It’s the last time, he told himself. He brushed his cheek with the back of his fist, and looked at the pink smear it left on his hand. He kept his good hand on the kid’s shoulder, kept them both walking.
“Where are we going?” the kid asked. He was shivering, even with Jason’s jacket wrapped around him. Wintry mix, the forecast had promised, and Gotham had delivered. Jason himself was beyond numb, at this point.
“Somewhere safe,” Jason said. “I promise.”
When they got there, Jason pounded on the door. It was after ten, and that meant the clinic was closed—Leslie worked on a budget. She could only afford to keep her staff around for set hours, if she wanted to keep her doors open at all.
But Jason knew that long after the staff went home, you could usually find Leslie herself still on the premises, sitting in the back, poring over staff schedules and patient charts. She never did know when to go home. After a solid minute and more gone by, without a sound from within, Jason pounded again. C’mon, he thought. C’mon, please.
“What is it?” came that brisk voice, finally, as the door opened to reveal Leslie herself, tired-looking and half-slumped on the doorframe, still in scrubs that definitely needed a wash. A wash with bleach. “Oh,” she said, laying eyes on Jason. “It’s you.”
“Yeah,” he said. He felt much the way she looked. “It’s me.” He dragged the kid in front of him, rougher than he meant to, and gently shoved him at Leslie. “This is Aaron. He needs help. Aaron, this is Leslie. She’s a doctor. She’s my friend. She won’t hurt you.”
Leslie’s gaze on Jason was not overly kind, but it gentled, when she looked at Aaron. “What can you tell me?” she asked him, as she opened the door further, ushering them both in. Jason prodded Aaron, who took a cautious step inside. Jason himself stayed on the doorstep.
“I found him,” Jason said, trying to remember the details. Those might matter, for Aaron’s sake. But details were getting harder to remember. That was a problem he’d been having, recently; more and more, the specific moments of his nights kept slipping away from him, sometimes almost as fast as they happened. “I found him. I was. It was.” Jason closed his eyes, and concentrated. “I crashed a deal. I did plan that part.” He blinked a few times, until he had the most important part. “They were taking turns, when I got there. So I killed all of them.” He looked up at her, and saw the horror in her face. “I hadn’t planned that part.”
“Jason,” Leslie said, sharply.
“He’s going to need everything, I think,” Jason said, wearily. “Just...please. Help him.” He shook his head, and backed away from Leslie, from the clinic, from the glimpse of the child inside, just visible beyond the door. There was an abortive scrabbling motion, there, but then it stopped.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said. “I have to go now.” And he turned, and he walked away. He heard Leslie closing the clinic door behind him. Good. There was blood melting off of him, staining the slush beneath his feet, and he felt sick.
This is the last time.
“A taxicab,” Alfred said, after Jason had tipped the driver. “How novel.”
“What were you expecting, Alf?” Jason asked. Alfred’s fingers twitched, and Jason felt like he’d been lectured, for being so over-familiar.
“In my experience, prodigal children usually prefer to come roaring back on a motorcycle,” Alfred said. He made no effort to assist Jason with his suitcase. “It’s nicely dramatic.”
“Did Bruce?” Jason asked, genuinely curious. “When he came back?”
He got stony silence, in return. Ouch. Mentioning Bruce had been a mistake.
I deserve that, Jason told himself. He followed Alfred inside and up the stairs.
“You may put your things in here,” Alfred informed him, when they reached a second-floor room, and Jason had a flashback to the very day he’d first stepped foot inside this house. Except back then, this feeling had just been...unfamiliarity. Alfred hadn’t known what to do with him, and Jason hadn’t known then how much he would adore this man.
He still loved Alfred. He wasn’t at all sure the reverse was true.
It wasn’t his old room. That wasn’t a surprise. But it was clean, and it had been aired, and the sheets smelled fresh. The guest rooms had usually been left in storage, so he thought this had probably been prepared for him. Maybe...maybe Alfred wasn’t too angry?
Jason shook his head. No. Alfred was angry. Maybe more than he could ever forgive.
