Jason Todd gave something up that day he woke in suffocating darkness, with the weight of grave dirt bearing down on the lid of his coffin. Skull half caved in and ribs grinding against each other, echoing the dull thump of crowbar on flesh. He had fought and dug his way into the air. Calling for his Batman, calling for Bruce, calling for his father. He breathed in water and air when he burst from his prison, rain turning the ground muddy.
No one was waiting for him.
He lost something—something small and big and ugly—something beautiful when he sucked in that first gasp of dead air, rife with the scent of rot. Feeling the wiggle of bugs between his fingers and ants in his eye-sockets as he leapt from desiccation into bloody thought. He heard its absence in the silent darkness, the whistle of wind on the edges of a windowpane like the poorly insulated walls of his mother’s old apartment: the song of cold, merciless movement on the edge of an uncovered hole.
When it was quiet enough, he could hear whispers, the voices of the dead that lingered. It drove him insane, catatonic beyond even the brain damage he still suffered from the Joker’s favorite prank on Batman.
A dead Robin in hand is worth more than two in the bush.
Jason Todd woke up buried, and remembered everything and not enough. He woke up cruelly and ventured into an unkind world with broken bones and bloody lips.
No one knew why or how he came back: not Talia, not the All-Caste, and certainly not Batman. Sometimes Jason wished he’d never woken up at all. When the League found him, there wasn’t even enough thought in his head to recognize the Demon’s Head. Luckily, in him they saw opportunity, or he would have been put back in his grave.
Instead Talia pushed him into the green waters of the Lazarus Pit, past impatient with his slow recovery, and it burned.
It was relief and hate and the resentment of bliss dispelled. Ignorance left him in a rush, leaving only the prickling sharpness of his new coherent thought. The green waters washed on the edges of that screaming chasm, but didn’t fill it, only turning the sound dull and hollow. It quieted the voices, if only by a little, replacing them with its own curse, hungry for blood.
Talia’s fearful expression never left him after he first opened his eyes and screamed into the world of the waking. Then they were running from the wrath of her father and she told him a hard truth,
You remain unavenged.
The hollowness followed him through the rage, the revenge, the senseless hurt of not being important enough—never being important enough to kill for. His death, it seemed had left no lasting lesson. He clenched the paper with a headline screaming his killer’s survival long after he had been put in the ground between his fingers, ripping the thin paper. Another boy had replaced him in the bright colors of Robin, the Joker still laughed, children died and suffered.
Bruce replaced him.
(This is the best day of my life!)
Like Jason had never died. Like he was only a faceless loss in the rotation of the Bat’s partners: just another kid on the chopping block.
When he fought his way across the world and ripped his way through teachers with green tinged vision, wresting the control of the Gotham underworld brutally from the tight grip of Black Mask, the wind whistled in the back of his mind and shadows danced in his sleep. Ghosts carried his name on cold lips and plucked at his fingers with the hands of dead children.
When everything came to a head and the final confrontation with the Joker and Batman came upon him, he lost. After all he did, after everything he sacrificed, nothing he did had mattered more than the life of the person who murdered him. Bludhaven had been a green blotch in the distance, burning. Batman had been hunched in on himself, gun clutched in his fingers like a lifeline, but Jason still lost. He was left bleeding and half blown up, defeated.
It seemed like he only ever lost.
Lost his mother.
Lost his home.
Lost his new family.
Lost his life.
The scream of wind grew louder and the clothing line outside his safe house window remained still, unmoved by his delusion.
When he lay gasping for breath and closing a bleeding gap in his throat, he had a moment of pure petty hope that the death of Dick Grayson would hurt Bruce in the way Jason’s passing never had.
Turned out that the Golden Boy lived—typical. He ignored the twinge of relief he felt when he saw Nightwing in a shaky Youtube video a month later, laughing and swinging in the night. Not even death could touch Dick Grayson, the gravity-defying adrenaline junkie.
Jason recovered and wallowed in his despair for days, weeks, before he finally got past his own self-pity.
Eventually the hurt grew dull and he ran off, beaten, with his tail between his legs. Then there was Roy, Starfire and adventures. There was Ducra and the Joker.
There was family.
