteps. They could be the Replacement’s – light, quick, sure. Once they’d passed, Jason silently stepped back out of the closet to see an all too familiar, colorful silhouette.

                He’d made the cape black with yellow relegated to lining. A smart move, logically speaking. Illogically…

                 All the doors in the hall slammed shut. Jason had just enough time to shift into a relaxed yet cool stance before the Replacement whirled around to face him. The domino mask wasn’t nearly enough to hide his shock. “Phoenix?” he said. Jason couldn’t tell what emotion his voice was laden with, but it was definitely a strong one.

                “Surprised to see me?” Jason asked, light as the taste of arsenic.

                “Uh… yeah? I mean, I wasn’t expecting… What are you doing here?”

                Jason frowned beneath the helmet. The Replacement clearly wasn’t scared, so why was he stumbling over his words like a toddler trying to walk on ice? He tried not to let the frown show in his face as he said, “I figured you and your friends would be coming after me any day now, and I like to take the aggressive approach.”

                 The Replacement shifted uncomfortably. Not nearly uncomfortably enough. Was he not at all threatened? How the fuck had he lasted this long? “Well… yeah, we were planning on trying to track you down. Everybody’s really worried about you.”

                Now it was Jason feeling uncomfortable. Worried? That… wasn’t what he’d expected. That wasn’t what he wanted. He’d killed, like, fourteen people in this city. People were supposed to be trying to stop him, not worry about him. “Who’s ‘everybody’, exactly?” he said aloud. “I didn’t make many friends when I was in the pixie boots, and I sure as hell ain’t making many now.”

                “Okay, some of them are more worried about what you might do,” the Replacement admitted. “But they don’t know you. All they know is –“ He hesitated.

                “A murderer with superpowers?” Then the implications of the statement clicked. “So, you’re saying that you know me?” Oh, Jason could see it now. Every time the Replacement made a mistake, or got too cocky, or ignored any of his stupid orders, Batman swooping in and growling, Jason used to do that. Do you want to end up like him?

                “I…” The Replacement breathed in and drew himself up, banishing most of his visible nerves. “Yes. I do. I figured out who Batman and Robin were back when it was Nightwing, but you’re the one I think of when I think of Robin. You were my hero. I saw you risk your life to protect people you didn’t even know almost every night. I saw you cry over the people you couldn’t protect. And what I didn’t see for myself, Agent A told me about. I know that you’re a good person. Whatever reasons you have for what you’re doing now, I know that you think they’re good ones and what you’re doing is helping people. But –“

                “There it is,” said Jason, smirking bitterly to himself. “There’s always a ‘but’ when people start complimenting me.” It was better for everyone if he focused on that instead of the compliments themselves. He knew that the Replacement had been following them around from Batman’s memories, but he hadn’t realized he’d been stalking him so – No, he wasn’t thinking about it.

                “But you’re wrong. Killing isn’t the way to help people.”

                Jason let out a growl he hoped sounded downright animalistic through the helmet. “And there that is. If I wanted to have this argument, kid, I’d skip the middleman and go yell at Batman.”

                “You’re only two years older than me,” said the Replacement reproachfully.

                Shit, really? He looked so small. Jason would think it was another case of malnourishment if he didn’t know for a fact that the Replacement was born with a silver spoon and all the food it could bring in his mouth. “You’re sixteen, then? Well, congratulations on officially lasting longer than I did.”

                The Replacement’s expression reached puppy-dog levels of sadness. Finally. A weak point, even if it wasn’t an expected one.

                Jason placed a hand on the butt of one of his visible guns and started slowly approaching. “’Cause that wonderful hero you’re waxing poetic about died, precisely because he was willing to risk his life for somebody he didn’t actually know.” The Replacement’s sadness turned to confusion, and Jason let out a laugh. “He didn’t tell you? Of course he didn’t tell you. How’d he spin it? Poor, sweet little Jason was saving orphaned puppies when he was tragically murdered? Or was I always too angry and reckless and went running off after the Joker without backup and got what I deserved?”

                The Replacement took a step back and settled into a combat-ready stance as Jason got closer, automatically if his still stubbornly unafraid expression was anything to go by. “Of course not! He… never really talked about it. He only said the Joker did it. And judging by how he’d react whenever somebody tried attacking with a crowbar –“

                Jason pulled the gun and pointed it right at his forehead without thinking. Considering the circumstances, he considered this a reasonable and mild reaction.

                The Replacement didn’t have the same understanding of the context, and finally gained the expression of somebody being threatened as he pulled out a batarang. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight you, Ja – Phoenix.”

                “Well, that’s too bad, because I sure as fuck want to fight you.” Jason took a deep breath and relaxed his arm, pulling the gun back. “You’ve got one sentence to convince me otherwise.”

                The Replacement’s brow furrowed with thought in a way that reminded Jason viscerally of Bruce. Funny how kids could inherit stuff from their adoptive parents. Finally, he said, “I’m not the one you want to fight.”

                Jason did his best vocal impression of a buzzer, and hoped the metallic filter of the helmet would make it sound better than it did to his own ears. “Wrong answer.” On a list of wrong answers, that was a serious competitor for dead last. He took aim again (not quite so precisely as before) and pulled the trigger.

                The Replacement dodged, obviously. He was Robin. Dodging shitty shots like that was learned day one. He also had good aim with a batarang, hitting Jason in the patch of exposed skin between his glove and jacket. His hand spasmed and dropped the gun. His other hand grabbed it before it hit the ground and shoved it back in his holster. When it came down to it, he didn’t actually want to kill the Replacement, and if he forgot that in an adrenaline-fuelled moment it would take longer for him to remember again than it would to aim somewhere vital and pull the trigger.

                The Replacement didn’t press the advantage. He just stood there and said, “We don’t have to do this. We’re on the same side, Jason.”

                Jason tutted and pulled out his kris. “No names in the field, Timmy.” The first swing was slow, and the Replacement dodged easily. The second was a bit faster, and he still dodged without much apparent effort.

                “Fine, we’re on the same side, Phoenix,” he grunted, going for an armlock.

                Jason slipped away and drove an elbow into his back, sending him stumbling. Jason decided to return the favor and stupidly talk instead of pressing the attack. “This isn’t Star Wars. There isn’t a good side and a bad side.”

                “Yes, yes, the world is shades of gray,” the Replacement grumbled, waving a hand exasperatedly. “I’ve heard it already. I understand.”

                “Clearly not, if you still think –“

                He didn’t realize that the Replacement’s other hand had been digging around in his utility belt until he threw down a smoke bomb. Jason waved it out of his face and swore under his breath. By the time it dissipated enough for him to see, the Replacement was already through the door at the end of the hall. Jason swore again and made a mental note to telekinetically keep the doors shut.

                It didn’t take long to catch up. Jason’s legs were longer, and if the Replacement was anything like he’d been when he was Robin he was probably hiding an injury or two that should have him on bedrest. In hindsight, it was always a stupid move, and it was definitely a stupid move now that someone else was doing it. At least he had proof that it was Batman’s influence’s fault, not his own.

                Injured or not, the Replacement nearly swept his legs out from under him once he got close enough. Jason managed to jump over it and go for a punch. The Replacement redirected it – smart move, considering the strength difference between them. Skill over power, same as ever. For the Replacement’s sake, Jason hoped that not all of his training was the same as ever. It hadn’t done Jason much good against the Joker.

