The Lazarus Pit spits Jason back into the face of the world, and he comes up gasping, caught somewhere between newborn and reborn. Half as holy, twice as raw.
He remembers dying. He’d died scared and hurt, trying to shield his mother. Young, and desperate, and afraid.
But, in the vacuum of unmaking, there’s nothing to sustain fear. There’s nothing left to be afraid of. Like a flame deprived of air, all that fear flutters briefly and then flickers out, and there’s a darkness that settles in its place, bleeds out to cover everything that once offered brightness and light.
He comes out of the Pit with a rage that feels eternal, kicking in his chest like it’s going to rip right through his ribs. Every nerve screams with it. The beat of his heart is heavy with hate.
If he got his teeth locked around any vulnerable thing, he’d rip it to pieces.
He runs to Bruce, a lost lamb bawling its way back to the false safety of the shepherd, and the realization that the Joker is still alive, that Bruce did nothing – nothing, not a single Goddamn thing – to avenge him, to settle the debt of what the Joker took, sets that hateful creature in Jason’s chest free.
He almost kills Bruce. Plants the bomb, and waits. Has the chance.
But it’s not enough. Jason’s been dead. He knows what it means. It means being made into meat and bone; it means rotting. It means nothing. All the suffering Jason ever did, he did while he was alive to feel it.
It’s not enough to kill Bruce Wayne with shrapnel and fire. He needs to kill him with his hands. He needs Bruce to know, needs him to die like Jason died, choking on blood and betrayal and pain.
He’s unmoored, set free, a feral child in a feral world, a loose tooth in the all-consuming, bone-gnawing mouth of humanity. He goes to train, to get shaped and honed into the kind of weapon that can kill the Batman.
Some of the men who teach him are evil men. Jason uses them up and puts them down.
In this unasked-for, undeserved second life, the only way Jason knows to do good is to do evil to evil people, to bring all that violence back on itself, like a snake eating its own tail.
There are some people who are corrupted, irredeemable. Toxic. To protect what’s good in the world, it’s necessary, sometimes, to cut the cancer out of it. And Jason has learned that it doesn’t do anyone any Goddamn good to be conservative with the knife.
Bruce Wayne sets himself up as a bulwark, a shield. It’s not enough. Shields break. Walls are overrun. It is not enough to stand against evil. The smart thing, the right thing, the only thing to do is destroy it.
Jason finds he’s hungry, always. All that hate, all that rage. Like fire, it can never get enough, eats and eats and burns and burns, and is never satisfied.
Jason hates and rages and consumes and kills, and it is never enough.
The Pit brought him back from nothing, put his mind and memory back in him, but it kept some crucial bit, some critical puzzle piece for itself.
Jason isn’t scared of anything. Jason doesn’t care about anything. Jason doesn’t want anything.
Sometimes, Jason thinks that the magic of the Pit has its price, and it kept everything good in him.
Other times he thinks there are some shades of dark that can’t ever be illuminated, that defy all brightness, devour light. Go too far into that dark, he thinks, and you can’t ever find your way home.
Assuming you ever had a home to begin with.
Jason has a mother who sold him and a father who let his murderer walk. Jason’s never had a home, not in this life or the last one.
- - -
The first time Jason sees Phil Coulson, he sees him in the soft, flickering light of a warehouse fire. It’s romantic, he thinks, later. Like candlelight.
“There were children.” That’s the first thing Jason hears him say, and he’s yelling it into a radio. “There were kids. I can’t---”
“Got ‘em.” Jason says. He doesn’t have to say a damn thing. He could let this man burn in the warehouse, choke out on the smoke and die here. But he doesn’t think that an inglorious end from smoke inhalation, being identified later by bone fragments and dental records, is a fair reward for a man who runs into a burning building, trying to find the children Jason liberated an hour ago. Seems shitty, letting this man’s body get mixed up with those of the criminals Jason’s left all over the building.
“The kids are fine.” Jason says, as the man swings around. “Get the hell out.”
