He turned on the freezing cold water and stepped under the showerhead. The blood washed off his skin in tiny droplets, creating a whirlpool of death and sin at his feet. The water mellowing out the crimson red, turning it into a pink hue that might almost be considered pretty. Jason sighed. Nothing about his life had ever been pretty.
He clenched his fists and pushed them against the cold tile, bruised white against impeccable ivory. Jason bent his head, bunching up his aching shoulders. The cold water pooled over him, drenched his hair until it hung like heavy, wet stripes around his face.
The tears came unbidden. The salt of them mixing with the iron tang still covering his lips. It tasted like fighting and survival. Instincts that had driven him long before he was aware of it and would probably never cease to do so. The same instincts had kept him alive on the street, had brought him to try and steal the wheels from the batmobile, and had kept him moving when Bruce had taken his last breath.
Do people celebrate the anniversary of their dead guardians?
Not really, but opportunities opened themselves like wildflowers. Now that fucker’s blood was dripping down the drain. He’d caught him with a knife through the eye. It was almost funny, if a bit anti-climactic. Though the bastard hadn’t stopped laughing. Even when writhing in his own death the man had kept that mad grin, stretching it ever wider as realization hit him who Jason was and what he had done. And what had he done? He’d killed the fucking Joker.
He had lied to Superman, to Barbara, to Dick. He had lied to Alfred. That had been the hardest part. Not only had Alfred always been good at seeing through bullshit, but Jason also respected the old man. He had treated him civilly, with a politeness that bordered on affectionate. It had almost hurt, having to lie to the old man, but Jason knew this was for the best. Jason was an excellent liar and old habits die hard. To his defense: for most of his life, Jason had had to lie in order to survive.
He’d failed Bruce. In Bosnia Bruce made him promise not to seek revenge. Not to kill the Joker because of Bruce’s death. Jason had promised. He had meant to keep it. The grief had been too powerful in the beginning, numbing any other sensation, but as it settled it grew into resentment and Jason became angry. Angry at himself for having chased after the Joker in the first place. Angry at Bruce for dying. Angry at Dick for leaving. Angry at the Joker. Always, always so fucking angry at the Joker. But the Joker was no more.
A part of Jason had died with Bruce, the part where he harbored hope for a better future, a better life. But with the Joker, Jason had killed Robin. He didn’t deserve that title anymore. It wasn’t the person Bruce had trained him to be, and he could respect Dick’s dead mother enough to lay it to rest.
Jason washed the last of the soap from his skin before he stepped out of the shower and wired a black towel around his shoulders. He gave up a heavy sigh and sat down on the bench in the changing room. There was his locker, the only one in use, off to the side from what had used to be Bruce’s one. And Dick’s forever stuck between them.
The cut under his eye had scarred over and he could never resist poking at a scab. Soon enough he had peeled away some of the healed skin and a trickle of red made its way down his cheek.
With another heavy sigh Jason got dressed and made his way up from the cave. He took the stairs rather than the lift, as he had yet to figure out an excuse for his sudden disappearance that might get Alfred off his case. Not that Alfred paid as much attention anymore. Bruce’s death had really broken him, not that the man would ever allow it to show. He kept on working, holding his head high even when it seemed he’d rather sink to the floor. But Alfred was made of sterner stuff than that, Bruce had been too. Dick not so much, but who was Jason to slander him for wanting to escape his grief. Bruce had been more of a dad to Dick than he had ever been to Jason. Jason was… Well, he’d learnt to cut his losses early.
He found Alfred in the kitchen – where else? – preparing two plates of lasagna. Alfred had rarely eaten with them when Bruce was still alive, but now that he was gone he seemed unwilling to let Jason eat his meals alone, and maybe he didn’t want to be alone himself either? Jason was secretly grateful, not that he had an appetite at the moment.
As he reached the doorway he saw a version himself move through the kitchen to throw his arms around Alfred, letting himself weep into the back of that black suit-jacket. Of course Alfred wouldn’t deny him, but neither were people for sentimentality. Jason pictured it would have been more awkward than comforting. So he didn’t move from his spot.
“Ah, there you are” Alfred said and Jason was shaken out of his musings. “I was just about to go looking for you.”
“I was just looking over some files in the cave” Jason murmured, walking up to the kitchen counter to grab his plate and make his way over to the kitchen table by the windows.
“Do try and take some breaks. You spend more time in the cave than in school these days.” Alfred said and sat down opposite Jason.