                The thought had Jason hit the Replacement a lot harder and faster than he’d planned on. He felt and heard a rib crack. Jason let him get a good hit in in return. Fuck, that was gonna leave a nasty bruise. The Joker was managing to hurt him even in death. He gave that thought a double tap to the head and let himself fall into the rhythm of the fight. It was easy, like it always was with people trained by Batman or the League of Assassins.

                The Replacement was… okay. He’d have no problem with normal thugs, and with a little luck and preparation he’d do fine against most villains. Against somebody with similar training, and a lot more of it? If Jason actually wanted to kill him, it would be over already. He’d been Robin for, what, two years? Three? Jason remembered being a lot better when he’d had that much training. What did Bruce see in him? What was so special? Why in God’s name was he letting him run around like this when it was just going to get him killed?

                A fighting style that involved as much flipping around as theirs covered a lot of ground. Jason opened doors as needed to keep up the momentum, except for the one that opened to reveal a furious-looking girl in an outfit that reminded Jason of Deathstroke’s. He quickly closed it again and was too busy focusing on the fight to try and remember who she was. He focused so hard that he didn’t realize just how far they’d gone until the Replacement got lucky and he found himself looking around for some sort of terrain advantage or makeshift, non-lethal weapon.

                The stone faces of dead Titans stared down at him, looking suitably heroic and impressive. Funny how much more heroic and impressive people seemed to get after they were dead. There were more statues than he remembered. Shit, Donna died? He’d actually liked her. She’d done such a good job at burying her resentment toward him that he could almost pretend she’d liked him, too.

                For once, the Replacement actually took advantage of the distraction. Jason had to up his game a little, not only because the Replacement had given up on talking things out over tea, but because his subconscious kept whispering indistinctly in his ear that something was wrong. Time flowed differently in a fight, constantly switching between too slow or too fast seemingly at random, so he wasn’t sure how long it took for him to realize what it was. But he did realize, eventually. The realization had him freeze long enough for the Replacement to tackle him to the ground and lock his arms behind his back. He couldn’t bring himself to care, because –

                “Where’s mine?” he asked.

                The Replacement’s grip on him loosened. He slipped out of it and rose to his feet, looking over the statues again in case he’d just missed it.

                “You… don’t have one,” said the Replacement.

                Jason clenched his hands into fists and took a very deep, very calming breath. If he listened to his instincts and tried to hit the Replacement, he’d probably accidentally use telekinesis and cripple him at best. “Huh,” he said. His voice sounded very far away, even to himself. “Well. Makes sense, I guess. A few team-ups didn’t make me a Titan when I was alive. Why would they make me one once I was dead?”

                The Replacement didn’t say anything, and he didn’t attack, either. As usual, the peace and quiet set off alarm bells. Jason turned back to look at him. He looked… guilty. Too guilty for that to be the entire truth.

                “What?” Jason demanded. He followed the Replacement’s gaze to a statue of a girl he didn’t recognize. When it clicked, it sent bile up his throat and a sour taste on his tongue. “Ah. So, it’s just me, then.” It figured. It fucking figured. If there was one thing he’d learned since coming back ‘home’, it was that he always seemed to be the exception. Always the problem. Always the one everyone just wanted to forget and move on from.

                “Batman has a memorial in the cave,” the Replacement tried to assure him, but something was still off about the way he said it. Still guilty. Still screaming that he knew Jason wouldn’t be happy about the whole truth.

                In hindsight, Jason would regret reading his mind. In the moment, he was too angry and upset and filled with a perverse desire to hurt himself to think clearly. He dove into the Replacement’s thoughts too quickly for him to try and defend himself or change what he was thinking. He was envisioning the memorial with crystal clarity.

                A Good Soldier.

                The first thing he became aware of once he was back in his own mind was the laughter ripping its way out of his throat. It was joke. His life was one great, long, cosmic joke that he was never going to get. The fuck kind of person gives their son an epitaph like that? Adopted or not, that was just… what the fuck? That kind of person wasn’t the kind of person he saw in Bruce’s mind. Or, at least, what he remembered seeing in Bruce’s mind. Was he in denial? Was he so desperate for… for… something that he’d warped his own memories beyond recognition? Had that entire night been a bad dream? Was the Joker still alive?

                He didn’t realize how white and loud everything had gotten until he heard someone screaming his name. He willed it all back down and blinked until he could see and hear properly again. It must have shown, whether in his expression or in the fact that nothing was on fire or getting telekinetically smashed anymore, because the Replacement stopped yelling.

                Instead, he said, “Are you okay?”

                The gentleness in his voice stomped down hard on every last one of Jason’s nerves. “Shut up,” he snarled.

                Like a genie, his powers granted his wish in the worst way possible. Everything flared again, and the Replacement was on the ground, clutching at his throat and trying in vain to breathe. Jason stumbled back and squeezed his eyes shut, cradling his face in his hands as best he could with the helmet in the way. No matter how many times he reminded himself that the Replacement didn’t deserve to die for making an inadvertently upsetting remark, and no matter how many deep breaths he took, it didn’t make the sound of the Replacement’s breathing any less choked, rattling, gasping, and awful. All it did was add the sound of cracking and grinding stone.

                He couldn’t fix this. Nobody ever taught him how to fix things. Batman and Talia and Gotham itself only ever taught him how to break things. Fixing things was for other people. People that couldn’t get close enough to help with Jason having yet another meltdown that was going to become a lot more literal real damn quick if he didn’t get out.

                He straightened his back and opened his eyes. Nothing had changed, except for the broken stone littering the floor and the red of the Replacement’s face becoming tinged with blue. If he left right at that moment, like his instincts were screaming at him to do, the interaction would feel… incomplete. There’d be a constant thorn in his side telling him to go back and end things properly.

                So, he did what he usually did in times of stress and uncertainty. “Well, it’s been fun,” he said with false cheer that would be transparent to anyone not currently choking to death. “But let’s call it a night now, shall we? If you want to do this again, feel free to come and find me. If not… stay away.”

                There. That was a dramatic enough exit line. Now he just had to follow through with the actual exit. He raised his eyes to look at the wall and walked toward it. It crumbled to pieces as he approached, leaving a nice Jason-sized hole to walk through without breaking stride. He had to go through a couple walls before he got to the outside. Once he did, he found himself looking down at a fall that, while probably not deadly, would not be particularly pleasant. Time to stretch his wings a little, so to speak. And while he was at it, why stop at just breaking the fall? He couldn’t stay in San Francisco anymore, and everything he needed he had on him, so might as well see how far he could go without fainting and going into space again.

                He closed his eyes, stepped off the ledge, and imagined himself flying off into the night sky. He was sorely tempted to take his helmet off so he could enjoy the wind in his hair. He decided against it in case something happened and he dropped it. Getting it back telekinetically last time knocked him out for… fuck, he still wasn’t sure how long. Longer than he’d like, definitely. He’d lost more than enough of his life already. The helmet stayed on.

                Eventually, he realized that flying with his eyes closed, while helpful in avoiding panic, wasn’t very good for actually knowing where he was going. He didn’t have any destination in mind, so he couldn’t count on his powers to take him there. Hell, considering how his powers seemed to work, he’d probably wind up in Gotham again.