In half a second, the man’s dropped his radio and pulled a gun. Jason smiles.
“Who are you?” The man says. “Where are the kids?”
“They’re safe. I’ll show you.”
Jason’s got a mask on, but it’s just a modified gas mask, meant to keep the smoke out of his lungs, not to hide his face. He’s a dead man, so he can’t see how it matters, getting identified.
“Okay,” the man says, and he must notice Jason’s body armor, because suddenly he’s aiming at Jason’s mask instead of his chest. “Show me.”
Jason leads him out. There’s a man at his back with a gun aimed at his head, and maybe that should bother him, but Jason figures the type of man who’d run into fire to save children isn’t the type who’d shoot another man in the back for no Goddamn reason.
Jason knows how heroes are. So long as he doesn’t rely on this idiot to save him from a serial killer, he’ll make it out of this interaction just fine.
About halfway out, the man starts coughing, and, eventually, when Jason looks back, he sees him slumped against a wall, gasping and weak.
“Fucking tourists,” he mutters, rolling his eyes.
He doesn’t have to do anything. Saving grown men isn’t his thing anymore. He puts the bad ones down, and lets the others handle themselves as best they can. He’s not a hero. He’s an exterminator.
On a bad day, Jason would’ve left him there to die. He knows that. He accepts it. Sometimes there’s so much rage in him that it feels like his blood is boiling in his veins, and he doesn’t give a fuck about saving anyone; he just wants to hurt whoever he can justify hurting.
It’s not a bad day.
He takes his mask off and slides it over the man’s face. The man stumbles a few resolute steps forward and then wavers, almost hits the ground. Jason slips an arm around his waist, ducks neatly under the arm the man throws around his shoulders, and half-carries him out of there.
He drops him outside, on the dirty concrete by his bike, and takes his mask back. He cuts off the man’s stupid tie and yanks his shirt open, gives him room to breathe.
“Kids are at the German embassy.” He says. The man blinks at him and fumbles for his radio.
“German embassy.” The man reports. “The kids.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Jason says and steals the radio. “Your boy’s around back. He’s got a lungful of smoke and no Goddamn common sense.”
It’s hard to hear over the general cacophony of an uncontained structure fire, but Jason thinks there’s some kind of answering ruckus around the front of the building.
“Gotta go.” Jason tells the man, who’s gasping and heaving but doesn’t seem charred anywhere important. “Been real swell getting to know you.”
Jason leaves on his bike, and the man’s out of his thoughts as soon as the firelight fades from his rearview.
- - -
He sees him again in Kiev, when Jason’s up on a perch with a rifle, ready to pick off an arms dealer that’s pissed him off. The man from the fire walks right through Jason’s sights, shakes hands with the arms dealer in question and smiles, polite and a touch deferential. When Jason picked this spot, he hadn’t thought there would be any damn reason he’d care about having to shoot right through the buyer to make his kill.
Jason hesitates, tries to figure out if he can still make the shot if he shoots through the man’s shoulder. It’s not a great angle. He waits for a clearer shot.
Jason watches as the would-be firefighter wraps a hand around the man’s arm and shuffles him a neat half-step to the side. A heartbeat later, a bullet punches straight through the arms dealer’s forehead.
A fire ants’ nest of agents swarms out of nearby cars, and, suddenly, everyone who isn’t dead is getting arrested. Jason stays where he is and watches the man issue commands to attentive agents. As someone zips a body bag around the arms dealer, Jason watches him comb gray matter and skull fragments out of his hair.
There’s a flutter of something in Jason’s chest. It’s odd, unexpected. It isn’t rage.
He doesn’t know what the hell it is.
- - -
“We have got,” Jason says, when they finally speak again, “to stop meeting like this.”
“Oh, you’re here.” The man says, unsurprised. “You were in Cape Town two months ago. Took a while to clean up that mess.”
“And I was Kiev six weeks before that.” Jason tells him. “It was a nice show, but you took my kill.”
The man shrugs, but he’s assessing Jason like he’s thinking about upgrading his threat level. “If we worked together,” he says, “we wouldn’t step on each other’s toes like this.”
