It started, like most terrible things in Jason’s life, on a Monday. It was an end of the summer season/early fall thunderstorm, and he spotted a middle-aged woman trying to change her tire in the pouring rain. Jason had wanted to ignore it. He tried to ignore it, yet he still found himself getting off the bus and offering to help. By the time he finished changing the tire, Jason was soaked from head to toe. His socks made a squelch sound as water had found its way inside his boots and was now a small trapped lake holding his feet prisoner. His favorite leather jacket had been ruined, so he tossed it in a nearby dumpster. Shivering in the damn rain, he called a cab to take him home where he took a hot shower and curled up on the couch with his newest fantasy novel and a hot cup of lemon cayenne tea.
That should have been the end of it.
Unfortunately, the woman happened to be Mrs. Lewis’s neighbor’s friend’s cousin or something. On Tuesday, when he walked through the library doors the old woman greeted him with too big of a smile. From there the whole thing tumbled out of control. Now he had a burner phone and the numbers of half the population of the fifth ward in Bludhaven. People called him for everything, from car issues to help finding missing children. It was the last one that had him picking up the buzzing burner phone from his back pocket, even as Diana eyed him pointedly over her vanilla ice cream cone.
Jason did his best not to flinch under that stare as he answered his phone. “Hello."
“Hello, is this Jay?”
“I, um. I heard you help people.”
Jason bit back a sigh before standing and walking outside of the ice cream parlor. There was no reason to give Diana more of a reason to scold his manners. “Yeah, what can I do for you?”
“It’s just the hot water in my apartment doesn’t work. I told my landlord about it weeks ago, but she still hasn’t done anything. Normally, I’d just fix it myself, but…” Jason stopped listening. The voice on the other end of the line was male; Jason would guess middle aged or older. He was clearly embarrassed about having to call someone to fix his problem. He had become tone deaf to the shame, worry, or embarrassment that often accompanied these calls.
“Okay, I’ll stop by later today,” he cut the man off.
After getting his address, Jason strolled back into the ice cream parlor where Diana was watching him. He barely sat back down on the chair before she pounced with questions.
“Who was that?”
It wasn’t until that moment that Jason realized he didn’t get a name. Well, whatever. He helped people; he wasn’t friendly. That was Dick’s thing, not his.
Diana’s eyes narrowed, and her eyebrows became a stiff line across her face. “A client for what?”
Too late he realized how his brushoff sounded and what conclusions Wonder Woman had drawn. Less than three months ago, he had been a drug lord in Gotham. His inglorious reign lasted less than two weeks, but that didn’t matter.
Heat rising in his cheeks, he confessed to his bowl of chocolate ice cream, “It was someone who wanted plumbing help.”
Jason could hear the bewilderment and doubt in her voice. Damn it all. He couldn’t have Diana doubting him. If it were Bruce or Dick, he flip them off and carry on, but he cared about Wonder Woman’s opinion of him. Reluctantly, he slid the burner phone across the table.
“I help people who can’t afford to pay professionals,” he mumbled, wishing to disappear under the floorboards.
Diana snatched the phone up and immediately started scrolling, undoubtedly checking his text messages for confirmation.
“Jason, look at me.”
He forced his eyes up to find Diana beaming at him. “I’m proud of you.”
A warmth spread through his entire body, and heat rose into his face again. “Thanks.”
Diana gave him an amused smile. “This isn’t something you need to keep hidden.”
All at once the warm feeling vanished. Jason pocketed the black flip phone. “Don’t tell Bruce.”
“Jason,” she began.
“No. Don’t Jason me. Don’t tell Bruce.”
“Alright, I won’t tell him, Warrior Heart.”
Despite himself, Jason relaxed at the old nickname. He picked up his spoon and continued to eat his slowly melting chocolate ice cream, trying to look more relaxed than he felt.
Mercifully, Diana played along. She bit her ice cream cone and wiped off the vanilla that stuck to her fingers. “Why did you ask to get together?”
“I’m not allowed to want to spend time with you?”
“Warrior Heart, subtly isn’t your strong suit” she replied with a fond smile. “Nor is it mine. Why did you want to see me?”