                He opened his eyes and found his vision obscured by fire. He shut them again and drove right past panic into good ol’ calm logic. He wasn’t burning. He couldn’t even feel the fire. He could still feel all his clothes, so they weren’t burning, either. With all this evidence, he could safely ignore logic saying none of that should be possible. He opened his eyes again and actually looked around. It could just be a trick of the light or willful thinking or whatever, but he could swear the flames coming off him seemed to stretch out into wings.

                It… it was just his powers being weird again. Yeah. They were being weird and tapping into his subconscious. He was starting to think of himself as Phoenix, so his powers were expressing that imagery. The only other explanation was that the powers were always going to express themselves as a phoenix, and they’d nudged his brain into choosing the name himself. That wasn’t a good explanation. That was a terrible, awful explanation that he was going to do his very best to throw down the mental garbage disposal.

                He turned his gaze downward. San Francisco was long gone, replaced with mountains covered in green forest and criss-crossed with grey roads. It finally hit him that he had literally no idea where to go. If he had to be confused, he’d rather do it with minimal chance of falling to his death, so he angled down toward what looked like an empty clearing. Once he got closer to the canopy, he willed the flames to go out. To his surprise, they obeyed the command and vanished.

                He hit the ground harder than he meant to, stumbling and falling to his knees hard enough to make him wince. He didn’t bother trying to stand up again. Now that his body thought it was safe, it was making all its pain and complaints known. He shifted into a more comfortable position and tried to think everything over.

                He got what he wanted, right? He saw what the Replacement could do, found him wanting, and put him out of commission long enough to do some serious rethinking of his life choices. The Titans would… Fuck, the Titans were probably going to be pissed. He had to stop thinking like a crime boss. Beating up a member of a gang might get the others to leave you alone, but beating up a member of a superhero team would just have the others out for blood. Until a greater and/or closer threat popped up, which shouldn’t take too long. It would even less time if he kept on the move.

                Okay. That was a plan. Stay on the move. Wander around the country aimlessly, doing the vigilante thing. He could work with that. He’d still be helping people.

                With that out of the way, all he had to think about (besides all the shit he was not going to think about) was the fire thing. Even by mysterious power standards, that was a little weird. He raised a hand and half-heartedly imagined a fireball in the palm of his hand.

                He did a quadruple take to make sure it was real when it actually happened. He willed it out, then back on, out, on, out, on, until he was satisfied that it wasn’t just a bizarre fluke. He could finally control his pyrokinesis. He scrambled through his memories trying to figure out when that happened. There’d been that thing with Mr. Freeze, but he’d spent hours trying to light a cigarette in the following days and got nothing out of it except the taste stuck on his tongue. After that, there was… there was the Joker. Was that it? Had finally killing him unlocked his true potential or something?

                He didn’t know, and the more he thought about it the more he didn’t want to care. He could set things on fire with his mind, now. Cool. That was all there had to be to it, if he let it be.  

                He got to his feet, head full of plans and logistics and not guilt and anger and all that bullshit, and took off again.

Chapter Text

                Jason quickly fell into a new routine. Once he arrived in a town/city, he’d check the news, ask around, and if all else failed read some minds in order to see which locals needed to die. The towns where nobody did were few and far between enough to be more anomaly than anecdote. Once that was done, he went to work. When they were all dead, or – more often – his actions started getting reported on and drawing attention, he went to the highway and hitchhiked his way to the next one. Hitchhiking was a great way to travel when you had both the desire and ability to kill the kinds of people that made it so dangerous. He was honestly surprised by how many drivers didn’t try to kill or rob or assault him.

                Time, memories, names, places, faces, scenery… Everything became a blur. Maybe that was what he needed? His own fucked up brand of boring normality? He was helping people, and he didn’t lose control of his powers. Not even when he read the minds of the worst small-town America had to offer. Having the twisted, screaming abyss of the Joker’s mind branded into his memory in white-hot irons made him nice and numb. He was helping people, he was in control, and nobody had come after him. This… this was good. As good as Jason was ever going to get, probably.

                Nothing particularly memorable happened until he hit Kansas. Or was it Arkansas? Or was it Kansas City? Fuck if he knew. All he knew was that that was the third payphone now that started ringing the second he got close. Jason had seen enough action movies (and lived through enough of their clichés) to know where this was going. With a heavy sigh and a look around to make sure there weren’t any innocent civilians around to get caught in the crossfire (he knew there wouldn’t be, he’d chosen this street because he wanted a quiet walk to clear his head, which clearly wasn’t going to happen), he went to the phone and picked it up.

                He gave the caller a moment to say whatever smart comment they had planned. They wasted it with silence, so he had to fill in for them. “You do know I have a cell phone, right?”

                A familiar laugh came over the line. “I thought you’d appreciate the dramatics.”

                Jason swallowed and cleared his throat to get rid of the sudden dryness in his mouth and lump in his throat. “Hey, Babs. Been a while.”

                “You do know I’ve got a codename, right?” Barbara echoed teasingly.

                “No, actually, I don’t,” he replied. She wasn’t Batgirl again, right? No, Batgirl was still Cassandra. Or was she? “I haven’t exactly been in the loop.”

                “It’s Oracle now.”

                Jason racked his brain trying to remember hearing about someone with that codename. “Yup, never heard of you. No offense.”

                “None taken. It means I’m doing my job right. I work behind the scenes, now. Surveillance, data collection, mission control, that kind of thing.”

                Jason nodded, useless as the gesture was over a phone. That sounded like just the sort of thing Babs would be good at and find fulfilling. “You always did like bossing me around.”

                “And you always…” Her voice trailed off unhappily.

                “What’s up?” Jason asked, free hand automatically going for his gun, as if he could actually do something to help if Babs was in trouble even though she was probably several states away. Maybe if he flew there, he could –

                “You, Jason.” Ah. She wasn’t in trouble. She’d just been reminded that she had to lecture him like the old days. “Why did you attack Tim?”

                Jason sighed and rubbed at his forehead. “I wanted to see what he could do.”

                Maybe it was his telepathy, but he swore he could feel her anger over the line. “And that had to include seeing if he could survive a crushed windpipe? I saw the reports. It was a close thing.”

                Jason ignored the wave of guilt. “That was an accident,” he said. He couldn’t quite keep his words clear of sheepishness.

                “What, were you doing a Darth Vader impression and got carried away?” Barbara snapped.

                “I just wanted him to shut up, and I… I kind of lost control.” If his voice got any more sheepish, he was going to start sprouting wool. It all sounded so much better and justified in his head. Barbara was too well-adjusted to consider ‘he was being too nice and it made me mad enough to nearly kill him’ a good excuse.

                “You kind of lost control,” she repeated just short of mockingly.

                “If I’d fully lost control, he’d be dead,” Jason said. Along with probably everyone else in the area except for me. He wasn’t going to say that part out loud. Babs would probably send the entire Justice League to lock him up and try to help him if he did, and that was a recipe for full control loss and death.

                The line went quiet, except for the faint clacking of a keyboard. Was she looking up something, or was she writing a profile for him? Or did she already have one? He wouldn’t be surprised. She’d escaped the worst of the trademark Bat habits, thanks to having a stable, supportive father figure already in her life, but having a plan to neutralize everyone you encountered was pretty much unavoidable.

