Jason had exactly enough time between closing the supply closet door and the bombs going off to throw himself over Damian as a human shield, and not a moment more. His last fleeting thought before the blast wave caught them was gratitude that it wasn’t a moment less.
He wasn’t even disappointed in Bruce for not disarming the bombs.
It was just like he remembered, dying in an explosion. Just like he’d told Damian on the comm. The pain was so intense it whited out his vision, his hearing, his mind – or maybe that was just the blast pressure turning his tissue to jelly. Who knew. But he hadn’t been lying to Damian about how fast it was, either: the most intense pain possible for a single searing moment, and then, when it was over, it was over.
And it was over.
Jason straightened up away from his still body and looked over to the woman he suddenly remembered would be there. She looked just a bit different than the last time. Her skin was still inhumanly pale and her hair was still blacker than a crow’s feathers, but the clothes were different. Different cut of black jeans. Leather jacket over the black tank top. Her eyelashes brushed the spiral under her eye when she blinked.
“Hi, Jason,” she told him, just as calm and kind as before.
“Hi,” he replied. He didn’t want to be dead. He flinched at the rumble of settling concrete chunks, as though they could hurt him anymore. There was still someone they could hurt.
Death tilted her head a little, and smiled at him.
“Damian?” Jason asked her.
“Look for yourself,” Death encouraged him. She waved a hand behind him.
Jason steeled himself – nothing could hurt him anymore, it didn’t matter anymore, he couldn’t do anything anymore – and turned to look.
A hint of movement under his body made him shake with relief.
“Damian,” he sighed.
“Nnnn,” his brother groaned, and for a wild moment Jason thought Damian had heard him somehow, circumstances be damned, but realized it was just the kid waking up.
“Hah!” Jason yelled victoriously. “I did it.” He turned to beam at Death, who smiled back at him, sharing his triumph. Damian was alive, the family would be ok, Bruce would be ok – Jason wasn’t jazzed to be dead but this, this was something he was willing to die for. “I did it.”
“Todd?” Damian whimpered. “Todd, please.” The sense of victory ebbed away.
Oh. He hadn’t considered that.
It would be fine. It had to be fine. It would have to be fine that Damian had frantically told him not to endanger himself and was now waking up under the weight of his dead body. There wasn’t anything he could do about it.
“Todd, wake up,” Damian begged. Jason turned to the kid trapped under his corpse, but it took time to drag his gaze there. It was like he was stuck looking away, reluctance and regret curdling his triumph. He didn’t want to see this. “Todd?” Damian whimpered. “Jason?”
Jason felt like he’d been fucking sucker punched. He’d never heard Damian call him by his first name before.
“Jason, please,” Damian begged, squirming around in his cage of dead weight and dead limbs. “Wake up. Wake up! Jason, you have to wake up, you have to, you can’t be dead, you can’t- You can’t-“
Jason was shaking again.
It sounded like a wild animal. A mountain lion, maybe. A bull elephant. Something that should have been in control, should have been the most dangerous thing around, and was instead being torn apart by something it couldn’t fight. Damian thrashed, heedless of his broken leg and cracked ribs, pounding a fist against Jason’s unmoving chest, over and over and over.
“Oh, god,” Jason said. “Oh, fucking hell.” It took a while to pull coherent words out of the screaming.
“Don’t you dare be dead, don’t you dare do this, it will kill Father! Jason, come back! Come back! Why did you come down here, you were safe! You were safe until I called you, this is my fault, this is my fault, this is my fault my fault my fault-“
Jason looked away, shaking like he could come apart.
“Jason,” Death’s kind, sweet voice said behind him. “You don’t have to see this. We can go now.”
Damian’s screams turned to hysterical sobbing. Jason snarled something wordless. Death laid a gentle, implacable hand on his shoulder.
“He’s dead,” Damian forced out, between panicked wails. “He’s dead he’s dead I killed him someone help!” And Jason, horrified but not surprised, realized Damian had turned on his comm. He crumpled to the floor.
