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Clearly Calm and Keeping Terrorized

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What a shit night. Jason couldn’t decide which was worse, the constant downpour, the asshole who’d shot a crack in his helmet, or the freezing chill that had reached down to his bones. He’d managed at least to leave the guy bleeding in the warehouse he’d had stacked full of drugs, trussed up for the police.

He may have gone overboard, a tad, but he didn’t think anybody could blame him on a day like this.

Normally his night would continue for at least another hour, but Jason was done. The wet and cold was hell on his body, his joints ached, his muscles felt hard and tense and the constant shiver would be hell on his aim. He was calling it a night.

Just riding back to his place in the rain was enough to have him shaking out of his skin. He needed to get a better insulating suit before winter. When he was Robin, he’d had a winter version of the uniform. He’d never bothered much as Red Hood before.

Of course for a long time nothing really seemed to touch him, temperature wise. It could be over 100 or below freezing and it all felt the same to him. It was probably something to do with the pit, but it’d worn off by now and the waterproofing of his current get up could use some work.

Winters in Gotham were cruel and he wasn’t about to suffer like this through every patrol.

He’d work on it the next day, he told himself while dropping his bike at the bunker. The place was small inside and didn’t hold a lot. Jason had been thinking about expanding for a while but it was about all he could get on his current budget. It wasn’t exactly easy to find unmarked and abandoned subway tunnels that weren’t already in use, not to mention the people and funds necessary to set the place up. Stepping back from the crime boss angle definitely had its drawbacks. For the time being he was subsisting on the leftovers of another large drug bust. It would last him a bit longer if he stretched his budget, which he tried to. Stealing from criminals was easy money but he always got the ultimate look of disapproval anytime one of the bats realized where his money came from so he tried to keep it to a minimum.

Not that he really cared. They weren’t exactly a happy family and Jason couldn’t care less about what they thought of him, but keeping things peaceful was the best way to keep them all out of his hair. If he stuck to his territory and didn’t ruffle too many feathers then he could do what he wanted without worrying about interference from The Bat.

Changing out of his uniform was nearly painful, but the trip back to his apartment above ground was even worse. Enough to put him back in one of the worst moods he could remember. He didn’t even bother turning the light on when he walked in. He went straight to the shower, peeled off the under-layer of his suit and stood under the spray for an inordinate amount of time just trying to shake the chill out of his bones. By the time he finally got out he was limp and dead on his feet, all he wanted was his bed.

Of course half stumbling back through his apartment into his bedroom meant he forgot about the damn box sitting at the foot of his bed. It had been there at that point for nearly a month.

A little out of character for Jason really. Normally he kept his place spick-and-span, a burned in urge for cleanliness left over from spending nights in a dingy apartment with rotting food in the fridge followed by back alleys that smelled like piss and festering garbage. He liked things in their place, he didn’t like leaving shit on the floor to be dealt with later. But every time he’d thought about unpacking the thing it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

In his haste to mount the bed in the dark, loose limbs and mind utterly blank, he stepped right on top of it, tore a hole through the side and slammed his shin into the bed frame, spilling its contents out over the floor.

“Flipping, fracking, fudgecicles.” He swore, pressing his face into the blankets and groaning. There was a pile of shit all over his bedroom floor now. A pile of things he didn’t want to think about, and it was dark in the room and he was so damn tired and he was already lying there, facedown in the blankets and he thought screw it, climbed a foot further up in the bed and buried himself in the blankets.

He’d handle it the next day.


*


He dreamed that night.

It wasn’t unusual, he had them at least a couple times a week, sometimes more. It all depended on different factors, what cases he was working, what kind of crap he ran into on patrol, and whatever damn lottery his brain was playing that night.

The downside: They were never good.

Sometimes they started out that way. Completely innocuous.

He was in a grocery store, and he was looking for something he couldn’t find but he couldn’t remember the name of it, or what it was. And he was walking down aisle after aisle of endless produce. There was a puddle on the floor, one of those yellow caution signs set up next to it, a janitor turned away from him, mopping, whistling as he went and it was far away. A long ways down the aisle, but Jason recognized the tune. He knew the song but again, he couldn’t place it. But it kept getting louder, and the closer Jason got the less it sounded like music and the more it sounded like - like laughing.