Jason laughs. He stands up and uses his shirt to wipe the blood off his hands. “This who you’re after?” He asks, kicking the corpse at his feet.
“I think it was.” The man squints appraisingly at what remains of the dead man’s face. It’s possible Jason took this one a little personally. “Might have to run fingerprints to verify.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Jason says, and he isn’t. He smiles, bright and wide. He’s calm, the way he only ever gets after he’s beaten his rage into someone else’s body.
“My name’s Phil Coulson.” The man says, unprompted. He holds up a business card. “I’m with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. If you’re looking to stop freelancing, I’m interested in recruiting you for more stable employment.”
Jason laughs again and leaves without the card.
After Johannesburg and Riga and Mogadishu, Jason can’t tell which of them is tailing the other. He’s at loose ends all over again, having murdered his most recent mentor, and he’s not ready for Gotham, doesn’t want to go crawling back to Talia just yet, either.
So when his work is done in Mogadishu, and Coulson is waving that card around again, Jason says, “Tell you what. Get me a ride out of this city, and you’ve got me. I’ll work for you.”
He figures it’ll be another short-term thing. Coulson seems decent, inclined to goodness, but Jason’s got a healthy distrust of all shadowy government organizations. He doesn’t intend to burn SHIELD down as a favor to Coulson, but, if he has to, it’s an unintended consequence he can live with.
- - -
Coulson brings his first stack of documents back to him within twenty-four hours. “Very thorough,” he says, “but Dereck Thomas has been dead for three years.”
Jason fills out the entire stack again, with a better, cleaner cover, but Coulson brings those back in three days, looking annoyed.
“I checked with Alex Mueller’s middle school theater teacher.” He says. “She has cast pictures from their production of The Secret Garden. Puberty can change a lot, but, I assure you, it can’t make brown eyes blue.”
“Fuck.” Jason says, laughing. “I can’t believe you went to Ohio. Jesus Christ.”
Coulson gives him a steady look. “If you need me to sit next to you and remind you how to spell your own name,” he says, “I’d be happy to.”
“Look,” Jason says, “I’m not trying to cause trouble. I’m just an intensely private person.”
Coulson raises an eyebrow. He pushes a fresh stack of documents across the table. “You get one more shot.” He says. “You’d be an asset, but I’ve spent enough time trying to get you clearance.”
“What if,” Jason says, batting the documents idly between his hands, “I do contract work, instead? You don’t need to run all these background checks. Just give me shit to do, I’ll do it, and then you pay me.”
“We like to know who we’re working with.” Coulson says, which is not a no.
“C’mon,” Jason says, grinning, “I can’t commit to a goldfish. I’m not giving you my entire life story before we’ve even worked together. Buy me a drink first.”
“I’d like to know your name.” Coulson says. “Your real name.” He assesses Jason’s expression and then shrugs, looks exasperated but not angry. “Just the first one’s fine.”
“Jason.” He thinks about lying. He’s lied to everyone else since he came out of the Pit. But, in that moment, it doesn’t seem like a high price. And it’ll be nice, he thinks, to have someone call him by his actual name. Something of a novelty. “I’m Jason.”
“Jason,” Coulson repeats, tips his head to the side. “Nice to meet you.”
“Bullshit,” Jason says, but it makes him smile.
- - -
Jason figures they’re going to leash him. He expects it. He’s worked with men like Phil Coulson before. Those sharp, neat edges only ever seem to be skin-deep.
Jason knows heroes. The whole damn city of Gotham is scared of Bats, and, at his heart, Bruce is barely half as dangerous as a schoolkid with a knife and a grudge. People who fight because it’s the right thing to do tend to balk at the wrong things that fight requires.
Predictably, the first time Phil Coulson gives him a job, it’s a bullshit waste of his time.
“You want this asshole alive?” Jason says, scanning the file. They’re at a coffee shop in London, right in the City, and Coulson’s business suit is effective camouflage, but Jason’s ripped jeans and combat boots are attracting some attention.