The rage never left him, but he found his middle ground as best he could. He found his own justice and eventually agreed to follow the Batclan’s when he was in his home, Gotham. The wind always blew through him, sounding in his ear like a siren call, the whisper of his grave. Never leaving him, always a reminder. Sometimes, if he looked hard enough, he could see the ghosts in the press of the cities flow. Bloody, half shadow things, mindlessly following the streams of human movement.
When he looked at criminals he could see the remnants of their victims clinging to their feet, empty-eyed long before he opened a case file or led an investigation.
Don’t jump to conclusions Jaybird.
Unintelligent oaf, no wonder I’m a better Robin (Rob in, RObin, ROBin… robin).
An evil place, Gotham, he thought, blowing out a cloud of smoke. Filled with reaching spires and gargoyles and more death than any killing ground, but it was home. Smog loomed over the skyline like mist, romantic, even as it turned the illumination of the streetlights dull and gray.
Evil people, he thought, staring down into an alley and watching the scuffle of a woman trying desperately to escape the lecherous grasp of a man.
He flicked the butt of the cigarette away, put on his helmet and one broken collar bone and nervous escort later, he was back on a different roof trying to ignore the wind that didn’t ruffle his hair or lift his jacket.
He lit another cigarette and slumped on the edge of the crumbling brick.
Damian was back from the dead. Another Robin fresh from the grave, jumping around with bootleg superpowers and an inferiority complex you could see from outer space.
Jason was happy—he was. No kid deserved to die that young, or as brutally as it happened. The Chaos Shard had been godsend and the look on everyone’s face when Damian had opened his eyes in Bruce’s arms had been so relieved—Jason had been relieved.
Robin hadn’t woken up empty and sewn together, hadn’t dug his way through six feet of soil with a belt buckle, tearing his own hands apart.
He hadn’t come back like Jason had, not the way Bruce had tried before everything. Tricking Jason back to the site of his own death and attempting to wring the memories from his second oldest son while he shook and relived his own murder.
(—Forehand or backhand?)
Part of Jason resented the kid, for having such a perfect resurrection—such a welcome return. The other part was just concerned.
Jason has known his visions were just a delusion since the moment he woke up. They were hallucinations and intuition in an unholy combination that left him with an annoyingly unique form of tinnitus. Brought on by brain damage and resurrection and trauma.
Until Damian had asked him the question,
“What is that annoying sound Todd?”
The brat had hissed, little pug nose wrinkled with annoyance.
He had been tromping around the reading room that Jason was taking shameless advantage of while Bruce was gone, nearly knocking over his hot cocoa as the little brat searched the reading nook for whatever he was looking for. Jason rolled his eyes and put down his copy of Northanger Abby, setting his cup farther away from the youngest Wayne’s searching.
“Don’t be dense! You have one of the windows open, or you have altered the A/C—there is always that infernal whistling whenever you are here.”
The window rattled as Damian tried to force it further closed, Jason slapped the kid’s grip away before he could break it with his new super strength and barely avoided getting his hand ripped off.
He did it all automatically, not really paying attention, as his mind took a sharp step to the left—away from his body.
(—a common characteristic of disassociation is—)
He shook his head. Arkham had left some unfortunate impressions.
“Chill Bat-brat, I haven’t messed with anything. What exactly do you hear?”
His voice sounded distant, drowned out under the ever-present whistle of cold wind.
Damian crossed his arms and endeavored to look down at his taller sibling, never mind that Jason was nearly a head above him, even sitting down.
“It is like the wind is getting in through a crack, or a hole,” the brat’s brow wrinkled, “but that is not the cause! It only ever happens when you are here Todd—tell me what it is.”
Goosebumps rose on Jason’s arms, hidden under the sleeves of his jacket. He snapped his book closed and tossed it on the couch cushions; he stretched in one long exaggerated movement just to see the little brat’s face twist.
Entitled, unfortunate, lucky, worry inducing little shit.
He stood and headed to the exit, flicking a piece of lint at his little brother in passing, causing him to spit like a startled cat.
“It’s the sound of the air moving through your empty little brainpan, brat,”
He closed the door to the sound of something solid slamming into the other side and a startled curse from Damian as he did more damage than intended by the crack in the wood and the rattle of the doorknob.
