The first thing Jason is aware of---gradually, and then in a sudden flash of clarity, is that he feels like shit. He feels truly, truly awful. His head is muddled and aching, his mouth is dry and tastes foul, his eyes hurt and he can't seem to open them. He tries to move his tongue---whether to speak or to groan or just for the sake of doing something, he doesn't know---but it winds up being pointless because he discovers he can't. He has not a single ounce of strength to do anything. He's not even sure why he's awake, honestly.
If he's awake. He's not quite sure.
He tries focusing---there's an odd glow that he's aware of, not really like he's directly seeing it, but in the way you're aware of a light being on somewhere nearby when you have a death-migraine. His eyes roll to the side---he thinks. He dimly realizes his eyes must have been open this whole time. He can't really see much, aside from some swimming colors and painfully sharp light. His lashes shut again tightly at the pain throbbing in his skull, and he moans.
"Jay!" It's sharp and close, but somehow still muffled. There's a hand that feels hard and painful on his shoulder, shaking him, which makes him bite his tongue on a scream. He thinks he hears something about staying awake, and he tries to comply as much as he can, he really does, but he feels like the life is being sucked out of him, and he only manages to flick his crusty lashes open to slits for a split-second before they slip closed without his control, feeling heavy, so heavy. His whole body feels heavy. He's out before the residual pain from the light really fades.
He remembers this.
It's been years, decades. A lifetime ago, honestly. He doesn't even know how the fuck he remembers it in the first place, because if he was two or three at the time he was being generous. But somehow the incident is seared into his brain, has been since it happened. It's been one of his most common dreams, let alone nightmares. Sometimes the people change, sometimes the subject matter or the locations change, sometimes the ending changes. But the beginning is always the same.
His dad had been working at the time, still had a job that wouldn't last more than six months. Jason was too young for school, and there was no way in hell they could afford daycare. He spent his days in the apartment with Catherine, though it was mostly just Jason and the stray puppy their neighbor had given them. Catherine was just starting into drugs, then. Jason doesn't even know where the meds came from. He guesses someone must have taken pity on her and written her a prescription and paid it for her out of their own pocket--hell, it might even have been Leslie, he has no idea. Whoever it was, they didn't know how she was going to use it. She'd gotten hooked for the first time after Jason was born, but had been forced to go cold turkey when Willis wasn't willing to pay for it anymore. But this little bottle of pills she'd kept hidden, and she'd even managed to withstand the cravings to make it last, for the most part. Jason watched her sometimes. She tried to keep it to the same time of day, so she'd be mostly recovered by the time Willis was home. Like he would have given a fuck anyway, but she was paranoid, and Jason couldn't blame her.
He sat under the table and watched. She would lock the door, close the blinds, make sure everything was bolted tight, and then she'd go to the fridge and get a beer, the cheap kind she was allowed to buy for herself. Then she'd go to the cabinets and open a high one, pull down a jar with a screw-on lid. She'd unscrew it and snatch a little orange bottle in often-shaking hands, unscrew the top of that, and pour out two delicate little pills into her palm. She'd put everything back, arms shaking in earnest now, fist clasped around the two pills she had out, and then she'd set them carefully on a saucer and crush them with the beer bottle. Then she'd gently scoop all the powder into her palm and pour it into her mouth, like Jason had seen other kids do with pixie sticks. She'd pop the beer open and take at least two big swigs, and then she'd make her way to the couch, where she stayed until seven. Jason would be free to do whatever he wanted until then, to climb on furniture or watch TV or go outside and play with the kids in the apartment upstairs. Sometimes they gave him cigarettes that he could keep or share with his mom.
But one day, the day when it happened, he decided that he wanted to try some of these pills. They looked really bright and sweet, like candy, and Momma always looked much happier after she'd had them. Maybe it was like Mrs. Jimenez talked about coffee. So he waited until she'd taken to the couch and had been there an hour or two, and then he carefully scooted a chair over to the cabinet as quietly as he could. He didn't think Momma would get too mad at him---she'd never gotten as mad as Daddy had---but she seemed to really love those pills, so it wouldn't hurt to be safe.
