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Bird by Bird

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Jason Todd had a lot of things to hate at the moment: Gotham's perennial rain, the hard dense cobblestones in Crime Alley, and criminals who had more friends than he did. He could handle fighting multiple opponents. He'd been trained by the best, after all; then he'd been trained by people who fought dirty. He had no qualms about defending himself, to the death if he had to, but he'd been trying really hard lately not to off anyone on Batman's turf.

"Todd?" A steel-toed green combat boot nudged him in the side, then stepped a careful distance away. Jesus, even that small pressure against his already battered ribs, was murder. "Are you dead again?"

Jason wondered what the kid would do if the answer was yes. Probably give him a swift bruising kick in his possibly broken ribs, or leave his body there to be picked over by Gotham's criminal element and the ever-circling crows. There was a heavy sigh from about three feet away.

"Do you require assistance?" Damian asked.

Jason, with an impressive bout of swearing, rolled onto his back and to a sitting position. He pressed the release mechanism on the hood, leaving him with a red domino and a sweat-soaked head of dark hair.

"No, I fucking don't need assistance."

"I saw you fall."

"Yeah, did you also see me take down fifteen guys before one fucker snuck up behind me, clocked me with a shovel, and shoved me off the goddamn roof?"

"No," the boy said, grinning. "I only saw you fall."

Damian Wayne managed to make Robin look like a scary carnivorous bird instead of a chirpy little sidekick. Maybe it was better that way, Jason thought. It was a whole lot less likely someone would take a crowbar to the kid.

Jason ignored the green gauntleted hand that was thrust in front of him. He wasn't accepting help from an entitled thirteen year old wearing his old colours. Well, Dick's old colours, to be fair. But Jason had made them look good—Dick had just looked like a circus doofus.

"Your ribs are damaged. The way you're breathing indicates—"

"Indicates I got pushed off a fucking roof, kid. Go home. Aren't you a little young to be out on your own? Haven't you heard what happens to little birds who go off by themselves?"

Damian didn't blink. Not that Jason could tell given the flat lenses in the domino. "Who says I'm on my own?"

Jason laughed at that, trying to hide the fact it hurt like a motherfucker. "Because there's no way the old man would let you down here by yourself with me if he was anywhere in the vicinity."

Direct hit. It was all there in the defensive stance. Baby bird had slipped the nest.

"Go home," Jason repeated. He rose to his feet, careful to keep the pain off his face. He didn't need sympathy from a kid who barely came up to his chest. "Or I'll be tempted to shoot you again," he added, grinning.

Damian muttered something in Arabic, but Jason had hung around Talia long enough to recognize the phrase. "Now, now, baby bird. That's not nice. What would your mother say?"

"She would berate me for not having struck you down while you were at a disadvantage."

"Yeah, she probably would," Jason said fondly. As much as Talia had screwed him, literally and figuratively, he couldn't help but admire her. Given the men she'd had in her life, it was a small miracle she'd been able to care for anyone at all. She didn't always show her emotions in reasonable ways, but at least she still had them. More than Jason could say for Bruce most days. He was pretty sure Bruce had all feelings surgically excised a long time ago.

"But Father would expect—"

Jason felt the familiar flare of anger at the thought of Bruce's expectations. He wondered if he'd ever be able to escape them, or that feeling of being a disappointment. The Robin who was dumb enough to get himself killed.

"Go home, kid!" This time Jason whirled on him, taking a menacing step forward, letting the savage burst of pain show on his face as anger. "I don't need your help. I don't want your help. Go find some other sap to help out of the gutter."

With that Jason limped away, ignoring the feel of eyes on his back. His lungs felt like they were on fire, and every step he took made his ribs shift painfully. But he kept going, refusing to look back, and headed in the vague direction of home.

*

Jason was practically a sitting duck limping down the street the way he was. The neighbourhood he was in, he couldn't have done much more to paint a target on himself, and even the Red Hood tucked under his arm wasn't going to deter anyone for long.

He would've taken a cab, if cabs bothered to come down here when they didn't have a fare. He even considered dragging himself to Leslie's clinic, but it was too far in the opposite direction now. His apartment was closer. He pressed on, looking for a good spot to get back to the rooftops. He'd have better cover there, less traffic. Fewer people to see him looking like he was ripe for a take down.

"You want some help?"

Jason looked up to see Red Robin perched on a fire escape halfway up a brick building that had seen better days. Tim was crouched on the steel railing, which Jason knew was slick with rain, but he looked completely comfortable and perfectly balanced.

Jason scowled and kept walking.

"Red," Tim called. "You look like hell. Why don't you let me take you home?"

Jason shook his head. "Not without dinner and a movie, Red. What kind of boy do you think I am?"

Tim flipped easily over the railing, and landed silently in the alley behind him. Jason could sense him doing it, knew when Tim's careful approach brought him alongside.

"The kind of boy who needs a hospital, I'm pretty sure," Tim said. Jason couldn't see much of his face beneath the Red Robin cowl, but Tim's jaw was clenched, his mouth unsmiling. "I could hear you wheezing three stories up. We need to have someone take a look at those ribs, Hood."

"We don't need to do anything. You need to go home. Just like I told the other little bird." Jason squinted at Tim. "But you knew that already."

Tim sighed, putting a hand on Jason's arm. The effort to shake him off was going to cause too much pain, but the fact he wasn't doing anything about Tim's friendly gesture was telling Tim exactly how much pain he was in. Jason couldn't win.

"Jason," Tim said quietly. "Let me take you home. Alfred can—"

"No." Jason wasn't being brought back to the Cave by his Replacement so they could all gloat over how bad a job he was doing on his own. "Baby bird's got a big mouth."

"Then let me take you to emergency, a drop-in clinic even. You're—actually, I don't even know how you're still walking. You're dripping with sweat, you're white as a ghost, and I can practically hear your ribs grinding against one another. What the hell are you trying to prove?"

