Dick Grayson was being haunted, plagued by a small boy with dark, unruly hair and a cackling laugh, whom he caught glimpses of on his rounds in the worse parts of town. It was a ghost. It was the only explanation. He wondered if ghosts stayed on earth long after their souls returned to their bodies, after they had come back to life, he remember reading somewhere that ghosts were remnants of emotion and experience, but he wondered if this ghost meant that…
He called Oracle, trying not to panic, and begged for information on the latest Red Hood sighting. Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight, but if this ghost meant that Jason was—
“There’s a report filed for the murder of a rapist, proven not guilty in court three years ago, the Hood decided that didn’t make him innocent, dumped his body in front of GCPD headquarters.” Oracle kept her voice carefully neutral.
They all had their moments when they saw Jason’s point, but it was dangerous territory, a gateway to worse things. Dick followed Babs’ lead and kept his mind on the ghost boy.
“When was that?”
He heard Babs tell him it was a week ago. Jason was probably just laying low, Dick was probably crazy, it was probably from wearing too much Kevlar; he knew the cape was a bad idea. There wasn’t a ghost, there wasn’t any danger, he needed to get back to normal; Damian was getting wary of him. The boy needed stability, he needed to provide that for him, losing his mind about ghosts was not the way to do that.
Dick hung up as normally as he could, but that night on patrol he desperately scoured the streets for a tiny child in a hoodie too big for him, or a fully grown man in need of a shave and a cleaner leather jacket. He saw neither, and knew that he was worrying Robin, but he couldn’t care. He didn’t even know if he was imagining the boy or not.
He got back to the batmobile to find his ghost boy already there, leaning against it, dressed in untidy and expensive clothes. His glare was fearsome, but there was fear beneath the fury. Dick was overcome with how much he wanted to run to him, to make that brow smooth and unclouded. He was shocked at how much he was willing to do to make Jason okay. Because this was Jason.
The Jason Todd ghost stared back at him, and they were caught in a web, unable to look away, knowing that this was important. Jason stepped forward, relief evident on his face, and began a rush of words that Dick had to fight to pay attention to.
“I’ve been looking for you forever, you weren’t anywhere, and I couldn’t get to the signals without my equipment, which is gone, and I think I’ve gone crazy, B.” Jason didn’t notice or didn’t care about Dick’s reaction to this, and continued. “The manor’s closed up, the cave is locked, I can’t get through to Alfred or Dick or Babs on any payphone, my old apartment’s gone, the batmobile is flying,” He tapped the metal of the hood impatiently. “I woke up in a creepy apartment by the way, but no one was there, so I managed to escape. I think I was drugged by lousy kidnappers, but I’m thinking too clearly for that.”
“Who on earth is that?” Damian’s clear voice was accusatory, and it silenced Jason.
He froze when he saw Damian approach, and Dick didn’t want Jason to look like that, not again, so he hurriedly opened the hatch on the batmobile and told Jason in his batman-est voice to get in, hoping he passed as a younger Bruce.
Jason backed away, looking suspicious, and glaring at Dick and Damian both.
“Get in the car, Robin,” he rasped, and both Jason and Damian took a step forward, and both stopped to snarl at one another. “I’ll explain everything in the bunker.” He kept his statements unclear, not addressing either one specifically, and hoping again that he looked like Bruce enough to keep Jason’s obedience until they could talk.
Damian was clearly furious with Dick for keeping him and a stranger in the same confused darkness, he was offended that as Dick’s partner he wasn’t being told what was going on. Dick knew this, and vowed to make it up to him, because his behavior to Jason was civil, but cold, and Dick was grateful. A year ago Damian would have allowed none of this, but maybe it was because he wanted to show the stranger that he and Dick were really partners, that he was above such petty things.
Jason was fascinated and impressed with the batmobile, but pretended not to be, in a way that Dick remembered from his days of working with him, and if he weren’t trying very hard to be Bruce, he would have smiled fondly. Dick swore he’d stay on as the Batman of Gotham if he could prove to himself that he would never become Bruce, and he wondered if this impersonation counted.
It was a relief to tear off the cowl for Jay once they were in the bunker, to see Jason’s face brighten in recognition. He turned to look at the batmobile, and then to look back at Dick and his suit.
“THIS IS THE FUTURE, OH MY GOD,” and then, in a snarky Jason way; "Bruce let you be Batman?"