He didn’t even have the spirit to laugh at the kid’s misfortune as he took the stairs two at a time and slammed past Dick on his way out of the mansion, nearly knocking the man’s cereal from his hands.
“Aw Jason!” the man whined, peering sadly at the milk seeping into the carpet as his brother took off in a roar of gravel, motorcycle growling to life.
Now he was on a roof, smoking and questioning everything he had ever known since his resurrection. Admittedly, his memory before he died had more holes than Swiss cheese, making that a little difficult.
It didn’t explain the ghosts, or why the brat could hear the sound. Then again, the kid had died, just like Jason. The Red Hood scowled into the night, blowing a stream of smoke from his nose.
That wasn’t right. He had known that the noise was something; he’d just been unwilling to acknowledge it. The cold reality of it ached hollowly with everything he did. It was just easier to believe he was crazy than think of it as anything more than that.
When that question fell from Damian’s lips, he had panicked, plain and simple.
—Whenever you are here.
The kid didn’t have anything of his own, calling him back to his grave, if he could only hear the chasm when Jason was around.
Jason leaned back to lie flat on the dirty concrete, staring into the pollution that hung over Gotham in a perpetual cloud. He let his arm come to rest over his eyes as his fingers curled over his heart.
His chest ached.
Sometimes Jason dreamed. They weren’t the usual nightmares filled with a senseless anxiety populated by the background of idontwannadiewhereisthefooddontTOUCHME. Instead he sat in a boat; a gondola, like the one’s he had seen in Venice once, and stared out over a star studded body of water. The sky curved into the horizon. A hazy non-color, swirling with the possibility of dusk and dawn intertwined. He always got lost staring at the metal, shining designs that littered the smooth dark wood of the craft as it drifted with him in it toward the endless sky. Sometimes he saw a small hooded figure in the distance, trotting along with purpose in a cape that glittered with the reflections of the water. The depths rippled, but never lost their stars.
Over it’s shoulder hung a lamp from a rusted, beaten pole. Sometimes it would pause in its journey to look at Jason, the dark of its hood impenetrable.
As always, the wind howled.
“Hood,” snapped Robin, his arms crossed.
Jason didn’t bother to look up from cleaning his guns.
“Dickie if you’re going to bring the Baby Bat, at least give some warning.”
Dick snorted and sprawled across Jason’s worn couch, looking like he was in the last place he wanted to be.
“We can’t drop in on some family for a visit?” his brother replied, eyeing him cautiously from his faux-casual pose.
It wasn’t unwarranted; Jason had put Cassandra in the hospital two months ago, a result of their ongoing argument about ethics and force. He felt no guilt, seeing as the time before she’d put him in traction. If he didn’t have an advanced healing factor from his spotty history with the mystical, he’d be walking with a limp for the rest of his life.
They’d been in Chicago; Jason had been following a lead on a terrorist cell that was a node for a human trafficking ring. She had been there for the cell itself and its connections to an international group of assassin’s operating outside the influence of the League of Shadows.
Jason had caught her investigating and had decided to get rid of her interference before it could become a problem. He knew he could never take the heir to Lady Shiva in hand-to-hand combat, so he sniped her in the leg from a far rooftop. It was a non-fatal injury, but he made sure that she couldn’t walk well, let alone swing across the rooftops.
Cassandra was tougher than that, though. She caught up to him just after he executed the last of the cell, USB of information in hand and the current trafficking victims on the way to the nearest law office.
Even with a bum leg, she cracked his ribs and nearly laid him out in her outrage at his methods.
He managed to put a knife through the gap in her radius and ulna, putting her in a sling and crutches for the next few weeks.
Suffice to say, he was on no Bat’s good side at the moment.
“I already gave Cassandra the info she wanted,” he said as he snapped the last piece of his handgun into place.
Damian harrumphed and Dick’s smile dropped ever so slightly as his glare burned through his efforts to appear friendly.
“We are not here about your and Cain’s foolish arguments,” the kid dismissed.
Jason suppressed a snort. Compared to the kind of tiffs he probably witnessed among the League, Jason putting Cassandra in the hospital probably didn’t rank highly on Damian’s list of important events.
The kid also had a track record of attempting murder own his siblings, so—probably not that surprising.
A file was slapped open in front of him, in the space newly vacated by his guns. Open; it showed a picture of him and the unmistakable silhouette of John Constantine outside a bar in New York.
