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.
The plot-bunny continues, and my longed for family bonding is incoming. Also more headcanon dump.
“Well, love, you weren’t exactly askin’ about my extracurriculars when we met,” John Constatine groused, sounding distinctly hungover, “it was a small auction, none of the bits’ an’ bobs you types like to concern yourself with.”
Jason blew a stream of smoke towards the ceiling fan, eyebrow twitching in annoyance. He tapped his finger against the casing of the burner phone once, deliberate. It’d taken days to get a hold of the warlock, only then it was thanks to a concentrated sweep of every phone provider in the London area that he’d finally gotten a hold of a working number.
“Well, I’m asking now Constatine. There was an item in one of the lots that concerned ghosts and shit; a lamp pole.”
There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line and the sound of a lighter flicking open and a wheeze of flame.
“One that called up the ghosts of tykes, yeah.”
Something heaved in Jason’s chest and he couldn’t for the life of him identify why. What did that thing even mean to him?
“Do you know where it is now?”
A heavy sigh crackled over the line.
“Not a bloody clue, bright eyes; ‘s not like I keep track of every occult artifact that passes through.”
Jason tamped down on the flare of annoyance that turned his voice icy and made ghosts drift like mist at the edges of his vision. It was so much harder to ignore them these days, especially since the confirmation that he wasn’t as crazy as he thought.
“Don’t call me that,” he snapped instead of hanging up, “is it possible for you to contact the original auctioneer?”
It was one thing to locate the auction and find a few pictures of the lots; it was another to track down the magical dealer who disappeared like so much mist.
Jason had plenty of sources and networks, but most of them were grounded in the physical. His only connection to the mystical outside of the League of Assassins was the All-Caste. That was a dead-end in a literal sense now and dealing with Talia as the Demon’s Head would be the equivalent of sticking his hand in a viper’s mouth. It left him twisting in the wind since he couldn’t get within ten feet of any trustworthy practitioner of magic without them trying to blow him up; or freaking out about the whole ‘death aura’ thing.
Except Constatine: the man felt the looming shadow of death hanging over Jason and jumped on the chance to flirt like a demon. It was discomfiting to the extreme; Jason could flirt with the best of them, but once things got up close and personal the other end of the game usually balked. It was hard to get it up when you feel like there’s a gun pointed at the back of your skull.
The thing with Talia was an outlier; Jason was pretty sure she’d soldiered through on pure Pit influence, it’s not like she hadn’t taken a few dips growing up under Ra’s al Ghul. He shuffled that thought away when it rose to sit murkily in his jaw, a slow itching poison.
He’d said yes, regardless of how he’d felt later—how he felt now.
Constatine made an annoyed sound.
“Look love, I only went to that thing for a client, I don’t hang with that crowd—,”
Jason waved a hand through the air, the bright cherry of his cigarette weaving drunkenly as he interrupted.
“Do you know anyone who can get me to them then?—c’mon Constatine, you know I’ll make it worth your while.”
There was an amused chuckle over the line.
“Oh, will you?” the man teased, before becoming serious once again, “The answer is still no, love, if you want to track a piece like that I’d suggest going through other contacts.”
Jason blew a stream of smoke in an irritated breath; thumb still massaging the side of his nose. He didn’t have any other contacts. He also didn’t have time. His intuition was nagging at him to get moving and find his answers before the weight of his grave finally succeeded in dragging him to the ground.
Constatine broke the silence.
“Ain’t Zatanna close with your brood? That’s a woman who could manage a magic spell strong enough for what you want, easy.”
Jason’s eyes flickered open, brows lowering into a glower.
“So it’s not that you won’t, it’s that you can’t—if this thing was so small, why would there be a buyer there that needs a heavy hitter like Zatanna to track down?”
There was an uncomfortable silence, before it was broken by a bitter chuckle.
“Sharp one, you are—yeah, I’ve got my own tricks, but when it comes to something like this it’s a little too hot for me to pick up.”
So he could track this thing, but the risk wasn’t something he was willing to take. For it to be something the infamous Hellblazer refused to get involved with, it had to be high profile.
Jason grimaced to himself.
Zatanna wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole unless he contacted her through Bruce and there was no way in frozen Hell that was happening anytime soon. Raven was out of contact and out of patience with Jason’s moral choices and Dr. Fate would probably disintegrate him for even being in his presence.
He clicked out of the call immediately, cutting off the flirty farewell the man answered with. Jason crushed the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray next to his chair and lit up another with the cheap lighter sitting under one of the massive monitors he was parked in front of.
The program continued to run and collate data, registering any mentions of objects similar to what he was looking for. The symbol of Oracle blinked in the corner of the screen, letting him know whose program he was using. Babs took a lot of pride in her work; luckily he was still on her good side from the last time he’d helped the Birds of Prey.
One of the burners on the side table vibrated and Jason considered throwing the phone at the wall. It was the one he kept around specifically for Nightwing to contact him through, the only one he’d given to his family. Alfred had a direct line to his personal phone and Babs could hijack anything in the vicinity with an Internet connection if she really wanted to talk.