I’m sorry, Jason thought again. I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t mean to do that to you. That was the thought that had been running over and over in his head like the hook of a pop song, ever since he’d come back two days ago, wanting to ask Leslie’s advice, and seen the shock on her face. When she’d said to him, “Do you even realize what you’ve put them through—”
He’d begged her to call ahead, to try to explain. They must have listened to her, or he wouldn’t have even made it this far.
He wanted to run away again. But he told himself I came back for a reason, and he kept moving.
Once Jason had stashed his meager belongings in his newly borrowed room, he followed Alfred down the hall, down the stairs of the house that had once been his home, and he tried not to look around him. He wasn’t ready to see the ways it had been changed in all the years he’d been absent. His whole body felt overly warm, and sensitive. He had the strange sensation that if someone just poked him with a stick, he’d boil over.
Alfred knocked softly on the study door before opening in. He gestured Jason in, and then smoothly shut the door behind him.
Bruce was already halfway out of his desk chair. He was in charcoal slacks and a pinstripe button-down with the sleeves rolled partially up his arms, and the first glimpse of his face shocked Jason.
He just looked so...tired. And older, so much older than even the last time Jason had seen him, and that had been just two years ago.
Did I do this to you? he thought.
Bruce stood fully. He was going grey. Jason could see it that, now; Bruce’s once-dark hair was brushed generously with frost. He wondered when that had started. He’d hardly ever seen Bruce with the cowl off up close, when he came back the first time.
“Jason,” Bruce said, breaking the silence. His voice sounded like someone had taken a lawnmower to his vocal chords. “Why?”
“It would...help if you could be more specific, old man,” Jason said. He wanted to call him Bruce, but the grey hair and Alfred’s chill was pushing him back towards a place Jason had hoped he’d left behind. He swallowed. “Why did I leave? Or why did I come back?”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Bruce ground out. “You were alive, but you let us all wonder for—two damned years, Jason.” He put a careful hand on his desk, as if he needed the support.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jason said. “I still don’t know how you all got to me being—I left a note!”
Bruce stared at him. “You left a note?”
Jason flushed. “Yes, I left a note. It said, ‘Dear assholes, we’ll never get along, you’d spit on my grave if I still had one, I hate you all, I’m quitting this gig forever, and I’m going to find myself somewhere outside this shithole city, don’t bother looking for me.’”
“Jason, this is not a joke—”
Jason put up a hand. “No. You’re right, it’s not. I apologize for being glib. But I did...leave a note. It, uh, it wasn’t phrased exactly like that. Not all that far off, though.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “Bruce,” he said, suddenly unsure where to start. He closed his eyes. “I was drowning.”
He listened to Bruce’s footsteps come around the desk, approaching slowly. He knew Bruce was letting him follow his physical movement with audible steps, and he appreciated it.
“I was poison,” he said, helplessly, and this was not the speech he’d imagined, when he’d first thought, I could go home. “I was sick, and I was hurting people. No matter how much I tried to help. I was wrong, Bruce. I came back wrong.” He shuddered, full body, but he’d vowed to himself, I will not break down. Not here, not tonight. That wasn’t why he was here. “I had a crusade. I believed in it, I did. But I was wrong, and it was destroying me, body and soul.”
“Jason,” Bruce breathed. Jason could feel him, the warmth of the comforting hand Bruce wasn’t quite willing to offer, just above his back.
“And you,” Jason continued, eyes still closed. Dammit, this wasn’t what he’d wanted. “You all...you were killing me, too.”
The tiny exhale; the warmth withdrawn.
Here I am, hurting you again.
Jason opened his eyes, but Bruce was somewhere behind him. Well, he couldn’t really blame him, could he, for not wanting to see Jason’s face. “Every time,” he said, and the hurt kept coming out. “Every time I interacted with any one here, it would go even worse than I imagined. There was just...there wasn’t—”
Love, he thought. There had been no reason to believe in love. And no sight of any other path than the one he’d made for himself.
