There are things Bruce expects to see on any given night, and then there are things he doesn't. The night vision in his helmet picks up the man in the alley easily enough, staggering up against a wall as if drunk, except that drunks usually clutch their stomachs, not their throats. Some victim or another, most likely, and nothing Bruce would normally care to concern himself with, but before he can entirely dismiss it he picks up the shape of body armor. Thigh holsters. Heavy combat boots.
He slips into the alley, picking out the traces of a blood trail the man is leaving, speckled along the floor. It leads back to… Interesting.
From above, that building certainly didn't look like it had just been blown apart. Collapsed infrastructure, still smoking faintly, from a blast to the upper floors. Interesting that he didn't hear any sort of an explosion, either. Some sort of illusion? He does so hate dealing with magic, but this seems… Different. No, it's not simply an illusion. An illusion might hide the destruction of one building, but to change the skyline behind it? Unlikely.
Returning his attention to the injured man reassures him that the rest of the city seems yet unchanged, at least from this angle. He follows, keeping his steps silent. The man's relatively tall, and well built; clearly well muscled. The armor doesn't match anything he's familiar with, and it bears no signs of allegiance, far as he sees. He was certainly heavily armed at one point, however. There's a knife sheathed at one thigh, and an empty holster for a gun on the other. Spots for two other guns as well, near the small of his back, but no actual weaponry. The armor shows signs of damage, and of being caught up in that explosion. He's been in quite a fight.
His legs give out. It's with a crash that he falls against the wall, knocking a stray can rolling as he collapses to the ground. Bruce considers for a moment before approaching, extending the claws on his gauntlets and keeping his step light. The man's still breathing, still holding onto his neck with tight desperation as he lies there. It isn't until he's barely five feet away that the man reacts, head jerking up with a snarl already on his lips, joining the liquid shine of blood where it's trailed down over his jaw.
Bruce feels himself freeze in ways he hasn't in years.
The face is different. Older. The streak of white hair in the black is new, but the unruly curl of his bangs is all too familiar. The man on the ground is young, still, but what a difference four or five years makes on a face that looks barely even twenty.
"Get— Get away," the man snarls, thick and choked.
The voice is deeper, come into its own, but that Gotham-streets accent is unmistakable.
Bruce finds himself kneeling, breathing, "Jason," without thinking about it, for once in his life.
Sea-green eyes blink up at him, confusion overtaking anger. They aren't quite the shade he remembers, but the alley's dark, and he's more caught now by the clearly soaked glove and shoulder of whatever uniform his boy is in.
He reaches forward, ignoring the protesting, "Don't—" to peel the clutching hand away. His other hand curls around the back of Jason's skull, tilting his head to give him a better look at his neck. There's a wound there, a dark slash across the side of his throat still sluggishly pumping fresh waves of blood to coat what little skin isn't already covered in it. Fatal, without help.
(He remembers another ragged wound on a collapsed boy, caused by something hooked and metal that tore at flesh as much as shattered bone. This wakes the same rage.)
Jason makes a breathless, pained sound, wrist tugging weakly at his grip, head heavy where it lies in his hand. "Don't," he repeats, almost slurred, now. Blood loss. He doesn't have much longer unless the wound is closed.
A part of Bruce's mind tells him that this feels all too convenient. Running across an aged version of his murdered boy in an alley? Wounded? Needing help? There aren't many things in the world that could get past his guard, and this could be a very targeted play at taking advantage of one of his few weaknesses. This man could be an imposter. A trap.
Well, then he'll have to kill him. And whoever sent him, of course; slowly, and painfully.
But if there is a possibility that the universe has given him back his boy…
"It's alright," Bruce murmurs, shifting to pull Jason's form closer, lifting a knee to brace behind his back and keep him propped up. "I have you."
He shouts, when Bruce cauterizes the slash. Jerks and grabs at his arm with relatively impressive strength. Not any match for his suit's potential, but more than respectable. There's no shift of his form, or waver, and when his eyes roll up and he slumps into Bruce's chest, hand dropping limp, nothing changes. Likely not a shapeshifter, then.