Bruce, if he ever tried to reach out, had to go through one of those three. Even then it depended entirely on how pissed Jason was at the time whether he answered or not.
Dick hadn’t stopped blowing up his phone since the night before and Jason was almost at the edge of his patience. If his brother didn’t stop calling he’d trash the phone for good and cut the man off, all Dick’s talk about reconnecting and regret be damned.
It would be another hour before the program would have everything he needed, and he’d been through a whole pack of cigarettes already out of pure impatience. His lungs were complaining as the nicotine buzz finally settled in his temples.
His shoulders jumped before he got his reaction under control. His eyes rose, reflecting eerily in a camera feed he couldn’t see as he looked at the phone icon on the leftmost screen in front of him.
“Babs,” he greeted with false cheer, “what’s up?”
Her tone was flat, unforgiving. Jason bristled—that fucking tattletale.
He was just as deadpan when he replied.
There was a silence for a minute as Babs tried to wait him out and he stubbornly refused to talk. She gave up quickly; she’d never been one for tiptoeing around a point.
“Yes,” she replied, severe, “What’s this I heard about being ‘called to your grave’ and looking for magical staves?”
Jason sunk lower into his ergonomic computer chair; if he had to spend hours in front of the screen he’d be damned if he was going to be fighting back pain.
“It’s nothing Babs—he’s just being dramatic,” he groused. Needles prickled on the back of his neck as he lied, he rubbed at the skin.
“It doesn’t seem like nothing when someone says something like that—it sounds like you’re getting ready to die.”
Jason clicked through browsing windows on the computer as he stubbed and re-lit his next cigarette. The browser shut down as the right screen filled with the iconic green face of Oracle.
“I’m not—,” his voice faded out, before he could catch his slip. Everything felt so heavy and empty and a choir of small voices whispered their sleepiness in his ear. He took a drag of his cigarette and focused on the burn of smoke in his lungs.
“I’m always ready to die Babs,” he joked flatly, “None of us do this without knowing the risks.”
He waved vaguely to his little office.
“Don’t joke like that Jason,” her voice had softened, sincerity rising like a tide, “I’m here—we’re all here, this isn’t the kind of thing you have to do on your own, it’s—,”
“None of your business!”
He took a deep breath, free of smoke.
“This is my case—it’s about my death, Babs!”
Babs’ reply was immediate and sharp.
“You think I don’t know that? We’re friends—we’re family, we only want to help!”
There was a clatter over the line, like she slammed down a mug—probably the tea she liked to mainline on long nights.
“I’ve had an eye on your searches and you’re not even trying to get a magic expert—you’re planning on going in blind. On something like this that’s suicidal,” she sighed, “Jason, I’m worried.”
Jason bit his lip, flicking ash off the tip of his cigarette. Babs always had a way of making him feel small, no matter how tall he’d gotten over the years. The offer was appealing, even if it would curtail the methods he could use.
“You haven’t told Bruce.”
It wasn’t a question—the great hypocrite himself would have probably broken down his door if Dick had tattled to him. Not that that was surprising—Dick always tried every option before calling in the Batman.
“No, I also cut off Dick’s phone connection,” she said, voice wry, “you’re welcome.”
He snorted, rubbing at the crust on his eyes.
“When was the last time you got more than 2 hours of sleep put together?”
Jason let his head fall back with a laugh.
“Asking one of us that—really Babs?”
Babs made an amused sound, but continued.
“Most of us get at least more than 2 hours,” she pointed out, “so, have you?”
Jason considered lying, but he knew he looked like he got dragged backwards through a typhoon.
“When the brat and Dick left?”
He wiggled his fingers vaguely, tapping them onto his armrest in a deliberate one-two staccato.
Babs processed that bit of information.
“Jason, that was two weeks ago.”
He made an affirmative noise. He was tired, but he was terrified of going back to sleep. He’d woken up three days after he’d dropped off for that nap. He’d had to run to the diner down the street and drink his weight in chicken soup just to curb the emptiness in his stomach. He never kept much food in his safe houses, ever since he came back anything he made himself tasted like cardboard. The first time Talia had taken the time to cook for him, not long after he’d found out about Tim and the Joker, it’d been the first time he’d actually enjoyed food since he crawled out of his grave.
The saying about food prepared by someone other than you always tasted better held true for him. Sometimes he suspected it was his body trying to kill him by slow starvation. Joke was on them though; he could and did eat trash to stay alive when he was a child.
“I don’t want to sleep Babs—I need this done.”
What if he slept and just never woke up, slowly wasting away in his sleep? When had he eaten last?
His appetite had been taking a hit lately, it seemed like the farther and farther he got from the remnants of the Pit left in his blood the less human he felt. It should be the opposite. On the other side of everything and without the slow drug of that green water, he could admit that he wasn’t in his right mind when he shot Damian and hurt Tim. His intentions twisted into something unrecognizable by his trauma and the Pit.
He’d apologized for it in passing, but confronting the act left him nauseous and guilty. He never let either of them know he felt anything more than passing regret.