"Just get me to a rooftop," Jason said as vehemently as he could. Even he could hear the rasp in his voice, and he was having a hard time catching his breath. Shit. "I can make it home from there."

Tim shook his head, but wrapped an arm tightly around Jason's waist as Jason looped an arm around Tim's back. The grapple secure, Tim said, "Hold on," then they were moving, pain hitting Jason with the force of a battering ram. Jason lost consciousness, and when he came to they were on the rooftop. He found himself leaning heavily on Tim. He immediately tried backing away, but the Replacement wasn't having any of it.

"You passed out. I'm not just leaving you here."

"I closed my eyes, that's all," Jason tried. "I'll be fine."

"No," Tim said in a voice that didn't allow for argument.

"My place is two blocks from here. I can see the freakin' window, Tim. Take me home. I'll lie down, swallow some painkillers. I just need to lie down. This isn't—this isn't how I want to go back to the Cave, okay? I have to do it on my own terms."

Tim looked at him sympathetically. "This is stupid. You need a hospital."

"Please," Jason said, desperate, and he could tell from the expression on Tim's face that he'd won. The two blocks to the apartment window felt like it took hours. By the time Tim helped him over the sill and dropped him on his bed, Jason was breathless from the pain. He grabbed the jar of prescription meds off the bedside table and swallowed a bunch of them dry. He could feel tears pricking at his closed eyes as he continued to ignore Tim. Eventually, Tim's voice faded, leaving Jason in warm darkness, pain constant as he drifted in a place between waking and sleep.

*

"Jason. Jay, come on. Wake up."

Jason didn't want to wake up. Being awake meant the fire in his abdomen would need attention, and he didn't think he could move. He hadn't hurt this bad since—well, since he'd died.

Someone pulled one eyelid open, flashed a light in his eye, then did the same with the other. All he could see were fading blobs of light dancing against the inside of his lids. A cool cloth was laid over his forehead, and he sighed with relief.

He could feel hands pulling at his jacket, working it off his shoulders, then more than one pair of hands prying him out of the body armour he habitually wore. He should be worried, but he wasn't. His security system was pretty much impenetrable, so if someone had gotten into his apartment, it was probably because Oracle had let them, making them allies. Jason hadn't yet figured out a system she couldn't hack.

There was something familiar in the voices around him, in the touch of cool hands against his feverish skin. He hurt everywhere, but someone was trying to help him. He wasn't stupid enough to try to resist under the circumstances. Of course, not having the strength to put up a struggle made his decision easy.

He tensed when hands moved carefully over his rib cage, cataloguing his injuries. He could hear worry in the voices, but the hands were deft and sure, only applying enough pressure to ascertain the level of injury. Jason was grateful for it because even the slightest press on his abdomen had him curling into a ball. Fuck, he was in bad shape. He was pretty sure there were tears on his face from the pain. The ribs were broken, that was certain, and God only knew what other damage he'd done getting home.

He could hear a siren growing louder and louder until it sounded like it was right outside his building. Somebody must be hurt.

"You're hurt, dumbass." The voice was familiar, but Jason couldn't pin down who it belonged to. Somebody he'd hurt. Somebody who shouldn't be helping him, but was. Jason told him to go away, but all he got in response was a snort of laughter. "I'd like to see you make me. Go ahead. I'll wait while you pick a fight with gravity."

"The paramedics are on their way up. Don't get him riled up, Tim."

Jason knew that voice.

"Dick?"

"Yeah, buddy, I'm here," Dick said, and Jason felt a cool hand touch his face. He couldn't help it—he leaned into the touch. God, he felt awful. Awful enough he would take comfort where he could find it. He reached out and tangled a hand in Dick's t-shirt.

"Broken ribs," he managed to croak out, as if Dick couldn't tell what was the matter.

"It's worse than that, Jay. I'm pretty sure you ruptured something. You're bleeding internally, but the ambulance is here now. You're going to be okay."

"Don't—"

"I'm not going anywhere." Jason felt someone squeeze his hand, and he clung to it as if it were a lifeline. If he'd been aware he was doing it, he might've felt embarrassed, but all he could think about was trying to keep breathing through the pain.

"Grayson, they're here."

That had to be Damian. Seemed like the whole gang was there except for Bats, and Jason knew it was only a matter of time before he showed up too.

"Bru—"

A finger against his lips stopped him and Dick spoke directly into his ear. "He doesn't know, and we're not telling him till you say the word, okay? Just let these people help you, little brother. We won't leave. I promise."

Jason relaxed and relented. A Dick Grayson promise was worth its weight in gold, and Jason knew Bruce wouldn't hear about this from Nightwing or any of the Robins. Jason let them take him then, didn't protest as the ambulance attendants secured him onto a gurney and took his vitals, calling out numbers that were much too high to be healthy.

Somewhere between his apartment and the elevator, he lost consciousness.

*

"Jason, open your eyes." The voice continued to coax him. It was soothing and annoying all at once, and it didn't take Jason long to attach a name to the voice's owner. Dick. For some unknown reason, Dick Grayson was sitting at his bedside in the middle of the night, playing nursemaid. Jason was going to strangle Tim when he saw him next.

"Get the fuck out," Jason said. It came out as little more than a whisper.

"There you are," Dick said. Jason realized there had been fingers pressed against his pulse, and he could feel the erratic pounding of his own heart. It echoed in his ears like a klaxon. "Do you know where you are?"

"My place," Jason said, but he hadn't opened his eyes yet, so honestly he had no fucking clue. He figured he would've noticed if someone had moved him, but maybe not. He'd been pretty out of it when Tim brought him home.

"No, you're at the hospital."

Jason forced himself to open his eyes then, grateful the lights were low and the drapes were closed. It still looked like it was night, though. He didn't know how much time he'd lost.

"What—?" Jason tried to sit up, but Dick's hand sprawled on his chest kept him from moving. "What day is it?"