                When she spoke again, her voice was a lot calmer. “How often would you say you lose control?”

                Jason weighed his words carefully. He didn’t want to completely lie to her, but he’d also like to avoid getting hunted down. “It hasn’t happened since then.” He pulled out his phone and checked the date. Holy shit, had it really been three months? That was a new record. It was also the longest time he’d managed to go without encountering anything Gotham-related besides news articles he skimmed through to make sure nobody had gotten themselves killed. He knew that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but gee, that was one hell of a correlation.

                “That’s not what I asked.”

                Jason let out a sound that was half-sigh, half-growl. “It only happens when I get really upset. How often that happens depends on how much time I spend interacting with you people.”

                “And with that in mind, you actively sought out Robin?”

                Man, it really was like the old days, because Babs was making him feel stupid and reckless and not as wonderful as Dick Grayson. That last part wasn’t really applicable now, but it had been so often in the past that he could see the subtext, even if it was just his imagination. “I didn’t think he’d try to talk about feelings and shit! I figured I’d go in, beat him up a bit, and make sure the Titans left me alone.”

                Barbara sighed in a way so guilt-inducing she must have learned it from Alfred. “Beating up their members is not a good way to get superhero teams to leave you alone, Jason. You’ve been –“

                “Dealing with gangs too much, I know.” Jason ran a hand down his face. “Did you call just to lecture me?”

                “Not entirely. I…” Another sigh. Quieter and to herself more than him. “You really know how to make a mess of things, don’t you?”

                “It’s part of my charm.”

                “Not when you won’t let anyone clean it up.” Jason got the distinct impression she was massaging her temples to alleviate the headache he was giving her. “I don’t know how to help you, Jason, and yes, you do need help. Either you need someone like Martian Manhunter to help you control your powers, or you need someone like a therapist to help you control your emotions.”

                Jason had a crystal-clear image of how either one of those would end: In flames. “Or, how about you all just leave me alone? It’s working fine so far.”

                “That’s not going to be an option for long. There are only so many arguments Alfred can make to Batman for respecting your wishes, and your stunt in San Francisco eliminated a whole lot of them. Unless you give me something really convincing to pass along to him, he’s going to track you down and try to bring you home.”

                 Well, that explained why the Bat hadn’t already shown up. Jason would have to remember to get Alfred something nice for his birthday. He’d already missed out on Christmas. “How about you remind him that I nearly burnt down Gotham the last time he tried having a heart-to-heart?”

                “Is that how it happened? B’s report tells a very different story.”

                God damn B and his obsession with reports. “You expect the person writing the report to paint themselves in an unflattering light?”

                “Usually, no. But with B? The man that still blames himself for not somehow overpowering a grown man with a gun when he was an untrained eight-year-old?”

                “You mean the man that deluded himself into thinking I was ‘a good soldier’?”

                He could practically hear Barbara’s wince. “Yeah, that was… I prefer to think of that as a memorial to Robin. The tombstone’s got a nicer epitaph.”

                It was a very good thing that Barbara was too far away for him to read her mind, because he might not have overcome the urge to do it, and if the epitaph was anything less than perfect he might have had another meltdown.

                Even in his silence, Babs could tell how unhappy he was with the subject and decided to change it. “How would you describe what happened that night, then?”

                Jason drummed his fingers on the phone in thought. “I killed the Joker and lost control. Batman tried talking me down, but then Blüdhaven got bombed or nuked or whatever and I lost control even more and ended up…” Shit, should he bring up the whole space thing?

                “Ended up where?” Babs prompted.

                “It doesn’t matter,” he decided.

                “Are you sure? Because I am genuinely curious how you managed to completely vanish like that. You were still on the planet, right?” she asked jokingly.

                “Yeah, of course,” Jason lied. “Where else would I be?”

                “Jason,” said Barbara, like they were Batgirl and Robin again and he was lying about doing his homework or getting a wound looked at. “Where did you go?”

                “It doesn’t matter,” Jason repeated. “Don’t worry about it. I just… needed some space.”

                “If that is a pun, I swear to –“ She cut herself off. “Fine. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll respect your decision. If you refuse to let anyone help you, that’s your decision, too. You’re an adult, technically. All I’m going to do is suggest, as someone who cares about you, that you find someone you can talk to and ask for help. I understand if it’s not one of us. Just… don’t feel like you have to go through whatever you’re going through alone, okay?”

                Jason stared numbly at his distorted reflection in the payphone’s casing. He knew that she meant well, and he’d given her practically nothing to work with and draw conclusions from. That didn’t stop the idea of letting someone in that close make something in his chest twist and clench with fear so hard he could barely breathe. “I’ll take it under advisement.”

                “Thank you. I… honestly thought you would’ve hung up by now, and I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. I’ll call you back later, okay?”

                “Okay.” He hung up, because that conversation had gone far too smoothly and he needed to maintain his reputation.


                He did try to keep an open mind on the whole ‘finding someone’ thing. He talked to people a little more, at least. Tried to get to know them beyond getting the information he needed to find his next target. It didn’t go particularly well. Anybody whose mind he’d read was a non-starter, because it was impossible to make small talk with somebody you knew got off to feet or worse. And even when he was able to talk to someone with a straight face, it was kind of hard to connect to people when you were as fucked up as he was. How was he supposed to empathize with people his age when most of them were worried about college and finding work and he was worried about accidentally killing everyone in a mile radius whenever he stubbed his toe?

                Suffering wasn’t a contest. He knew that. But if it was one, he’d be a hell of a contender.

                One side-effect of trying to find a friend/confidant/girlfriend/boyfriend/whatever was that he was lingering in places longer than before. In spite of what cowboy movies had told him, it wasn’t easy for a mysterious stranger with a gun at his hip and a troubled past to swoop into a town, save it from trouble, and fall in love within the span of a few weeks. Saving it from trouble was easy, sure, but connecting with someone? Not as much.

                It wasn’t long enough to find someone, but it turned out to be long enough for someone to find him.

                Talia had the decency to leave a note in his motel room rather than just ambushing him, at least. Though that might have been more self-preservation than politeness. He considered ignoring it. After all, this might all be an elaborate ploy to drag him back to Ra’s and have him try to brainwash him or something. If it wasn’t, then Talia might accept that he didn’t want to see her and leave him alone. Both situations hinged on a very unstable might.

                At worst, he’d get a chance to take out Ra’s. At best, he’d… get to ask Talia for advice? Logically speaking, that was a terrible idea. Illogically speaking, his complete and utter failure at connecting with anybody better at giving advice was getting to him a little. At least with Talia he didn’t have to… No, he’d still have to pretend a little. He already regretted letting the whole space thing slip to Babs, and he actually trusted her.

                Good idea or not, she was already at the meeting place when Jason grappled there that night, standing on the edge of the roof, staring up at the moon, weapons hanging at her sides but posture perfectly relaxed.

                “Were you followed?” she asked.

                “Not that I noticed,” he replied.

                She turned to look at him, eyes narrowed disapprovingly. “Did you properly check?”

                “Do it yourself.”

                “You know what I mean.”