He’d been hungry all the time when he’d hit his growth spurt. His childhood malnutrition and the damage it did was cured handily by a dip in the pool, but now it felt like forcing himself to swallow nails if he ate anymore than a few bites these days.
He was lean, but fortunately he hadn’t lost much muscle mass.
“Jason,” Babs said softly.
“I’m afraid I won’t wake up,” he admitted, because he trusted Babs this much at least. Knew she wouldn’t do anything to hurt him, but also that she was going to give his position to Dick after this call and he’d be frog marched to the penthouse or the Manor. She might even be calling him now, but Jason couldn’t find it within himself to care.
The moment her voice came over the speaker he knew what was going to happen. Their whole family rarely knew when to leave well enough alone when it came to each other.
He was so tired.
He missed what she said next as his cigarette burned out and he failed to light a new one. Shadows shifted across his vision as dark eyes stared at him from the ceiling, they blinked at him and he blinked back.
“—Jay, hey Little Wing.”
Between one blink and the next Dick was standing over him, brows furrowed in concern. He was in civilian clothes.
He let out a relieved breath and began tugging Jason out of the chair.
The light of his little office had been turned on and the plain wall blurred dizzily.
“ ’ey Dick,” he slurred, struggling to not let his eyes close again.
Anxious fingers tapped at his cheek.
“No, Little Wing, I need you to talk to me—what hit you?”
Jason wobbled and Dick tightened his grip on the arm over his shoulder.
“Was I ‘sleep?”
He let himself be dragged into his living room. He struggled to stay sitting as Dick tried to lay him down.
His brother let out a frustrated breath.
“No—Jay, you were zoned out; you didn’t even blink when I turned the lights on.”
A shiver of cold ran down his spine, waking him up just a little.
“Nothing hit me—how long ago did Babs call?”
He didn’t even pretend that Dick’s visit might be a coincidence. His brother didn’t miss a beat.
“I drove from Bludhaven, so about three or so hours.”
Jason grunted and tried to stand, but his legs were too wobbly to hold him and the edges of his vision darkened. The floor looked pockmarked with puddles of darkness, dirty fingers picking at the edges and dragging along the plain carpet. He breathed in and closed his eyes against the vision.
Dick’s voice faded in again and he found himself suddenly in the frontseat of his brother’s car. He was talking into the phone.
“—On my way. Is Leslie in?”
Jason’s voice was thread and weak as he looked away from the window he was slumped against, made nauseous by the smear of fading lights and the white grins of dead souls. They weren’t leaving him alone, always there, always waiting. Fear and longing made his throat tight with acid.
“Where?” he managed.
Dick’s head turned slightly and he managed a tense, utterly worried grin.
“Cave—yeah, he’s talking, no Bruce he isn’t—,”
Jason managed to reach into his jacket and pull out a cigarette tucked into the lining. He gave an undignified squawk when it fell onto the floor, Dick not even looking away from the road or pausing in his constant stream of words as his hand resettled on the steering wheel. Jason’s shoulder slammed into the door when he tried to reach down for his cigarette and Dick took a turn so sharp he left a line of honking cars in his wake.
“The fuck?” Jason snapped.
Dick glared out of the corner of his eye as they hit the roads leading to the Batcave, the camouflage hologram of bushes and drooping trees rippling as they went seemingly off road.
“You are not doing that in my car and definitely not with all this—I wasn’t talking to you Tim, you know that and I don’t care what he said you’re too mature to fall for that—,”
Jason didn’t catch the rest, his head thunking to the dashboard as the chasm in his head gave a prolonged screech and the glow of inhuman eyes burned into his brain.
Fuck, shit—his grave was so close. Only a few miles away and barely twenty minutes walk from the manor. It was like poking a hole through his brain and he sat at the crumbling edge, pulled by a cold wind to fall into the depths.
He woke up to find his arms over two shoulders, his gaze flickering to find the Replacement under one of his arms and Dick under the other as Alfred hovered by the hospital suite in the BatCave.
He lost the struggle for consciousness halfway there, barely hearing the sound of Damian barreling towards them from the Computer, clothes disheveled and eyes wide.
Then it was blackness and cold relief.
Drive by hello here take this I'm done going over it a million and one times
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Damian would never do anything so plebian as wring his hands. It was a behavior unbefitting of someone of his stature. However, he would admit, at least to himself, that he was a little worried about the sudden turn of events. The whistling wind that heralded the presence of Todd echoed in his ear even as Grayson argued with Drake in low hisses. He delicately placed his hands on the arms of the chair and dug the toes of his bare feet into Titus’ fur. The dog wuffled and whipped his tail back and forth in a quick indication of content.
Despite the fact that his powers had explosively run out a few days ago, the habits he’d built while he had them still persisted.
“—need to search his safe houses.” Grayson insisted as Drake shook his head.
“Oracle already said that Jason hasn’t been outside that apartment for the last two weeks and he hasn’t made any moves with his investigation.”
Grayson ran a hand through his hair and tapped his feet on the ground. Grayson was a man of constant movement, but Damian wasn’t used to seeing him in any other state but self-possessed. With his messy hair and jittery hands, this Grayson was an entirely different beast.