Jason focused on Dick's face. He looked pale and haggard, his dark hair hanging limp and disheveled, as if he hadn't seen a shower in a couple of days.

"It's Monday," Dick answered, and Jason did a double-take. It had been Friday night when he'd gotten shoved off the rooftop. He let out a deep breath and tried to think back. He had bits and pieces of memory: Tim getting him back to his apartment, a siren in the distance, cool hands and cool cloths on his feverish skin, Dick promising not to tell Bruce. He'd been completely out of it.

"How bad?" Jason asked, figuring the answer was obvious given he was in the hospital.

"You're an idiot. You could've died. You had a concussion, three broken ribs, and you were bleeding internally. If Tim had left you like you wanted, you would never have woken up. You had to have emergency surgery."

Dick's voice was rising in volume as he spoke, gaining steam like a locomotive. Jason had neither the strength nor the heart to pull away. He let Dick have his rant. It was then Jason realized with a start that Dick was holding his hand. Had been holding his hand since he woke up, and probably a long time before if his sweat-slick palm was any indication. The weirdest part was how it felt familiar, as if the weight of Dick's hand on his was normal.

There was a lot more said about his stupidity, his reckless behaviour, his cavalier attitude toward his own mortality. Dick wasn't wrong about any of it, but Jason was struck by how angry Dick was, as if he'd been stockpiling every word for the last few days, and Jason waking up had lit the fuse on a ton of dynamite. He didn't think he'd ever heard Dick that upset at anyone who wasn't Bruce.

"You could've died," is what Dick eventually came back to, and Jason swallowed awkwardly and tried to find his voice. He realized he wasn't hurting anymore, at least not to the same extent, his pain a sort of manageable discomfort aggravated when he moved. Mostly he felt like he'd been swaddled in blankets, the whole world having become softer and floatier.

Dick sighed and Jason felt someone brushing the hair out of his eyes. "You could've died, Little Wing," he said again, and the old nickname Dick had called him so rarely, made his heart stutter painfully in his chest. This was why he hadn't wanted to go back to the Cave. He couldn't cope with them treating him like he was theirs, like he was family, when the truth was he could never go home again. Not with the things he'd done. The blood on his hands.

Jason tried to take a breath and found he couldn't. He looked at Dick imploringly.

"Jay?"

It felt like a panic attack. The inability to let go of the inhale he'd taken, the pressure building in his head, his chest. He was on the brink, and if he let go, like Humpty Dumpty he didn't know if he'd be able to put himself together again. It was better to hold on as long as he could.

Dick was holding him by the shoulders, doing his best not to jar Jason's bandaged ribs, but the sheer panic in Dick's blue eyes made Jason start to shake until he was gulping in breath after breath, hyperventilating, eyes wide. Dick sat on the edge of the bed and flung his arms around Jason. His hand found the nape of Jason's neck, stroking soothingly. Dick's voice was a steady murmur of reassurances Jason hadn't known he needed to hear. God, he was so fucked. He let his head fall to Dick's shoulder, hiding his face until he could breathe normally again, until he was certain all evidence of weakness had been absorbed into Dick's now damp t-shirt. He pulled away and scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand.

"How did you even know I was hurt?" Jason settled back against the propped up pillows, looking everywhere but at Dick's face.

"A couple of little birds were pretty concerned."

"Let me guess, they called Big Bird to come to the rescue."

"Hey, it's been a long time since I've worn yellow." Dick had hold of Jason's hand again, and it didn't feel as if he was ever planning to let go. "You scared the hell out of me. When I got there, you were burning up, barely breathing, and it was pretty clear your injuries were a lot worse than you'd been willing to admit. Stupid, stubborn—"

"Okay, okay. I'm sorry," Jason said, meaning it. He honestly didn't have a death wish. He was grateful for a second chance at life, and even if it felt as if he couldn't fix so much of what was wrong between him and the rest of the Bats, he wasn't actively trying to make things worse.

"Mr. Peters?" a nurse enquired as she came into the room. Todd J. Peters was an alias Jason had used before, had identification for, and it must've been what Dick had checked him in under. But he was surprised to hear Dick answer "yes?" at the same time he did.

The large black woman grinned. "Good to have two of you answering back. First time since you checked in here, Mr. Peters." She was looking at Jason even as she flipped a page on his chart and jotted something down. She checked the IV that was pumping a clear liquid into his one arm, and the catheter that was pumping it out the other direction. Nothing like hospitals for being completely emasculating.

"You think you could eat something?" the nurse asked, shoving a thermometer under Jason's tongue when he opened his mouth to speak. He settled for nodding, and the loud growl from his stomach seemed to cement the case for food.

"Temperature's almost down to normal," she said, shaking the thermometer, and slipping it into one of her many pockets. Jason wondered if she had rope and a grapple on her person somewhere. A pen appeared and she made another note on his chart before sliding it onto the hook at the end of the bed. "You're awfully lucky your brothers found you when they did. Could've been a lot worse."

She glanced at Dick who was still sitting there holding Jason's hand. "You've got darn nice brothers, Mr. Peters. Even that little one. Face like a thunder cloud, but he was plenty worried. Even asked if he could give blood, if it would help. Yeah, you got a nice family there, Mr. Peters. Real nice."

With that she turned to leave. "I'll have them send you some lunch. Soup and such. Nothing too heavy to start with, but if you can keep it down, we'll see 'bout getting you some real food tomorrow."

"Thank you," Dick said.

"Brothers?" Jason asked, raising his eyebrow as soon as the nurse was gone. Dick shrugged.

"I wasn't about to dump you off at emergency and leave, and I couldn't exactly check you in as Jason Todd. Likewise, I couldn't be Dick Grayson either—the media would've had a field day if they'd gotten wind of it—so Tim checked what ID you were using, and created aliases for the rest of us."

"Richard Peters, I presume?"

"My family calls me Dick."