He takes a moment he shouldn't to trace the slack curve of his boy's jaw, the faint ghost of a scar near one lip. His claw snags on the uneven skin.
He'll have to run tests.
He sheaths his claws and activates the coms with a tap of his finger. "A, send the car to my location. I'm bringing back a guest; he'll need medical attention."
"On its way, sir. Should I be preparing a guest bedroom, or a cell?"
Jason's chest rises and falls in stutters, head falling against his shoulder as he lifts him.
"Treatment first. Then we'll see."
Slit throat. Cracked ribs. Minor internal bleeding. Partial hearing damage, likely from the explosion. Heavy bruising. Several areas of minorly burnt skin, also likely from the explosion.
The DNA matches his records. As do fingerprints, blood type, and every other method he can think of to track identity. The eyes are a slightly different shade, but close enough to what his records and memory indicate that he's inclined to dismiss the slight difference as simply a result of maturation, or possibly a result of whatever it is that's resulted in his murdered protégé lying on a table in front of him, apparently a normal, living, human. Resurrections of one type or another aren't unheard of, but they're not common, either.
Bruce taps his fingers at the edge of the table, letting his gaze linger on the scarring underneath the bruises. He's not familiar with any of it, and none of it is older than a few years, as if something wiped him clean and began again.
A clone, maybe? Maybe there was some scrap of DNA at the site of his boy's murder that he missed. He wouldn't put it past his enemies to send him a copy of Jason to slip in under his defenses, or simply to distract him. There are only one or two suspects for such a tactic, though; not many have lived through discovering his identity, and none of his 'allies' could do it without him catching wind.
Nightingale's already reported back that the alley seems to be returned to normal. No trace of the destroyed building, or a different skyline, or anything odd. Apart from the sudden appearance of a blood trail, without an apparent beginning.
He should send Black Talon or Alfred to exhume the site of Jason's burial, but… No. He'll do that himself, if necessary.
The possibilities of illusion, magic, or some form of targeted hallucination still exist, but there is one theory that fits more angles than any of them.
An alternate universe. He's been exploring potential methods of interdimensional travel recently; it's not as unlikely as it could be that some experiment worked in a way not anticipated and opened a door to a different version of his Jason. He couldn't begin to guess at why, but it would explain the alternate Gotham that he saw, and Jason's apparent spontaneous 'appearance' in the alley.
Bruce refuses to settle on any theory until he has more facts.
Whatever the case, Jason should wake soon enough. The color's mostly returned to his cheeks, post transfusion, and the monitors are already showing signs of impending wakefulness. Imposter or not, this Jason has a similar level of tolerance to medication as any of his previous Talons. He was trained, and inundated against at least the common sedatives. It won't be long.
He waits another seventeen minutes before there's a sudden, sharper breath, and Jason's eyelids flutter slightly. Then another, deeper breath, hitched at the end. He grimaces even before his eyes finish opening, his breathing settling into something shallower (accommodating for the ribs, most likely). It only takes a single pass of his gaze, even half-lidded and hazed as it is, to find where Bruce is standing near the foot of the bed.
Immediately he jerks, moves as if to roll off the table and away, were it not for the restraints securing his wrists and ankles that yank him to a halt. He wheezes out a breath, eyes widening as his gaze darts to the cuffs. Padded, leather. They'll hold well enough unless his guest is more than he appears. Judging by how he's pulling at them, he isn't. At least, not so far.
"No," Jason rasps, pulling hard enough the table rattles. "No. Let me out!"
Bruce eyes the way his chest is starting to heave, voice picking up into something more like a shout. He's not normally against his guests harming themselves in their own panic, but this time is different.
"Careful," he says, the smoother, colder voice of Owlman coming easy to his tongue. "You have two cracked ribs; I wouldn't recommend aggravating them."
Jason stills almost instantly, but seemingly more because of just his voice than any of the words. Interesting.