“Dick,” Tim said, with a dark look at the entrance of the medical suite, “we can’t afford to waste time on busy work that won’t contribute; Leslie doesn’t even have a diagnosis.”
Grayson sighed, shoulders slumping.
“You’re right—but you didn’t see him Tim. I was calling his name and practically yelling in his ear and he didn’t even react.”
Damian looked up when he heard the sound of the Manor entrance to the Batcave. The wheeze and click of the grandfather clock echoed in the vast cavern and Cain blinked down at them, taking in their postures and probably reading every twitch of emotion they had. She wobbled slightly as she hopped down the stairs, her crutch tucked under the arm without a sling.
Drake and Grayson’s whispered conversation still hadn’t stopped, but they’d moved on from investigation to current events and Titan’s matters. It was as if they wanted to catch up on months of silence within one night.
Todd’s unclear condition did not help the mood, both of them nitpicking and bickering over things that Drake would never bother with in a normal conversation.
Cain slid one of the chairs near the computer banks next to Damian, casually typing away at the computer with one hand. A video connection buffered for a moment and suddenly Barbara Gordon was on the screen.
“How’s everything?” she asked, eyes focused on something to her right.
Grayson perked up almost immediately at the sound of her voice. Drake grimaced at the side of the man’s face before sighing and following his gaze.
“Jay’s in the suite with Leslie and Alfred running some tests—he zoned out when I got him to the Cave.”
Gordon’s lips flattened, but she otherwise didn’t comment.
“How’re things on your end Babs?”
Gordon’s eyes made contact through the camera lens, her attention finally moving from whatever project she was running.
“The search he had going finished and I’ve been sorting the information,” her lips twitched with something like interest, “he wasn’t just looking into that staff, his searches are all over the place about resurrection and different kinds of necromancy.”
One of Drake’s eyebrows rose.
“Skip science—do not collect $200,” he joked.
Grayson gave a soft laugh and nudged Drake’s side.
“C’mon Tim, we know magic’s a thing—don’t be catty.”
Drake rolled his eyes, but smiled even as he muttered about ‘misunderstood technology’.
Damian felt the muscle in his jaw twitch as the sound of shrieking wind got louder. Cain’s dark eyes watched him in his peripheral as he gave up on listening to the conversation and reached into his school bag for his headphones and sketchbook.
He’d never told Grayson any more about the sound after the disappointing confrontation with Todd. Only that it was annoying and he only heard it around Todd.
He refused to elaborate further. Refused to say that if he was caught off guard and listened too closely to the sound of wind it felt like his lungs were once again filling with blood. Like there was still a sword in his sternum, and darkness was eating his vision as he felt his heart stop.
He wasn’t some weakling, slave to his past experiences. He’d proven himself; he’d been good, he’d died a good hero and soldier so he should be proud. He only had to ignore the sound and let it fade from his attention.
He flipped to one of his more recent pieces and started shading. Maps’ character for their campaign was the last of the set he’d agreed to create: the enthusiastic berserker called Patience.
Mizoguchi’s brother had agreed to be dungeon master and Collin had been more than willing to play, along with Jon. He’d almost said no to the foolish girl when she’d invited him to participate at first. After all, he was already a real world hero who fought against criminals. Why waste his time on make believe?
She’d been insistent and welcoming when he’d agreed and after he investigated the game, he’d demanded a full party and invited Jon and Collin.
He was almost done with the drawing, relaxing as he focused despite the sound of wind superseding the music in his headphones no matter how much he turned up the volume, when the wind stopped.
The absence was more jarring than anything else.
He took out his headphones in one yank and looked up, searching for…something.
Drake was typing on his tablet, in his own world and Grayson was making small talk with Gordon. Cain had jerked up from her relaxed sprawl at Damian’s movement, a crumpled bag of chips falling to the floor and her tablet tucked close to her hip.
Before he could do anything Dr.Thompkins and Pennyworth walked out of the medical suite, faces grim. A foolish fear gripped him.
Was Todd dead? Had his grave finally stopped calling?
Grayson was the first to speak up.
“How is he?”
The doctor sighed and put her hands on her hips.
Drake waved a hand in a sharp, impatient gesture.
“He’s being held up in a board meeting, he’ll be here in a few hours.”
The woman’s lips thinned at that.
“Who am I to judge his priorities?” she said, her tone biting for only a moment before she became businesslike at a burning look from Pennyworth. Damian would have chastised the woman himself for her disrespect of his father if he weren’t trying to inspect the Cave and the doorway behind them without looking frantic.
“He’s alive,” she iterated, but she frowned as she went on, “but he’s almost completely catatonic on top of what looks like nearly lethal sleep deprivation.”
She flicked her fingers over the tablet interface in her hand and scans appeared on the screens of the Batcomputer. Gordon’s video window shrunk into the corner of the screen to accommodate the results.
Damian had stopped listening after she confirmed Todd’s living status, not because he wasn’t interested, but because his eyes had locked on a figure peeking around her arm. A boy, in the old, obsolete Robin outfit of Grayson’s intrepid youth.