“So?” Jason asked, quirking an eyebrow, suddenly seeing the reflection of his pale face in the dark windowpane behind Alfred’s shoulder. Saw the way his own blood formed a perfect teardrop on his cheek in the shape of one of those tattoos you’d see on people who were in and out of Blackgate. A tear for the first life taken.
Alfred sighed. “Bruce wouldn’t have wanted…”
“Bruce isn’t here to want things anymore!”
Jason bristled, incapable of keeping his conflicting emotions together anymore. The guilt was like a wildfire and it spread through his blood with the raging promise of disaster. He would bear it though. He had to.
“I’m sorry” Jason murmured at the thinning of Alfred’s lips. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“You’re right, Master Jason.” Alfred said, eyes turning blank as the old man stared down at the plate in front of him. “Bruce isn’t here, but you are.”
Don’t let the sacrifice go to waste.
“I’ll eat my food upstairs” Jason said, vaguely pointing towards the second floor.
I understand. I’ll get out of your hair.
“Master Jason” Alfred sighed, but he didn’t move to stop him either.
It wasn’t that Alfred didn’t care, nor that Jason didn’t care about Alfred in turn, but they were just two people stuck together by circumstance because of someone else’s choice. Had been kinda the same way with Catherine, come to think of it. Only she had been more of a mother to him than his biological mother had. Jason had never known his grandparents, but if he were to ever picture them, the only face to appear would be Alfred’s.
Jason dutifully took the plate of food with him. Whether he was hungry or not didn’t much matter, food wasn’t to go to waste. So he ate it by his desk, burrowed under a heavy quilt that couldn’t keep the chill from his back. He knew it was the shock finally settling in. Had felt the same shakes when Alfred had finally managed to locate him in Bosnia exactly a year back and fetched him at the local police station. Realization that something had taken place that could not be undone. The human mind locking down on itself.
When Alfred knocked to retrieve Jason’s dishes a few hours later, Jason was curled in on himself, staring into the middle distance. He didn’t regret it. Not really. Would do it again if it meant keeping that sick fucker from ever hurting anyone else again. But what did it make Jason? Where would he go from here?
Alfred seemed to think he had caught a fever and soon had him swallow down some aspirins and sent him to bed. By the time Jason was tucked in under the covers, even he was convinced that he was getting sick. Morally so.
Before Alfred could leave or the pills could pull him under, Jason grabbed a light hold of Alfred’s black sleeve. It stopped the butler short, and he leaned over with a smile that was almost gentle to push the hair out of Jason’s forehead.
“Can’t be Robin no more.” Jason murmured, words coming out sluggish, tongue thick like molasses.
“We’ll figure something out when you feel better” Alfred promised.
_ _ _ _
It never took long for rumor to spread and once Gotham’s underworld figured out that the prince of crime was gone for good, leaving behind an empty spot up for grabbing, all hell broke loose.
With Alfred’s help Jason had managed to figure out his new costume with relative ease, but time nibbling at their heels. The design kept some of the brash Robin colors but with a new added black cowl covering the upper half of his face. It had however made Alfred point out that he looked like some vigilante version of a pirate. So sue him for enjoying Treasure Island.
Big Blue had offered to help with the sudden boost of crime activity in the city, but Jason knew how reluctant Batman had been to receive Superman’s help and well, family business was better kept private anyway.
Barbara mostly operated from the Watchtower these days. Oracle doing god’s work in a place god had long since abandoned. Nightwing was a different matter entirely. After Bruce’s funeral he had more or less grabbed a bag of clothes and fled the scene. At first they had thought he had went back to the Titans, as he had been prone to do in the past, but none of the Titans had seen or heard from him. Eventually Barbara had found footage of a Nightwing-like figure moving over Bludhaven’s city skyline. That was how they found out he was still living the good ole’ hero turned martyr life.
“Who would dare make a move against the Joker?” Dick had wanted to know as soon as the news had reached him and he found his way back to the cave.
“Not to use a trivial term,” Barbara had remarked from her wheelchair in front of the batcomputer, where she had set up camp for the night. In order to solve this mystery she had decided she would need more computer-power than her own system could provide her with yet. “But this seems to have been a crime of passion. The knife to the eye? It’s a precise move but not one you plan.”
Jason sat curled up in Batman’s designated chair, while Dick stood leaning against the computer console, discussing the case with Barbara. He looked skinnier than Jason remembered him to be, held himself tightly. Almost guarded. Another thing Jason didn’t remember from before. Dick had always been open, all smiles after all. If Jason had cared, he would have found it disheartening.
“Any inputs, little wing?” Dick wondered, eventually seeming to remember Jason’s presence. Once he’d managed to tear his eyes away from his first ex-girlfriend.