“There wasn’t a way,” he finished. He stared at the wall, in a room that was silent except for his breathing, and Bruce’s, and the ticking of the grandfather clock. “I left because I was drowning, but I still wanted to live.”
“My god,” Bruce said, and there was a heavy thump. “That’s…” He started to laugh.
Jason turned to stare, saw Bruce had dropped into an armchair, and was covering his eyes with one hand, body shaking. “Fuck, Bruce! Are you okay?”
Bruce shook his head, and the laughter was punctuated a noise that sounded suspiciously like a sob, and then again. “Did Leslie not tell you,” he managed.
“What?” Jason said, frustrated.
Bruce wiped his hand over his face, and looked up at Jason, red-eyed. It made a nice contrast against all that grey. “You gave away all your money,” he said.
The Red Hood had taken a lot of cash from Gotham’s drug kingpins, when he was making his move on Gotham. And it had been damned convenient, having it. He’d needed weapons, and armor, and equipment, and loyal employees; none of that came free, and it wasn’t like he’d had Batman’s fortune at his fingertips. He’d taken it brutally. He’d taken lives to get it. At the time, that had felt both necessary and acceptable. The people he’d killed that night were the scum of the earth; their own respective body counts dwarfed his, unimaginably.
That was what he’d told himself, anyway. And at least he’d been doing something, something that hadn’t been done before. It had seemed worth the cost. It had seemed worth the deaths. It had seemed worth the killing. He did still appreciate the distinction, even now, between the weight of death, and the weight of killing, and who carried each portion.
But dirty money was dirty money. It had been one thing, to run a campaign to undermine Gotham’s drug trade funded by its own stolen profits. That had had a pleasing irony. But the moment Jason knew he was walking away from it all, once the crusade had died in his heart, he couldn’t get rid of that blood-stained money fast enough. It had all been drained out of Gotham’s most vulnerable. It was a minor fortune, but a fortune built on thousands and thousands of wrecked and ruined lives. The thought of keeping it, any of it, for his own personal use was nauseating.
So he’d given it away. All of it. Every penny to rehab programs. That had seemed appropriate.
“I didn’t need it anymore,” he said, simply.
“Where the hell have you been, Jason?”
“Backpacking around South America,” Jason said. Bruce’s eye twitched. “I’m not fucking with you. Call it my gap year.” Really, his second—he’d done Europe on a first go-round. Sort of.
“Backpacking around South America,” Bruce repeated, disbelievingly.
“It was educational,” Jason said, blandly. It actually had been, in a very different vein than Europe.
“How’s your Spanish?” Bruce inquired, as if Jason was still in high school, and he was asking about class.
“Conversational,” Jason said, with a tinge of pride. “I’m going to keep working on it. I think it’ll come in handy.”
Bruce cocked his head. “Oh?”
Jason finally pushed himself off the desk, willfully relaxing his body language, and slowly sat down on the couch, at an angle to Bruce, who watched him, thoughtfully. “It’s a whole...story.”
“By all means,” Bruce said, a little dryly. “Tell it.”
“While I was in Peru,” Jason said. “I visited this tiny little village six ways from nowhere. And I met this woman.”
An eyebrow climbed, slightly.
“Yeah, you wish,” Jason said, with a small smile. “Her name is Adriana. She’s a nurse, in a village where the medical system is an 85-year-old midwife, her 13-year-old great-granddaughter, and a doctor who lives fifty miles away and only visits once every other month.
“When Adriana was fifteen, the doctor told Adriana’s mother that her blood pressure was very high. He prescribed her medication for it, and advised her not to have another child, because her body couldn’t handle it. Then he left, because he’s still the only doctor in fifty miles, and it’s not his only village. When he went, there wasn’t anyone to help Adriana’s mom get the drugs he’d told her she needed, and no one to make sure she knew how to take them, anyway. There was no one to follow up with her and make sure she was okay, and no one who knew how to watch out for symptoms. No birth control, either. And then, Adriana’s mother got pregnant again.”