Jason grins wolfishly at every banker that glances his direction, kicks his legs out and leans back against his chair like an invitation.
“Well,” Coulson says, smiling pleasantly, taking Jason’s antics in stride. “We’d certainly prefer it.”
Jason rolls his eyes and takes the file.
Coulson gives him two weeks to locate the asshole in question and report his whereabouts to SHIELD. Jason spends the first week getting drunk and prowling around London, finding a few low-level thugs to bash around, and, on the eighth day, he gets to work. On the tenth, he breaks into Coulson’s hotel room while Coulson’s in the shower and leaves the guy in Coulson’s closet, handcuffed, gagged, and unconscious.
Coulson’s in the lobby of Jason’s hostel the next morning, waiting patiently with coffee when Jason emerges, freshly showered and only a little hungover. Jason grabs the coffee and pretends like he’s not surprised to see him.
He waits until they’re outside before he takes a sip. It’s perfect. It’s exactly what Jason ordered at the last coffeeshop, and it occurs to Jason that a man with the attentiveness to memorize his coffee order and the skill to track him down in a city the size of London is a man he should be careful with.
But that’s Bruce’s voce in his head, so Jason immediately disregards it.
“Got more work for me?” He asks.
Coulson nods. “Yes,” he says, and gestures to their right. “I’ll explain on the way.”
Jason shrugs, takes another sip of coffee, and follows Coulson. They walk side-by-side, incongruous, catching the confused looks of their fellow early-risers. They’re in a rougher area of Camden, and, this time, it’s Coulson’s business suit that sticks out.
“Do I get to kill someone?” Jason asks.
“If you’d like.” Coulson says. “Or you can find him, and we’ll take care of it.” He stops next to a car, some silver, understated sedan, and opens the trunk, holds it open expectantly until Jason tosses his bag in the back.
“Tell me about him.” Jason says. He grabs his guns out of the bag and flashes them to the whole damn street as he walks around. He doesn’t mind being half a car away from his toothbrush and underwear, but there’s no way in hell he’s climbing into a strange car unarmed.
Coulson does not seem especially dismayed or alarmed by Jason’s behavior. He studies the street for a second, smiles reassuringly at a very wide-eyed young mother, and then honest-to-God holds the passenger door open for Jason.
“The fuck,” Jason says, genuinely confused. “Are you my butler?”
“If you get in the car,” Coulson says, cajolingly, “we can get out of here before that nice woman calls the cops.”
“They call ‘em bobbies.” Jason says, as he climbs into the car. “I saw that on PBS.”
“No, they don’t. And no, you did not.” Coulson says, but he’s smiling, a little, when he slides into the driver’s seat and pulls into traffic.
“Who am I killing, Phil?” Jason asks, as he drinks more coffee. It really is amazing. He refrains, for the sake of Coulson’s delicate sensibilities, from making pornographic noises of appreciation.
Coulson reaches behind him without looking, grabs a folder from the backseat, and drops it in Jason’s lap. “This man,” he says. “If you’re amenable.”
Jason looks over the file, and finds that he really, really is.
- - -
Two weeks later, Phil Coulson comes shouldering into the dingy basement right as Jason opens the target’s throat with a straight razor.
“Holy fuck,” Jason says, grimacing as the arterial spray gets Coulson in the face. “Shit, Phil,” he says, “I didn’t know you were gonna be in the splash zone, or I would’ve turned him the other way.”
Coulson just stands there for a second, gun in hand, and stares at Jason.
Fresh blood, Jason notices, really brings out the bright blue of Coulson’s eyes.
“You’re alright.” Coulson says, matter-of-fact, and holsters his gun.
“What?” Jason says, and drops the body to the floor. “Of course I’m alright. I’m a fucking professional.”
“We recovered some teeth.” Coulson says. “At your hotel. There was also a nontrivial amount of blood.”
“Not my teeth.” Jason says, and then shrugs. “Some of that blood was mine.”