The figure was, however, much pointier and smaller than the pictures of Grayson that Damian has had the occasion to see.
He sucked in a breath when the boy turned from the tablet in obvious boredom only for his maskless face to reveal haunting blue-green eyes. Exactly the color of Todd had, with the same otherworldly brightness that caused the hackles to rise on everyone he knew.
The apparition met Damians gaze and his expression lit up with cheer, eyes crinkling and teeth glinting in the light.
He waved in an excited full body movement, cape flapping, and rushed across the room.
“Hey! Robin 5 right?”
Damian turned away from the ghost, or whatever it was, and tried to focus on the discussion in front of him. Only to realize that everything sounded like he was listening through water; Grayson’s voice was nearly inaudible and even Gordon sounded like nothing more than a static hiss.
Drake’s face was contemplative as he presumably asked the doctor more questions and the woman lectured back as she pointed to the test results Damian could no longer read. The screens a mere smear of brightness across his retinas.
Pennyworth was in the small kitchenette preparing snacks and Cain was staring at him with furrowed brows.
A hand clothed in green waved in front of his eyes.
“Number 5? Hey, you alive?”
The ghost snickered at the joke.
Damian moved to make eye contact with Cain and signed to her.
Unknown Person Present.
The girl’s eyes widened and she signed back. Damian felt bile rise in his throat when he watched her and found that nothing she’d just communicated with her hands made sense. His brain simply unable to connect any of the gestures to anything meaningful even though he was completely fluent in ASL; they all were.
She caught his fear immediately and a moment later her chair was spinning as she pushed out of it and hopped over to Grayson and Drake.
He jerked in his seat as a face appeared in front of his with a wry smile.
“You won’t be able to understand them, y’know, you looked too close at me.”
Damian felt his lips drop into a deeper frown.
“What do you mean by that?”
The ghost rolled eyes and casually flipped backwards onto his hands before touching his toes to the ground to stand again. Damian was reminded suddenly of Todd and his deliberate movements, how he tapped and moved his hands. Like Grayson when the man wasn’t in the Batsuit; deliberate movements to contain restlessness entrenched deep in his bones.
It wasn’t something he, Cain or Drake had a problem with, but both of their elder brothers never seemed to stop moving.
“You’re talking ghostspeak, your brains on the wrong wavelength or whatever,” the ghost waved away the explanation like it didn’t matter, “at least until you do what I need.”
Damian glared at the apparition.
“I do not take well to being threatened, ghost,” he said in his most firm tone, squashing the fear trying to roost in his chest.
The ghostly Robin—Todd even if the very though felt ridiculous because who else could it be—grinned and shook his head in the negative to Damian’s accusation.
“I’m not doing anything on purpose,” he denied as he waved his hands across his chest, “you’re the one with your fingers in the graveyard, I just live here.”
Damian straightened his spine even more in indignity at that blatant lie.
His next words were dry.
“Why do you bother with such blatant deception? You just admitted to holding my communication hostage so I can help you.”
Ghost-Todd tapped his chin as if in thought.
“I can see how you got that impression—but I just meant if you get rid of me you can go back to talking pish-posh at Dickface.”
Damian felt his eyebrows jump.
“Wait you want me to—,”
His words cut off into a sucked in breath and an immediate repression of a knee-jerk response to stab as his chair was jerked around. Only after he was forced to look away did he realize that the world around him had begun to become hazy, like an old Polaroid. The light was sepia-toned instead of the bright clinical illumination his Father favored when most of the family was present. Grayson’s face was blurry and the brush of his hands on the chair was feverishly warm—or, Damian realized with a nauseous lurch, he was simply colder than he was few minutes ago.
The man’s lips moved, but it was like listening from the bottom of a grotto, complete with odd-colored shadows and rippling architecture.
He could only shake his head and point to his ears as Grayson tried to talk. The man’s face became alarmed before he was shoved out of the way by Dr. Thompkins.
She snapped her fingers next to his ears in quick succession, her expression attentive to his understated flinch, before she made him focus on a pencil in her hand as she moved it back and forth.
Her lips flattened at whatever she saw and she turned to Pennyworth with a severe expression. They had a quick conversation before Grayson swept Damian off his seat. He gave an indignant shout at the manhandling, but allowed it, leaning into the comforting warmth. He couldn’t help letting his gaze drift to the smiling figure trotting beside them. When he met Ghost-Todd’s gaze the apparition smiled wider and rolled his eyes at the crowd of people around them, seemingly amused by the entire hubbub.
Before long he was in the medical suite on a bed next to a curtained section containing Todd the elder. At least he assumed so according to the shape of the shadow he could see. It was alarmingly crisp compared to the unsure haze that encroached on everything.
“What’s happening to me?” he choked out as the doctor started drawing blood after signaling him with a vial. Cain and Drake were discussing something in the corner. Hands and mouths moving in indecipherable blur.
Ghost-Todd appeared again; dropping from the ceiling, even though there were no handholds he could have clutched above the bed. The mattress didn’t even creak as he landed with a bounce before crouching in front of Damian. Dr. Thompkin’s arms passed through him as she attached a new vial, reaching to place the full one on a tray close to the bed.
