Dick’s shrill cell phone ringer was what woke him up at around 2 in the morning, which meant even though the time could be Bat-related, the emergency was probably less costumed than that. He rubbed at his eyes and took a deep breath, willing the frustration at being woken up on his night off down, and looked at the caller ID.
“Hi Tim, what’s up?” he said groggily.
“You can’t tell Bruce,” was Tim’s panicked reply.
Dick jumped out of bed like a shot. “What’s going on? Where are you?” Sanctuary was fresh in his mind, the picture of Roy and Wally and Eddie and everyone being replaced with everyone and Tim.
“I’m not in Gotham, that’s the issue. I need you to get to Jason’s place. I think he might do something stupid, or is doing something stupid. Someone needs to be with him and I’m not close enough and it really really shouldn’t be Bruce.”
Dick sagged just a little, slowing down in his efforts to pull up some jeans he snatched from his floor. “What kind of stupid are we talking about, here? Because if this is the ‘he got bored and started maiming people’ kind, I think I’d rather just go back to sleep and let whoever’s on patrol handle it.”
Rustling came over the airwaves like Tim had thrown his hands up in the air. “Didn’t he just come over and help you with your shit, Dick? This is bad, really bad. Just get over there.”
“I’m out the door, Tim, just send me the address, okay? And tell me what the hell you think is going on.”
“I’ve got a self-driver waiting for you by the curb. It’ll take you straight to him.”
“Impressive,” Dick said, jogging down the stairs and out into the cold Gotham night. “Still waiting on that explanation, though.”
“I tried to get one out of him, but didn’t get much. He just wanted to talk.” Tim takes a ragged sigh. “There was something about some mugger? I don’t think he was out as Red Hood tonight, he’s been laying low in Gotham since he and Bruce had another spat. Only going out right before dawn to clean up whatever Batman and Robin are missing. I think there might be some sort of fear toxin involved.”
Dick fastened his seat-belt as the car zoomed off on its own into the night. “Weird in itself that he called you just to talk,” Dick mused. “What was he saying?”
“That’s the thing,” Tim answered slowly. “He was crying.”
“Um,” Dick’s brain stuttered to a stop. “What the fuck?”
Tim steamrolled right over his confusion. “And apologizing. And asking me if I think that evil is born or made. He said, ‘Do you think I was always going to be this?’ I don’t know, man. I’m scared he’s going to do something.”
Dick could feel his spirit dull, gray out into panic the way one only can after they’ve seen the amount of death Dick has waded through. “You think he might try to kill himself,” he said, the words coming out as thick as molasses.
“I know it’s not really his style,” Tim acknowledged, “but something is definitely off tonight. He’s emotional, he’s always been emotional, but he wouldn’t cry over the phone. Dick, he wouldn’t.”
There was one time, when Jason was thirteen and still just settling into being Robin – being a son – that Dick had seen him cry big, frustrated tears. It had been a moment of respite in the feuding between Bruce and Dick, and the eldest had come home to try and teach Jason one signature Robin move or another. He just wasn’t sticking it, and in Dick’s own childish pettiness, he carefully and mercilessly remarked, “I don’t know, Jay. Maybe that one just isn’t for you.”
He got a hard shove to the ground for his comment, and Jason stood over him, just a wisp of a kid back then, fists shaking in rage, until that first fat tear slid down his face. Then he turned, and was gone. Dick had left a few hours later, and they must have avoided each other for at least a month after that.
“No,” Dick agreed, “it’s not really his style.” The car parked in front of an old, worn-down townhouse, the stoop cracked and lopsided. “I’m here. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him.”
Tim released another sigh. “Thanks,” he said. “Let me know if you need anything.”
The line disconnected. Dick steeled himself and jogged up the steps. When he tried the handle, it opened easily.
“Jason?” he called into the dark house. He fumbled for a light switch by the door and, in flipping it and turning on the light, jumped about a foot in the air.
Jason had only gotten a few feet into the house, sitting with his legs splayed out on the floor of the foyer, back against the side wall. He looked dazed, tear tracks drying on his face and head cocked to the side. His hair was a mess going every which direction, curling at the ends and frizzy like it had been when he was just a boy.
Dick wondered if this is what he looked like just a few short weeks ago, in the hours after he had been told almost every teenage memory he had had been ruined on the floor of a glorified doctor’s office. He said the younger man’s name again. Jason didn’t stir.
Dick sighed and carefully stepped over Jason’s legs. There was a gun on the other side of him that Dick slid further into the house with his foot before taking its place next to his brother. Their shoulders touched as he got settled, and Jason slowly turned his head to look at Dick, gave him a once over, and went back to staring straight ahead. From Dick’s new vantage point, he could see that Jason was staring at himself in the hallway mirror.
“What happened?” Dick asked, his voice rougher than intended, unsettled in a way that he knew he was, but hadn’t really wanted to advertise.
“I’m sorry Tim dragged you into this. I shouldn’t have called him,” was Jason’s answer.
“I’m glad you called someone, Jason. I just want to know what happened.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jason said, his voice similarly rough.
Dick observed him for a while. He was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Tim had said that fear toxin was a possibility, but this didn’t exactly fit the description. Jason was depressed, not scared; he was viscerally sad in a way that Dick had never seen in him before. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t think Jason was capable of it, but the way that he usually carried himself was too tense for Dick to think he’d ever let go like this.
