The Red Hood was laying low. No shipments coming into the docks tonight, Black Mask was still plotting on how to catch him, and he’d thought he’d give it a few days before he crossed the cops’ radar.
The reaction to the duffel bag had been as glorious as he’d expected, but it turned out that the police were touchy about severed heads. Hood couldn’t imagine why.
But he had to focus on the endgame, which wasn’t Crime Alley, which wasn’t Black Mask, which wasn’t the corrupt task force in this godforsaken hellhole of a city. The endgame was Batman and the Joker, and he was going to keep his eyes on the prize.
The Bat signal was up. Arkham breakout, yet again. Hood wasn’t sure why they didn’t replace the intake desk with a fancy revolving door. Not the Joker, which was good – Hood had about two weeks left before everything was ready for that particular showdown. And he also had to track down a certain little cuckoo bird that had wormed its way into the nest.
But all pleasant thoughts of his revenge had to put on hold as the city bunkered down, streets emptying as Scarecrow’s escape was broadcast from every TV and radio. Hood was doing his part, ensuring that every kid in the alleys had a shelter to go to or gas masks if they couldn’t.
Hood escorted a couple of teenagers to the abandoned building they were squatting in, and did a quick recon of the area. He’d made sure his helmet’s air filters were equipped to filter out fear gas, and the ever-present green tinge was thrumming at him to do something. Find some action. Find something to break.
Unfortunately, even the drug dealers and crime lords knew that Scarecrow was bad for business.
Hood made one last show of surveying the area, making sure no one was left out in the open, before he headed back – he was closer to the Bowery than he’d like, especially when Crime Alley was the only place he knew Batman would never show, and the streets were ringed with condemned buildings, still and silent –
A faint scream.
A kid’s scream.
Hood was moving before he made a conscious decision, before his rational mind could catch up to him and explain that screams meant Scarecrow meant Batman meant he was not ready for this –
Hood hesitated on a ledge, peering through an empty thirteenth floor window to the dilapidated room beyond. It was an open floor plan, presumably once an office, and there were no movements from the shadows as Hood slowly slipped inside.
Another scream. Closer. Louder. Breaking into sobs.
Definitely a kid. The green tinge of how dare they how could he how did they let this happen grew stronger as he stalked towards the sound. He was going to put a bullet in Scarecrow’s skull.
Don’t give drugs to kids. How hard was it to understand?
And then he turned the corner, registered what he was looking at, and stilled as his entire vision turned green.
Black and yellow and red and green. Different from the suit he’d died in, but the colors were the same and R splashed across his chest was the same, and the black hair and the blue eyes and the terrified expression on his face and –
“Run,” the kid breathed and it jolted Hood out of his daze. Robin wasn’t looking at him, his frantic gaze locked somewhere in the shadows as he strained against the ropes that bound him to the chair, his limbs weak and jittering. “Run, you have to run before he gets back, you have to go.”
Hood ignored him and did a slow circuit of the room. Couple of creepy looking vials, four syringes – one used, three full – but no sign of a burlap sack or the man who wore it. The place was eerily quiet, broken only by the Replacement’s soft pleas.
“You have to go, he’s going to come back,” the Replacement begged someone only he could see, “Go, please, just go!”
Hood studied the Replacement – gaze apparently unfocused, movements skittish and directionless, bound in ropes that showed no hint of slackness – and the part of him that bled green laughed.
He stepped forward, into the dim light cast through the glass-less windows, and the Replacement’s gaze snapped to him. He screamed, and Hood felt his lips slowly curve up into a smile.
Not a kid. A bird falling neatly into his lap. Hood had been looking for something to break, and he would barely have to lift a finger for this.
“No,” the boy who stole his place, stole his seat, stole his goddamn suit, said, shaking his head frantically. He pressed back further into the chair, gasping softly. “No, no, no.”
“Yes,” Hood replied, and the mechanized voice hid none of his glee.
“No,” the Replacement whimpered, his gaze again darting to the empty shadows, “No, you have to run, he’s here, you have to go.”
“Worry about yourself, Replacement,” Hood said, low and dangerous.
“He’s here,” the Replacement said, his gaze flickering back and forth between Hood and his hallucination, “He’s here, he came back, you need to run, you need to go, you have to leave before he sees you.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Hood said softly.
The Replacement pressed back even further, knuckles turning white as he clutched the chair, but there was nowhere for him to go. He stared up at Hood in stark terror.
“He’s back – don’t – run – you have to go – you can’t – he’s going to catch you – please – you need to leave, Jason!”