Jason was shivering, it was suddenly freezing and when he looked down his clothes were all torn up and he - he was bleeding.

Suddenly he realized the shelves weren’t full of produce at all, they were packed full of bombs and the next step he tried to take he tripped, his ankles were tied together. He fell on his face, right in the puddle on the floor and it wasn’t water, it was blood and the janitor was gone but that sound - the laughing, it was so loud, and it was everywhere, and he heard this awful scraping noise in the distance, something thin and metal dragging on the floor and Jason couldn’t breathe.

He tried to push himself up but his wrists were tied behind his back and everything hurt, it all hurt so much. The scraping on the floor got louder, closer, he heard footsteps, and the laughing stopped echoing all around him because it was clearly getting closer too.

“Robin, kid, you’re really falling down on the job tonight.” And that awful laugh, “I really think you can do better.”

He felt the tip of the crowbar graze his side, just enough to make him shudder.

He was face down in a puddle of blood and Jason couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe-

He came to like a dying fish, gasping and choking on nothing, sitting bolt upright in bed. His chest felt like iron, like no matter how hard he tried his lungs wouldn’t expand, they wouldn’t take in the air around him. His skin was on fire and he threw the blankets off, hands aching for a gun, for a trigger to pull, something to keep him sane.

Jason shoved his face between his knees, trying in vain to slow his breathing because there was nausea crawling up his throat and - and shit - he managed to make it to the garbage can in the corner before he lost what little he ate for dinner. But like other times, at least, the vomiting felt like a relief. The coughing and gagging that followed were no fun, along with the racing heart and shaking hands. He spit into the can a few times, teeth chattering together.

It felt like there were ants under his skin, just looking for a way out. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he managed to stumble to the doorway, stepping over the mess of stuff still spilled out on his floor, and flicked on the light. It burned his eyes but it at least gave him something to look at outside of the visions clouding up his head.

He still felt the sharp point of the crowbar dragging up the side of his ribs and his stomach gave another awful squeeze that had him rushing to the bathroom just to dry heave in the sink. Turning the tap on and splashing his face with water helped just a little, but his mouth tasted sour and his stomach was still rolling up in knots.

Jason grabbed his toothbrush off the counter and nearly dropped it while running it under the water, his hands were shaking so much. He could hear the awful, stupid voice in the back of his head even over the stifled groan he let out when his stomach heaved again. He applied way too much toothpaste to the brush and jammed it in his mouth, barely managing not to fall down as he sat on the edge of his tub.

His ribs ached. And his knees and shins and his head felt like it was gonna split open. It was phantom pain he knew, maybe because he’d been close to hyperventilating for a good few minutes at that point and he was having some kind of premature brain death from low oxygen, but the knowledge very rarely helped. At least not when he was sitting in a blindingly bright bathroom with his eyes squeezed shut, scrubbing jerkily over his teeth and tongue trying to wash out the sour taste of stomach acid. Trying to scrub out the echoing laughs in his head, the sound of the crowbar dragging across concrete, the muffled thud of it against flesh and bone.

Of all his nightmares, the ones of the joker were always the loudest.

Sometimes he’d talk out loud to himself, or hum, just to try to drown it out but that just ended up making him feel crazier. He wanted his gun, but the reflex always made him nervous and he pushed it away.

Instead, he brushed his teeth for a long time, concentrating on the sound of the bristles against his gums, long enough that his mouth was just full of foam. Long enough that blood started mixing in with it and the taste nearly sent him spiraling. He forced himself to stand and spit in the sink, splash water over his face and just stand there for a minute. He stared down into the drain and watched drops fall from the tap, gripping the edge of the sink with white knuckles, trying to support his weight with nothing but his arms ‘cause his knees were shaking something fierce, listened to his own labored breathing.

Amazingly enough Jason Todd did not have cable, and his internet was spotty. It was annoying but the bunker he’d set up had better internet than you could buy plus access to the cave computer. When he moved into his place he reasoned that was all he really used the internet for. He didn’t have money to burn and the apartment didn’t come with cable. But on a night like this, when the skeletons in his closet were rattling like percussion instruments, he really wished he could turn on the tv and listen to some bullshit telenovelas or cartoons or reruns of Titanic or he really didn’t freaking care.