It's not his usual interrogation tactics, but Bruce steps forward regardless. Two steps takes him to the head of the table, to look right down at those familiar, wide blue-green eyes, and the bruising tainting the pale skin on his jaw. There's stubble there. Just a touch. His Jason never got old enough to grow any kind of stubble.
He lifts a hand to touch it, grazing the pads of his gloved fingertips over the gentle curve of his boy's hairline, and down along the angle of his jaw. Jason's breath hitches, loud enough to be audible even with his suit's hearing enhancements currently disabled. The eyes squeeze shut a moment, a tear escaping the corner of the eye closest to his hand. Bruce wipes it away without thought, and Jason makes a sharp, wounded noise and shudders, eyes wide and wild.
There's a youthful crack to that voice when it asks, "Bruce…?"
He shuts away the ache of his chest. If it's any true version of his boy, he'll understand why Bruce needs to be careful about his identity. "Who is it you think I am, boy?"
"What?" Jason pulls at the restraints, eyes blinking once. Twice. The haze clears from his eyes somewhat as he apparently actually looks at what Bruce is wearing. "You're—” A thick swallow, gaze darting off to the side to sweep around the cave. Not much is visible from here, of course. Nothing incriminating. "Where am I? What…?"
He traces a finger down under his boy's chin, lightly tilting it up and immediately getting his focus back. "If you are who you appear to be, you should know that, shouldn't you? You tell me."
He feels the bob of another swallow, but something hardens in Jason's eyes. "You first," he challenges.
Hm. Smart, and loyal. Refusing to give up information that could be used against them without having his own confirmation that Bruce is an ally. Or something close enough to one, anyway. Maybe it really is his boy.
"If you insist." He considers, for a few moments, what details might be the same across different universes. Assuming that's the case at all. "Jason Peter Todd. When you were twelve, you tried to steal the tires off my car. I caught you in the act." He pauses long enough to trace his finger down the length of Jason's throat, before pulling away. "I've matched your DNA, but I haven't dug up your grave yet."
Maybe it would be nonsensical, to someone else. Or confusing, at least. The Jason lying on the table doesn't react with confusion. There's pain, anger, grief, all in a flash. And then it hardens.
"Bruce Wayne," his boy answers, meeting his challenge. "This is the cave system under Wayne manor. You—"
There's a pause, where hesitation reigns over Jason's face, before it twists into something dark and angry. Something that reminds him of his Jason, more than anything.
"You hate guns," is what comes out of those sneering lips, pointed and vicious. The laugh that comes after is rough, and filled with the kind of bitter hatred it truly takes years to build."You say they're not meant for what we do, you say they're just made to kill. But the truth is you're still traumatized; pressing your own made up set of rules on the rest of us to try and rationalize your fear. All you are is afraid."
The words hang in the air as an accusation, obviously meant to gut him. Which would make more sense if they weren't completely and utterly wrong. Him? Afraid of firearms? The idea is laughable. No one who has even a passing knowledge of him would think otherwise. No one trying to fool him would try with such a ridiculous falsehood, either. It would take an idiot of the highest degree to make up a lie like that, and an idiot like that wouldn't have been able to clone, impersonate, or resurrect his son.
Another universe, then.
He lifts his hands to his helm, thumbing the catches to let it come free and pulling it from his head. "I must be a very different person on your world," he comments, setting it on the table near Jason's thigh, letting his mouth draw into a smirk as he looks back up. "Afraid of guns, hm? Seems inconvenient."
"I—" Jason stares at him as if he's just yanked a rug out from beneath his feet, lost and startled. "Who are you?" His gaze flicks away for a moment, out towards the rest of the cave. "How am I—? How am I here?" Then anger, sharp and sudden and with all the whiplash of the recently wounded. "Whatever fucking game this is—"
"No game," he interrupts, calmly. "I found you in the alley, do you remember that?" He waits for a hesitant nod. "Good. You didn't show any signs of a concussion but I wouldn't be surprised."