                Great. Already off to a great start. “I’ve already spent far too much time listening to little Jimmy two blocks down fantasize about Power Girl. I’d rather just not say anything I don’t want anyone else hearing.”

                “Very well.” Talia pulled a small metal device out of her pocket and pressed a button. “If anybody is listening, they can’t record anything or communicate with their superiors. I hope you weren’t too attached to your phone.”

                “Wha –“ Jason pulled the phone out, and yup, dead as a doornail. “Fuck you.”

                “Such is the price of discretion. You seem to have forgotten quite a bit about that.”

                Jason glared at her. Even with the helmet, she’d be able to read it through his body language. “Seriously. Fuck you. I was saving up for a Switch. Now I gotta use the money on another phone.”

                For a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, anger flashed across Talia’s face. “Do you truly think a phone is the greatest of your concerns right now?”

                Jason crossed his arms across his chest. “What should be the greatest of my concerns, then, o fount of knowledge and wisdom?”

                Talia took a deep breath and looked back up at the moon. “You have made more enemies than you know. Black Mask was not working alone.”

                “Yeah, I figured that when I got attacked by a fucking were-hyena and Nazi.”

                “Hyena and Captain Nazi were not his only allies, and they are far from his most dangerous. What do you know of the Society?”

                “Well, from the name alone I can tell they were founded by a pretentious asshole.” Talia’s look of annoyance was enough to make even him feel a little chagrined. “I haven’t been watching the news much, okay? I’m sure the Justice League can handle it.”

                Talia looked downright insulted. Too insulted. “I would not be so sure. The Society is an organization bound by mutual hatred of the Justice League and their associates. As you can imagine, it is quite large, and intentionally or not, you are counted amongst those associates.”

                “Because you told them?” Jason asked.

                The brief flash of surprise on Talia’s face was quickly replaced by an expression that said she was now really insulted. “All I told them was that you are a former student of mine and a vague overview of what I know of your powers. I also advised them to leave you be. Deathstroke disagreed.”

                Deathstroke, huh? Back in his Robin days, he had firmly been on the list of villains he should run away from. After seeing him in action for the first time, he’d been more than happy to. Now? Unless he’d gotten faster than the speed of thought and stronger than an angry Gorilla Grodd while Jason was dead… “Well then, he’s welcome to come and take it up with me. I could use a workout.”

                “Do not underestimate him. I would not be surprised if he managed to find a way to disable your powers, and even if you were maintaining a proper training regimen your odds of victory would be scarce.”

                “I think they’d be a bit higher than that,” Jason claimed, but he knew she had a point. Deathstroke was nearly as stubborn as Batman. If Jason defeated him, he’d just keep coming back with more and more surprises to throw at him. Unless Jason just killed him. Maybe a look at his mind would prove him wrong, but judging from everything he knew about him there was probably some good in there. Some possibility of redemption, or at least making the world a little bit better. And there was a very good chance that he would eventually find some way to neutralize Jason’s powers. On the plus side, if that happened, he could at least ask how he did it and narrow down the possibilities for how he got them in the first place.

                Talia sighed. “Well, they are certainly better than the odds of you seeing sense. If you joined the Society, I promise you would be under my command and I would not ask you to do anything you are unwilling to.”

                Jason rolled his eyes.

                Talia shrugged. “I can tell them I tried, at least. If you continue along this path of… whatever it is you think you’re doing, I recommend you pick up the pace. If you continue to linger, soon enough those who do not know you as well as I will be able to visit you as well.”

                “I’ll take it under advisement.”

                “That is all I expected of you.”

                Jason waited for her to make a dramatic exit. He even turned his back on her for a moment to give her a chance to be gone when he turned around. She didn’t. She just kept standing there, staring up at the moon. “Did you really come here just for that?”

                Talia closed her eyes and drummed her fingers against her leg. “How did Batman react when you returned?”

                Jason was glad for the helmet, because his jaw must have been agape for a solid ten second. “Why?”

                “Is it such an odd thing to be curious about?” Talia asked tetchily.

                All right. Clearly, there was something else on Talia’s mind, and this was some weird segue/metaphor/whatever. Might as well humor her. “I think he thought I was possessed. Hell, he probably still thinks it. Easier than accepting I’m not his…” Nope, he was not bringing up the good soldier thing again.

                Talia picked up the meaning, anyway, and she didn’t seem happy about it. “He wasn’t happy to see you?”

                “He was… a lot of things.” Happy, self-loathing, grief-stricken, angry, scared… pretty much every emotion imaginable. “The whole killing thing kinda put a damper on it.”

                Talia wasn’t happy with that answer, either. “Did he force you out of Gotham, or did you leave of your own accord?”

                  “I… left.” It was the truth, technically. She didn’t look convinced, so he had to elaborate. “After I killed the Joker, I just… needed some space.”

                Talia smiled proudly. Jason would never admit how happy the sight made him. “As I thought. That madman blighted this Earth for far too long. I am glad you were the one to claim vengeance against him.” Her expression faded back to inscrutability. “I assume my beloved was not so pleased. Is that why you did not return to Gotham?”

                “What do you want, Talia?” Jason snapped. “Since when have you given a shit about my feelings, unless it affects you?”

                “I – Fine.” Her expression hardened in a way he’d rarely seen targeted at him. “I want to know if your estrangement from Batman is due to his poor actions as a father, or your own instability and projection of your self-loathing. Thank you for showing it to be the latter.”

                Jason’s throat was too tight to speak, at first, which was good, because anything that came out would just be incoherent swearing. What the fuck? Why would she – Why was he surprised? He always knew she was a heartless manipulator. He’d pushed too hard, and the façade finally crumbled. Whatever weird maternal affection she had for him must have died after he left. She’d probably killed it herself.

                Finally, when the tightness eased and Talia pulled the mask back on to show guilt, he said, “Well. Glad to illuminate things for you. Thanks for the heads-up. See you next time you feel like asking weird, invasive questions.” He turned and walked away.

                “Jason, I apologize. I worded that poorly.” The words started coming faster when Jason didn’t stop. “All I meant was that you find it difficult to believe people care about you, which is perfectly understandable given your background, but –“

                Jason grappled away before she could finish whatever half-assed excuse she was trying for. Actual apologies didn’t use the word ‘but’.

                He grabbed his things from his motel room and immediately set out for the next stop on his little cross-country road-trip. No need to linger anymore. He didn’t want to run into Deathstroke, or worse, any Bats. And Talia had just given him an excellent, if unintentional, lesson on why connecting with people was stupid and overrated and never a good idea.

                Or maybe it was just never a good idea for him.

                Or maybe Talia had a point about the self-loathing thing. Whatever. Everybody hated themselves at least a little. Everybody who wasn’t a narcissist and/or complete asshole, anyway. He’d read more than enough minds to confirm it. And healthy or not, not letting people get close and pushing away anyone foolish enough to try had worked pretty well for him in the past. Trusting and loving people had him running himself ragged trying to take care of Catherine, and then constantly hurt as Robin, and then dead when he tried to protect Sheila, and then doing all sorts of awful shit for Talia’s sake, and then hurting even more people in a stupid bid for Bruce’s love.

                So, yeah. Love definitely sucked and wasn’t worth it and he was better off without it. If only his stupid, traitorous tear ducts would understand that and stop crying every time he thought about it.