"Not just your family," Jason teased, hating himself a little for how easily it came to him. There was a time when all he'd wanted was for Dick to treat him like a brother, or at least for Dick not to be angry with him for taking over duties as Robin. Robin had been the best thing to ever happen to Jason, and he'd thought maybe Dick would understand that, but he'd just been angry a lot of the time. Angry at Bruce, angry at Jason, and it had made Jason angry right back in the way that only a teenager could be.

"So, how many brothers do I have exactly?" Jason asked, already knowing what the answer would be.

"Three," Dick said seriously. "The same number you've always had since you've been back."

"Dick." Jason knew where this was headed, and he wanted to cut it off at the pass before it got there. He wasn't emotionally equipped to deal with the lecture on family right then.

"No, Jay, you almost died because you were being too stubborn to let us help you. We're your family, whether you like it or not. We're always going to be family. Whatever your problems with Bruce, fine, keep on hating him if you need to, but the rest of us, the rest of us want you back."

Jason grabbed on to the first thought that came to mind: "Replacement doesn't—"

"Tim practically carried you back to your apartment, then stayed with you until I got there. He was frantic, so don't you dare say he doesn't think of you as family. No matter what happened before."

"I shot Damian."

"Yeah, and that was months ago. Didn't seem to stop him from being angry at himself for not realizing how badly you were hurt. He thinks he should've knocked you out and brought you to the Cave himself."

"He couldn't have carried me," Jason said. "I probably weigh twice what he does. He would've had to drag me."

"He would've found a way."

"I shot Damian to hurt you," Jason blurted out. He needed Dick to know exactly what kind of person he was. "To stop you from coming after me."

Dick's blue eyes were understanding. "I know. You did what you felt you had to do to protect yourself at the time. I get that. But Jay, you don't need to protect yourself from us. We're not going to hurt you."

Jason looked away, suddenly tired. He didn't need their pity. Whatever kindness they thought they were doing for him would turn out to be worse in the end. If only they could see that. He would let them down eventually, or they would let him down. It was inevitable.

"I think I need to rest a bit," Jason said, turning into the pillow, withdrawing his hand from Dick's hold. Dick let him go.

"Okay. Take it easy, Jay."

There was the hand in his hair again, a comforting sort of touch, and Jason closed his eyes and willed Dick to go away. Bullets, knives, a three story fall, even a fucking crowbar hadn't managed to keep Jason down permanently, but Dick Grayson was going to kill him with kindness. Jason needed time to regroup, to figure out how to extract himself from this happy loving family scenario he was expected to play out in exchange for having his ass saved.

"I'm going to run home and shower, change, that sort of thing," Dick said, the door creaking open. "But one of us will always be here, Jay. You just concentrate on getting better."

Jason wasn't sure whether it was Tim or Damian who entered as Dick took his leave, but one of them hopped up on the broad window ledge and settled in with a book. Jay could hear the telltale turn of pages as he lay there not sleeping. He supposed he should've been expecting what came next, but it was a little like being kidney-punched. It completely blindsided him.

Tim's voice was soft, but clear when he spoke: "It was a pleasure to burn."

Jason swallowed as he recognized the opening line of Fahrenheit 451. It was a book he'd read, and loved, and read again when he'd been young and impressionable, when he was still someone who believed he could place himself between the consuming fires of evil and the people who deserved to be saved. It had been a lifetime ago, and Jason felt a lump forming in his throat, one he had no idea how to banish.

Tim read on: "It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet—"

Tim suddenly snorted with laughter. Jason frowned but didn't open his eyes. "That's not where it came from," he said.

"I know, but still, you've got to appreciate the parallelism." Tim continued: "With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning."

"I would never burn a book," Jay grumbled under his breath.

"True. Maybe a warehouse full of drug dealers, but never a book," Tim agreed. "Do you want to talk, or do you want me to keep reading?"

"Read," Jason said, and was never more grateful for Tim's quiet conciliatory demeanor than when he immediately picked up where he'd left off. Jason lay there listening as the Fireman tried to make sense of his world, and Jason fell asleep to images of books with curling edges, fire licking at his feet, and the soothing tone of Tim's voice rising and falling with the cadences of Bradbury's prose.

*

A few days later during Dick's daily visit, Jason had a sudden thought. "The guys who did this."

"Already in custody. Tim and Damian rounded up the last of them and sent them to Gordon."

Jason looked horrified. "You shouldn't have sent two kids after—"

"I didn't." Dick was shaking his head. "They went on their own. I was too busy trying to get you settled and running interference with the big guy."

"Are they—did they—" Jason was having trouble keeping his breathing steady again. He wondered when he'd become such a wuss about baby Robins.

"They're fine, Jay." Dick put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "They blew off some steam. It wasn't anything they couldn't handle."

"I thought I could handle them, too!"

"Well, this time there were only three of them. Most of the others had already beat a hasty retreat. We tracked a few of them to emergency clinics. It was really just a bit of clean-up. You did the hard part."

Jason snorted, his laugh turning into a cough that rattled his healing ribs. "Ow. Don't make me laugh."

But when Jason looked up, Dick's thousand watt grin was lighting up the room. It made something in Jason's chest clench, and he pressed a hand to the bandage around his middle.

"You're a dick, Richard," Jason said, but he couldn't manage to put any heat into the jab. It came out sounding entirely too fond, making Jason scowl and Dick laugh.

"I'm just glad you're going to be okay, Jay-bird. You had us worried. All of us."

Jason had been around long enough to know that was code for "Bruce wants to see you," but Jason chose to ignore it. He'd had a rough week, his body was hurting, and most of the time he was flying higher than GCPD's dirigibles with the pain meds he was on. None of those things contributed to ideal conditions for seeing the Batman. Jason wasn't sure ideal conditions even existed unless perhaps he could do it by video conference and arrange a convenient power outage.

Dick sighed. "He's going to worry until he has a chance to see you for himself."

Jason looked at the wall of windows with the view of Gotham River, and gave Dick a look. "I've been in here a week already. Are you honestly trying to tell me he hasn't seen me?"