Damian, at this outburst, put several things together, and when Jason leapt at Dick to try and flatten him in their typical greeting, screaming “DICK!” at the top of his lungs, he looked suitably horrified. Alfred came up beside him, took one look at the situation, allowed himself a tremulous smile at the two wrestling idiots, and patted Damian’s shoulder. Never let it be said that Alfred would forget one of his boys in face of another, no matter the situation.
After a suitable amount of grappling and inappropriate cursing, Jason hauled himself off of Dick, and asked where Bruce was. A look of fear crossed his face, and Dick hurriedly explained that Bruce was away on business, that he’d be back tomorrow night, and began to explain Batman Inc.
Jason got bored of this after a bit, and there was a much more important question eating away at him.
“Where am I?”
“You’re around,” Dick assured him, hopefully satisfying him. “But probably not now, since you’re here.”
Jason looked at him for a moment, and Dick felt a shiver of guilt trail down his spine, but Jason only nodded, and asked if he could eat something.
If his reaction at seeing Dick was exuberant, only out of respect did he refrain from tackling Alfred with the same force.
Seeing Tim went over like it did with Damian, and Dick selfishly wished he could have little Jason enjoy a day with them without complications, and realized that he had better talk to the others about incorporating him in their lives like they knew him, missed him.
He needed to make this Jay’s time here perfect. And that meant lying. Lie after lie after lie, and Dick knew he’d have to do it.
So he shot Tim a look, and Tim smiled plaintively, awkwardly patted Jason’s hair, said it was good to see him, and went back upstairs. Jason wasn’t satisfied.
“There are a lot of kids, aren’t there?” Dick thought Jason sounded oddly blank, and this was supposed to be good for him.
“The family grew after us two, and it's fun, but it’s less quiet now.” Dick thought that was vague, he was still feeling iffy about straight out lying, but maybe being vague was the way to go? Jason seemed to buy it.
“What do I call myself, if I’m not Robin? Am I Flamebird? Like you’re Nightwing?” Dick felt like braining himself with a spoon, slowly and torturously. Jason.
“No, you’re an independent sort, you call yourself…” Dick trailed off, unsure.
“I call myself what.”
Damian piped up, “You’re the Red Hood, you took the name to spite the Joker.”
Dick’s blood ran cold.
“Why did I want to spite the Joker?” Jason’s voice was quiet, and Dick saw him probably realizing how vague Dick was being. Oh God, Damian please don’t…
“Because he’s Batman's nemesis, of course,” Dick was going to kiss Dami right on the face. The moment passed, and Jason was only looking a bit thoughtful, so Dick thought they were safe now. He wondered how long Jay would be staying, but realized he was thinking about his brother as two different people. He absently sent a message to Babs telling her to tell Bruce, explaining Jay’s change. He needed to be here, Bruce needed to see Jay.
Little Jason had no table manners when he was hungry, and Tim was looking a little ill, since he was sitting across from him. Which was hilarious, because Tim ate his breakfast asleep and that was no sight for sore eyes.
Jason spoke with his mouth open though, bombarding all of them with questions, asking about Bruce, asking about Batgirl, about Donna, the Titans and finally wanting to know all the Robins that had come after him and Dick. Tim and Damian looked to Dick for reassurance each time they said something, and Dick elaborated where he could, hiding the fact that Jason was hardly there for any of it. Jay didn’t need to know.
Dick messed it up. Like he messed up so many things for his family.
He should have known not to underestimate Jay, should have realized that this was Robin, that this was a kid who knew humans like Dick knew his warmups. Jay, even at age thirteen, just starting out as Robin, just beginning to really get along with Dick, knew when something was wrong. He knew how to be resourceful, sly, and find what he needed to know. Dick should never have assumed that ambiguity was enough to satisfy Jason.
When Dick awoke to glaring red-rimmed eyes, his face in the angry hands of a desperate child, he knew he had wronged Jay. He knew he should be the one to pay for it, suffer for it, not Bruce.
“I’m dead,” Jason choked it out like he was trying to hold it down, and Dick recognized a voice rough from trying not to cry.
“I’m dead and you weren’t going to tell me.” Dick tried to say something, but Jason was covering his mouth. Not his nose, he could breathe, but clearly Jason didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Dick forced his hands away anyway.
“You come back, you don’t stay gone,” he gasped, and tried to sit up, Jason only held his shoulders down, and Dick thought he should let the boy do what he needed to do. “You don’t stay dead."