Reading a book was always an option, that was what he usually did, but after Joker dreams, sometimes it just - wasn’t enough. There were little tricks, little things he’d learned that helped and he went through the list in his head as he finally wrenched himself away from the bathroom sink, when it no longer felt like the bottom of his stomach was trying to climb up his throat.

There was a lighter on his nightstand next to a heavily scented candle that he lit with shaking hands, nearly burned himself before he set it to the side and breathed in the biting scene of pine. There was a half empty carton of cigarettes stashed under his bed but he’d been trying to quit and he saved them for when things were really bad.

The trash can in the corner was a problem, one he’d rather not address right then but didn’t want to leave overnight because disgusting and so he took a spare moment to rinse some water in it and dump the contents in the toilet. Then he splashed bleach in it and filled it the rest of the way with water and left it soaking in the tub.

Music was the next step. He didn’t remember where he tossed his cell when he came in and he had to stalk around the apartment before he found it sitting on the kitchen counter just inside the front door, unplugged and with a dead batter. He stared at the screen with an unexpected twist in his chest. “You gotta be fracking kidding me.”

Abruptly, even though he’d woken without tears, just the pounding in his chest and head, he felt like he was going to start crying immediately. Sucking in a deep, noisy breath, he made a point of plugging in his damn phone and going back to his room where the smell of the candle was enough to at least put him more in the present. It was the music that helped with the Joker dreams the most though, without it Jason was left jittery and anxious and angry in a way that reminded him alarmingly of The Pit. It only seemed to get worse the longer he sat on the edge of his bed, staring at his bookshelves trying to decide which one would be the winner for the night.

His knee was bouncing enough he’d probably wake up his downstairs neighbor before something occurred to him. The smashed up box at the foot of his bed was still just where it was when he’d demolished it on his way in. The thought of it made a different anxiety twist in his stomach.

The box was from Alfred. Sort of. The box was full of Jason’s things, so he wasn’t sure it was really from anyone. Except that one day after patrol when Jason had been high on pain meds, half lying down on a medical cot in the cave with Alfred working on his stitches, he’d admitted he missed some of his old stuff. The conversation wasn’t meant to go anywhere and Jason had no idea why he said anything but Alfred had told him he was free to take whatever he wanted from his old room - it was still his, after all. But the very idea of going back in there made his skin crawl.

He’d heard from Dick that it hadn’t much changed since he died and that kind of made it worse. Jason didn’t want to step back in time, no thanks. The idea that Bruce had turned it into some kind of museum to before he had died did weird thing to his insides and he’d told Alfred as much. He didn’t think he could stomach it.

Alfred had left it at that, didn’t push him to keep talking about it or try to tell him to try anyway, like Dick probably would have. Jason always appreciated that about Alf.

Instead, about a week later, Alfred had shown up at his apartment with a weeks worth of meals and a box of things he’d thought Jason might want. It was a nice gesture and Jason had appreciated it but he’d found, despite his earlier musings, that he held the same sort of apprehension to the box as he did to his old room. Everything inside it was part of his old life and most of the time it all just felt - untouchable.

He didn’t know why exactly, just that his years at the manor felt like some weird mix of dream and nightmare he could never quite suss out.

But now, with the Joker’s laughter ringing in his ears, he thought it might be the lesser of two evils and he hoped to anyone listening that Alfie packed his old MP3 player.

Jason slid down across his rumpled bed and slipped over the frame, nearly tripped over the crushed box at his feet but fumbled around until he could sit cross legged on the floor in front of it. He didn’t know where to start exactly, but he decided the best option was getting the MP3 player first. So, he dug in, pulling out old sweatshirts, a couple knit scarves, an old throw blanket. The soft things were all wrapped around the more fragile ones.

Underneath his old clothes there was a stack of notebooks, a larger stack of book, books, an old baseball, and there, the headphones wrapped neatly around it, was his MP3 player. An old iPod shuffle Bruce had gotten him more because it was something other kids had than that he’d known Jason wanted one.

