If the 'Haven and Gotham were girls in a bar, Blüdhaven would've been the ugly friend. It was seedier, all of the filth and none of the glitz. In the late summer, it stank of brine and sweat and garbage, the kind of thick artificial pollution that could choke someone to death. The only thing that Blüdhaven had going for it, Jason figured, was the sunsets. The air pollution made the sun burn in bronze and roses as it set---when it was clear enough to see, and if you weren't so trapped by the canopy of buildings, you could see it.
There was no sunset today, no sun at all. A storm had been stewing moodily for most of the day, the daylight runny and thin through the cloud cover. Jason came out early, figuring that it was dark enough for his type of work. Darkness was a mindset sometimes, not a state of daylight. Gotham’s spires cast long shadows, and the ‘Haven crouched in the thickest stretch.
He didn’t visit Blüdhaven often. It was pretty much the furthest thing from a vacationing spot, and he’d had better things to do with his time than pace outside of Gotham’s city limits. His last year of ‘education’ had dragged him to much more interesting and worldly climes.
But Jason was between international terrorist playdates, so he sort of found his way back near Gotham. He couldn’t go back to the city itself---not there, not yet, not until he was ready---but Blüdhaven was close. He justified this poopchute of a vacation destination by keeping his eyes and ears open for any big fish swimming around. There were several of them that trawled rotten, hard-knock towns like Blüdhaven in order to pick up temporary ballast. Even the most sophisticated players needed a certain amount of hired muscle, and many complimented their hand-picked minions with some poor, uneducated, desperate lackies. Those were the ones who were cut free and sacrificed when they needed to make a getaway.
Those were the true sad sacks. Jason was toying with the idea of passing himself off as one of them for a week or two, feigning stupidity and clumsiness until he saw an opportunity to prove that sometimes, the smallest players had the biggest teeth. He wasn’t quite sure why the idea appealed to him---maybe it was his disgust for the cycle of poverty that drove many of those ‘expendables’ to crime, or maybe it would’ve been a little bit of retribution for his father.
His real father. The expendable, sad sack of a criminal that still drummed up some pity in him---though it usually got drowned by rage and abandonment.
Jason took his time in the ‘Haven, since he didn’t have a set schedule or purpose. It was his birthday, and he thought that he might as well celebrate a little. He was pretty sure that it was his eighteenth birthday, but he wasn’t positive. That was a hell of a thing, not knowing such a big thing about yourself---but Jason was getting used to finding gaps and holes in his head. Dead guys didn't get birthdays, so he figured he should be grateful or something. He bought himself a chilidog with the works, shared the slightly stale bun with some diseased-looking pigeons, then got his first pack of legally purchased cigarettes. The ID itself was fake, but he felt like it was as close to legality as he got.
Smoking was a small, regular act of rebellion. He smoked because he wanted to smoke. He smoked because nobody could tell him not to smoke. He smoked because he had the freedom, the presence of mind, and the memory required to have an addiction. Every cigarette was proof of control, a conscious choice to do what he wanted with his life---even shorten it.
Jason sat on a rusty fire escape, legs dangling over the edge, and smoked. He watched humanity putter down below. There was a drug deal going down, and they thought they were being real sly and clever about it. It was cute, in a way. In Blüdhaven, you didn’t have to be slick to get away with murder---literally and figuratively---because the authorities were just as crooked as the crooks themselves. Calling them upholders of the law was almost laughable, because the corruption went to the department’s very core. It was positive proof that almost anyone could be bought, and in such a depressed economy, the asking price had dropped to an all-time low.
When a squad car rolled up, he snorted, tapped another cigarette from the pack, lit it, and settled in to watch.
It was some kind of mad luck---not good, not bad, just fucking insane---that the officers who answered the call were as far from corrupted as humanly possible.
Jason forgot to breathe, until his smoke-filled lungs seized up. He couldn’t get a good look at the cops from his angle, but he knew the smaller of the two.
He’d know him anywhere, no matter what he was doing or what he was wearing. Jason had spent three solid years cataloging his every movement and quirk and replicating them to the best of his abilities. He wouldn’t have been able to forget him if he’d tried---and he had. God, he had. He’d run through a whole dirtbag menagerie of teachers to emulate, but sometimes he still fell back on the light footwork and acrobatics of the first Robin.
