When Jason gets home from Ethiopia, his body is a mass of bruises, and seven different bones have been fractured. Leslie takes one look at the X-ray and even through the haze of the painkillers he can see the way her lips purse, the flint that’s sparked in her eyes. He sleeps his drug-induced way through the tirade she gives Bruce, but whatever she says must have the desired effect. Jason is relieved of his duties as Robin until his injuries have completely healed.
The first few weeks are the worst, when Jason has nothing to do but lie in bed all day and remember. He remembers how he failed Bruce, how he failed his mother, his birth mother, a mother he hadn’t even known he had. There are days when he crushes his pills to powder and drops handfuls of dust on the floor because the pain he feels is less than he deserves. If only, if only, he thinks, the guilt and shame more than he can stand. But Sheila is dead and the Joker is still out there, and Jason is sitting in a mansion with the best prescription drugs money can buy. Life isn’t fair, and Jason knows this because if life were fair, he’d have died in that warehouse too.
Things get better when Jason goes back to school, when he can fill his head with something other than the constant replay of the decisions he made and the terrible harm he’d caused. 9.81 meters per seconds squared. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Tuesday, October 29, 1929.
His grades are higher now than they’ve been ever since he started his tenure as Robin, even with all the make-up work he has to do. He stays awake in his classes, smiles at the girls when they catch his eye, accepts invitations from the boys to hang out with them after school. He lies in the sun on the football field during lunch and feels himself soaking up its warmth, watching the clouds go by. They look different now, against the brilliant blue sky of the daytime, than they do at night, obscuring the moon as they go scuttling over the twisting passages of Crime Alley. Jason goes to sleep at eight o’clock, his body still exhausted by all it’s been through.
Dick comes home, back to Earth, back to Gotham, back through the front doors of the manor. Jason meets him in the front hallway, and Dick hugs him so tight he fears all his now-healed bruises will return.
“He’ll be fit enough to go out again next week,” Bruce says, watching them from beside the staircase.
“I bet you’re going stir-crazy.” Dick reaches over to ruffle Jason’s hair and Jason bats his hand away.
“You betcha.” He isn’t, really. He hasn’t thought much at all about going back out again.
The problem is evident his first night back on patrol, but, hey, it’s his first night back. If Robin is hesitant, second-guessing his every move, barely keeping up with Batman, it’s just because he’s out of practice. The snap decisions that Batman and his kind can make are the result of training, not innate skill. He will learn to trust himself again. It will get better with time.
It doesn’t. The second night he lets a criminal escape, faltering at the edge of a roof because the leap to the next one seems suddenly too great for him to make. The third night he panics at the sight of a victim of a shoot-out, the torn and mangled flesh seeping blood, and Batman has to come back and call 9-1-1 himself. The fourth night, he punches a mugger in the face and immediately feels sick, wondering if the man is a father, if there are sons or daughters who will notice the bruised jaw or the blackened eye. He looks inside himself for the source of his strength, that wellspring of righteous anger that drove him to become Robin. All he finds in its place is a numb exhaustion, a weariness. He’s tired of violence.
The fifth night, he calls Dick.
“Can I come live with you?”
“I can’t,” Jason isn’t crying, he refuses to. “I can’t stay here.”
“It’s three in the morning.”
“My apartment’s a shithole, you don’t want to live here.”
Dick lets out a sigh.
Dick’s couch is water-stained, threadbare, and lumpy. There’s no Alfred around, and Dick obviously never learned how to cook or clean, so Jason forages for himself from the nearest convenience store. The apartment is an annoyingly long way from Jason’s school, and Bludhaven’s bus system is somehow even less convenient and reliable than Gotham’s. But at least here Bruce can’t see what a pathetic failure his second Robin has turned out to be.
It only takes a week for Bruce to show up at Dick’s door. Dick lets him in, and Jason suspects that it’s more out of a desire to see Jason gone than out of any real regard for his former guardian. Bruce stands in the living room, looking awkwardly large in the cramped space, and Dick retreats to his bedroom and shuts the door with perhaps more force than necessary. Jason sits there on the couch where he’s been sleeping, hands wrapped around his knees, not looking at Bruce.
“What did I do?” Bruce asks finally, and the bewilderment and hurt in his voice is worse than any rage could be. Jason picks at a loose thread on the couch and wishes the ground would open up and swallow him whole.
“Talk to me. I can’t fix it until you tell me what I did wrong.” There’s a commanding note in his voice, and it makes Jason feel worse. If only he were better at following orders. Bruce shifts, looks behind to him to the closed door to Dick’s room and then back to Jason. “I can’t lose you. I need my Robin-”
“I can’t be Robin anymore!” Jason blurts out, the truth suddenly too big for him to hold inside himself for any longer.
Bruce, for once, seems genuinely stunned, and Jason takes the opportunity to press on. The ugly truth spills out of him as if he can’t stop it now that it’s started. “It’s not you, I just- I’m too weak, I can’t-” Some part of me died in Ethiopia, he stops himself from saying, and I’m worried it was the part of me you cared about.