He climbed up from the chair onto the counter, and opened the cabinet. The jar was heavier than he'd been expecting it to be, so he stumbled back a step and almost lost his footing as he set it down hard on the counter. He flinched at the loud clang, glancing at Momma.
She didn't stir.
Careful now, Jason squatted down and then sat on the counter, dangling his legs off above the chair. He latched his thumb under the sharp little metal clip, struggling until it finally released with a pop. He pulled out the bottle and glanced at it. There wasn't much left---the few little pills inside rattled around. It took him ten minutes, but he got the lid off of the bottle. His mema always said that he was such a little sass he could do anything if he wanted to bad enough. He reached his fingers in and yanked out two pills, just like Momma always did. He put the lid back on the bottle and put the jar back in the cabinet, to make sure they were safe. Then he sat back down and glanced at the pills. Some of the pretty colors had come off on his hands.
He wrinkled his nose. He didn't like beer at all. Maybe he didn't need to take it with beer. Momma crushed them, but he didn't want to try. He decided maybe it really was like the pixie sticks, so he opened his mouth and dumped both pills in at once, chewing on them. He made a face. They didn't taste like candy. Oh well. Hopefully Momma wouldn't notice they were gone, and besides, it took them a while to work, anyway. He hopped down off the chair and pushed it back to the table, then picked up his ball from where he'd left it and went to look for the puppy.
He stopped playing with the puppy soon, though, because he didn't feel very good. He hadn't taken structured naps in a long time, but he really wanted one all of a sudden. He hid his ball so Daddy wouldn't trip over it when he got home, and then stumbled through the apartment, sleepily looking for somewhere to hide where he wouldn't be in the way and the puppy couldn't find him and lick him or pee on him. He eventually crawled in some sort of box or something and curled up, and was asleep.
When he woke up, he was in Momma's arms, and it was dark outside the window. Momma was sprawled out on the floor in the bathroom, her feet propped up against the door, holding a chair under it as the door swung into it, hard, with a loud, sharp thunk.
Nowadays, Jason can't even remember what Willis even looked like. In the dream it's no different. He never sees his face. In the dream, Willis is nothing but a yelling voice on the other side of the door and a heavy boot nearly kicking a hole through it.
He doesn't know what led up to it. He can only assume now that Catherine had gotten up after her high was mostly over and gone looking for him, and found him unresponsive in a box or a cupboard or something. And, being in a panic but still out of it, she'd done the only thing she could think to do in an emergency and called Willis.
Momma was screaming. Jason didn't know why. He tried to look up at her, to ask her what was wrong, to move his hands up and hug her back, but he couldn't. He couldn't move at all. He couldn't lift his hands or his feet. He was still so sleepy and cold, and he didn't know why. He felt like he'd been spinning around all day and had just stopped. The door and Momma's shirt seemed to waver, and he felt like he was slipping and everything was tilting. His hands clawed weakly at Momma's jeans, trying to hold on so he wouldn't slide away from her. He felt bad. Real bad.
"You better open up that fucking door right now, you bitch!" Daddy roared outside, and another kick made the chair screech across the floor as Momma swung her leg up to desperately push it back. "If that kid is brain dead I'm gonna drown him in the bay in a sack! We can barely feed ourselves, and I ain't gonna slave away just because you're such a fucking invalid you can't lock up your dope!"
"No!" Momma shrieked, and she held Jason even tighter against her. "No, no, no!"
"Quit sniveling and open the fucking door!" Another hard kick, and the chair skidded a full foot. Momma lurched up off the floor and rammed it back against the door with her body, without dropping Jason. Jason had never seen her move so fast.
Daddy kept screaming for a while, and Momma slid down the door and cried into Jason's hair. Jason wanted to snuggle up against her and brush her hair back out of her face and tell her it was gonna be okay, he was okay, even though he wasn't and neither was what was happening. But he'd lie. He was good at it. Anything to make her stop crying.
And finally, Willis seemed to give up. At some point his heavy boots thumped down the hallway, and then the house was quiet. Jason hoped a lot that he hadn't hurt the puppy and he was just asleep.
Momma was still sobbing, and Jason wanted to cry, too. He licked his lips---it exhausted him just to do that---but it occurred to him that he hadn't even tried to talk to her. "M-m---" He grunted, quiet. His throat hurt. "Mom-m-m---" He tried real hard to move his hand, and managed to lift it just a bit, enough to fist in her t-shirt.