"Staring plaintively through the window like a creepy Irish Setter isn't the same thing."

"What did I just say about making me laugh?"

"Sorry, but it's kind of true."

"Why?"

Dick raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean why? I was under the impression you didn't want to see him."

"Yeah, but since when has that ever stopped him from—" Jason broke off. "Wait, have you guys been ... standing guard?"

Dick flushed. "I wouldn't put it like that exactly."

"How would you put it then?"

"I told him when you were ready to see him, we'd let him know."

"And that worked?" Jason was shocked. "Has he been going to therapy or something 'cause that's downright cooperative."

"Jay, he loves you. I know you think the whole thing with the Joker—"

Jason felt his face turn to stone. "Don't."

"—somehow means he wasn't affected when you died, but—"

"Shut up, Dick. Shut the fuck up. You don't know what you're talking about."

"It almost destroyed him! You're his son, and losing you changed him. Can't you get that through your thick skull?"

Jason clamped his lips together and turned away. There was no way he was having this conversation with Dick. Not now. Not ever.

"Jason." Dick's voice was quiet, but firm. "You don't have to see him until you're ready. I promised you that. But please think about it, okay? Just think about it. He—we all care about you."

Dick left him alone then. There was no quick tousle of his hair, no comforting squeeze of a hand on his arm. Jason felt strangely bereft and hated himself for it. He knew better than to let himself believe he could ever be part of a family again, but a few days around Dick's stupidly happy good nature had disarmed him. He was going to have to start putting his armour back in place if he wanted to survive.

*

When Jason woke next, it was to raised voices. He steadied his breathing, kept his eyes closed even though he was aching from lying too long in one position. He really needed to stretch and move, but he needed to know what was going on first.

"He doesn't wish to see you, Father," Damian said.

It sounded like he was up in the air, probably on the window ledge that ran alongside one wall of the room. Jason had a view of Gotham's river, which meant they'd taken him to the smaller hospital, St. Sebastian's, instead of Gotham General where Dick, Tim, and Damian were all more likely to be recognized as heirs to the Wayne fortune. Here, the staff were too busy to care who the visitors were; they had too much else to do.

Jason didn't hear Batman's reply, only the low tone that indicated he was unhappy with the situation, but so far he wasn't pushing. Bruce could've easily picked his youngest son up and out of the way, but it would've caused more problems than it solved. Jason had fought with and alongside the kid—he knew how brutal Damian could be with fists and feet and that hard Wayne head.

"Grayson explained this to you already," Damian was saying, annoyance clear in his voice. "Todd is healing, but he's not ready for visitors."

"And what are you?"

Damian seemed stymied by the question, and Jason was curious as to what the answer would be. They weren't family—not really. He barely knew the boy except by reputation. They weren't blood, they weren't friends, if anything Damian only tolerated him because Dick was a beast about people he considered family, and for better or worse, Dick counted them both among that number.

"I failed to ascertain how badly he was hurt upon my initial contact, so I am at least in part responsible for seeing to his well-being now."

"Really?"

Jason could hear the smile Bruce was trying to keep out of his voice and off his face. If Jason had been better at reading those things when he was Damian's age, maybe things would've turned out differently.

"And I'm doing what Grayson asked me to," Damian finally said, and Jason could almost see the shoulder shrug. Damian might not have naturally understood obligation to those who needed aid, but Grayson had done a good job drilling it into the kid when Dick had been parading around Gotham's rooftops in Batman's cast-offs.

"I only want to make sure he's alright," Bruce said, and he could hear the exhaustion mingling with frustration. He could make things easier on both Bruce and the kid by saying something, but Jason found himself maintaining the pretense that he was sleeping. If either of them were paying the least bit of attention to him, both would know he was no longer asleep, but Jason knew they weren't likely to call him on it. He waited.

"He's healing," Damian said again, as if he had no other way to qualify Jason's condition. Maybe he didn't. Damian didn't know him, not well. He knew the Jason Todd that was—the one who'd been immortalized as a uniform in a glass case with the damning epitaph of "A Good Soldier." There were times Jason wanted to storm into the Cave and break that damn display into pieces. Except he'd have to deal with Bruce carefully reconstructing the whole damn thing as if nothing had happened, and Jason didn't think he could deal with that.

For whatever reason, Bruce seemed to need that memorial, even though Jason was here and alive. The idea of him—the obedient son, the fearless Robin—was what Bruce was trying to hang on to. A version of him that didn't exist, and as far as Jason could see had never existed. Not even when Robin had been Dick or Tim, and it certainly wasn't Damian either. Fearless, sure, but obedient? Jason would've laughed if it wouldn't have called attention to himself.

As it was, he noticed the conversation had stopped. He heard the soft snick of the window closing, and Damian hopping down from the ledge.

"He's gone. You can stop pretending to be asleep now."

Busted. Jason opened his eyes, surprised when he came face to face with a boy who looked entirely too much like Bruce. For some reason, Jason had expected him to be wearing his Robin uniform, but the boy was dressed in black cargo pants and a hooded sweatshirt, looking every bit as if he could fade into the shadows like a ninja at any moment. He probably could.

"Thanks," Jason said sincerely, not knowing what else he could say. The kid had stood between him and Batman, and that was never easy.

"Grayson was very clear about—"

"Yeah, well, it wasn't Grayson who had to tell Bats to take a hike. I appreciate it, kid."

Damian was eyeing him, waiting for the punchline or the other shoe to drop, Jason figured. The kid seemed the type who took things way too seriously and didn't often get the joke. He was checking to see if Jason was making fun of him.

"You're welcome," Damian finally said, giving a curt nod before settling in the chair beside the bed. He pulled out a phone and started to text someone. For a few minutes he looked like a normal teenage boy, and Jason knew anyone looking in on them would see a kid hanging out with his older brother. It should feel weird, but it didn't.

Jason let his eyes close again, knowing he was in good hands.