Jason took a deep breath and tried to relax his shoulders. He hadn’t talked to anyone about this yet. He kept a hard copy of his notes in an old composition notebook, which he hid in the fourth floor of the library. Above the rarely used history section, Jason pried the ceiling tiles up and left his carefully constructed notes hidden. It might have been paranoid, but he didn’t trust Bruce or Dick to not hack into his computer, which was why he rarely used it, and he definitely did not trust his dear older brother not to search his backpack out of ‘curiosity’. It was bad enough the time Bruce caught him with several of the manor books on mythology and religion.
“I want to talk about the Greek gods,” he stated.
Diana raised an eyebrow. “What brought this on?”
“I’ve been doing some research about religion. I want to know why I was brought back. I’m trying to find some answers. I’ve ruled out anything with reincarnation because I obviously came back as me and not a squirrel. There has to be a reason, right? There has to be.” He didn’t realize he was rambling until Diana reached across and laid her hand on his.
“Warrior Heart, I don’t know why you were brought back, but if the reason was only to lighten my grief, it is enough for me.” She smiled at him, warm and friendly. “I will answer any questions I can.”
Something in his chest loosened and he smiled back. “Are they really gods?” It was probably an insensitive question to somehow who had worshipped at some of their temples, but he needed answers, and he trusted Diana.
“That would depend on your definition of a god. They live longer than most humans and have strengths and abilities outside the realm of most of humanity, but none of them are all-powerful or all-knowing like the Abrahamic faiths believe their god to be.”
“So they’re like Superman?”
A teasing smile lit up Diana’s face. “Yes, but don’t let him hear you say that. You’ll get an hour and a half lecture on how he isn’t a god.”
Jason didn’t worry about that. He had never been close to Clark like Dick was. He had picked his favorite superhero, and he had never once regretted his choice. “Can they bring back the dead?”
Diana’s brow furrowed. “That’s complicated. Hades can release someone in his river back to the living but there are time constraints, and he never does it without payment. As far as I’m aware, the others cannot.”
“What do you mean someone in his river?” Jason asked, trying to understand.
“Not everyone journeys through the River of Styx, but I’ve heard different reasons as to why. Less and less people go to the Underworld every year. It’s a fraction of what it was millennia ago.”
“So I wouldn’t have?”
“No,” she answered decisively. “You wouldn’t have. Plus bringing someone back after three years is outside the realm of his power.”
Jason swirled his now melted chocolate ice cream. He was not sure if he felt relief or something else. On one hand, he was glad that the Greek gods have less power; rereading mythology taught him that the Greek myths were mostly about horny, jealous beings who he didn’t think were worthy of worship. On the other, he would have to start considering the faiths he had been avoiding.
“Thanks,” he said once he realized the silence had dragged on too long.
“I’m glad you’re alive, Jason, no matter the reason,” Diana told him with a smile as soft as a spring day.
He couldn’t help the feeling of warmth that spread his limbs as he returned the smile.
After returning briefly to the library to update his notebook because he knew not to trust his current ability to remember anything, he headed to mystery man’s apartment to check on the plumbing. As he suspected, it was the hot water heater, which was why the no-good landlord hadn’t fixed the problem. Hot water heaters were expensive, but Jason had a ‘father’ with too much money, who wouldn’t ask how Jason was spending his newly reinstated ‘inheritance’ unless he broke a million dollars. Bruce would monitor the situation, but that’s why Jason paid for everything in cash. He hoped it drove Bruce crazy.
As Jason tightened the bolts of the new hot water heater, he thought about his last session with Dr. Waqud. Those weren’t going great. Jason came every week, so Dick didn’t get any crazy ideas about skipping. Dr. Waqud wanted to talk about things Jason didn’t want to discuss with anyone, let alone a therapist in Bruce’s pocket. They both ended the weekly sessions frustrated and in Jason’s case, often angry. It wasn’t his fault his memory prevented him from answering her invasive questions. It was his fault that he typically became an ass around her fifth question. Still, there was one statement that despite his memory issues kept circling in his brain, looking for a place to land. If you won’t be honest with me Jason, you need to be honest with yourself.
And if Jason were honest with himself, he’d admit that he kept taking these odd jobs because fixing concrete objects soothed his inability to fix the abstract problem of his brain. Great. Now his brain was waxing poetically like some Emily Dickinson poem had taken over his internal narration.