“Jason,” the kid said, trembling, “Run.” His voice cracked. “Please.”
Hood slowly swiveled to face the patch of shadows the kid was staring at. The kid shrieked, “No, don’t – leave him alone – don’t – I’m the one you want – I’m Robin – please don’t –”
The shadows were empty. Jason turned back to the kid, and quivering limbs slumped in something that looked disturbingly like relief.
“I’m the one you want,” the kid repeated, like Jason couldn’t hear his heartbeat hammering so loud the room was echoing with it. Or was that his own heartbeat, ringing in his ears? The green-laced rage had vanished, and Jason felt sick and empty in its absence.
Numb fingers pressed into the latches of his helmet – a used syringe, so low probability of aerosolized toxin – and tugged it off. The kid didn’t register the movement, breathing too fast as his gaze fluttered between Jason and the hallucination.
Jason clipped the helmet to his belt, and hesitated for one long moment – was he really going to do this? – before reaching up and unsealing the domino mask. It came off in his hand, and the kid hitched on a sob as he stared at Jason.
“Hi, kid,” Jason said quietly.
“Jason?” the kid breathed out, his voice breaking.
“Yup,” he said, carefully, cautiously moving forward, his hands held out at his sides, “I’m going to get you out of here, okay?”
“You need to run,” the kid choked, “He’s going to come back, you need to leave, it’s the Joker.”
Jason’s movements faltered, but he took a deep breath and inched forward. The Joker was in Arkham. The kid was seeing things. “We’ll both leave,” Jason said softly, and reached out to brush the edges of the rope. The kid tensed and then went limp, his gaze fixed on Jason’s face. “I’m going to cut you free.”
“You have to run before he comes back,” the kid said, wavering. Jason slipped a knife between the rope and the chair and began sawing, “You have to go, Jason, promise me, please, you have to –”
The kid went alarmingly still. Jason paused.
“He’s here,” the kid croaked out.
Jason resumed cutting. “No one’s there, kid. You got hit with fear toxin. No one’s here but you and me.”
“No, Jason, he’s here,” the kid said, his voice raising higher and higher in frantic panic, “He’s here, he came back, he’s right behind you.”
Jason resisted the urge to snap his head back. The kid had been dosed with fear toxin, he was definitely seeing things, and Jason hadn’t heard anyone enter the room. No one was standing behind him with a crowbar held high and –
No. No one was there. He would not succumb to paranoia.
“We’ll get out of here,” Jason said quietly. Almost through. “And I’ll get you the antidote.” But where? Jason didn’t have a chemical lab tucked away in his basement to deconstruct Crane’s compound and create a neutralizer, and while he could break into a lab somewhere in the city, he didn’t like the thought of leaving the kid high on fear, stuck in a nightmare with the Joker.
The knot came free. “There we go,” Jason said, tugging the rope off. The Cave. The best place to create the antidote was the Cave. Goddammit.
“Jason,” the kid choked out – the moment Jason reached for him, he had a hundred pounds of teenage vigilante sobbing into his body armor. “Jason. He’s here. You need to run.”
“Shh, kid, we’re getting out of here,” Jason said, curling an arm below the kid’s legs and hoisting him up fully. He paused to grab the syringes and vials, tucking them into a pocket as he awkwardly maneuvered the kid so he could hold him one-handed. The kid made it easier on him by clinging tightly to Jason’s jacket. “We’re going home.”
Jason ignored how those words felt in his mouth and tugged his helmet back on as he headed back to the window.
“He’s following us,” the kid whispered into Jason’s shoulder.
There was no use in pointing out that the kid had been dosed with fear toxin, or that the Joker was still in Arkham, so Jason just tightened his grip. “I’ll keep you safe, baby bird,” he promised, and aimed the grapple gun.
Their flight across the city went unnoticed, Jason’s old passcodes still worked, and the Cave was dark and silent as they crept back in. Jason deposited the kid on a bed in the medbay and headed for the synthesizer. He loaded the contents of one of Crane’s syringes and the machine lit up with a familiar hum.
Jason glanced around the Cave uneasily, something prickling up his spine. He didn’t need to stay here. The kid would be safe, the antidote was in the process of being developed, Batman would surely come back soon and take care of his wayward bird.
The Replacement would chalk the whole thing up to a fear toxin nightmare, and if Jason paused to wipe the security cameras on his way out, his presence would go entirely undetected. His carefully laid plans wouldn’t be ruined. No one would ever have to know.
“Jason!” the kid screamed and Jason cursed as he sprinted back to the medbay. “He’s here. He’s here.”