*

After two solid weeks of high dosage painkillers and exercises to make sure he was able to breathe deeply enough, Jason was told he could go home in a few more days.

"A few more days," he complained. "Jesus, if I have to eat one more green Jell-o with canned whipped cream—"

"I like the green Jell-o," Damian said with a scowl.

"You would," Tim tossed back, talking over Jason.

"—I'm going to hurl."

"No, you're not," Dick said knowingly. "If you do that, they'll keep you even longer, and I know you don't want that. Give the Jell-o to Damian."

"Can't they let me go home already? There isn't anything else they can do."

Dick looked at Jason from his perch on the end of the bed. "They've just weaned you off some pretty powerful painkillers, Jay. I think they want to make sure you're going to be able to manage before they kick you to the curb to fend for yourself."

"I'm fine," Jason said, although he felt like there were ants under his skin and he was dying for a cigarette.

"Yeah, that's why you're more twitchy than Ragdoll," Tim said, shaking his head. "I told you to ask for a Nicotine patch."

"I don't smoke that much."

"Yes, you do," Damian chimed in. "Your jacket stinks. It's a vulgar habit."

Not for the first time, Jason resented the fact his supposed siblings were trained observers. It was annoying not being able to hide anything from them, and no one seemed to feel like they needed to be polite about it either. Opinions were tossed around like batarangs and with just as much power to wound.

Jason wasn't sure why he felt the need to defend himself, but he glared at Tim and Damian for even bringing up his smoking, especially in front of Dick who had never approved. Dick gave him the expected disappointed look, and Jason threw a spoon at Tim's head.

"Hey!" he said, ducking. The spoon hit the wall and bounced off. Damian retrieved it with a look of disgust.

"I can't use this to consume the lime gelatin now," Damian said mournfully. Jason handed him the small bowl of Jell-o and a fork.

"Here." Jason turned back to confront Dick. "I just want to go home."

Dick's blue eyes were sympathetic, but Jason knew there was no point trying to get sprung any sooner. He'd had two weeks to remember Dick was absolute crap at emotional distance, and when he cared about someone, he threw himself into it hook, line, and lead sinker. He'd been at the hospital every day, bringing Jason magazines, books, food, a laptop, DVDs, anything he could possibly want to make the time pass more easily. Even after they'd quarrelled.

When Dick hadn't been there, he'd made sure either Damian, Alfred, or the Replacement had been on duty. There'd been no sign of Bruce except for the one evening Jason overheard his conversation with Damian, although Jason suspected Bruce had looked in on him several times when he was too out of it to protest. It wasn't anything he could prove, but after the first few nights the nurses had started kicking his well-meaning "brothers" out when visiting hours were over. Sometimes they simply changed and popped back in through the window, but Jason knew they couldn't keep an eye on him every minute. Crime didn't rest, and they all had jobs to do. Even if no one said anything, Jason knew Dick and Tim were pulling double-duty keeping an eye on Red Hood's territory as well as their own.

"I know you want to go home," Dick said. "Just a couple more days is all, okay?"

"Not like I've got a choice," Jason muttered, acquiescing.

"I brought the last two Fast and Furious movies." Dick knew exactly how to bargain. Even Tim and Damian appeared interested. "And the projector. We can throw them onto the blank wall at the end of the room. Almost as good as having a private theater."

"No popcorn, though," Jason said, determined not to be cheered up so easily.

Tim snapped his fingers. "They have it on the snack trolley that comes around. Microwaveable bags. I'll buy some and heat them up in the little lounge at the end of the hall." He was out the door before Jason could say another word.

Dick started setting up the projector on the moveable table they served Jason's meals on, and Damian kicked his boots off, planting himself on the bed at Jason's feet.

"Make yourself at home," Jason said, rolling his eyes. The kid nodded seriously around a cube of green Jell-o and Jason didn't have the heart to tell him to find another spot to watch the movie. Jason shifted his pillows so he could see around the Robin who had pretty massive shoulders for a thirteen year old, and as soon as there was room beside him, Dick was attached to his hip like a friendly octopus.

"Personal space?" Jason tried, but Dick just grinned at him.

"Family," he countered, to which Jason could only give a put-upon sigh and allow the close quarters. Tim came back with four packages of popcorn expertly popped in handy paper bowls (thank you, Orville Reddenbocker), and handed them out like prizes. He and Damian pushed at each other for a couple of minutes until Tim decided to lie on his stomach, his feet sticking up into the air and occasionally kicking back entirely too close to Jason's healing ribs.

"Tim, watch your feet," Jason said, catching the offending items and pushing them down beside him. "If I have to stay in here longer because you boot me in the ribs—"

"I won't," Tim said around a mouthful of popcorn. "I have complete spatial awareness of my surroundings."

Damian snorted so loudly it sounded as if a popcorn kernel had gone up his nose. Jason more or less tuned out the insults Tim and Damian were lobbing back and forth in favour of actually watching the movie; he figured unless they were throwing popcorn or physically attacking each other, they didn't need him butting in, and he found himself drifting in and out, carried by the warmth of three extra bodies on his bed and the sound of familiar bickering voices.

Jason woke up leaning against Tim, who had at some point taken Dick's spot on the bed. Damian was asleep at Jason's feet, curled up like a hedgehog in a protective ball.

"Where's Dick?" Jason whispered, righting himself. He wasn't entirely sure how Dick and Tim had managed to change places without waking him up. Obviously, if someone needed to switch a bag of sand for a priceless idol, those were the two guys who should be doing it.

"He had to go. GCPD had some kind of standoff downtown. The signal was up."

"Last I checked, it wasn't a Nightwing signal."

"No, but since he was wearing the cape for a year, it's pretty hard for him not to get involved."

"Yeah? How does Bats feel about that?"

Tim shrugged. "I think he's grateful for the help most of the time, even if he won't say it. I'm glad you're awake, though. I should take Damian and go. They might need us."