Jason shook his head slightly, trying not to take offense at the nickname even as it felt like it came less of a place of fondness but rather a place of power. It was belittling.
“Are we heading out or not?”
“If there’s a new player…” Barbara began sensibly, but was soon interrupted by Dick.
“We can deal with that later. The city is tearing apart as is”
Barbara shook her head in annoyance, but avoided making any further comments apart from wishing them good luck out there.
“It’s been a while, huh?” Nightwing shouted as he soared through the skyline a couple of meters ahead of Jason. “I like the new suit by the way. Very avant-garde”
“Do you even know what that word means?”
“You were always the one blessed with book-smarts” Dick hummed like he knew Jason. Like they had known each other since they were kids or something. Like Dick hadn’t run off to his precious Titans as soon as Jason entered the picture, only coming around once in a full-moon to yell at Bruce over something and then leaving again.
Jason’s anger had always been a problem according to every goddamn adult Jason had met in his life. Everyone wanted to either punish him for it or tame it. Even Bruce. Batman had wanted to hone it, helping Jason develop all these skills that had slowly turned him lethal and now Bruce was gone and Jason was left alone to rear those worst impulses in. So he pushed it down, and down, and down, until it had all become a can of explosive gas. Then he pushed it down some more.
He bit his tongue in lieu of an answer.
“Seriously though, what are you calling yourself these days?” Dick asked as he came to a stop on a tall roof-top overlooking most of the old factory districts.
Jason landed beside him, not as gracefully of course. He shrugged. “Don’t know. Hood?”
“A little unimaginative, don’t you think?” Dick wondered, sending a radiating smile his way. It looked effortlessly, but Jason had studied his predecessor enough to know where the strain was. Right there, in the tick underneath his eyes, barely visible under the mask but still very much present.
“Everyone can’t steal their names from Kryptonian legends” Jason muttered.
“Ouch.” Dick said, placing a hand on his chest in feigned hurt. “You’re really coming for me tonight”
Jason grit his teeth. “Do you ever shut up?”
Dick looked ready to protest, but in the end he just sighed. “Fine.”
A few moments later two rivaling gangs clashed on the street and they were both swept into the fight.
_ _ _ _
By the time they made it back to the cave, Jason had decided that it wouldn’t hurt to have firearms in his get-up. He’d seen it enough on the street ever since he was no more than hip-high. Men and women who felt safer having a gun at hand. But for everyone getting a gun, another would feel unsafe and soon follow and the trend spiraled and more and more fire-arms would be in circulation. Fists didn’t do it anymore. The only way to survive these all-out gang wars would be to fight on their terms, but doing it better. Jason needed to beat his own shadow.
Over the year since Bruce’s death and Dick’s prolonged absence – self-imposed exile, if you asked Jason – things had changed. Strategies had to change in order to keep up. Jason had changed. For one he had hit a growth spurt and he was now gaining inches on Dick. In fact, as he came to realize when they both headed to the showers, he’d grown past the golden boy. It was a victory for all of seven minutes, until Dick had peeled himself out of his suit and Jason could see all the new scars and bruises. Even more concerning, he could see Dick’s ribs.
Now Jason knew you didn’t comment on another man’s naked body, not unless you wanted the living shit kicked out of you, but he couldn’t help the sharp intake of air, because that shit didn’t look good.
“What is it?” Dick asked, blue imploring eyes immediately seeking out Jason’s. Concern burning at the edge. “Are you hurt?”
“No” Jason shook his head, and peeled himself out of the last of his own uniform and hurried into the shower and under the spray of water. It was quick work getting clean from the sweat and by the time Dick was entering, Jason was already heading out.
“So you’re turning eighteen in a couple of months, right?” Dick shouted from within the shower as Jason pulled a pair of sweatpants on. “You have any big plans?”
Oh yeah! Gonna wipe the scums from these streets for good.
“Nah, I don’t know”
“Could go out.” Dick suggested. “You know, we could celebrate with the Titans or something, you’re an honoree member after all”
“Thanks, but I don’t need your hand-me-downs” Jason growled, pulling on a t-shirt and making his way out of the changing room, grabbing an encrypted lap-top as he passed by the batcomputer. Then he headed up to his room.
It was a long night of research, but it garnered results. In the weeks to come he had bought a set of military-level fire-arms and with persistent training, he honed his skills to perfection. Alfred’s disappointment was tangible, but he didn’t say a word about it. Mostly since it would pretty much make him a hypocrite. After all, who was teaching Jason to handle his newly acquired weapons?