What Jason was counting on, was good old Alfie, because while the charger for the device was neatly wound up next to it, it had been literal years since Jason had touched the thing and the idea that it might have any battery left was absurd. Unless Alfred had gone to the trouble of charging it before packing it away for him.

With still shaking hands he unwound the headphones rapidly and shoved them in his ears, pressing the home butting and just praying for some kind of miracle.

“Bless you Alfred.” Jason whispered out over the heavy beat of hip hop music he didn’t even remember downloading. He took a moment to breathe, suck in the smell of wintergreen and let the music drown out the noise in his head. The rest of the contents still sat there in stacks, pushed to the side of the torn open cardboard or still organized neatly inside it.

This was as far as he’d gotten in a month and Jason decided to just bite the bullet and get it over with. He reached for the first thing that caught his attention and pulled out a framed photo of Bruce and him at a baseball game. The same one, if Jason remembered correctly, that he’d gotten the ball in the box from. Bruce stood behind Jason, a hand on his shoulder, a half crooked smile on his face that meant it was real, while Jason, at thirteen years old, stood in front of him grinning ear to ear with a mitt and a baseball held up in his right hand.

He didn’t remember who took the photo, it must have been some random person at the game, but he remembered being breathless and excited about going, that he’d never been to one before. He remembered telling Bruce that the closest he’d ever gotten was scalping tickets outside the doors of a hockey rink once and being chased off by a security guard. Bruce had gotten a weird look on his face that Jason never knew how to take, then clapped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed in a way that made Jason feel weirdly warm in the chest.

“We’ll go to a hockey game next.” He had said. And Jason had been beyond excited.

He swallowed convulsively at the twist in his stomach and set the photo to the side. He wasn’t sure he wanted it anymore. Thinking about the good times with Bruce was always bitter sweet to him now.

Usually more bitter than sweet.

The phantom image of a Robin uniform always came to mind, filled out by some other kid, standing tall and smug. Jason shook his head. He’d decide later.

Next was an old backpack, still filled with his school books. He rifled through one, finding a doodle of a bow and arrow in the corner of one of the pages, a note scribbled underneath he couldn’t actually parse. There were pages of math homework, old assignments with mark ups from his teachers, little notes in red pen.

‘Good work’

‘Nice word choice’

‘Correct formula but you made a common mistake, see me after class and I can explain it better.’

Absently he wondered why Alfred had given him his old school stuff. Not like he had any use for it now and reading though it felt like going through some other kid’s stuff.

It did give him a weird pang of regret. Because Jason had liked school. He’d thrived despite little shitheads in a rich school who thought he didn’t belong there and some teachers alike. Jason felt a weird sort of shame at never having graduated high school. Hell, he’d barely started.

He stashed everything back inside the bag and set it to the side. He probably wouldn’t get rid of it, though he wasn’t sure why.

The stack of books was probably what he’d missed the most and he pulled the top most copy off and flipped it open. Jason had a pretty large stash of books at that point, and he had replaced nearly, if not all the novels he’d had in the manor when he was younger. But it wasn’t the books themselves exactly that he missed.

When Jason had moved into the manor the idea of having books of his own to return to had been a new and glorious thing. On the street, when he needed to keep something for yourself you found a way to mark it, or make it so other people just didn’t want it. He’d half ruined most things he’d snatched from stores just so they wouldn’t bother wanting them back if he got caught.

Before his mom had died he’d had access to the Library, which was great, but it meant that none of the books were his and he’d had to keep them nice and neat if he wanted to be able to keep checking them out. It hadn’t been all that easy either, with a drug addicted mother and a lowlife dad who was always bringing other lowlifes around. He’d ended up stashing them under his bed anytime he wasn’t reading them.

The books in the manor were different. They had a library, which Jason treated as such, but Bruce had also expressed to Jason that he could have his own books. Ones he got to keep in his room that he wasn’t required to return to anyone else or share. He could even make notes in them if he wanted, highlight whatever text interested him or that he wanted to return to.

The idea of marking them up in any way had horrified Jason when Bruce had made the suggestion, but he liked part of the idea. It made reading feel more like he was an active participant, like he could go back and forth with the characters, like he was involved in the story.

He’d never taken a pen to a book, but what he had done was fill all of his favorites with sticky notes.