"You could've—"

"I didn't want to wake you."

There was the lump in Jason's throat again. Damn it, he needed to get back to his apartment and away from all these people or he would be ruined. Jason watched as Tim shook Damian awake with far more gentleness than he'd expected given how the two of them behaved most of the time. Damian groaned sleepily, taking the boots Tim handed him.

"'Night, Todd," Damian said, looking at Jason oddly. Before Jason fully understood what was happening, he found himself on the receiving end of an awkward hug.

"Um, goodnight, squirt." He slipped an arm around Damian and squeezed back while giving Tim a bewildered look over Damian's shoulder.

"Grayson said I should make an effort to express gratitude with basic forms of physical affection," Damian said, hopping off the bed and turning to go. "Thanks for the movies."

"Anytime, kid," Jason said. He raised an eyebrow at Tim, who just grinned, obviously already familiar with Damian's quirks.

"Goodnight, Jason," Tim said, and when both boys were gone, Jason felt something he hadn't in a long time when he'd been by himself. Lonely.

"Fuck," he said to himself. "I've got to get out of this place."

*

Jason could only blame it on early behavioural conditioning when he woke in the wee hours of the morning with a looming shadow standing beside his bed and was strangely comforted rather than freaked out. At least until he remembered Batman wasn't supposed to be looming anywhere near him until Jason said the word, and he hadn't.

"Watching people sleep. Still one of your creepier qualities, Bats."

"I was looking for the boys."

Jason laughed, and it didn't hurt his ribs as much as it had even a day ago. "Sorry to disappoint. Nobody here but me, Bats. You might try the pediatric ward—ha, ward, get it?—if you're in need of more black haired, blue-eyed kids to play dress-up with."

"They're missing."

Bruce pushed back the cowl. He looked more hurt than anything else, and Jason suddenly felt about two inches high. He always did the wrong thing when it came to Bruce, always read things wrong.

"They left here about eleven," Jason said. "Did they at least make it back to the Cave? Did they meet up with you and Dick?"

"Nightwing wasn't with me."

"But he left here when the Bat-signal went up. That was at least a couple of hours before Tim and Damian left." Jason blanched at the realization. "Are you saying you don't know where any of them are?"

Bruce nodded, tugging the cowl into place and turning on his heel to head out the window.

"Oh no you don't." Jason pushed himself out of bed, ignoring the twinges in his abdomen. "You don't get to drop a bombshell like that, then bail out the window. I'm coming with you."

Bruce stopped, looking Jason over from bedhead to bare feet. "You're in no condition to—"

"Fuck you, Bruce. Go ahead and try to leave me behind. I'll be out of here in five minutes. I'll find them myself."

"Without pants?"

"If I have to," Jason said stubbornly. "I know you've got an emergency cache of clothes someplace in this building. Failing that, I'll just steal some. Patient rooms, doctors' lockers."

"I can't talk you out of this?"

"No."

"Why does it matter to you?"

"Because they're my brothers!" Jason said, realizing as he said it how true it was. Maybe he hadn't always felt that way, and yeah, maybe he'd even resented the brood Bruce had accumulated over the years Jason had been gone, but they'd been there when he needed help. He wasn't about to leave them out there, in trouble and all alone, with only Batman looking for them.

Bruce looked at him appraisingly, then finally nodded. "Fine, wait here."

Jason stepped forward until he was nose to nose with the heavy cowl. "I swear to God, if you're not back here in three minutes, I'm going after them myself."

"Wait. Here."

As soon as Batman disappeared through the window, Jason dug out his cel phone and speed-dialed Dick's number.

"C'mon, Dick. Pick up the phone." Jason started assembling things he needed to take with him. Wallet, switchblade, a couple of batarangs he'd lifted from Tim's backpack. It was a small pile. He didn't have his guns with him; mostly because Dick wouldn't bring them to him, just like he wouldn't bring Jason pants until the hospital officially released him.

"I know you," Dick had said. "I bring you pants, and next thing I know I'll be getting a call that says you've gone over the wall and are hobbling home."

Dick's cel phone went to voice mail.

"Dickie-bird, if you're there, pick up. No time for jokes, man. Bats is here. You, Replacement and the kid seem to be off the grid, so if you're okay, give me a call. Otherwise, me and the old man are coming looking for you. Fuck, Dick, where the hell are you?"

"Still no answer?" Batman was back, setting a pile of clothes on the bed.

"No, but I only tried Dick."

"I have the Bat-computer calling them at regular intervals."

Jason tugged off the hospital gown he'd been wearing, and grabbed the black cargo pants from the pile. They were almost a perfect fit, which made him grin absurdly. He was pretty much the same size as Bruce these days. Maybe a little narrower through the chest and hips, but just as broad in the shoulders. Jason was maybe a half inch taller than his former mentor.

"They fit."

Bruce sounded surprised, and Jason supposed it made sense. He'd been a stocky fifteen year old when he'd died, and a fully grown man by the time he'd gotten his head on straight. After crawling out of his coffin. After the dunk in the Lazarus Pit. It didn't make much sense to Jason either, and there were days he looked in the mirror and didn't recognize himself.

"Yeah, I finally grew into my shoulders." Jason reached for the black shirt on the pile. He'd just pulled it carefully over his head when he realized Bruce was staring at him.

"Like what you see?" Jason bit out viciously, hating the feeling of being evaluated and found lacking.

"No." Bruce gestured to Jason's taped ribs. The bruising spread well beyond the taped area and had turned an ugly purple. "I don't like it when any of you are hurt."

Jason closed his eyes, and turned away, pulling the shirt down to cover the bruises. He slipped the lightweight tac vest on, following it with a leather jacket and a black domino mask.

"Nothing in red, huh? You really need to expand your colour palette, Bats."

"Jason, look at me."

"We have to go."