Damian drew his knees up on instinct, even if it felt like no weight at all when the ghost’s toes touched his calves.
Grayson misread his reaction and snatched up his unencumbered hand, saying something meaningless to Damian. He didn’t bother telling the man that he wasn’t going to attack the doctor.
Ghost-Todd propped his chin on his palms and sat.
“You’ve gone all ghost-y,” the apparition explained unhelpfully, “you focused too hard on me and you’re already Marked so you ended up chucking your brain right into the Veil.”
Damian felt the disgust twisting his lips.
“I understand many of those words individually, but I have no idea what you are trying to say Todd.” He said flatly.
Ghost-Todd’s eyes sparkled in delight.
“You finally said my name Number 5!”
Damian clicked his tongue.
“That is not my name Todd—address me properly.”
The bright colored apparition wrinkled his nose.
“I could, if you want—but it’d make it hella hard for you to pull yourself out of the Veil if I did.”
Damian felt his lungs drop into his stomach at the thought of being trapped in this state.
“Nevermind then,” he backtracked, “You said something about exorcising you Todd.”
Ghost-Todd let out a short burst of laughter: a bright infectious sound. Damian was momentarily stunned. He’d never heard Todd laugh past soft snorts and amused huffs; he never could have imagined a sound like this coming from Todd ever in his existence. A creeping suspicion weaved itself behind his eyes.
The ghost waved his hands in exaggerated denial.
“No—no I don’t need an exorcist,” he giggled, “I just need to sleep.”
Damian let his gaze wander towards the curtained bed and squinted at the prone form there.
“You are sleeping now.” He pointed out dryly.
Dr.Thompkins finished taking blood samples and pasted a band-aid over his puncture. Grayson demanded his attention with a gentle tug of his hand, distracting him. Cain had pulled up a chair next to Grayson and Drake loomed awkwardly over their shoulders.
The man tried saying something, but Damian could only shake his head in denial. He held up a hand in a universal gesture for a pause, stopping whatever movement Cain was about to make before turning back to the ghostly Robin relaxing on the bed.
“Now you’re getting it Five—and if you’d listened to Doc Leslie, you’d know that lump of flesh over there isn’t dropping into REM no matter what she gives him.”
Damian rolled his eyes as the ghost punctuated that information by rolling into a short back handspring, landing with effortless grace on the railing of the bed.
“Why?” he asked.
Ghost-Todd began pacing back and forth on the thin rail with a finger raised to a dramatic point as he lectured.
“Well, y’see I have a pretty delicate ecosystem going on here,” he gestured to himself, “if I had to explain it so you could understand without your fleshy brain-bits melting I’m like a ship and an anchor.”
He lifted a leg and a delicate, snaking chain glittered into existence. A shackle beautifully engraved with twisting patterns, all of them shifting like live things. The lead disappeared under the curtains to Todd’s body, passing out of sight.
The ghost jerked a thumb towards his chest.
“I am the anchor,” he pointed to the curtained bed, “that is the ship.”
Damian couldn’t help the contemplative frown that tugged at his lips.
“That seems counterintuitive, considering what a soul and body are.”
Ghost-Todd waved a dismissive hand.
“That’s because you don’t know anything about being dead right now, Five,” he squinted and mouthed something to himself, obviously trying to plan out what he wanted to say, “going with my perfectly reasonable analogy—thank you very much—I’m on the sea floor and he is floating above the waves.”
The ghost’s eerie gaze focused on Damian for a second, waiting to be interrupted, before he continued talking.
“We’re constantly tugging on each other. He moves around the anchored spot and I keep us attached where we’re supposed to be. We’re usually at equilibrium, even if it’s not perfect, it works.”
Grayson tugged at Damian’s hand again and he couldn’t help but obey the silent order to face him. The man was tapping at his palm, lips a flat, worried line. He was trying Morse code and Damian felt something like guilt swirl in his chest as he shook his head in a lack of understanding. He knew Grayson was tapping in a pattern, but his brain just wasn’t connecting the dots.
He turned back to Ghost-Todd, only to find him facing Grayson as well. There was a blank look on his face as he stared at the man, an understated kind of melancholy in his eyes.
He sighed and started explaining again.
“Only something threw that out of wack—it’s like this,” he pressed a palm over the Robin symbol on his chest, “I’m everything we were at the moment we were murdered, more or less,” his palm gestured to the curtained bed, “he’s the one collecting new experiences and growing, but someone’s poked a leak in his hull and water is getting in.”
The boy shrugged.
“This isn’t the first time this ‘s happened—it was pretty spotty when he first came back but your mom patched those holes until they could be covered properly—that’s not the actual problem.”
Ghost-Todd gave a frustrated growl and rubbed at his hair in agitation.
“He should be fine, but he’s been hit so hard lately that he’s freaking overcorrecting—instead of trying to stay buoyant he’s trying to freakin’ take off into the sky and it’s dragging me up and cracking him down.”
Damian threw up his hands in exasperation.
“You aren’t making any sense Todd!”