“No,” he whispered. “No, you didn’t, Dames, it’s not your fault, don’t say that-“
“Jason,” Death said. Her hand was still resting lightly on his shoulder, offering comfort.
Who was going to comfort Damian? Who was going to offer him kindness and calm while he was trapped in the dust and rubble under a body he blamed himself for?
“Jason’s dead he’s dead someone please help-“
Jason hid his face. “No, no, no.”
“You can go now, Jason. You don’t have to see this.”
Jason read a lot – had read a lot. Before and after he died the first time. Contemporary, classic, highbrow literature and trash pulp, from every era and in every language he could read, it didn’t matter. He’d found it a common experience among people who read like he did that there were some words you had a sense of, understood what meaning they were intended to convey, but you didn’t really know what they meant. Jason had read quite a few stories that described the sound a wailing, grieving character made with the verb ‘keening.’ Jason knew what it was intended to convey, but he couldn’t have described what it actually meant for the life – or death – of him until that moment.
Jason had thought nothing could hurt him anymore. He was dead; it was all supposed to be over. That had, apparently, been bullshit, because it hurt. It hurt a metric fuckton. It hurt like dying in an explosion, but it wasn’t a flash that ended. It went on, and on, and on.
Jason turned to Death.
“No,” he said. “No. I’m not doing this to him.”
“Yes,” Death said, gently. “You are.”
“No,” Jason said, louder. “No. I’m not going with you. I’m not dying.”
“Jason, you’re already dead.” She squeezed his shoulder. “There’s nothing more you can do.”
“Fuck that,” he snarled, voice rising. His vision swam and blurred. “Fuck the rules, fuck the entire fucking universe, fuck all this goddamn bullshit and fuck you too while I’m at it. I am not fucking doing this to him.”
“Please,” Damian screamed into his comm, or maybe just to the world. It didn’t matter. Jason could hear him, and Jason was going to answer.
“Jason,” Death admonished softly, but he wasn’t listening to her anymore.
Jason crouched by his body and waved his hands through it, trying to figure out how to un-die. There didn’t seem to be anything to connect him to what had once been him. Damian keened again, burrowing his head against the motionless chest that had deflected the explosion’s pressure wave around him and shielded him from debris. The sound felt like fingernails down a chalkboard inside Jason’s head.
“Hold on,” he begged. “Hold on, Damian, I’m coming back for you.”
There had to be something he could use. Something that held him to life, something that was different between his body and his whatever-he-had-now. Spirit. Ghost. Whatever. He didn’t care.
It couldn’t be sound. It couldn’t be sight. He could see and hear now. Feeling? Could he feel Damian wedged against his body? He drew back and looked his body over.
Pain. His last moment alive, he’d been in pain. Different pain than the razor edge to his soul that Damian’s sobbing pleas were. Damian was wailing, and it hurt un-fucking-bearably, but it was a different pain.
Jason concentrated, and reached for that other pain. He pulled up the memory. His mind shied away from it, from the blinding agony of the explosion, and he realized it was wrong anyway – it was the after he needed. It was the waking-up-in-the-Batcave pain, the blinking-awake-in-a-safehouse pain, the dragging-himself-out-of-a-collapsing-factory-with-a-concussion pain. The kind of pain that had once meant Bruce’s haggard face lighting up with relief, and then for so long had meant a silent, empty room and an uphill battle to function and heal alone, and then, somehow, had started to mean someone being there again.
Jason reached out for myriad memories of pain, and yanked them into himself.
“Hmm,” her amused voice murmured in his ear. “You really are Bruce’s son.”
He snarled and dug into the pain while it tried to slip away from him. He grappled at it, and it slowly, like a spoon sinking through honey, started to drag him under. He snarled again. He refused, refused, to let it go, and clung to it as everything blurred. He felt a weak thump against his chest.
“You know, if you were going to remember this, I’d ask you to say hi to your dad for me,” Death said from infinitely far away, right in his ear. “He’s pulled a trick like this three times already this year.”
Jason opened his eyes, groaned with the pain of having survived an explosion, and wrapped his sobbing little brother in a hug.