“Next time you get yourself kidnapped on purpose,” Coulson says, “please remember to let me know beforehand.” He’s dabbing at his face with the sleeve of his suit, but he takes the time to give Jason an irritated look, which only sours further when he notices the way Jason’s smirking at him.
“Jesus, Phil,” Jason says. “Were you coming down here to save me? My fucking hero.”
Coulson rolls his eyes and reaches into his pocket. “Here.” He says, holding out a small, unwelcome gadget that Jason, unfortunately, recognizes. “If you’re going to work for us, you’ll need to wear this on your missions.”
“An earpiece.” Jason says, like Coulson’s asked him to put training wheels on his motorcycle. “For fuck’s sake, Coulson. I don’t need you babysitting me the whole time.”
“Wear it,” Coulson says, falling back into his obnoxiously placid mannerisms, “or don’t get paid.”
“Goddamn it.” Jason says, but he brings the earpiece up, checks the fit in his left ear. “I fucking knew you SHIELD suits were gonna put a leash on me.”
“Disappear like that again,” Coulson says, smiling a polite smile that pairs eerily with the blood still splattered across his face, “and it might be a literal leash.”
“Promises, promises,” Jason says, ignoring the weird twist in his belly. “Get me outta here, Phil. Take me to payroll.”
Coulson takes him back up to street level, which is crowded with SHIELD agents, and makes him suffer through the indignities of being checked and cleared by medical before he’ll let him into his newest, unbearably nondescript sedan.
Coulson offers to have SHIELD buy him a hotel room for the night, but Jason’s keyed up from the job, wants to get paid and shake free from SHIELD for a while, find some trouble or let trouble find him. He follows Coulson up to his hotel room and comes trotting back down a little later, counting his cash and winking at the startled desk clerk.
“Hey, Phil,” Jason says, thumbing on the earpiece as he steps out onto the streets of Stuttgart. “The desk guy thinks you picked me up on a street corner.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Coulson’s voice is quiet over the comm, but just as calm and competent as ever. “That’s too much cash for a street corner pickup. He thinks I found you online.”
“Fair point.” Jason says. He looks around, wondering where people even find trouble in a nice German city like this one. He scans the skyline for any hint of neon and then for the first bit of architecture that reminds him of Gotham.
“Hey, Phil,” he says. “What’s the range on this thing?”
“Considerable.” Coulson says. “If you stay on this continent, someone from SHIELD will be in range.”
“Good.” Jason says. “I’ll check in when I need more work.”
“Check in by Thursday.” Coulson says. It’s an order, probably, but his tone makes it sound like an invitation.
“Yeah, sure,” Jason says, “if I’m out of money by then.”
He thumbs the comm off and then shoves it into his pocket. There’s probably a tracking chip buried in the circuitry, reporting his coordinates. He should take it apart and address that. He will, when he feels like it. Tomorrow morning, probably.
He should make Coulson wait til next Sunday before he checks in. Just to remind him that Jason’s not his, not SHIELD’s, not anybody’s.
But later, when he’s washing blood off his hands in a shitty, low-pressure sink in a terrible bar after an entirely predictable fight over absolutely nothing, he looks in the stained mirror and sees a little bit of blood, splattered across his face.
He thinks Coulson wore it better.
He thinks, maybe a little dazed and definitely a little drunk, that Coulson wore it better is a really fucking weird thing to think.
He takes the earpiece out and stares at it for a second. He considers popping it into his ear, turning it on, and waking Coulson up. He’s not sure what the hell he’d say, though.
Remember that time you ran into a burning building to save some kids you didn’t know?
Remember when you picked that arms dealer’s brains out of your hair?
Remember how you looked, with blood all over you face?
“Nah,” Jason says, shoving the earpiece back into his pocket. “Fuck that.”
- - -
On Friday morning, Jason dissects the earpiece on the roof of the Silberturm. He smashes the tracking chip under his boot and then pieces the rest of it back together.
“Hey, Phil,” he says, when it clicks back to life. “I’m in Frankfurt. Come buy me coffee.”