Her head snapped up and she shifted him in her arms, slid him down a bit until she was holding him like a baby. "J-Jason?" She asked, a bit like she didn't believe it was him. "Baby?" Her eyes were huge and red and there were tears all over her face. Her makeup was a mess.
Jason opened his mouth, but he didn't have time to speak or even nod before Momma was pulling him back against her so tight, her hand cupping his head. "Oh Jason, Jason, baby, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry, baby. I'm sorry--"
She rocked him, and Jason clung to her shirt and pressed into her side. He still felt sick, real sick, and his fingernails were funny colors now that he looked at them, but he was with Momma, so he wasn't too worried. He was still hurting a little bit---Momma was holding him real tight. It was okay. He knew she was trying to keep him safe, so he was happy for it, even though she was holding him so tight her hands left red marks on his arms and back.
He thinks they slept there that night, on the floor in the bathroom, curled together against the broken door. Momma cried all night long, but she'd held Jason cradled in one arm and stroked his face with her soft fingers, her tears occasionally dripping on him. Jason felt sick for a long time after that, but he still reached up to Momma when he could and clung to the collar of her shirt. She hefted him up after a while and he nuzzled his face into her neck and cried a little himself, because everything hurt and he felt sick. Momma's hands were cold but firm around his back, and she rubbed his shoulders while he cried.
The whole thing probably gave him his first instance of PTSD---hardly his last---was fucked up as hell, and it was honestly a miracle he'd survived it considering he never got treated for it aside from Momma making him drink a lot of water the next few days, but that night they spent together on the bathroom floor was one of Jason's best memories with his Mom. He isn't about to complain that he seems to be stuck in a loop of the dream where he's in Catherine's arms again. She's not crying anymore now, but still sniffling occasionally, her fingers shaking while she pushes his long bangs back from his eyes. Jason just keeps his eyes closed and savors her touch on his face, missing her even if he probably would have hated her as an adult. He hopes he wouldn't, but he'll never know.
"Jay? Baby?" She asks, as she did a lot that night, like she was checking to make sure he was still alive. Her fingers gently ghost over his lips to make sure he's breathing.
"Yeah, Momma?" he sighs out.
"Are you angry at me?"
Surprised, Jason blinks his eyes open. She's holding his head in her lap, and he realizes with a startled jolt that he's not a kid, all six feet of him is sprawled out on the bathroom floor of his now-abandoned apartment, and his feet are in fact touching the far wall. He flops his head back to look up at his mom. She's looking down at him, like she hadn't done that night, looking him right in the eyes and smiling in a soft, fond way. It makes Jason's eyes water. He doesn't remember enough to know if she looked at him like that that often. He wishes he knew if it was real.
"I...." he gulps. "I guess....I guess I sort of am?" He looks away with a choked sound of disgust that's directed entirely at himself. His eyes are watering, and he still can't move his hand to scrub the tears from his cheeks. "It's stupid, right?" He asks the ceiling, voice cracking from the tears. "Being angry at someone who's dead."
Catherine's thumb strokes the tears from the corner of his eye, her chipped red nail polish bright in his vision. "Maybe," she says. "But you have a right to be mad at me, baby."
"What?" Jason asks, pained, looking back at her. Now she looks sad. Not angry, but sad. Resigned. "No, Mom, you couldn't have done anything...."
"Yes I could, Jason." She says softly. "I was the adult. You were the child. Regardless of Willis, I should have taken responsibility for you. I should have taken you and left him, and I should have gotten help. I endangered you by staying, and then you had to take care of yourself because I couldn't. That was wrong."
"You couldn't have done any better," Jason pleads with her, fumbling with his still-numb hand to find hers. "I never expected you to."
"I know, Jason, and it's because you're kind. Kind and selfless, and you always have been. And I'm grateful for that." She strokes his hair back from his eyes, and the love and the pride in her gaze tightens Jason's throat. "But I failed you, Jason. I did. You deserved better, and I neglected you. The reasons why don't justify it. You deserved so much more of a home and so much more love than I could give you, baby, and for that, I'm sorry."