“No one’s here,” Jason said, climbing on top of the bed and roughly hauling the kid into his lap, “You’re home. You’re safe.” The kid’s mask had become unstuck through tears and something in Jason’s heart clenched as he saw those wide blue eyes latch onto his face with a faith he didn’t deserve.
“I’m getting the antidote ready,” Jason said softly, letting the kid clench shaking fingers into his leather jacket, “The fear will end soon, I promise.”
“He’s here,” the kid whimpered, and clung tighter.
“No one’s –”
The prickle between his shoulder blades solidified. Jason froze. And a voice he never wanted to hear again, tone frozen between low growl and utter confusion –
Bruce had no idea what he was looking at. He was rooted to the spot, watching with wide, disbelieving eyes as his second son sawed through the ropes binding Robin to the chair.
Tim caught sight of him, and went white. “He’s here,” he breathed out, horrified.
Jason barely even paused. “No one’s there, kid. You got hit with fear toxin. No one’s here but you and me.” His voice was lower than Bruce remembered. His face was older – nineteen, not the fifteen Bruce had buried him at.
“No, Jason, he’s here,” Tim said frantically, “He’s here, he came back, he’s right behind you.”
Bruce froze. Jason didn’t turn.
“We’ll get out of here,” Jason said quietly. “And I’ll get you the antidote.” The rope came free and Jason tugged it off, catching Tim easily when the younger boy threw himself at him. Bruce couldn’t – he wasn’t –
Bruce had lost Scarecrow somewhere in a scuffle near the Narrows as the man cackled about a strung up bird. Had he gotten hit with toxin in the battle? Was he hallucinating?
No. If he was seeing Jason then he was going to see the warehouse, the bomb, the awful way his chest had collapsed, the nightmares he saw every time he closed his eyes – he was going to watch both his younger sons die in the same way, over and over and over –
“We’re going home,” Jason said as he moved towards the window – and pulled a helmet on. A familiar helmet. The Red Hood.
Bruce had absolutely no idea what was going on.
He followed the figures, careful to stay out of sight as he trailed them back to the Cave. The doors had been opened with Jason’s old code. The Red Hood tugged his helmet back off as he left Tim in the medbay and headed to the synthesizer with the ease of long familiarity.
The man looked like a nineteen-year-old Jason Todd. Like what Jason would’ve looked like, if he’d ever gotten the chance to be nineteen. If Bruce hadn’t held his broken body in his arms, if Bruce hadn’t buried him –
Tim caught sight of Bruce and started screaming again. Jason ran back, not noticing Bruce, and softly tried to reassure the kid, soothing his fear even as Tim kept his wide-eyed gaze on Bruce, on whoever he was seeing instead of the cowl.
“He’s here,” Tim said, his breath hitching, clinging to Jason. Bruce was losing his mind.
“No one’s –”
“Jason?” He had to know. He had to know. He was – this didn’t feel like any fear toxin he’d ever experienced, but his heart was racing as the man stiffened and turned towards him.
As Red Hood realized that he’d taken his helmet off and forgotten to put his domino mask back on.
As Jason went pale.
Bruce tugged the cowl off, desperate to look at Jason with his own eyes. His son – his dead son – stiffened even further, staring at Bruce like a deer in headlights.
“Jason?” Bruce repeated, his voice cracking, his tone full of the hope he could no longer suppress.
Jason’s face shuttered.
“Great,” he said flatly, shoving Tim off his lap and ignoring the younger boy’s cry, “He’s your problem now.”
He got up, heading for the exit, but Bruce blocked his path. Staring at the snarl etched onto his son’s face, the pulsing green eyes, the trembling as Jason balled his hands into fists.
“Jason?” Bruce asked again, unable to believe what was in front of him. Unable to disbelieve what was in front of him. “What – how – what happened – how did you –”
But Bruce didn’t care about the questions. He didn’t care about the answers. Not when his son was standing in front of him. Alive.
Bruce choked and lunged forward.
Jason was a frozen statue, but he was warm, and Bruce could hear his heart beating, and there was no movement of shifting bones or the rancid smell of blood or – or –
Salt. He could taste salt.
“Jay,” Bruce said softly, and slow, careful hands curled around him. “You’re alive.”
Hands shifted up.
“No,” Jason said, his voice cold, “Your son is dead.”
Something whistled through the air and Bruce couldn’t jerk away fast enough – the Cave wavered and spun around him, his head throbbing, and Bruce sank to the floor with Tim’s screams ringing in his ears as the Red Hood walked away.