“You’ve been spotted in multiple different locations speaking with specialists in the occult,” Damian stated, lips pursed, “I want to know why.”
Jason looked at Dick over the kid’s shoulder, hoping to convey his flat disbelief. Nightwing threw his hands up silently, obviously as puzzled by their younger brother’s nonsense.
“First off,” Jason started, moving a few pictures so he could see more, “it’s none of your business, and second—well, there is no second thing. Mind your fucking business shorty.”
Dick blew out a tired admonishment,
Jason rolled his eyes and moved to slap the file closed.
The wind screamed.
Nightwing jerked in his seat when Damian suddenly flinched from the noise, making a scared, vulnerable sound.
Jason pulled a picture from under the stack, one of many different pictured items labeled with auction numbers.
Damian glared at him and rubbed at his ears, but Jason was merciless; if the kid wanted to get in his business about death he should come in ready.
“Why is it so important to you Todd?”
Dick breathed out an annoyed sigh through his nose; so subtle that Damian disregarded it. It always amazed Jason how much calmer he was around Tim and the youngest nuisance; it was a stark difference from the sarcasm and flaming rows of their youth. Jason’s sensitivity to his adopted brother’s moods in his younger years could be attributed to his early home life, but the truth was he’d given as good as he’d got.
“Because it does, you stumpy irritant, just tell me.”
Damian crossed his arms and looked ready to start arguing. Dick cut in smoothly and ignored the glare it got from both his younger siblings.
“It’s a lamp that’s supposed to let you talk to the spirits of dead kids,” he offered, eyes flickering to Damian.
Jason felt his brow twitch and breathed out, letting the wind sink into the background. Damian’s tense shoulders relaxed, his body language curling towards Dick by instinct.
“Makes sense,” was all he said as he stared at the picture. Depicted in stark light was the lamp of the guide from his dreams, the rusted copper doing nothing to hide the gothic engravings along the shaft. When he’d been questioning Constatine he’d been more concerned with curses and remnants of the afterlife left on those resurrected. He hadn’t thought to ask about something like this.
Water dripped onto the table and the picture blurred out of focus.
“…What?” he muttered as he dropped the photo, bringing a hand to rub at his cheek. He was too cautious of the gun oil on his hands to touch his eye directly.
Dick took an aborted step back, dragging Damian with him: wary of instability from his younger brother.
“Jason?” he asked.
Jason waved a hand, dropping the picture, but even as he grasped for composure a sob rocked his frame.
What the fuck?
“I,” he stuttered, a heaving breath shaking him “don’t know, this is…”
His whole body shivered and voices rose in crescendo, crashing over all the barriers he’d been maintaining for years.
Who are you?
Mommy—Mommy answer me!
Children, dead ones, were creeping cold fingers over the windowsill and staring through the glass with empty, dark eyes. The whispers rose and Jason nearly pulled the glowing green influence of the Pit to the forefront of his mind, just to dull them out.
Damian was squinting at the window, but didn’t seem to see anything substantial. A warm hand reached out and Jason jerked when Dick’s face came into focus through the tears.
“Hey,” he asked, voice soft, “Little Wing, can you tell me where we are?”
It was a basic grounding technique and Jason would have said something dry and witty if his lungs weren’t trying push a despairing wail out of his throat. Damian didn’t even scoff as he tried a few times to find his voice and let Dick lean him onto his older brother’s shoulder. Dick wasn’t a small man, but Jason felt a wave of cold send new tears to his eyes when he noticed the slight difference in their size and builds. He didn’t know why, he’d taken note of this fact smugly only a few years ago and now it seemed to be feeding into whatever fit that picture had caused.
“1—168 Gallow’s C-corner.”
“Again,” he commanded gently.
Jason repeated the information until it became meaningless sounds, just a movement of lips. Slowly, his breath stopped hitching and his nose ceased to run. The children scrabbling at the floorboards quieted, their echoing calls fading as Jason found the walls he’d built up over the years and erected them once again.
“Grayson.” Damian said; his voice subdued.
Dick didn’t twitch; neither did Jason even with his face buried in his brother’s shoulder. He knew the inquiries were incoming, but he took the moment to wipe his snot on his brother’s uniform and just feel the warmth of another human being. Nobody ever really wanted to touch him long, whether they knew who he was or not.