The wrench he was using slipped out of his hand as the words to a once familiar poem sprang to mind. A poem he knew he hadn’t read upon his return to life.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops ¬– at all –
He remembered the moment he read the poem for the first time, curled up in an oversized reading chair with a steaming cup of hot chocolate and a warm throw blanket. He had traced the words along the ancient pages; afraid if he moved too quickly they would tear. For the first time, he might have found hope.
Jason shook himself and grabbed the wrench. He finished installing the hot water heater, offered his good-byes, and left to walk the streets of Bludhaven. The weather was cool, and Jason tugged on his new jacket that still hadn’t melded properly to his skin the way the other one had. The sun had started its descent and left a soft glow on Bludhaven’s grimy streets.
That poem had been the first clear memory that had returned. It wasn’t spotty, jumbled, or confusing. He remembered the words of the poem, the smell of the hot chocolate mixing with the old book scent, the warmth of the blanket, the sound of his fingernail accidentally scratching the page. Why had it returned so clearly? Was his brain healing? If he waited long enough, would all his memories before the Pit return clearly? Did he want them to?
An involuntary yawn interrupted his thoughts, and he forced his tiredness to a different corner of his mind. Before he could return to his more pressing questions, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He unlocked it and saw his reminder for the SAT tomorrow. He groaned. Was that tomorrow? Damn. Jason recalled a random poem and moment from his life but couldn’t even keep what day it was straight in his head. Random ass memories would have to wait. He needed to try to get some basic concepts lodged in his brain before his test tomorrow.
Lost in his own thoughts and looking at his phone, Jason didn’t notice the idiot running towards him until he had slammed into him, knocking his phone to the ground.
“Stop! Thief!” Someone shouted.
Old instincts raced through him. Jason grabbed his phone and chased after the man. He nearly caught up with the man when he stopped on a dime and ducked into an alley. Jason had overran him and had to double back. By the time he got to the alley, the man was attempting to climb the fire escape. Jason lunged and tackled the man to the ground.
As he did the lights of sirens filled the alley. Cops. Wonderful.
“Stand up and keep your hands where I can see them,” a female voice shouted at them.
Jason complied quickly. The last thing he need was to deal with a damn arrest. There was no way Bruce and Dick wouldn’t know instantly. The other man groaned and made a weak attempt at standing. Jason barely refrained from rolling his eyes.
A brown-haired woman approached slowly gun still drawn, aimed at the two of them. “Keep your hands where I can see him but step away from the man on the ground.”
With his arms still raised, Jason took two steps to the left.
The other cop finally got out of the car. If there was a god somewhere, he, she, it clearly hated him. Because the man who sauntered over with a shit-eating grin plastered on his face was none other than Dick Grayson.
“Sir, I’m going to need you to step over to the wall, so I can pat you down,” Dick said, sounding official, but his eyes were full of mirth.
Rolling his eyes, Jason did as asked.
Dick made a show of looking for weapons. “What happened?” He hissed quietly.
Jason grunted, “He stole something, and I ran after him.”
It only occurred to Jason now that he didn’t know what was stolen or if anything had actually been stolen. He could hear the lectures on paying attention to his surroundings already.
The sound of a scuffle tore both of their attentions towards Dick’s partner and the other man. The woman had the thief flat on his stomach as she forced his hands into handcuffs. Dick put his gun back in the holster. He gave a low whistle as she dragged the man into cop car.
“In a city full of corrupt, ugly, male cops, how did you manage to get her as your partner?” It was a rhetorical question. If that hypothetical god existed, he, she, it loved Dick Grayson as much as he, she, it hated Jason Todd.
“Rookie!” The woman snapped. “What are you doing?”
“Getting his statement,” Dick responded casually. “He doesn’t have any weapons.”
Well, that was a lie, but he’d thank Dick for it later.
Before Dick’s partner could respond, a young Latina girl burst into the alley, panting. She looked around and spotted Jason. “Jay!” She called and ran toward him, even though Jason had never seen her before in his life. “Did you get my mother’s purse?”
Dick, one-man circus and every child’s best friend, crouched down to be eye level with the girl. “Do you know this man?” He asked gently.
The girl gave a decisive nod. “Everyone knows Jay!”