Chapter Text

                Jason became very thankful for pyrokinetic side-effects as spring gave way to summer. Leather jackets and body armor weren’t exactly breathable. If he’d had a normal, changeable body temperature, the sweat and heatstroke would be a far greater threat than any of the low-level criminals and technically law-abiding assholes he was dealing with.

                At certain times, he couldn’t help but remember how Batman used to grumble and end every patrol soaked in sweat when heatwaves hit, no matter how many adjustments he made to the suit. There was only so much you could do with bulky, black body armor covering every inch except the lower half of the face. Had he finally figured it out in the last few years? Or had the wonderful, brilliant Replacement done it?

                Then Jason would get mad, try to comfort himself by imagining Batman suffering in the grueling heat while Jason comfortably wore as many layers as he wanted, and shove it to the back of his mind until it sprang back up like a jack-in-the-box.

                Maybe his thoughts kept going back to Gotham because he was getting physically closer to it. His journey across the US had been a meandering zig-zag, but the general direction was always east. He wanted to believe it was just a coincidence. Hitchhiking didn’t exactly give a lot of control over your path. It made sense that the further north or south you got, the more traffic you’d find going the other way to stay in the country. He didn’t want to believe that he was subconsciously hitchhiking on roads with lots of traffic heading in the direction of Gotham, or subconsciously using his powers to make the traffic go that way.

                 Whatever the reason, he eventually hit the tri-state area, and once he got there, changing direction felt like giving up. How many people could say they’d gone from sea to shining sea without a plane? Probably a lot, actually, but that just made giving up now even more undesirable. If all those people did it, he could do it, too. He’d just make sure to steer clear of New Jersey. New York was cool in his memories. It probably had lots of work for him, too.

                The city, like everything else from before his death, was smaller than he remembered. He also got the weird feeling in his gut of something being missing every time his eyes drifted over the space in the skyline the old Titans Tower was. On the plus side, it meant fewer superheroes to deal with. So long as he didn’t start attacking people in the middle of Times Square or burn anything important down, he should be able to have a nice visit. Maybe go for a swim and see if the dolphins of the Atlantic were as petty as the ones in the Pacific.

                So, obviously, the first morning he spent there he grabbed a newspaper to see who to kill only to find one Nightwing’s stupidly perfect face grinning up at him. Because the universe hated Jason with a passion.

                It made sense, and was something he really should’ve seen coming. Blüdhaven was well and truly fucked, and it would take more than five years for Dick and Bruce’s relationship to reach the point that Dick would willingly live in Gotham full-time. New York was familiar enough for him not to feel lost, but new enough for a fresh start, or at least an attempt at one.

                Jason scoured the newspaper for more information, and when all he found was the journalist’s poorly-disguised crush on Nightwing, he scoured the internet. Again, ninety percent of it was just people thirsting over his foster brother, which felt really weird to read. The only useful thing he was able to glean was that he didn’t seem to have a set patrol route. He showed up when and where he thought he was most needed. As somebody who wanted to avoid him at all costs, Jason thought this was terribly inconsiderate of him.

                Staying out of Nightwing’s territory wasn’t an option, because he’d decided that all of New York City was his territory. Jason could, theoretically, spend his time in New York as Jason Peters or one of his other fake identities rather than as Phoenix. He’d be gone long before Dick even knew he’d been there, so long as they didn’t bump into each other on the street, which was so unlikely that… Quite frankly, it was so unlikely that it was almost guaranteed to happen, because, again, the universe hated him.

                Avoiding him wasn’t an option, either. There was always the aggressive approach, but even if Jason could ignore the bile rising in his throat at the thought of accidentally hurting Dick like he had the Replacement, Dick was probably the most beloved person in the entire superhero community. Harming a hair on his head would put him in the crosshairs of practically every hero (and probably some villains) on the planet.

                Avoiding and attacking weren’t options, and he wasn’t about to admit defeat and flee, which left… ugh. God damn it.

                Finding Dick’s phone number was worryingly easy. You’d think a police officer that put a lot of vengeful people away would be a bit more careful about that. But if Dick were a reasonable person, he would have… well… not done practically everything he’d ever done in his life. Jason just had to hope he’d be reasonable about this.

                He spent a lot longer than strictly necessary composing the text message. Eventually, he settled on, Hey, it’s Jason. I’m in New York. I won’t bother you as long as you don’t bother me. Laters. Simple. To the point. Practically screamed ‘leave me the fuck alone’. He hit send and immediately set out to find some good ol’ New York pizza so he wouldn’t be checking for a response every five seconds.

                He barely got out the door of the motel before his phone rang. He checked, confirmed it was Dick, and hit decline. He barely got into a taxi before the phone rang again. Still Dick. Still declined. He barely finished telling the driver where he wanted to go before he got a notification. Dick had texted him. Answer your phone. Jason ignored it. When Dick called again, he just put his phone on airplane mode and spent the rest of the ride in peace.

                The pizza was probably fifty percent grease and took a year off his lifespan, but it was delicious. He ignored the sound of the door opening in favor of savoring the last vestiges of flavor on his tongue before he started on the second piece. A stupid move, he realized when Dick plopped himself down in the chair opposite him and fixed him with an uncanny impression of Alfred’s disapproving glare.

                Jason sighed. “Could you at least wait for me to finish eating before you start yelling at me and I start stabbing at you?”

                The glare faltered and gave way to a look far too complicated for Jason to decipher in the short time he had before the glare returned. “Fine.”

                As Jason ate, Dick didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. The glare and crossed arms and disapproving frown got the message across loud and clear. He could practically taste his anger, which kind of ruined the fine dining experience. It was something of a relief to finally finish and rise to his feet.

                “You wanna do this here, or scream and stab in a dirty alley like civilized men?” he asked.

                Dick’s eyes flitted around the room, taking in all the witnesses and possible casualties. “Alley.”

                They found one pretty quick. As soon as they’d done so and situated themselves in a shadowy spot, Jason pulled out his kris and idly twirled it between his fingers. “All right. You’re the home team, so you get to go first.”

                Dick didn’t immediately start yelling, but the tension in his posture said it was a close thing. “What are you doing here?”

                Jason shrugged. “Sightseeing.”

                “Sightseeing,” Dick repeated flatly.

                “Sightseeing with a sprinkling of vigilantism,” Jason amended.

                “Vigilantism, or murder?”

                “The two aren’t mutually exclusive, you know.”

                Dick closed his eyes. His shoulders rose and fell with several deep, calming breaths. They didn’t seem to be working.

                “I wouldn’t have come if I knew you were here,” Jason said. It was probably the truth. The thought of Dick being here had never occurred to him before he saw that newspaper, and any thoughts he tried to have retroactively would be biased by how terribly this reunion was already going.

                “Did you know Tim was in San Francisco before you went there?” Dick still wasn’t yelling. Yelling wouldn’t have been able to convey so much venom.

                 “I didn’t even know it was San Francisco before I got there.” Jason metaphorically (and almost literally) bit his tongue. Damn it, he had to stop saying shit like that. The bats would go even more out of their minds with wild theories and assumptions unless he gave them the full story, and no way in hell was he doing that.

                Dick was clearly a little surprised by that little fact, but he got over it quickly. “That wasn’t the point of the question.”