He’d switched out bright jewel tones for beat blues, but that was Dick Grayson. No doubt about it.
Jason wondered what the hell he was doing in Blüdhaven, much less what the hell he was playing at with the civilian hero angle. He had money coming out his ears, training far superior to anything that the police academy would’ve given him, and a mask of pseudo-anonymity to hide behind---so why forget all that and shove off to a worse town and a worse position?
Bruce had put him there. He’d put money on that bet. Either he’d sent him to Blüdhaven for a case, or he’d driven him there by being his vastly disappointing self.
The dealers scattered, and Dick and his partner went after them. Watching him run made Jason feel electrified; the hair on his arms stood on end, his skin tingling with the rush of seeing one of the best of the best move.
Dick was holding himself back, but not by much. Jason hadn’t realized that watching him was something that he’d missed, but it opened up this weird ache in his chest that he didn’t know what to do with.
Jason looked at the squad car. Thought about it. Did a little math in his head.
Yeah, he had time. Even if Officer Grayson and his pal caught up with the alleged drug dealers, it’d take them a while to process them.
This wasn’t the plan. This was nowhere near the plan.
But fuck it. It was his birthday, and he wanted to raise a little hell.
“I cannot believe this,” Dick’s partner burst out, loud enough that his voice easily carried up to Jason’s perch. “Can you believe this?”
“I have a high capacity for belief in the unbelievable,” Dick said with a wry grin that knotted up Jay’s stomach something awful. “Gothamite, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, rolling his wrist. “You’re from Gotham, and that means you’ve seen it all. Including disappearing squad car tires.”
Jason was an old hand at vehicular sabotage, so it hadn’t taken him long to strip the car---and to add insult to injury, he’d done it with their own tire iron. Because Jason Todd loved him a little irony.
“I didn’t say that,” Dick said, with surprising levity for a police officer who’d just gotten his wheels lifted. He even laughed. “Nothing really surprises me anymore, that’s all. What we have here is a particularly gutsy thief. They worked fast, too. Our perp’s either really lucky or really good.”
His partner sighed heavily. “I really can’t believe this.”
Jason shifted his weight forward, hanging onto the rail with one hand. Warm, foul mugginess wafted up from the cooling asphalt. He whistled---one sharp, high chip, followed by two softer, throatier notes.
It was a bird call, and one that he hadn’t used in a long time. Turned out that not many international terrorists were big on bird watching, so some of his more obscure skills had gotten dusty.
Not too dusty, though. Dick went completely still, his head canted toward him. Listening.
Jason ran the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip, wetting it, before repeating the whistle.
A normal person wouldn’t have heard it, and if they had, they would’ve dismissed it. Nature was a beautiful mystery, to be marveled at and distanced from. If they heard the bird call, they’d sigh wistfully at the endurance of the wild world, hearty enough to exist in a place as rank and godless as the ‘Haven.
But Dick Grayson wasn’t normal. Dick spoke fluent bird, so he knew that the song was anything but natural. It was from a diurnal bird, and one that’d started migrating south to overwinter at the beginning of the month. He knew that peek-tut-tut was a low-level warning alarm, a friendly call to inform all of its little feathered friends that there could possibly be a predator hanging around.
Dick knew, because he knew all about robins. He’d been the one who’d taught Jason, after all. They’d only had a few good months before the end, but they’d been real good. They’d bonded over chilidogs and bird calls, Bruce’s moodiness and Alfred’s sandwiches.
But then Dick had gone on a space adventure, and Jason had died.
“Call it in,” he said, and started walking toward Jason’s perch. “I’ll take a look around.”
“What’m I supposed to tell dispatch?” His partner asked, sounding faintly hysterical. “I can’t say that someone jacked our tires. Can I?”
“Honesty is the best policy,” Dick advised, fucking boyscout that he was. He hung at the edge of the alleyway, frowning absently at the shape of the shadows.
Jason repeated the call for a third time, then waited. Curiosity seemed to get the better of Dick, and he followed the robin call. A normal person---a normal cop---would have waited for backup the way he’d been trained, armed with a flashlight at the very least. But Dickiebird was used to flying solo through the dark, and he was momentarily too perplexed to act like a good normal cop. Jason wondered how he fooled anyone, ever.