“BUT I DIED!” Jason was close to tears now, no longer holding back, his eyes shone and they were so red and puffy. “Deceased, killed by the Joker, the rest of the files are LOCKED, SO TELL ME!” He took several gasping breaths, and Jay was just a kid, just a child, he was young. He shouldn’t be here, Dick thought, with me, he should be with Bruce. This is worse than anything in crime alley. “Whose fault was it, really? Besides the Joker?“
He was a child, childish in his rage, his grief, his pain. Childish in his terror. Jason Todd was concerned with the monster that killed him being alive and continuing to kill. Thirteen-year old Jay was concerned with the why, the how, the how could it happen to me.
“WHERE WAS BRUCE?” He was shaking, still not sobbing freely, but tears were pouring down his face now. Dick caught them at the boy's chin, touching his cheek. Jason let him. “Who killed me, Dick?”
“I did.” Bruce would have this happiness, Jason would have this happiness, Dick had been allowed to have Jason during dinner, during that hug-tackle. It was fine. He’d do this.
“I couldn’t save you, Bruce was away, off-world, you were my responsibility, I was acting as Batman, and I let you die.” Dick moved his hands away from his face, lay rigid on the bed, giving Jay freedom to do what he wanted.
“What?” He sounded so young, so small, so scared and broken, but Bruce would be here in the morning, he’d be here for Jay.
“I’m sorry, the Joker killed you because of me, it was because of me and Bruce hasn’t forgiven me yet.” Hasn’t forgiven himself, but that was okay, Jason needed Bruce now. Tears were running down Dick’s face too, there was no reason to think he was lying. Jason would believe him.
The boy moved off the bed like he had been burned, off of Dick, and he looked so betrayed, so hurt. Dick stayed still, resisting his instinct to hold him in his arms, cuddle him and calm him. Jay turned and ran, opening the door to reveal the stunned faces of Tim and Damian, probably come to check on Dick because of the yelling. Dick managed to give them a look through his tears. Jason didn’t see, shoved Tim roughly aside and ran past.
Dick got out of bed, walked over to both of them, and poured everything into what he hoped was a terrifying bat-glare.
“Go after him, take care of him, it wasn’t Bruce’s fault, but he’ll think it was if he knew, so let him know that it’s my fault, and keep lying."
Dick had never seen Tim look at him like that, like he was looking at a stranger, but Damian went after Jason without a word. Tim lingered a while, unsure of what to say, before following.
Jason hadn’t made it out of the penthouse, he had run into Bruce on his way to the main doors, Bruce having come back sooner than planned once he heard the news. It was impossible for him not to, Batman plowed through each meeting and each adversary, finishing as soon as he could. He wanted to see Jason, who was running at him, leaping into his arms. Tim and Damian took Bruce’s suitcases from Alfred and Bruce, for once in sync and not bickering, and followed them as Bruce carried the sobbing Jay to the elevator, a look of amazement on his face. Tim sent Bruce a text, letting Damian read it over his shoulder on the ride up. Bruce checked his phone when he realized that Jason had cried himself to sleep, and his face darkened.
He knows he died, he knows it was the Joker, but he also knows he’s back, so don’t go into any details he’s only 13; Dick wanted him to enjoy his stay. Please don’t mention blame or faults or anything like that. Just make him happy.
Bruce responded with an affirmative, a look of determination on his face, and Tim knew that if it were Dick trying to explain, he’d never get Bruce to agree with so little an explanation.
It was a good thing that Tim figured out how to guilt Bruce into making Jason happy, while simultaneously ensuring that the mention of Dick’s lie wasn’t a topic to be addressed. Bruce would think avoiding the subject was for only Jason’s sake, and out of guilt, love, and self-blame, he would ensure Jay’s ignorance, while remaining ignorant himself.
Jay awoke to his face being wiped down with something damp, and knew instantly that he was in Bruce’s company.
“You look older.” He tried to tease Bruce, and tried to make himself happy.
“It’s been a few years.”
Jason fell silent, letting Bruce wipe snot and tears from his face.
“I’m glad you’re here.” Bruce began to work at the dried gunk on his nose more roughly, “Little you, I mean, it’s good to see you as a kid again.”
“So I really came back, huh?” Jason tried to sound casual, now that his hysterics were over, but came off sounding small and weak. Bruce put a hand on his cheek, rubbing his thumb under his eye. Bruce was so great; he didn’t even care about the snot. He placed his hand over Bruce’s, and the old partners looked at each other, each misunderstanding the situation entirely, but entirely understanding one another. Fathers and their children tend to do that.