                Right. The point of it was precious, wonderful little Timmy. “Since when have you cared about your replacements?”

                Dick actually flinched at that, anger giving way to… sadness? Regret? “You weren’t my replacement, Jason.” Something like realization dawned in his eyes. “And Tim isn’t yours.”

                Jason rolled his eyes. “Sure. Bruce just so happened to pick up two other kids with black hair and blue eyes and daddy issues.”

                “If your problem’s with Bruce, why take it out on Tim?”

                Why did you take it out on me? The question made it to the tip of Jason’s tongue before he stopped it. He wasn’t here to sling guilt, no matter how tempting the idea was. “I just wanted to see what he could do. Maybe put him on bedrest for a while to give him time to rethink his life choices before they become his death choices.”

                Dick flinched again. Looks like Jason was slinging guilt, and it felt great. “You did a lot more than that.”

                “Look, I already had this talk with Babs, just ask her,” Jason snapped.

                “I want to hear it from you.”

                Jason realized he’d stopped twirling the kris a while ago, and right now his grip on the pommel was becoming painfully tight. “Fine. I’m an unstable danger to everyone around me who can’t control his powers. Is that what you want to hear?”

                Dick pinched the bridge of his nose. “No. Of course that’s not what I want to hear. Why do you have to be so…” He trailed off with a vaguely guilty look.

                “Go on,” said Jason, adjusting his grip on the kris. “Finish the sentence.”

                “So much of a smartass,” said Dick, after a pause too long for that to have been how the sentence was originally going to end.

                Genuine or not, the sentiment had Jason’s hackles go down a little. “Batman needed a counterpoint, and eventually my personality got stuck like this.”

                The faintest of smiles tugged at the corner of Dick’s mouth. “Sounds familiar.”

                “Yeah. Without B, you would’ve grown up into a real asshole. Oh, wait.”

                 What little levity Dick had faded quickly. “You know, after everything you’ve done, I should be trying to arrest you.”

                “Emphasis on try.”

                “I know. I’ve seen the footage. That kind of power needs control. Training. You –“

                “I’ve already got training,” Jason interrupted. “And I have loads of control when I’m not getting sucker-punched by how little people cared about me dying.” He clenched his jaw shut before any more stupid, maudlin whining slipped out.

                Dick probably would have looked less hurt if Jason just stabbed him. “Is that really what you think?”

                Jason rolled the kris’ hilt between his fingers, using the sensation to ground himself. “No.” For approximately the six millionth time, he remembered what he’d seen of Bruce’s memories. Even if it was embellished for Jason’s sake, there had to be something there to embellish. “But that’s only because I can literally read minds. There isn’t exactly a lot of evidence.”

                “We –“ Dick cut himself off. “If I try to explain, are you going to stab me?”

                “Probably.”

                “All right.” Dick looked up at the sky. Maybe for answers, maybe just for an excuse not to have to look at Jason. When he looked back down, his expression was one of steely resolve. “I’ll let you sightsee on one condition: No killing.”

                “Seriously?” Jason groaned.

                “This is my city, so I get to make the rules.”

                “I don’t think the city would agree.”

                Dick pulled out his phone as threateningly as he would a weapon. “I’ve got B on speed dial. No killing means no calling.”

                There were few things worse than not being able to kill, and B coming to visit was one of them. “Fine. I’ll just make sure they wish I’d killed them.”

                “That’s fine.”

                Jason shook his head. “You’ve got some weird moral boundaries.”

                Dick shrugged. “Comes with the job.”

                Jason sheathed the kris. He wasn’t sure if his surprise at not having to use it was pleasant or not. “Great. Deal. See you later.” He made to move past him and out of the alley.

                “Wait,” said Dick.

                Jason did so, though not without gripping one of his guns and only in silence for a moment to see if Dick was going to continue the train of thought. “What?” he asked when he didn’t.

                Dick made a weird hand movement as if he’d tried reaching out to grab Jason’s arm, only to abort it midway and pretend he was just brushing his hair away from his eyes. “I’m glad you’re alive. For what it’s worth.”

               

                That’s not much. The words made it to the tip of Jason’s tongue before they died. It was a lie. A bare-faced lie with not a grain of truth to it. Fuck. He just shrugged, instead.

                “And try not to change numbers, okay?” Dick continued. “As long as you’re here, I might need to call you in for backup.”

                Or you might need to call me for backup, and I don’t want to assume it’s a telemarketer and ignore it.

                Jason didn’t acknowledge the unspoken words and gave a noncommittal grunt before walking away.

                He went straight back to his motel to grab his equipment and go on patrol. That meeting had gone both far better and far worse than he’d expected, and he needed to take it out on somebody.


                He went three glorious, blissful days without seeing hide nor hair of Dick Grayson, apart from one news report on a gunrunning operation Nightwing had shut down. He was surprised to see so little reporting on him, honestly, until he looked it up and realized everyone was distracted by notorious criminal Phoenix running around their city causing havoc. Funny how Nightwing’s article triumphantly declared no fatalities, while Phoenix’s conveniently failed to mention the same. Moral ambiguity didn’t sell, he supposed. People wanted dashing heroes and despicable villains, not anything in between.

                Amusing as it was, it also meant that Batman definitely knew where he was. He’d just have to hope that Alfred and Babs and Dick and anyone else with sense would be able to convince him not to hop on the next plane to New York to try and fail to help him. If those hopes were futile, as they often were, well… He was running out of stuff to do in the city anyway. He’d be leaving soon enough.

                Before he did, he had a few things to finish up. At the top of the list was taking down a drug ring targeting kids. The idea of having to leave them alive rankled, but he’d make do. He expected to have to do a lot of snooping, and a few painful interrogations, to get an in. Instead, Phoenix received an invitation to one of their meetings, courtesy of a child that was clearly expecting to be one of the messengers that got shot. He kept an eye on her until she got home (or at least where she was currently staying) without incident, and started hatching a plan.

                 It was relatively simple. Go in, pretend to still be the crime kingpin they thought he was, see what he was dealing with, pretend the alarm he’d set on his phone was an important call and excuse himself, sneak back in, and take them down. Easy.

                So obviously he had to arrive at the meeting place only to find Nightwing perched on a nearby rooftop. With a sigh and a whispered curse, Jason doubled back and grappled up to his hiding spot. Nightwing spun around and threw a batarang (or was it birdarang?) at him as soon as he landed. It was a clumsy throw – he’d probably realized it was Jason as it was leaving his hand – and Jason caught it easily.

                “Would you believe me if I said I wasn’t following you?” Dick asked, still taut and ready for a fight.

                Jason tossed the bat/bird/whateverarang back to him. “Yeah, actually. I’m not that paranoid.”

                Dick relaxed. “Good. You here for the meeting, too?”

                “Yup. Got invited.”

                Dick gaped at him. “What?”

                “I think that they think I’m one of them.”

                “Well, you were running a big chunk of the Gotham drug trade. Can’t blame them.”

                “Yeah, yeah, the point is, I’ve got an in, and you don’t. I’ve got this. Go find a cat to get out of a tree or something.”

                “Or, we could work together.” He somehow noticed Jason roll his eyes beneath the helmet. “Don’t look at me like that. I know you can telekinetically lift a rollercoaster, but you’re still my… you’re still not invincible.”