The tires were stacked neatly just inside the alleyway, the tire iron on top of them. It wasn't a crowbar, but hey: he hadn't planned on a rousing game of psychological torture, so he had to work with what he had on hand.
Dick wore his heart on his sleeve and his thoughts on his face. When he wasn't actively controlling his outward response or pasting on a grin to hide what was percolating underneath, he broadcasted.
When he saw the tires, he stopped. He stood very, very still. Jason would've sworn he stopped breathing for a few seconds.
Good. It was nice to know that someone remembered the details of the tragic tale of Jason Todd. If he'd carted off the tires, the symmetry might've been a niggling little memory at the back of Dick's head, easily suppressed. But the tires had been removed and left.
And nobody did that. Nobody would go through that much effort and risk for no profit. But profit hadn't been Jason's aim, naturally. His payoff was the awful, anguished look on Dick's face.
He watched him rub the heels of his hands over his eyes, shoulders rising and falling as he took a couple deep breaths. Shit, he could basically hear him coach himself into keeping it together.
Thunder grumbled in the distance, and it started to rain. Summer rain was a relief, a wet climax after an uncomfortably muggy day. Jason was glad that he'd opted to wear his thin hooded sweatshirt, despite the warmth of the evening. He pulled up the hood as the raindrops thickened from an irregular smattering to an earnest drizzle.
Dick spent a still, reverent minute just staring at those damn tires while he got rained on. Jason might've been touched, had he been able to beat back his natural cynicism. Maybe Dick was thinking about the Robin that'd fallen out of the nest, but it was more likely that he was just trying to figure out how he was going to get the squad car off the cinder blocks.
The thunder rumbled again, this time much closer. Dick turned to double back to his partner. Jason pressed his lips together and called again before he could really think about what he was doing, or what would come next.
He just...he wasn't done yet. He wasn't satisfied by Dick making sad faces at a pile of tires. It wasn't enough. Not enough schadenfreude, not enough proof that he was still remembered.
Dick zeroed in on him with the kind of precision that only one of their kind of people could boast.
He made sure that he got as good of a look at him as the long shadows would allow. Between the milky half-light of the rain and the hood, he wouldn’t be able to see him clearly enough to tell for certain who he was. Hopefully, he’d see just enough to prickle under his skin and cost him a few hours’ worth of sleep.
He kicked his legs like a little kid, grinning from the depths of his hood.
And yeah, maybe that was a bad way to start out, but he couldn’t help himself. This kind of opportunity didn’t present itself often---or ever.
“Do you know anything about this?” Dick asked, in his very best Officer of The Law voice. It took everything in Jay not to crack up.
He just rolled his shoulders in a negligent shrug.
“I’m going to have to ask you to come down here,” he said, still in that big authoritative man voice.
“Of course,” Jason said silkily, jumping over the railing and landing with a heavy and definitive thump. “Whatever you say, officer.”
He realized something beautiful as he straightened. It made it worth the risk, and could’ve been a birthday present all on its own. He was taller than Dick. By four inches, at least. Officer Grayson had to tilt his head up to look at him, and that alone was a birthday gift from the universe.
Dick had always joked that he was put together funny. At fifteen, Jason had been short and skinny, with stubbornly curly hair, strong thighs, and enormous feet. He’d had bigger feet than Dick, who teased him about having to special order giant pixie boots. Jason had maintained that it meant that he’d get tall sooner or later, and he’d been right.
The simple satisfaction of outgrowing his predecessor warmed the cockles of his stunted heart.
Dick gave him a critical once-over, frowning. That gut instinct of his must’ve been screaming and throwing fits, because he didn’t even give him a chance to deny involvement with the tires. He just frowned a little deeper, and said, “Turn around and lace your hands above your head.”
That didn’t sound much like something a normal police officer would say, but Jason let it pass.
He decided then and there that he was going to give him shit. He was going to give him so much shit. He obediently turned around, bracing his linked hands behind his head. Dick stood behind him, one leg between his.
“Nice evening for a good frisking, don’t you think?” Jason asked as he leaned him back, holding his clasped hands together and starting his pat-down with the other. Fat raindrops fell on his upturned face. “Gosh, officer, you’ve got the prettiest eyes. I mean it. Hold me tight, you dreamboat---I’m thiiiiiis close to swooning.”