“I’m so sorry, Jason, if I had been—“ Jason put his hand on Bruce’s mouth, like he had with Dick earlier, and shushed him. For different reasons, because Jason just wanted to be with Bruce. It felt like it had been forever, somehow, even though they were sparring only yesterday. It felt like he hadn’t been with Bruce in years. Maybe it was the time travel, magic, whatever it was that made him a kid again.
“It’s fine, I’m fine, I’m back.” He tried to smile, and found that he was crying again. He probably looked like a giant baby, but Bruce only pulled him in for a hug. A hug.
He wondered if not-dead Jason got hugs often, he wondered if Jason and Dick were okay, if he had ever forgiven Dick for….
He clung to Bruce. Him and Dick would be fine, because Jason wasn’t angry anymore, just scared. He was scared of dying.
When the time came he’d try to be brave, not cry, he’d be strong, and when the time came to face Dick, he’d forgive him. Not now, not yet, he wanted to stay with Bruce, but he knew he would eventually. Dick was his brother, and they fought a lot, but it would have torn him up when he died.
He fell asleep to the sensations of Bruce running his hands through his hair, cradling his head, and dropping a stubbly, gross kiss on his cheek. “You need to shave, cuz your face is just like a hedgehog,” he mumbled, and Bruce placed him on the guestroom’s bed, and lay beside him. Jason’s dreams were confusing, full of Dick crying and his own body; sometimes shot, sometimes beaten, sometimes drowned, but each time that he felt his dream self ‘die’, he saw Bruce in the distance. He slept deeply, despite the nightmares, and curled into Bruce's warmth, under Bruce's arm.
He woke up easily, not tired at all, knowing somehow that he had only a few moments left. Jason saw that his body was transparent, and he would have been scared and lonely, but he needed to do things. Bruce was still sleeping, so he kissed his father’s cheek, then his forehead, and tried not to cry. He’d see him again, he’d see him really soon. This wasn't goodbye, no matter how it felt right now. He could feel himself changing, leaving more of himself behind.
But first, before he… left, he needed to see everyone. He passed by Alfred’s room, and peeked in slightly, surprised to see that his hand went through the door, and he turned to see Tim leaving his room and going to the bathroom, one of many in the penthouse. He wondered if he missed the manor, if he could visit it before he left, but he really only cared about the people living in it. Tim didn’t see him, or notice him, and Jason figured he didn’t have to say goodbye to him or Damian. He’d see them soon too.
He made his way to Dick’s room, feeling his feet grow heavy and languorous, he felt the ground beneath him move away, and wondered if he was floating. But no, he was just taller, larger. He wasn't a child anymore, but Jay was still there, somewhere near the surface. Jason passed right through the door, his head closer to the top of the frame than ever, and stood by Dick’s bed. He knew now, transparent and barely there, knowing his time was nearly up, that Dick had lied himself blue for little Jason.
He put his hand on his brother’s face, and he felt like punching him and then kissing the bruise. It was a normal feeling, one that he remembered from the old days. Dick was the greatest shitty brother on the planet, and sometimes Jason wished he could shake him off his trail. This wasn’t one of those times, he thought. He felt something pull in his chest, not an emotion, a physical tug. He was running out of time. He could barely feel Dick's skin, not like he had felt Bruce and the wood of Alfred's door. The feeling in his fingers was disappearing, and Jason couldn't feel Dick at all.
Jason knelt to kiss Dick’s forehead, maybe on a whim, and felt himself disappear, he tried to ground himself to where he could still feel Dick as a sort of empty pressure on his lips, but to no avail, because Jason was gone now. Dick’s eyes opened a bit, and forever after he’d wonder to himself if Jason and his kiss had been a dream. Dick'd never know, not for sure, and he fell asleep again, feeling less broken, if a little confused and forsaken.
Jason Todd woke up as a grown man in his creaky bed, in the creepy apartment little Jay had 'escaped' from two days ago. It was close to sunrise, and he felt like he wasn't teetering on the edge of oblivion anymore. He had a place to go back to, if the fancy took him, and maybe, years from now, it'd be home. Whether it was the manor or the penthouse, Jason didn't feel quite so estranged, not after Bruce had spent seven minutes wiping his snot, cuddling him, without blame or guilt.
There was a part of him that was still small, still thirteen, that wanted desperately to tell Dick never to lie to him again, that wanted to curl up beside Bruce and just be there, and not here, but he knew he’d need more time for those thoughts. Him and Bruce would never see eye to eye, would never agree, but because of Dick they had this, and Jason felt it was a step in the right direction. Right now he was too lost in the memory, the sun, and the loneliness of his apartment to think about where a series of steps in that direction would lead him to. Jason would have time for that, just not now.