“I know!” the ghost wailed, “but I don’t know how else to put it!”
Damian pinched his brow between his fingers.
“Just tell me how to solve this,” he snapped.
He sucked in a breath as hands clamped on his shoulders and he was forced to look up into the pale gaze of Drake. The other boy was saying something, the same thing, over and over again. A name maybe—oh, he was gesturing to the bed with Todd and the empty space that the ghost no longer occupied.
Damian’s eyes lit up. For all his inferior performance as a Robin, Drake could be sharp at times.
Damian slowly nodded, making a grin break over his brother’s face.
Before they could engage in any more charades Ghost-Todd stepped through the older boy and Damian nearly fell off the bed when his face emerged just under Drake’s chin. An annoyed scowl twisted the apparition’s lips.
“Don’t ignore me,” Ghost-Todd growled, sounding like his old self, if only for a moment, “if you want to solve this, Bruce needs to be here.”
Damian sighed and checked the clock. He deliberately didn’t click his tongue or snarl when he realized that none of the clocks he could see made sense to him. He did a quick calculation based on how long it took him to sketch and when he’d started and came up with that answer instead.
“He should be here soon,” he informed the ghost, only to roll his eyes and wave to let Drake know he wasn’t talking to him.
Ghost-Todd nodded before backing away and disappearing in a swirl of yellow cape and a challenging smile. Leaving Damian with his siblings, who had no way of really communicating with him.
It took thirty minutes to get his point across and make sure it was understood. That was with Cain’s preternatural ability to read body language. By the nature of their communication barrier he couldn’t tell them any details, but they settled to wait for Father together. Grayson crowded onto the bed with him and gave him his sketchbook, the pages filled with nonsensical abstract drawings. If he’d been able to sketch or understand drawings comprehensibly the whole situation would have been much less annoying.
He settled for shape practice as they waited.
As his pencil scratched across the paper he thought about Ghost-Todd and his explanation. Ships and anchors—and that chain, it was unnatural if beautiful.
That ghost had appeared the moment the sound had stopped, the calling to the grave. Was it because Todd had left his body? Had the ghost even been in Todd’s body to begin with? If it was an anchor and the body was a ship that implied that the ghost wasn’t in the body, at least not all the time. In fact, the ghost had referred to itself as a separate entity from the Todd he knew multiple times during conversation.
His lips tucked into a frustrated scowl as he shaded around a sphere.
This whole situation was ridiculous.
When he heard the barely there sound of a new voice he looked up, only to be disappointed by the curious visage of Duke Thomas. He scowled and returned to drawing as Drake and Cain began conversing with the boy.
He’d forgotten he’d agreed to help Father with a joint training session with the newest addition to the Gotham vigilantes today—tonight, now that Thomas had showed up.
The clock wasn’t making sense no matter how he squinted at it.
Father had to be nearing the Manor, especially if he was in a hurry.
Not a second after he had that thought, Father swooped into the room like an overgrown shadow. Striding in a straight line to Damian’s bedside with a quick nod to the group by the door. Grayson said something over his head and Father answered, leaving Damian with the annoying feeling of being talked over. Which he was, but he wasn’t used to not being able to insert himself into a conversation.
Ghost-Todd cartwheeled out from behind a cabinet, casual as could be, and threw himself on Damian’s bed.
Damian couldn’t help clicking his tongue in annoyance at the action, catching Grayson and his father’s attention. His father said something and he scowled and waved his hands near his ears, tired of explaining his plight.
Ghost-Todd waved a hand with an impish grin.
“He’s finally here,” he groaned dramatically, throwing an arm over his head and pulling his back into an exaggerated arch, “it felt like he took years.”
Internally, Damian agreed, time had seemed to slow to a crawl after he started drawing. The opposite of what usually happened when he sunk into his hobby.
“What do you need him for Todd—I’m tired of this condition.”
The boy perked up.
“That’s the spirit Five!” he crowed as he rolled off the bed into a crouch, “Follow me.”
Then he took off in an ambling stride. Damian disregarded the noises his father and Grayson made as he also got out of bed, trotting to catch up with the apparition. The minor dizziness from the doctor’s vampiric tests was easily overcome.
He followed the eerie, echoing hum that Ghost-Todd sung to himself as he turned a corner to climb the stairs to the Manor. Father and Grayson followed him, along with the gaggle of younger vigilantes that had been hovering in the hospital suite.
“Todd,” he snapped, “where are you going?”
He growled as he opened the door to his father’s office, ducking Father’s attempt to restrain him when he punched in the lock code. Batman rarely kept anything unsecured in the study, anything truly sensitive was kept down in the cave. It didn’t stop Damian from memorizing his new code every week in the interest of being prepared.
“Hurry up,” Ghost-Todd laughed as he swung his legs from his perch on the desk. Before Damian could get a word in he pointed to the shelf to the left, where Father kept his old, obsolete records.
“Third yellow one from the right.”
Damian huffed, but grabbed the sleeve, going to his tiptoes to reach the item. It was more of a sepia-tone than the other yellow sleeves on shelf. On the cover was a woman with a severe, almost heartbroken look; emblazoned across the cover was the title: Lady in Satin.