Dick opened his mouth to fire off a reply or a quip or another round of Authority Figure Says, but then his fingers found the shoulder holster Jason had underneath his jacket. His too-blue eyes narrowed.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking. But Officer Grayson, how can you find it in yourself to fault me, when you’re packing?” He took a breath. Let him realize that yes, he knew his name. Ground the dirt in a little more. “My, my. The bossman can’t be happy about that.”
He sort of wished the lighting was better, because he would’ve loved to have gotten the full impact of the realization as it bloomed on Dick’s face.
“Why, Officer Grayson, I do declare that you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Jason chirped with a savage grin. “And here I thought that you had a high capacity for belief in the unbelievable.”
“You---” Dick stopped himself, swallowing thickly. “---how can you---?”
His grin widened.
“As much fun as this has been,” he drawled. “I think I’m going to choose to resist arrest. You won’t have to bother with Mirandizing me.”
And before Dick could gather himself enough to react, Jason broke his hold, gave him a jaunty salute, and took off. Wearing those slick-soled standard-issue shoes, he didn’t have a chance of catching up to him. Not when Jason immediately swung up a fire escape and took to the rooftops.
It hadn’t been the plan, but rattling his chain had still felt pretty good. If he was lucky, Dick would be left wondering if the whole thing had actually happened. Jason Todd had died, and as far as they knew, his death had stuck. Hell, he didn’t even know how he’d come back, so they’d be plumb out of luck as far as explanations went. There were some things too impossible for the World’s Greatest Detective to break down into manageable chunks of easily digested logic. Dick would have no evidence that it was really him, save for the maddening, flimsy details he’d left him with. Was that perplexing big man really the little boy he’d taken to Brent’s every other Tuesday, in costume or out? He’d never know. Not until Jason was ready, at least.
He didn’t have to run hard, but he did anyway. He had to get his nerves back down to a manageable level somehow, since his blood was singing with the high that only a surge of adrenaline could bring. It was a little bit hilarious that this mild run-in had given him more of a rush than anything his trainers had put him through over the last six months. This was his version of playing with fire.
Jason jumped the gap between buildings, rolling and leaping back into motion without stopping.
Then he heard the sound of someone doing the exact same thing, right behind him. He twisted, throwing a quick glance over his shoulder.
And there was Dick Grayson, eating up the distance between them. He’d kicked off his shoes and pursued him barefoot.
Right. Of course he had. Fucking acrobat.
He’d always been faster than him. Gravity seemed to roll off Dick Grayson like water on a duck’s feathers, and he’d been running full tilt the whole time.
Leaping, Dick grabbed him. Caught hold of his arm, really dug his fingers in. In one swift movement, he slung his other arm around his neck and took him down in a sloppy, painful tackle. It was a desperation move, and Jason would’ve bet that it hurt him just as much. Still, it got the job done. They skidded on the rooftop, rolling, angles and arms and knees and elbows.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
Jason struggled, but Dick got him into an agonizing pin, twisting his arm behind his back. Everything in him screamed at him to buck it, to move, to get out of there because this was too soon, this was wrong, this ruined everything that he’d been working toward for months because Dick would tell Bruce and he wasn’t ready for Bruce yet, he just wasn’t, he needed to do this right because---because he had to, and this had been a stupid fucking idea and---
“Jason!” Dick said, sucking in hard breaths from exertion. “Stop. Please!”
Well, this had turned into a fine crock of grade-A crap. He’d figure a way out of it, but it’d take time and planning. He’d have to retool his approach, but he could do that. Jason was nothing if not flexible and excellent at working on the fly.
“Dammit, Jay! Look at me!”
And Jason did. He twisted, still panting, and found Dick grinning at him hugely.
He looked happy. Relieved.
He was happy to see him?
Yeah. He was. Truly and honestly.
And that took the fight right out of him.
Dick didn’t know where he’d been or what he’d done. He couldn’t smell the blood on his hands. The line hadn’t left any marks when he’d crossed over it. Dick didn’t know, so he was happy to see him. For a few seconds, at least.
“It really is you, isn’t it? You’re alive. How did you---where have you---Bruce is gonna---god, Jay,” Dick rambled, almost hysterical. He couldn’t finish any of his thoughts, his quips reduced to jagged little exclamations. “What happened to you?
“Oh, you know. I died,” he muttered into the wet, rough grit of the rooftop. “I look pretty good for a zombie, huh.”