Jason still did it sometimes, though he didn’t read as much as he used to as a kid when he was only patrolling on weekends and just had school to think about. He flipped through the first few pages of Frankenstein, one of his favorites, perusing his own messy handwriting on bright pink paper, faded with age. Again though, the nostalgia twisted hard in his stomach. He was glad to have them back, thought he might actually read through them someday. But what had been something he missed...felt a lot like something he could never have again, now that he was holding them in his hands.

There were all these mixed up, tangled feelings twisted around Jason’s childhood. Sometimes when he was high on pain meds, or drunk maybe, it softened the edges enough to make all this seem like a good idea. But harshly sober and coming down off a nightmare...they just felt like a sad joke.

Like looking at the props from a movie you used to think was real life.

“Whatever.” He mumbled to himself as he grabbed a pile of the books and stacked them back up in a haphazard pile. His bookshelves were neatly organized, lining his bedroom walls on three sides. He made sure to leave room for more, and the second bedroom still had blank walls he’d though about repurposing for just such an occasion that he ran out. Normally things were organized by genre, then author, then title. But this particular collection he would keep together. He shelved them all on the lowest empty shelf near the floor, next to his dresser.

The picture frame he stuck face down in the drawer to his nightstand to think about later. The baseball, and the mitt he dug out to match, he left sitting on his dresser. The couple sweatshirts smelled like fresh laundry, which wasn’t surprising, so he didn’t bother washing them, just hung them up in the very back of his closet. They’d never fit him now, and just looking at them when he tucked the arms of the hanger through the neck hole nearly had him reeling at how tiny he used to be.

His notebooks he didn’t even open, remembering clearly enough the awful drawings he used to make and his own amateur attempts at writing. Journaling had initially been a suggestion from Bruce, back when Jason had frequent outbursts of temper and never wanted to talk about them afterwards. Bruce wasn’t exactly a shining example of talking out your issues, so the journaling had probably been a nice cop out for him, but Jason still occasionally did some.

The throw blanket, Jason realized when he picked it up, was the same one that Alfred had knitted him his first year at the manor and that did get him a little choked up. It was red, and a little faded, the color clashed pretty badly with his bedspread if he was being honest but he didn’t care. He took the time to make up his blankets and folded the throw neatly at the end of his bed. Then he settled himself back on the floor in front of the nearly empty box.

There wasn’t much else he expected to find in it. It was large enough that Alfred had managed to fit his old skateboard, which Jason smirked at. Despite his skills as Robin he had never gotten very good with the thing. He left it leaned up against the wall behind the door and went in for the last item, sitting at the base of the box. It was wrapped in brown parchment paper and tied with twine, about the size and shape of a book if Jason had to guess, and a badly wrinkled card was tucked underneath the string.

Jason assumed at first that it was a gift from Alfred, stashed at the bottom of the box as some sort of surprise but the obviously crumpled and re-flattened card couldn’t have been the butler. So Jason slipped out the card, a nice stock with a simple picture on the front of a sailboat that looked oddly familiar to him.

Upon opening the card he was momentarily confused. There was obviously a decent amount of text written out at one point, but it had all been scribbled out pretty damn thoroughly, he squinted at it for a moment, trying to make out the words as a slow dawning unease settled on his shoulders. Because while he couldn’t quite make out the words, the handwriting still looked familiar. A messy, but somehow still graceful, looping cursive that could only be Bruce’s.

Jason swallowed roughly, eyes scanning the card over again and then peering into the box like it might now suddenly contain a poisonous snake. It didn’t make sense.

That there was possibly a...gift stashed somewhere in his room from Bruce that he had never know about didn’t make any sense. And the idea that Bruce would have for some reason gotten him a gift made even less. Unless it was something related to their vigilante lives maybe. Maybe it was useful to Red Hood somehow and the scribbled out card was code for something.

But something told him it wasn’t. Bruce was ridiculous and paranoid and overly dramatic at the best of times but a secret message disguised as an old gift instead of making a phone call or telling him in person on one of the not infrequent times they might run into each other on patrol made little to no sense. And the gift did seem old he realized.

Reaching in and picking it up out of the box Jason found that the parchment paper was covered in a layer of dust, brushed off in a pattern that could only have been someone’s hands moving it to begin with. The twine was brittle and snapped at the knot with a light tug.