“Do they now?” Dick’s tone carried the promise of future questions, even if he sounded friendly towards the girl.
“Of course!” She said again. Confusion written across her face. “Did you get her purse?”
“It’s right here,” Dick’s partner said as she handed the item in question to the girl.
The girl snatched the bag from the woman and then lunged forward and gave Jason’s legs a hug. Dick didn’t even bother trying to hide the large smile on his face. Jason only didn’t glare at him because he knew the other cop was watching him. Instead, he patted the girl’s back awkwardly, hoping she’d let go soon.
“You’re free to go, Jay, but next time leave the crime fighting to the police officers,” Dick’s partner responded.
Eyes wide and innocent, Jason responded, “Sure thing, ma’am.”
Back at the apartment, Jason’s contemplative mood from early shattered. He paced the apartment up and down with a pencil and sticking notes trying to remember how to find the area of the shaded region of a circle and a square or what the hell Side Angle Side meant.
Dick stepped in a large smile on his face, which immediately collapsed at the state of their living room. “Are you okay?”
Jason eyed the room he had been pacing for the last hour. He had ripped pages out of his SAT prep book and scattered them around the living room as he worked on problems. He had left sticky notes everywhere as he tried to remember basic facts.
“I’m fine,” he replied quickly, grabbing the papers and sticky notes and carrying them to the desk in his room.
Predictably, Dick followed. “What’s going on?”
“I’m taking the SAT tomorrow.”
“You know you’re going to ace it just like your GRE, right?”
“Save the pep talks for Tim. I’m fine.”
Dick pursed his lips, and Jason prepared himself for twenty questions. Instead, Dick said, “I’ll make dinner.” Then left to do so.
Jason felt like he broke into a cold sweat. What was wrong with him? There was nothing wrong with him. It was normal to be anxious about taking the SATs. They were a timed-test that influenced a person’s future. There were 25 minutes for each section more than enough time like 30 seconds was supposed to be enough time for Batman to find him.
Jason tightened his hand on the number two pencil in his grip. Red numbers counting down quickly danced in front of his vision. He was supposed to have 25 minutes, but he had only been allowed 25 seconds. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t. He was going to die. Oh god, he was going to die. Batman hadn’t come. He had left him.
Words flooded Jason’s hearing. “Breathe, Jason, Breathe. I need you to breathe, Little Wing.”
Slowly awareness trickled back into Jason’s senses. His chest was too tight and black spots danced in front of his vision. He gulped desperately for air and turned out of his brother’s grip. He landed on his hands, panting as he inhaled oxygen.
Rubbing circles in his back, Dick said, “Inhale for three. One, two, three. Exhale for three. One, two, three.”
Jason focused on his breathing until his body stopped shaking. Eventually, he rolled over and sat on the floor with his back against his bed. He closed his eyes and cursed. Dick sat beside him shoulders bumping quietly. Neither one of them spoke for a long moment.
“Sorry,” Jason offered to the silence.
“Don’t apologize. What happened?”
Jason shook his head.
“Don’t,” Jason cut his brother off quickly. “Just don’t. I’m fine.”
“Because an SAT induced panic attack is the definition of fine.”
“Let it go, Dick.”
Dick sprang to his face. Concern replaced by anger. “Like you let it go about the night on the Brooklyn Bridge. Like you didn’t make me remember that night in painstaking detail to satisfy your curiosity.”
Jason followed suit. “It wasn’t about my curiosity. I was worried about you!”
“Oh please, I told you repeatedly that it wasn’t something that would happen again. You wanted another reason to be pissed at Bruce. You needed one after you realized your daddy issues didn’t have a leg to stand on.”
Jason’s brain snapped. He threw a punch that Dick dodged easily. Dick tackled him to the ground. It was a mess of limbs and pins until Jason accidentally kneed the older man in the crotch. Dick let go of Jason’s shoulders immediately to hunch in on himself. They both cursed, and Jason sprang off his brother.
Dick was motionless on the floor. Jason kept alternating between cursing and apologizing. After the older man was able to stand again, he stared at his brother for a long moment.
“This can’t continue, Little Wing. You need to talk to someone. I don’t care if its me, Dr. Waqud, or Alfred, but you need to talk to someone,” he said before he walked out of the room, leaving Jason alone in the middle of the chaos.