                Jason didn’t have time or energy to grill him on that little slip of tongue. He also didn’t have the time or energy to argue with him. Not when he had that look in his eye. “Fine. Just don’t get in the way.” He was agreeing for purely practical reasons. There was no lingering hero worship. He was not excited to be working with Nightwing again whatsoever. He wasn’t.

                “Good.” Nightwing pulled something small from a practically invisible pocket and held it out to him. “Earpiece. I’ll hear whatever you hear. Go in and –“

                “Scope the place out, yeah, I was already gonna do that,” said Jason. “You still got my number?”

                Nightwing pulled a phone out of another invisible pocket and checked. “Yes. You need an escape call?”

                Jason took off his helmet and put the earpiece in place. “I wouldn’t say need, but it’d be nice. Do it when I say…” He quickly skimmed through his internal dictionary, searching for something weird enough not to use accidentally and normal enough to not be obvious. “Fortuitous.”

                “Fortuitous. Got it.” Dick put a hand to his ear. “Testing. One two three, testing.”

                Jason got the disorienting feeling of hearing the same phrase from two different sources of differing audio qualities. “It works.” He put his helmet back on. “Ready?”

                “Ready.” Nightwing turned back to the building the meeting was in and crouched down into the shadows, bat(?)arangs poised at his fingertips. “Good luck.”

                “Way to jinx it.” Jason attached his grapple hook to the edge of the roof and lowered himself to the ground as fast as he could without breaking anything. Once he landed, he retracted the grappling line, took a deep breath, drew himself into an appropriately intimidating stance, and walked over to the building.

                It was, shockingly, an abandoned office building rather than an abandoned warehouse. He was really moving up in the world. Next thing you knew, he might be getting invited to places that weren’t a fire hazard. He went to the side door the little girl had told him to go to and knocked. It was hard to resist the urge to give it the shave and a haircut pattern. It wouldn’t exactly help cement his image as a dangerous threat/powerful ally.

                  After a moment of silence, the door opened to reveal a (probably purposefully) plain-looking guard aiming a gun at Jason. “Are you the real Phoenix?” he asked.

                “The fuck kind of stupid question is that?” Jason asked. “What am I supposed to do, whip out my ID?”

                The guard looked a little sheepish. “I’m just following orders, man.”

                Right. Jason could practically see that chain of events. Guard gets asked to make sure he’s the real deal, boss doesn’t elaborate at all, guard is too scared to ask and too dumb to figure it out on his own. If this was the calibre of criminal he was dealing with, it was a wonder Nightwing hadn’t already shut them down. “I get it. I promise that if I’m not the real one, I’ll kill you first so you don’t get punished for letting me in.”

                “Um… thank you?” The guard lowered the gun and stepped to the side. “The boss is four doors down to the left.”

                Ground floor, huh? Jason was honestly a little insulted. Sure, this whole thing was a farce he was only playing along with to beat the tar out of the guy, but he could have at least shown him a little respect. He could’ve taken over Gotham if he’d wanted to. Not that anyone else on the planet would know it was for lack of trying. These guys probably thought he’d gotten chased out of Gotham by Black Mask and/or Batman and spent the time since laying low. So… yeah, actually, ground floor meeting made sense.

                As he walked to the door, he took careful mental notes on his surroundings. The lobby was spacious, as such rooms usually were, with an old computer atop an empty desk. Wood, probably wouldn’t stop bullets. The hallways branching out were a good deal skinnier. Once he came back with Nightwing, they’d probably want to get into one as quickly as possible, use the chokepoint so they only had to fight a handful at a time. He could hear faint footsteps and voices coming from all directions, and smell the tell-tale scent of a drug lab. Lots of guards, then. Not too many to defeat, especially with Nightwing helping, but possibly too many to make it any fun. It would be a lot easier for him to walk into the meeting room, kill the boss, and sneak back out. But no, he wasn’t allowed to kill, no matter how much they deserved it or how much easier it would make both his and Nightwing’s jobs.

                He reached the door, and for some reason was suddenly gripped by a palpable sense of foreboding. It was probably just paranoia, he knew, but he also knew that so-called paranoia was often the subconscious noticing something off and setting off the alarm. The dread was causing more discomfort than the idea of using his powers, so Jason opened his mind and scanned everyone in the building. Lots of scumbags he’d like to kill were the circumstances different, and the ‘boss’ didn’t have a particularly good offer for him, but nothing that would suggest a trap. It was fine. He’d be fine.

                He closed his mind, opened the door, and walked in.

                It was a nice office, in a self-important middle manager kind of way. Big window with a nice view of the Starbucks across the street. Spacious enough for a (wilting) potted plant. Big, comfy chairs in front of the desk that could be used for fragile cover in a pinch, as could the desk. The latter would be a bit trickier considering the guy most likely to attack him was currently sitting at it. Jason gave him a once-over and concluded that it wouldn’t actually be that tricky. His build and posture all screamed ‘ignore my bragging, punch me and I’ll immediately surrender in tears’. The woman at his shoulder with a rifle and glare might be a bit harder to take out. Not too much harder, though, provided she wasn’t faking that stance.

                “Nice place you got here,” he said brightly. “I think I’m getting high off the fumes alone.”

                The guy smiled smugly. “We do pride ourselves on the quality of our product. Please, have a seat.”

                Jason didn’t, thanks to a combination of wanting to spite the asshole, desire to be ready to run if needed, and realization of how easy it would be for someone to snipe him through the window in that position. “I’m good, thanks. I don’t plan on staying too long.”

                The guy actually twitched. Damn, he really wasn’t used to hearing ‘no’. “Very well. We can make this brief. My offer is simple, and quite reasonable. Reports of your work in Gotham were quite impressive, but reports can be embellished. Our partnership would require a… trial period, so to speak. To see if you’re as good as they say.”

                “You want me to be your fucking intern?” Jason asked, genuinely annoyed. Yeah, sure, this was all a sham, but come on.

                “Of course not,” the asshole assured, sweet and insubstantial as cotton candy. “You will be paid for your work. And should you prove yourself, I will be more than happy to grant you a leadership position. I am simply being cautious.”

                “This sounds a lot less like a partnership and more like you wanting me to be your employee.” His gun’s weight practically burned against his side, begging to be drawn and discharged.

                “Tell me, Phoenix, what offer would you make if you were in my shoes? Would you leap at the chance to split your hard-earned business with an upstart that only lasted a few weeks before being chased out by his competitor?”

                I wouldn’t be in your shoes. I’m not like you. The urge to hurt him was too strong for Jason to completely ignore, so he decided to go for some good old-fashioned threatening. It would hardly be out of character for Phoenix. He walked over and firmly placed his hands on the desk, leaning far enough into the guy’s space to be uncomfortable but not so much that his bodyguard immediately drew on him. “Tell you what, how about I give you a first-hand trial run on if I’m as good as they say? Free of charge.”

                 He was ready for the guard to pull her gun on him at that. If she fired, accidentally or not, he was ready to dodge. Maybe if he hadn’t been so ready for the expected, he would have been more ready for the unexpected. If he had been, he might have had time to do something in the infinitesimal time he had between the sound of the window shattering and the brief half-moment of sharp, ripping agony.

                But he wasn’t. And he didn’t. And everything went black.