There was a feeling Jason sometimes got, like he was swimming in the ocean and he could sense something huge and dangerous coming up beneath him, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. In general it didn’t mean anything positive but he was already waist deep in this whole thing and that feeling didn’t tend to leave him until the cause was addressed. So he took a single deep breath and tore the paper off, trying to brace himself for any possibility.

However, when the paper came off he was left with a complete absence of any reaction. He hadn’t known what to expect but somehow what he found was still entirely unexpected.

It was two items, stacked neatly one on top of the other. One, which was, in retrospect, predictably a book. A hardcover copy of Pride and Prejudice, with a swirling and beautifully designed cover in deep, navy blue overlaid with gold.

And two, a slim DVD case with a photo of Kira Knightly looking artfully off to the side with a blurry man in the background.

“What the hell.”

Jason yanked the headphones out of his ears, suddenly feeling the need for quiet to digest whatever the heck he was seeing. He grabbed up the crumpled card again and opened it flat, smoothing it out over his leg and squinting in concentration at the scribbled lines of pen. If Bruce wasn’t a pretentious asshole who always wrote in cursive he thought he may have been able to make it out but as it was, the only thing that wasn’t in cursive was a cluster of numbers in the upper righthand side of the card that had only been partially scribbled out. He should have noticed them immediately but he had been intrigued by what he was apparently not supposed to see.

The numbers were clearly a date. A date that Jason stared at with a numbness in his bones while his brain calculated where he was and what he was doing when it was written. It was dated nearly eight months previous. Just a couple months before...before the two of them had talked. That Jason had agreed to play by Bruce’s rules.

“What...the hell.” Jason repeated to himself. His voice strangled and clipped. Dropping the card he suddenly flipped the book open, flipping the pages in a fan and looking for something more, turning the book face down and shaking out the pages hoping to find some other information. Nothing.

He cracked open the DVD case next, popping the disc out and the little leaflet of information thinking there had to be some kind of hidden message somewhere.

“This is such bullshit.” He whispered to himself, incredulous and weirdly lost.

A strangely frantic idea was occurring to him and he picked up the card again, stumbling to his feet and going for one of the notebooks he’d stashed in his closet. He took the one on top and tore out the first blank page he came to and then spent ten minutes digging around for a pencil, ending up with the single sheet of notebook paper and the card, standing in his boxers and a t-shirt in his kitchen. The card he laid out on the countertop, putting the notebook paper on top of it. He angled the pencil carefully and began brushing gentle strokes across the paper.

It was an old hat trick Jason used to read about in ancient detective novels like it was some genius level move, it would create a negative image of whatever had been written on the card before it was scribbled out, provided the original script was written with enough pressure. Bruce tended to have a heavy hand so he thought it’d be enough but the way the card was crumpled up made it a special challenge, leaving other divots and lines through the text.

When he was done he stared at the sheet of paper with a scrutinizing gaze.

“Damnit.” It looked like scribbles, which was exactly what it was, but maybe a tiny bit more like actual words than before. Jason studied it, trying to make out the individual first and last letter of each word.

The first word was clearly his name, he took the pencil and carefully wrote out Jason below the scribbles.

The first line he could make out sparing words from. He went through the note methodically, writing down words he could make out, leaving a line on the page for each word he couldn’t, carefully counting each word until he was at the bottom of the card and his hands were shaking again, worse than when he’d woken up from the dream.

He stared at what he had, trying to make heads or tales of it.

Jason,

I know ___ ___ ___ this book, ___ ____ ____ more ____ ___ copy. I think I remember ____ ____ me at some ____ ____ I ______ you of Mr. Darcy. ________ I was ______ and _____ _____ if my ______ ______ right.

Maybe you’ve ____ the _____ _______ too, ____ for me to say. It’s ____ a _____ _____ ____ talked _____ books and movies. But I saw this pair _____ sold ________ in a classics __________ at the ______ Bookstore __ ______ and I thought of you. ____ _______ you might _____ it, ___ a good _________ of the book, if ___ _______. _____ __ _____ watch it ________ and _______ notes.

I miss you.