“Jason,” Bruce says, sitting down very gently, right next to Jason, and for the first time, Jason looks up and makes eye contact with him. “Why don’t you come home?”
“Weren’t you listening?” Jason’s nearly shouting, desperate now, the tears welling up, tears of frustration and shame. “I can’t do what you need me to do. I can’t be who you need me to be!”
“Robin or not, you are my son!” Bruce thunders, shouting over Jason. “I don’t need you to be anyone other than who you are."
This time, it's Jason's turn to be speechless.
Dick comes out while Jason is packing up his things, which have somehow been spread all across the tiny apartment in the short time he’s been there. “Does this mean I get my couch back now?”
Bruce fixes him with a look, and says, “Robin or not, he’s still my son.”
Dick shuffles his feet, an unusually graceless movement from him, and looks away.
It’s easier, not being Robin. Jason’s grades stay up, and teachers who once looked at him with barely concealed exasperation now return his papers with approving smiles. He knows the names of the girls who wink at him and the boys who clap him on the back, and he knows that if he goes out to parties and doesn’t come home until midnight, Bruce won’t be there to chastise him but Alfred will. He makes more appearances than he used to at Wayne Foundation events, smiling at Bruce’s elbow, and sometimes he misses having Robin as an excuse to duck out on the tedious events full of the reprehensible rich.
It’s a careful dance, balancing being Batman’s son and not being Robin. Sometimes, he’ll get asked to be on comms, reporting to Bruce on the latest from the GCPD or monitoring one of the Bat’s own programs. He stills runs through his daily routine of exercises, and more than once a week, Dick will show up to help him train. If Jason knows that Dick is just using him as an excuse to visit the Cave, he doesn’t mind. It’s comfortable, familiar, sparring with Dick on the mats in the cool dark, the low hum of the supercomputers and the rustling of bats contributing the background music to their fights. In a way, it feels like an anchor, something that grants him the knowledge that he is still one continuous self. Pre-Ethiopia Jason liked fighting, and post-Ethiopia Jason likes it, too, as long as no one else’s life is on the line.
He finds his anger again, somewhere he wasn’t expecting it at all. They’re covering the Civil Rights Movement in his American history class, and after one too many offhand comments accompanied by general snickering, something inside Jason snaps. His apathy crumbles away under a wave of white-hot rage, surging up the way it used to when he fought. This, too, is fighting, but his weapons are his words, and this feels more like working magic than brawling ever has. He holds the entire class spellbound, pouring forth with his charismatic, incandescent fury, and at the end some kid laughs and says “Damn.” His teacher asks to see him after class, and he expects retribution but instead what he gets is an invitation to join the debate team. He says he’ll think about it.
The kid shows up a few months later, perched on the hood of Jason’s car as he waits for him to get out of football practice. “Jason Todd,” he pronounces, and when he meets Jason’s gaze, his eyes are robin’s egg blue.
“Wayne,” Jason corrects, automatic, adjusting his backpack. “Jason Todd Wayne. And who are you?”
He shrugs, like it doesn’t matter. “I’m Tim Drake. Batman needs a Robin.”
Jason bundles Tim into the car, hissing at him to keep his voice down, Jesus, anyone might hear. On the twenty-five minute drive to the Drake house, which Jason undertakes only to be certain that he’ll be rid of the kid, Tim lays out his points like he’s giving a presentation to his middle-school class. Robin, he says, keeps Batman careful, helps him in two ways. Not only does he watch Batman’s back, he also gives Batman a reason to watch his own back. Without Robin, Batman is careless. Without Robin, criminals are more likely to get away. If someone can be Robin, - here Tim fixes Jason with a stare so full of gravity it’s almost comical- that someone therefore has a moral responsibility to be Robin, for the sake of all in Gotham and beyond. Jason just laughs and shakes his head, letting the words roll off him.
As he drops Tim in front of his house, Jason says, “Hey, kid. If you think being Robin is a moral responsibility, why don’t you shoulder that burden yourself, huh?” Something changes behind Tim’s eyes, a new light flickering in their depths, and Jason knows he hasn’t seen the last of Tim Drake yet.
When he gets home, he sits in the driveway of the manor for a long moment. In the view through the windshield, there’s not a single cloud in sight, just the late-afternoon sun and the radiant sky, a blue so deep that he feels he could fly away into it. He sits, and stares, and smiles, and then he goes into the kitchen and phones Dick.
“We may have a problem,” he says. “I think B may find himself with a new Robin pretty soon.”
“Is that a problem?” Dick asks, and Jason can hear the water running in the background, like Dick’s finally figured out how to do his own dishes.
“Uh, yeah, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Dick says. “The last one turned out pretty okay.”
“Fuck you,” Jason says, and he’s laughing now. “I turned out amazing.”