Ghost-Todd leaned over his shoulder to look at the album, causing a shiver to go down his spine. The apparition sighed out a cloud of night sky, glittering with ice particles bright as stars.
“Did you know he used to sing?”
Damian could only shake his head in denial, feeling the tremble in his fingers as he stared at the cloud drifting to the floor. In it he saw his own face, bloody and pale with death. Like an iron clamp, dread pulled tight around his skull and stole his voice.
It felt like a blade loomed, balanced impeccably over his neck.
A hand, hot as a stovetop clamped over his shoulder and he gasped like a drowning man finally exposed to air.
He was turned to look at his father, the man’s forehead wrinkled in concern. Instinctively, he clutched at his father’s jacket, wrinkling the expensive fabric with his frantic grip. His father’s chest rumbled as he clutched him close and Damian was once again frustrated with his inability to understand anyone around him except for the creeping specter following him around.
“Whoops,” Ghost-Todd chuckled, like he’d dropped a cup or chipped the claw off a gargoyle while on patrol, “sorry about that 5.”
Damian took a deep breath and pushed away from his father, cheeks pink and avoiding the gaze of everyone in the room. Thomas lingered in the doorway and offered an awkward wave before Damian could turn away.
“Whatever,” he coughed out; suppressing the tremble in his voice, “tell me what this is for.”
He waved the album, almost missing the way his father shifted beside him, interest in the lean of his body.
Ghost-Todd smiled and gestured to Father.
“Just show it to him and lead him downstairs—he’ll get what you mean.”
Damian scowled thunderously at the casual order, but obeyed anyways.
His father didn’t try to talk and Damian focused intently on the presence of his family. Trying to keep the encroaching shadows from blocking out his vision: the ghost shined so bright. The yellow of his cape was like a beacon, guiding Damian down the increasingly blurry steps and driving away whatever crawled at the edges of the mist creeping over his feet.
It had become so quiet, the only reminder that he was alive was the warm hand on his shoulder. The broad, scarred grip of his father spanned his entire shoulder.
He couldn’t help but lean into it even as he pushed forward, wincing as the ghost broke into a fit of laughter at the bottom of the steps as he cartwheeled into the medical suite. He pushed aside the curtain to Todd’s bed after catching glimpse of a yellow cape disappearing past the fabric. His father’s grip tightened for a moment and his hand began to slip, a flare of panic so bright it nearly blinded Damian flashed behind his eyes. He snatched his father’s hand and clenched it to his shoulder, nearly dropping the record in his hand.
“Don’t let go.”
The grip settled again and Damian relaxed as much as he could manage in the darkened landscape his world had become. The ghost glowed where he was perched over the still form of Todd at the head of the bed. Like a biblical relief he shined, long lashes fanned over his cheeks as he stared down at his body. He was the only source of light except for an old lamp on the side table; Damian’s eyes jerked when he spotted it. It was out of place, the glass panels frosted and the light within a dull thing compared to the spirit.
Ghost-Todd’s eyes flickered upwards, crinkling into a welcoming smile. His slack adult form remained motionless, eyes half-lidded and hazy. Paler than his actual ghost, bags darkened the hollows of his eyes.
Damian breathed and grounded himself in his father’s touch.
“What next?” he pushed out.
Ghost-Todd grinned wider and waved him forward.
“Get B to hold his hand, then show him the album.”
Damian did as told; keeping a grip on Father’s hand as he pushed the other forward. The record clutched to his hand by a pinky.
He flinched when Ghost-Todd sighed again, but no deathly promise seethed from his lips.
“He used to sing along to all those old jazz albums, such a sad old grump.”
Damian held the album up and pointed to Todd’s body, hoping his father understood. He couldn’t see anything past the light of the apparition, only Father.
“When I finally believed this was going to happen—that something really good happened to me for once, I’d sit at the top of the steps after curfew and listen to him play those old albums in the cave. He’d sing along and I’d fall asleep on the steps. I was too proud to ask him to sing to me.”
Damian refused to cry, but the darkness was becoming a solid thing and all he could think of—the only thing running through his mind was the blackness of his vision fading out as his lungs filled with blood.
“Father,” he couldn’t help but beg, frustrated by the furrow in the man’s brow, “please.”
Realization crossed his father’s blurry features and the man slowly took a seat on the bed. He pulled Damian with him and the boy was startled when he was pulled across his father’s lap. The Batman wasn’t a touchy man, at least not as far as Damian has experienced, but there was a familiarity in the movement when Father pulled him up. Like he’d done the motion a thousand times.
Damian let his head be leaned on his father’s chest as it began to rumble.
A minute of it and Damian felt the tension draining out of him. The fond smile of Ghost-Todd glittered in the corner of his vision as he watched Todd’s body’s eyes begin to drift shut.
When they closed darkness blanketed everything for a millisecond that left Damian cold and shivering.
Then it was light.
I am all for Damian being a kid (even a scared one) also you will pry his friendships with Collins and Maps out of MY COLD DEAD HANDS. Having a childhood is a RIGHT.