The vast majority of it didn’t make much sense beyond being clearly about the story and probably not some hidden message, but Jason didn’t care a whole lot.

Instead he stared at those last three words, feeling a tremor run up his spine. He dropped the paper on the counter like it burned him and took a step back, swallowing hard. His eyes were burning and his chest felt tight and this was not the bullshit he’d been expecting in that damn box.

“Fucking Alfred.” Jason scooped up the crumpled card and the sheet of paper and stomped back to his bedroom, grabbing the book and the movie and dumping it all in the bottom drawer of his dresser with old electronics and chargers he wasn’t sure went to what to be forgotten about. The drawer slammed closed and he stood there breathing like a freight train for a split second before he went back to the foot of his bed where he tore the empty box until it was flat and recyclable, stashed it under his sink, and fumed.

Glancing at the clock on his microwave told him it was nearing 5am, meaning he’d gotten maybe three hours of sleep and that the sun would be coming up in a couple hours. He stomped around his kitchen, dragging out coffee beans and milk and generally making as much noise as possible just hoping his downstairs neighbor would come pounding on the door so he had an excuse to scream and fight with someone.

“fucking Alfred.” He hissed again, feeling utterly unsteady and bizarrely hollow. Like someone had scooped out his insides with a spoon. It was such a bullshit move.

Jason wasn’t an idiot. No way Bruce knew that was in Alfred’s little care package. Bruce had probably forgotten the thing existed, had probably thought it had all been thrown away. He’d clearly meant to dispose of the card, probably had, and Alfred had rescued it from the trash and kept it on hand, just waiting to leave it like a bomb for Jason to find. Probably hoped it would open his eyes.

Make him see the light.

Jason was not going to be manipulated by some shitty card that Bruce had thrown in the trash rather than actually give him. And what kind of bullshit was, that? Bruce thought he could give him some crappy copy of a book and a movie with a casual little note and things would be good?

He was insane. Bruce was insane and Jason had known it for years.

Jason was shaking his head, pulling a mug out of the cupboard for the coffee and setting it down harder than he needed to. What had he even been thinking? what? That if he gave Jason a present he’d just forget about all the other shit?

Oh, except that he didn’t give him the gift. Instead he threw away the card and put the package somewhere it was gathering dust for the past eight months.

There were dishes in the sink from his dinner and he went about washing them by hand instead of using the dishwasher, needing to move, needing something to occupy his hands.

Needing something to work out his aggression on so he could keep hold of the anger in his chest.

 



*



*



*



He’d bought Jason a gift.

He leaned against the sink, gripping the edge hard and feeling the sharp edges of his indignation stuttering and losing their shape. He tried to grab onto it, hold it in place like the shield it was.

But - damnit he doesn’t know what to think of it. So Bruce bought it for him, and then what? Couldn’t bring himself to actually give it to him? His stomach twists in knots over it. Jason remembered meeting up with Bruce, agreeing to work by his rules.

He remembered he’d been in a good mood that day, that he’d felt more exasperated and amused by the request than he would otherwise normally be. He remembered Bruce being blank and awkward and the good feelings slowly draining. Remembered Bruce cutting the meeting short and making some excuse for it, leaving Jason with the same souring bitterness that always came in the end with Bruce.

Jason hadn’t gone back on the agreement, he wasn’t really sure why exactly. Except that maybe...maybe him asking meant he didn’t believe Jason was some kind of lost cause.

Not that Jason cared, he had nothing to prove, not to Bruce.

But sometimes there were reasons to prove things to yourself and Jason wasn’t sure he had yet.

It didn’t matter. For now he wasn’t killing anyone and he was on the Bat’s good side. It didn’t explain the movie. And the date on the card...it was before. It had been from before Jason had made the agreement, when he was still-

He didn’t want to think about this stupid shit.

But Bruce had thought about him apparently. He...he missed him.

It was ridiculous. It wasn’t true.

Jason had to resist the urge to go dig that stupid card out of his dresser and try to parse out the words again.

“God damnit!” He slammed his hands against the edge of the sink.

He wasn’t supposed to care about this crap anymore. He didn’t. He didn’t care.

Jason didn’t care and he was going to stop thinking about it.

......God he was going to need a shit ton of coffee to make it through the day.