Jason stopped for a moment, because remembering her telling him this part still made something ache, inside.
“The pregnancy was high risk, from the start,” he said. “She should have had someone looking after her the whole time, but the doctor couldn’t stay, and no one else knew what to do. She and the baby both died.
“When Adriana was a little older, she sold everything they’d owned. She got some money together, she took herself all the way to Lima, and she trained as a nurse. And then she went back home, so the next time someone in her village needed medical help even after the doctor had been around, someone would be there.”
They sat in silence for a bit.
“I was hoping that story would be self-explanatory,” Jason said, after a few minutes. “That was dumb of me.”
But Bruce looked up at him with a warmth Jason had almost forgotten he could show. “You’ll need documentation,” he said. “A solid legal ID. I’m sure you can pass the GED without any difficulty. You will need a degree from a good 4-year program first, though, there’s simply no shortcut around that—”
“Bruce, what are you talking about?” Jason said.
“Medical school, obviously,” Bruce said, sounding bewildered. “You said you were quitting. I assumed you were referring to this,” and he gestured vaguely in the direction of the grandfather clock.
“I was,” Jason said. “I did. Two years ago. And I don’t mean just the Red Hood, I mean all of it. But I’m not applying to med school, Bruce. I don’t want to be a doctor. The four year degree thing, maybe. If it feels right. Someday.” That wasn’t part of his new plan, true, but it had once been part of the old one, the old old one, back when he was still a kid. Before everything. But that was getting way off track. “Bruce, what I want is to go into nursing.”
Bruce stared, blankly.
“I only need a GED to start a BSN program,” Jason said. “I talked to Leslie about this. Like, there’s other stuff I need to take care of, before I can start applying. And yeah, there might be other things I want to do, down the line, other degrees, depending on where I take it. But I can start working on this right now.”
“Ah. That’s why you contacted Leslie, first, instead of...instead of us,” Bruce said, just a little bitter, and Jason winced.
“In my defense,” Jason said. “Until I talked to Leslie, I didn’t know you thought I was dead.” He put up a hand. “Yes, I know ghosting was a shitty fucking thing to do! I was not okay when I did it. Although it’s not like we were exactly on good terms at the time. But I did leave a fucking note!” Which had apparently gotten lost before anyone saw it, so no matter how many times he repeated that, he knew it wasn’t going to change anything.
“You disappeared without a word,” Bruce said, heavily. “You gave away all your money. You transferred all your properties. We looked for months, once we realized you weren’t coming back, Jason, do you understand? Months. I asked Clark—no, I begged Clark. Not even to bring you back, just to find you so he could tell me you were alive, that you were safe. That you didn’t need me to come for you, wherever you were.” Bruce put both hands over his face. “He spent three days looking for you. He couldn’t find you.”
Three days. That was...an insane amount of Superman time. Clark was a friend, but that was still a favor Jason wouldn’t have thought he would have merited asking for. Given the state of things, then. And how had he not…? “When was that?” he said faintly. “Superman, I mean.”
“March of last year,” Bruce said.
Jason consulted his mental calendar. “I was spelunking in a cave system in Chile, early last March,” he said, after a minute. “The Cuevas de Mármol. They’re spectacular.” He blew out a breath. “Jesus Christ, what timing.”
“Why were you—you’re claustrophobic, Jason,” Bruce said, looking askance at him.
“That is a thing...I am working on,” Jason said. Something occurred to him. “You keep mentioning the money. The drug money. Did you think, that when I leveraged it out of those fuckwads that I was taking that for myself?” The thought hurt.
“No,” Bruce said bluntly. “I never thought that. But please try to see this from my perspective. You’re a detective, Jason. Imagine that your disappearance was a case that you were investigating. The person in question divested himself of all financial assets before disappearing, giving his money to various charities. Prior to his disappearance, he was estranged from all known friends and family, and the few people who’d had recent contact with the subject reported that his mental health had seemed...questionable,” he said. “That would be Leslie and Alfred, by the way. Does all of that suggest any particular possibility to you, Jason?”