Jason blinks wetly. For whatever reason, he's thinking of Bruce, now---and it occurs to him that he has no idea where he is or what the hell's going on. He finally finds his mom's hand, and curls his fingers around it oh-so-gently, afraid she'll dissolve if he's not careful. "...I forgive you, Mom," he says, crying, and he means it.
At that statement, her face softens even more, and tears well in her eyes, too. Somehow, Jason can sense that this isn't going to last, that their time's running out, so he squeezes her hand and says, out of nowhere, "I...I have a dad, now."
She smiles, a quiet, amused smile, like she knows what he's talking about. "I heard about that." She pushes his hair back from his eyes again. "Is he nice?"
"He's...." Jason swallows on all the adjectives that threaten to spill out of him. Infuriating, frustrating, invigorating, condescending, maddening. "He's....he's the best, Mom. The best man I've ever known. Except---except Alfred, maybe," he tacks on, awkward.
Mom smiles again. "He sounds like quite a guy." She cups his cheek. "I'm happy you're with him."
"Yeah," Jason breathes, refusing to close his eyes and miss seeing her. "Me too."
"You will take care of yourself? Go to him if you ever need it?"
"Yeah," Jason whispers, almost feeling the seconds tick away.
"Good." Mom pats his cheek, drinking in the sight of him, her eyes shining. "God, you're so big," she breathes, taking in all of him like she's memorizing him.
"....Why didn't I see you?" Jason asks all of a sudden, urgent.
"What?" Catherine asks, surprised.
"When..." Jason swallows convulsively. "When I died."
Her face falls. "Because you didn't stay. You were never supposed to. You were always going to come back and start over." She traces her fingers through his bangs. "I was afraid you didn't want to see me." She smiles ruefully. "That you'd had enough of me."
"Never," Jason says, and she closes her eyes.
"I know, baby." She cups his chin. "I love you, Jay. I'm so grateful you believe that, and I'm so grateful you have a life now. Live it. Take care of yourself, and I promise when you come back, I'll be here. It'll--" there were tears running down her face. "It'll be like I never even left. Okay?"
Jason chokes on a sob. "...Okay." Hardly any sound comes out. His lips just move with the words.
She leans over, and he closes his eyes. Her lips press against his forehead, and hell, she even smells the same, like stale cigarette smoke and air freshener. "I love you."
And Jason feels like he actually is sliding away from her, now, just like he'd been scared to all those years ago, but now he knows he's going home to Bruce and the others, so he just exhales a 'love you, too,' to the empty space, and knows she hears it.
And then he hits with a jolt, and his joints scream with pain. It's only the catalyst, and he slowly, painfully drags himself to consciousness. Everything feels too hot, loud, and close, and the sheets feel like they're pricking his skin. He shifts on his back with a deep groan.
"Jay!?" He hears somewhere close, and someone grasps his hand tight. He forces his eyes open, wincing with pain the whole way.
He's not too surprised to see Bruce there, holding Jason's hand in both his own, his eyes suspiciously shiny. He is a little surprised to be in a room he knows is in the Manor, and his eyes sluggishly rove around, at the IV stand and various medical machines beside his bed, the chairs scattered everywhere, the fact that he's shirtless and has an oxygen cannula in his nose. He blinks back at Bruce in confusion.
"Tim and Cassandra found you in a drug den three days ago. They'd overdosed you with heroin and left you there. You've been in and out of consciousness since." Bruce is sitting on the bed beside him, now. "How are you feeling?"
"Gross," Jason croaks, with a weak shrug. He wrinkles his nose. The bedclothes smell pretty strongly of sweat, and his hair feels remarkably like a broom where it's brushing his forehead.
"Alfred and I will see about getting you a bath later tonight," Bruce promises. "In the meantime we'll just make sure you're hydrated and your vitals stay stable." Bruce releases one hand, but Jason grasps the one he still has.
"B?" He asks.
Bruce stops. "Yes?" He asks, concerned.
Jason shakes his head faintly. "Thanks. For. For being here, I guess. Lettin' m' come home."
"...Of course, Jay," Bruce says, and he sounds confused, but sincere. (And if that isn't the title of his autobiography then Jason doesn't know what is.) He squeezes Jason's hand. "Always."
Jason smiles with his eyes closed.