Jason tried to push past Bruce, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him cold. Another example of that damn Robin conditioning. A hand like that had always meant stop. Wait. Rarely it had even meant I'm proud of you, but Jason could count those times on one hand. Still, they had made him feel ten feet tall, like the luckiest kid in the world.

"How much pain are you in?"

The question caught Jason off-guard. He wasn't used to a Batman who seemed concerned.

"Nothing a hit of Vicodin or Percocet won't fix."

"With those ribs, you're of no use to me in a fight."

Jason smiled because here at least they were on familiar terms. Batman thought Jason was a liability. He shoved his feet into socks and boots, then stowed his wallet, the batarangs, and the switchblade in various pockets, reaching out a hand to take the ear piece communicator Bruce offered. "Then let's try to avoid fisticuffs if we can. I'm taking the elevator down. I'll meet you at the back entrance."

"Oracle." Bruce hopped onto the window ledge, preparing to depart. "Any word on our lost flock?"

"Nothing yet. I have your location as St. Sebastian's. Are you okay?"

"Fine. Red Hood is joining me for the search."

"Say again?" Barbara's voice was clear over the ear piece.

"Red Hood is—"

"Hey, beautiful," Jason said. "Miss me?"

Immediately, Jason could hear fingers flying over keys as he headed into the hall and towards the elevator, easily dodging the night nurses.

"You're in no condition to leave the hospital. They only cut your pain killers back this morning, and your ribs are nowhere near healed."

"Listen, BG, I know you hack because you love, but do you think you could do something useful and show me as having been released, so the hospital's not in a flap when they realize I'm gone?"

Jason ducked into the elevator, making one quick stop at the dispensary to pop the lock and grab a bottle of high-quality painkillers.

"Would you also like me to scrub the security cam footage of you stealing narcotics?" Barbara asked pleasantly, as Jason circled around to where he could hear the purr of the Batmobile.

"I left fifty bucks on the counter," Jason grumbled. "It's sort of an emergency."

He slid into the front seat beside Batman and immediately swallowed three of the capsules from the bottle he'd taken. He could tell Barbara was waiting for some kind of word from Bruce, and this was the part Jason had never had patience for.

"Scrub the footage," Batman said, throwing the car into gear. "Let me know the minute you get any kind of tracking on them."

"Do we at least have a place to start?" Jason asked.

"The sewer tunnels down by the water filtration plant."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Don't the bad guys ever get tired of trying to poison this city's water supply?"

"The tunnels down there block a lot of telecommunication signals. The boys might be fine."

"If you thought that's where they were, why bother coming to the hospital?"

Bruce stared straight ahead as he drove even though he knew the streets blindfolded and there was no traffic to speak of. Jason felt as if he were thirteen all over again.

"Bruce, why the hell did you come to the hospital? Especially when you didn't think I would be in any condition to help." Jason turned his head so he could watch Bruce's face, or at least what little he could see of it. Even with the cowl, there were tells, and Jason knew them all.

"I hoped I was wrong. They've been spending all their free time at the hospital. I was hoping—"

"What, that they'd all somehow lost their phones and decided to come visit me instead of checking in with you?" Jason stared at him. "They wouldn't do that, and you know it. What the fuck happened down at the waterfront tonight?"

"Scarecrow set off a localized EMP."

That explained the lack of contact, at least. Even if they'd left the area afterwards, their phones, comm units and trackers would've been fried.

"They would've still checked in," Jason said, certain of that fact.

"And a new fear toxin."

Jason narrowed his eyes. "I'm going to ask this once, and don't fucking lie to me, Bruce, or I'll walk. Were you exposed to the toxin?"

Batman swallowed. "Yes."

"Fuck. How bad is it?"

"I've taken a combination of the antidotes for two of the previous formulae. I'm not hallucinating. I'm just ..." Bruce trailed off as they rounded a corner into the waterfront district.

"Just what?"

"Concerned."

"You're concerned? Explain."

Bruce shook his head as if to clear it. "The toxin seems to target small, surface worries rather than deep-seated fears. It's bringing things to the forefront of my mind that I could normally dismiss or ignore."

"Like you can't shake that feeling you left the oven on?" Jason grinned at the stony expression on Bruce's face. "Or more like worrying where Robins 1, 3, and 4 have got to."

"The only thing that seems to keep the worry from mushrooming into something worse is to concentrate on the application of positive cognition."

Jason let loose a bark of laughter. "The antidote is to think happy thoughts? You must be in Hell."

Bruce pulled the car into a dimly-lit alley between two warehouses. Jason knew there was a sewer junction right below it.

"It's not easy, and you're not helping."

"Sorry."

Bruce turned the car off, and sat there unmoving. "I came to you because I need someone I can trust, and that list of people is very short. Jim Gordon already has his hands full tonight." He paused to let that sink in. "Can I trust you, Jason?"

"Yes," Jason said and meant it, even though he resented Batman asking. "I'm even willing to overlook the fact I was your second choice, third probably if we count Babs."

"Fourth, actually," Bruce corrected. "Superman was unavailable as well."

Jason blew out a breath and evaluated the situation they were facing. Best case scenario meant Dick and the Robins were in the affected area, but hadn't been able to communicate with them because of the EMP. Even in the best case, they were probably feeling the effects of the toxin. Worst case scenario meant Scarecrow had the three of them, and was waiting for Bats to show for some kind of twisted showdown where everyone was terrified for everyone else. Oh, joy.

Jason stepped out of the car with a confidence he hadn't felt in a long time. He had a mission, and there was no way he was going to be unsuccessful. Not when Dick, Tim and Damian needed him. They'd been there for him, even when he'd done everything he could to drive them away, and he owed them. He told himself it wasn't because they were family, even though that's what he'd said to Bruce. Brothers. That had sort of landed out there by itself, like the Mars Rover on a distant planet. Jason wasn't entirely sure what to make of the impulse yet, but at the very least he owed them for making sure he didn't die from internal bleeding. He'd figure out how he felt about them being "family" again later.

"Find your happy place, Bruce, and let's go get them."