Jason sucked in a sharp breath. “You thought,” he choked out. “You really thought I’d—”
And then he surged to his feet and bolted out of the study, not looking once behind him. There was already too much.
He was in the conservatory, when Bruce found him, sitting near a glass wall, arms folded around his knees, watching the sun go down.
“I am…so fucking sorry,” Jason said aloud, at the sound of the closing door. He knew it would be Bruce, and no one else. It sure as hell wasn’t going to be Alfred, now that Jason realized exactly what he’d put Alfred’s boy through. Not to mention that Leslie had specifically told him this homecoming was going to be sans the extended family. “He wants to talk to you alone, first,” she’d said, which suited Jason just fine, since he’d wanted to talk alone to Bruce first, too. That was the most important part. Always. “I didn’t know, Bruce. I didn’t know you thought I was dead until Leslie told me. I never would have even dreamed...I swear to god, I never meant to make you think that.”
It’s why I left a fucking note! Even as mentally unstable as he'd been getting there at the end, he’d still felt like he had to leave something behind. Even if just to say don’t come after me. They hadn’t come after him—that he’d realized, anyway—and he’d taken that to mean that either they were respecting his wishes, or that they just hadn’t cared. It had been over a year before it had even felt like it mattered.
It was bad enough, Bruce thinking that Jason was dead, again, but it must have made it so much more horrible for him to come to believe that not only was Jason likely dead, but that he’d died not in an accident, not even in the field, not by chance at all. But by his own hand, with all the desolation and suffering that that implied.
Jason buried his head in his arms. No wonder Alfred could barely speak to him. Did he think Jason had intended this, any of it?
Bruce silently made his way through the jungle of plants, and carefully sat down next to Jason. That was all, though, no word of comfort, no touch, no forgiveness.
“I kept telling myself, not without a body,” Bruce finally said. “But Tim...he thought that if you had died by suicide, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to be found. And Damian agreed. He believed that—he said that if you had chosen to die, you would have wanted to make sure that it—” Bruce took a deep breath. “That it couldn’t be undone.”
Trust Damian, to think of that.
“Well, I didn’t,” Jason said. He unfolded his limbs, and looked at the sunset, so he didn’t have to look at Bruce. “I was really fucked up, yes. That was why I left. Because I realized that everything I had been doing with my life was wrong. I left because I had to stop, but I couldn’t still be in Gotham and watch the city burn and bleed around me without doing something. And I didn’t talk to any of you because every time I tried, I walked away hating all of us more, especially me, and I couldn’t take that anymore. I left because I still wanted to live, and if I wanted to live, I had to change. And to change, I had to be somewhere that wasn’t here.” He waved his arm around expansively, trying to convey that he meant both geographic location and situation.
Bruce put a tentative hand on his back, when Jason immediately leaned back into the touch, Bruce grew bolder. He turned it into a full-on shoulder squeeze. Jason sighed, slightly. He’d missed that. He’d missed so many things.
“I’ve been dead for real, Bruce,” Jason soberly. “Trust me, I’m not in a hurry to do it again.”
“Well,” Bruce said. “Okay. Good, then.” He nodded sharply, as if that could put rest to months or more of worry and grief. It couldn’t, Jason knew, but he’d take it in the moment.
“You must hate me,” Jason said, staring at his feet. “I think Alfred does. For putting you through that.”
“I don’t hate you,” Bruce said. “I don’t hate you at all. I’m so damn glad that you’re alive, Jay.” He scooted up next to Jason until he was close enough to drop a kiss on the top of his head. “And I think Alfred will come around, if you tell him some of the things you’ve told me. He loves you. He’s angry now, but it’s not just for me. I think you—I hope that you know that.”
Jay. The nickname itself was even more comforting than the physical contact. Maybe things weren’t fucked up beyond repair, the way he’d been telling himself for the last hour that they surely were. Maybe Bruce was right about Alfred. Maybe...