“I’ll decide if it matters or not,” Dick finally settled on. “Tell me what happened.”
“Saw this guy harassing one of the girls that works near here,” Jason said woodenly. “He turned around and maced me with something. I coughed for a bit, but it didn’t do anything. I knocked him out and left. I didn’t think it was doing anything, even though it smelled like Scarecrow’s stuff. You know that smell, right? Like moldy bread.”
“Yeah, I know the smell. Tastes kind of like that, too,” Dick said.
Jason turned back to him, green eyes searching his face. “You ever actually eat moldy bread before?” he asked.
Dick swallowed roughly and looked away from Jason’s face, first into his own lap and then at the faint outline of the gun, laying where he kicked it. “No,” he said, “I don’t think I have.”
Jason hummed and went back to staring in the mirror.
“I know I was probably . . .” he paused, “not great to listen to on the phone, but I’ve calmed down. You can go. I’m sorry Tim dragged you into this.”
“You said that already,” Dick said. “Tell me what happened after you got home.”
“I looked in the mirror,” Jason said bitterly. He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, hunching in as much as his frame would allow. For the second time, Dick was reminded of a much smaller Jason Todd; he almost can’t believe how big Jason grew up to be.
Without the intervention of the Lazarus Pit, reversing the lingering effects of a childhood spent starving, would he still have gotten this big?
“What did you see in the mirror, Jason?” Dick asked.
Jason’s tears sprang anew. “I told Tim I was evil,” he said.
Dick blinked a few times. Before he could respond, Jason continued.
“I wasn’t always that way, right? There was a time, before all of this, where I was – better. And even though I can’t get back to it, it still matters. Doesn’t it, Dick?” He finally turned back to his brother, tears dripping off of his chin, weaving its way through the budding stubble there.
Dick thought, suddenly: he has such an old face, but how old is he really? Out loud, he said, “I don’t even think you’re evil now, Jay, but to answer your question: yes, it wasn’t always this way. And yes, it matters.”
“I was a thief back then,” Jason said, turning away again. Dick could feel his shrug through where their shoulders were touching. “But I wasn’t him.” He gestured with his chin to the mirror, never taking his eyes off of his own form.
Dick felt lead in his stomach. “What did you see, Little Wing?” he asked again.
Jason took a sharp breath, as if the nickname had run him through with a blade. “I wanted—” his voice warbled and shuddered, almost failed him entirely. “I wanted so bad to be my dad,” Jason said. “Our dad. But I ended up Willis. Oh God,” he sobbed, “I see it now. I’m Willis fucking Todd. I wanted to be Bruce so bad that I became my real father and I can never forgive myself.”
Jason curled impossibly further in on himself while Dick felt his heart break in two. He knew he needed to act, but there was nothing his mind could come up with that was even close to what Jason needed. Out of all of his siblings, it was possible that, though technically they had been brothers the longest, he knew Jason the least, and this required finesse and knowledge that Dick just didn’t have. Impossibly, Tim would know it, now that the second and third Robins were getting along, again all odds.
“I don’t know why this is happening to you,” Dick said slowly, putting his hand on Jason’s heated and trembling neck, “but it’s not going to last forever. I’m not leaving you.”
Jason’s sob shuddered to a stop and he looked up at Dick, resting his face against his own bicep. “Just don’t call Bruce. Please.”
“I don’t know, Jay. I think you might need him here.” Dick ran his fingers through the younger’s hair. “I think you might want him here.”
Jason rolled his shoulders and sat up again, staring back into his reflection. “He’ll never forgive me either, Dick. If I see his face right now, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Dick glanced again at the gun, lurking in the darkness. He knew there had to be others, stashed somewhere in the apartment or on Jason’s person. He knew that, when it was Jason versus himself, there was next to nothing he could do, not really. After all, one heart to heart that Dick only half remembered from being numb out of his mind did not a real relationship make.
“Bruce loves you,” he says. “Like you said, he’s your dad.”
“Do you think—” Jason’s voice cracked, but it was the closest to himself he had sounded since Dick had gotten there. The flippancy he was known for now had yet to return, but that original fire, the ability to cut to the heart of something was coming back. He started again. “Do you think that, in every universe where Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, he found all of us?”
Dick shuffled a little closer. The whole sides of their bodies were pressed together now, huddled in the lamplight. “I like to think so,” Dick said. “I hope so.”
Jason turned to Dick, haunted, but with clearer eyes. “Do you think any of them ever found me the second time?”
Dick closed his eyes, rested his own head on Jason’s shoulder. They could feel the warmth of each other’s breath. “I don’t know, Jason. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“That would have been nice, I think.” Jason turned fully into Dick, and they scrabbled to hold onto each other.
In his pocket, Dick’s phone chimed, but he didn’t grab for it. The message was from Tim, informing him that, after some research, it turns out that expired fear toxin has been known to interfere with the serotonin levels, severely depleting them instead of interacting with the fear receptors in the brain.
It didn’t matter. The day would come for both of them soon enough. In the meantime, two brothers held onto each other, tethered in a way that Dick felt, achingly, would only last through the night.