Or something like a feeling that he wasn’t totally present. Constatine had explained it as him being halfway in the Veil, his resurrection not as perfect as most.
Jason could feel the subtle shivers that were working down Dick’s arms, fighting against cold that wasn’t really there. Jason had a perfectly healthy body temperature of 98.5 degrees Fahrenheit, it was the metaphysical that tricked people into thinking he was cold.
Jason stopped torturing his brother and leaned away from him, sniffing and wiping his nose on one of the clean rags left over from cleaning his guns. Dick’s hands lingered, clenching on his shoulder before letting him go completely.
Damian’s eyes were narrow in a glare that made him look all together like his mother, for all that most of his features belonged to his father.
“What was that Todd?”
“No Grayson, he had a reaction,” he eyes flickered as he turned up his nose. Jason felt a wry smirk cross his own features. There was the little pain-in-the-ass he knew and hated.
Jason cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow, but he guessed the little brat deserved a little information: Dead Robin’s club and all that.
“I was looking into my death,” he frowned and let a little honesty slip through, “I don’t know why I reacted like that, but that lamp staff looked familiar…then this.”
He gestured to his red eyes and runny nose, blowing it noisily on the cloth in his hand.
Damian scowled thunderously.
“That can’t be it—don’t lie Todd, there’s more to this than your failure in Ethiopia,” he snapped harshly.
Dick went from 0 to 100 real fast at that choice of words.
Jason only let a wry smile twist his lips. He was farther along at accepting his own death than Bruce and Dick were, Damian’s little digs ceased to pull dirt after the thirtieth or so repetition. Plus, it was Damian saying it—Jason didn’t really waste time wading through the toxic sludge the kid spit out on the regular, other than to snap back at him with equal weight and watch him flail under the pressure in his own baby assassin way.
Damian’s eyebrows twitched in a minute flinch.
Jason rolled his eyes and dug an elbow into Dick’s side, pushing the looming vigilante away from his chair.
“Let me rephrase then Bat-brat—I wasn’t looking into how I died, I was looking into what happened to me after.”
Damian straightened his spine.
Jason sighed and leaned back, feeling his wooden chair creak under his weight.
“Not my body kid, I was looking into what happened to my ghost.”
He made a few wiggly motions with his fingers, casual as Dick stiffened up beside him.
Dick crossed his arms, now interested in the conversation.
“So the lamp…” there was a contemplative lilt to his voice.
“I think someone might have used it, maybe to speak to me—jury’s out on whether it was good or bad though.”
Damian bit his lip as his gaze became dark.
“But what about…the sound, the wind—It’s still there and when you had your embarrassing little episode there were…whispers.”
Dick’s brows jumped up as concern lit in his eyes.
Jason leaned his chin on his knuckles, feeling the bone-deep exhaustion of that came with a crying jag making him loose with his words.
“That would be my grave—y’know, calling my name and beckoning me to my final rest,” he said, dry as dust.
Damian’s eyes widened, for a second transforming him into the twelve year old he’s always been. Big Bird’s eyebrows dropped into a glower.
“Jason,” he admonished.
Jason glared at him, suddenly remembering why he hated this sanctimonious, bossy asshole.
“I’m not joking, Dickie,” he scoffed, “lucky for you the Brat doesn’t hear it unless I’m around, but it’s true.”
His eyes closed and the weight of that chasm settled over his shoulders and a starry lake glittered behind his eyelids.
“Ever since I woke up, the ground’s been calling me back down, without the Pit riding herd it gets a bit loud,” he admitted dryly, “I’ve been asking around to see if anyone else feels it, but out of everyone I asked none of them have a straight answer or a similar experience.”
He dragged the picture across the table.
“Thanks, I guess,” he said to Damian, “Now get out.”
The kid bristled like an insulted cat, but backed down when Dick put a hand on his shoulder. Nightwing’s expression said everything; the discussion wasn’t over but he knew getting any answers out of Jason would be impossible at this point and might end with fists flying.
Jason put his guns away and locked the window after they left, before dropping onto the couch and passing out.
The empty eyes of ghosts watch him drift, hungry and full of longing.