Still. Leaving had been the right thing to do. Even if coming home was turning out to be harder than he thought it might be, with some...unanticipated complications. But he could vaguely remember the fringes of his slow mental unraveling, two years ago, one act of dissociative violence at a time. He’d thought he could handle the killing. He’d convinced himself it was what he was meant for.
He’d been terribly wrong.
“Jason,” Bruce said. “Earlier. When I just assumed—” He stopped, and then started again. “I have always known how proud it would have made my father if I had followed in his footsteps. I didn’t, but I have always hoped, a little, that perhaps someone else in my family would. I always imagined another doctor.”
Jason made an neutral noise.
“Forgive me for my parochialism, Jason,” Bruce said, with a tiny smile. “I would be tremendously proud of you for going into medicine in any capacity.”
“‘Jason, it’s okay to settle for being a nurse,’” Jason said, wrinkling his nose. “I think that was what you were going for.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Jason, I do understand it’s not settling.”
“It’s different work,” Jason said, firmly. “Not lesser. Adriana let me shadow her, help her out. I know how demanding it is, and I also know I’ll be good at it. It’s what I want to do.” He huffed. “Besides, this family already has enough assholes who think they’re omniscient; the last thing it needs is a fuckin’ doctor in the mix.”
“Ha ha,” Bruce said. “You’ve made your point.” And then, somewhat delicately, “Do you know how you’re planning to pay for school?” Jason could hear the unspoken seeing as you gave away all your drug money, there.
“Well,” he said. “One possibility is to get a job and start savings. I have some actual options now that I’m not, y’know, twelve.” Licit options was hopefully implied. “I could also take out some loans. I don’t have a credit history to speak of, but maybe Oracle could help me there.” If she was willing. If she wasn’t carrying grudges, if she believed it was worth her time to help him—they’d never gone up against each other directly, the way he had with practically everybody else, but he knew perfectly well she took a dim view of his...overall approach to his second life. He hoped she’d still be willing to help him get a leg up on his third one, even if it required just a smidge of document fraud. It wasn’t like the Bat-crew didn’t all break the law all the time. It was primarily a question of which laws.
“I’m sure she would,” Bruce said. “And if not, I would; I’m no slouch with a computer myself. There is a third possibility, though.” During the pregnant pause that followed, Jason glanced at him from the corner of his eye.
Now, there was a face Jason had missed, as much as he’d missed Jay. That stupid little hopeful smile.
“Bruce,” Jason said, and exhaled, hard. “If that’s you offering to pay for nursing school, this is me accepting.”
“Jason,” Bruce said, and now his whole face was cracked open in a truly relieved smile. “Nothing would make me happier. Honestly, Jay, I would be thrilled to pay for your education.”
“I know,” Jason said, and the little light that had first caught inside him, when he’d helped Adriana bathe a young mother’s fever-wracked limbs leapt up, as if he’d breathed on a kindling flame. “I knew you would be,” he said.
It wasn’t even a little bit sarcastic. He hoped Bruce understood what he was trying to say. That his head was clear enough now, to remember when Bruce’s faith in him had felt real. To want that faith again, to trust in it.
Jason studied Bruce in the twilight, the faintest pinpricks of light just beginning to emerge above them, while Venus hung brilliant on the horizon. He thought of all the time he’d spent hating him, and shivered. Bruce saw the movement, and casually reached out to brush the back of his hand against Jason’s cheek, a comforting gesture, and Jason blinked rapidly against a sudden burning in his eyes. God, what a waste those years had been. So much time they could have had, lost forever because of Jason’s own choices. And all that, coming on the heels of everything else that Jason had lost, when it hadn’t been his choice at all.
Maybe someday he would be able to forgive himself.
“Jason,” Bruce said, his voice as soft as the downy grey feathers of a pigeon. He wrapped his arm fully around Jason’s shoulders. Jason leaned gratefully into him, resting his head against Bruce’s neck. “Jason, all I ever wanted was to give you a better future. I still want that. I’ll do everything I can, to help you find it.”
“I know,” Jason told his father. “That’s why I came back.”