Easy enough to distract from that line of questioning, to pull the gauntlet from one of his hands and then raise it to gently trace the edges of a spread of blackening bruises near his right pectoral. Jason flinches; couldn't be from pain, his touch was barely even a brush of fingers. He lifts his hand, comes to touch the very edge of the bandage over the side of his throat. The flinch is more pronounced this time, eyes slipping back to that wide, wild look, breath audibly quickening. Fear. Desperation.
Bruce feels that anger rekindle itself in his chest. This may not be his Jason, but it's his boy nonetheless. Older, bitter, angrier, but his.
Someone tried to kill him. Nearly succeeded.
He traces a thumb along the edge of the bandage once more before lifting his gaze to Jason's. "Who did this to you?"
He keeps his voice calm, but it's not enough to stop the shudder that jerks Jason's shoulders off the table and rattles the chains of the cuffs. He shifts and pulls like he wants out, breathing picking up, chest rising sharp and fast enough it must be aggravating those injured ribs. Bruce doesn't think that pain has anything to do with the wetness in his eyes, though.
His teeth flash and bare for just a moment before parting around two words Bruce doesn't remotely expect.
Bruce is unaccustomed to being surprised. His hand stills as his mind, for moments that seem to stretch out far longer than they should, struggles to comprehend that simple phrase.
He did this? Impossible. He couldn't.
Understanding comes as swift as the kiss of a knife. Of course, not him, but him. The other version of him on this Jason's world, presumably. His commander? Father? He would have called his own Jason his son and protege, among other things, but he can't assume the same is true for that other Bruce Wayne. There's a connection there, absolutely, but it may not be the same as what they had in this world. He'd be stupid to assume that there aren't differences between their worlds, clearly.
What he can assume is that something happened between them. Something that resulted in a slit throat, and all the grieving, bitter fury and fear of broken trust. What version of himself would come so close to killing a useful ally? Particularly one that clearly trusted him. (Particularly one like Jason.)
Bruce takes a short breath, shutting the anger down to keep his expression under control. Then he takes another look at that furious, desperate pain on Jason's face. Not his Jason, and he should remember that; just another version. Similar, though. He can see in this Jason the growth of the anger that was in his, the anger he carefully cultivated and nurtured to aim towards his enemies. He was vicious and talented, but always quick to come to his side. Loyal, protective… If any of that is true of this Jason, the other version of him was a fool to drive him away.
Though, perhaps his alternate self's mistake could be to his advantage.
He lets the anger show, instead. Lets it deepen his voice. "Never."
It's probably not the pain of his injuries that makes Jason's breath catch and his eyes widen. Or his breath shake, when he draws it.
"Don't," his boy says, expression cracking along the edges, like a cup about to shatter. The wetness in his eyes threatens to become tears with each trembling blink. His voice shakes as much as his breath.
He shifts to cup his hand over the wrap of bandages on his throat. Squeezes his grip, gently enough not to injure, hard enough that the wince it draws sends the tears sliding down from the corner of his boy's eyes. "Never," he repeats, and watches the cracks become chasms.
The first sob wrenches out of his throat as if it ripped through any attempt to stop it, painful and raw sounding. It’s easy to undo the cuffs with one hand, and gather Jason to him with the other. Wrap an arm around his back and cup the back of his head with the other to bring it down to his shoulder. There are strained protests between the sobs, fists rebounding off his armor — well-aimed but weak — as soon as he frees them. He doesn't let any of that dissuade him, merely strokes his hand over Jason's back and holds him close.
"It's alright," he murmurs, running his fingers through the familiar black hair. "It's alright."
Jason cries all the harder.
Loyalty is such an easy thing to manipulate. Bruce can get true answers later, when Jason's calmed down enough to speak with him, but until then he may as well capitalize on someone else's mistake. Maybe he could even discover what it was that brought this Jason back, and use it to revive his own.
He passes his fingers through that new, fascinating white streak. Considers that, as Jason leans into him, fingernails catching on the seams in his armor and clinging there.
"Everything's going to be alright, son. You're safe here."