The diner is selected at random for proximity, but it isn’t half bad. Smells like grease and ketchup and burnt coffee. Waitress called Jason hun.
Replacement sits in the booth across from him, going over mission details on some fancy phone that looks too big for his little hand. He has the other hand resting on the top of a burger, but it’s been there for maybe ten minutes already. Jason’s pretty sure the kid had meant to feed himself and forgotten halfway through the movement.
Tim’s body jars when Jason kicks him under the table.
He meets Jason’s eyes with a scowl that lacks any real feelings.
Jason smirks back. “Food’s gettin’ cold.”
The scowl shifts into something. Looks like confusion. “Why do you care?”
“Eh. Burger deserves better. Show some respect, kid. I stuck my neck out for you.”
Tim has the audacity to laugh. His eyes fall back to his phone, scrolling with his thumb. He grabs a fry, though. “We teamed up for intel we both needed on a mission that isn’t even classified. You didn’t stick out shit.” Tim pokes the fry into his face and adds, “You’re right about the burger, though. I’ll finish it in a second.”
Jason doesn’t bother pointing out that Tim hasn’t even started it yet, so finishing in a second would be gross.
Truth is, Jason kind of likes this.
The easiness. The snark.
The weird emptiness around Tim that Jason’s clued into being the absence of judgement.
Tim doesn’t step around Jason like he’s fielding landmines and he laughs at Jason’s jokes instead of flinching. Which Jason finds interesting, given that he’s definitely tried to kill the kid a couple times.
It’s weird, but it’s nice. Nice weird.
The next fry Tim pokes into his mouth, he kind of slurps it bit by bit like a fucking guinea pig consuming hay, and Jason nearly chokes on his soda.
Tim looks up, fry halfway out of his mouth. He looks confused again, like he doesn’t get why Jason seems to be smothering laughter, but he smiles a little anyway. Kid looks kind of exhausted, honestly. Looks back down with that confused little smile and keeps nibbling down his fry.
Jason’s phone buzzes. It catches him off guard. People don’t just call.
He’s so distracted trying to grab it without smearing mustard on the screen that he just kind of answers on muscle memory without checking the ID.
“Little wing.” Dick’s voice is a mix of baffled and pleased. “Hello.”
“Don’t hang up!”
Tim has his eyes on Jason, peering over a half-raised mug.
Dick continues in a rush. “I’m just calling to talk about the information you sent a few minutes ago. For the project you were working on?”
Jason frowns. He definitely didn’t send anything. If the bats got something, Tim was the one who shared it.
“It’s not a big deal, exactly,” Dick says. “There’s just…in the chart? It looks like some of the numbers got flipped or maybe mistyped? Easily fixed, but I’m gonna need you to be the one to do it. Otherwise, I’m just guessing.”
“What, you’re assigning me homework?” Jason steals a fry off Tim’s plate and chews it, rolling his eyes. “Get Replacement to fix it. It was his fuckin’ screw-up.”
A beat of silence. “Tim?”
“Who else? Y’know, I’m gettin’ real fuckin’ tired of getting caught in the middle of this shit. I didn’t sign up to talk to you.”
When Jason’s eyes slide back across the table, Tim’s face is ashen.
“I hadn’t realized he was focusing on that,” Dick mumbles. “Have you been…working together?”
“Just fucking call someone who’s not me.”
Jason hangs up.
“Okay,” Jason says, shifting in his seat. “What’s with the face?”
“You told Dick the chart was my screw up?”
“Yeah? So?” Jason says.
“It wasn’t, though.” Tim looks to the side, his brow knit. “You managed the chart.”
“I didn’t send it along.”
“Yes, but…” Tim’s eyes dart. “You made it sound like…it was implied that the chart itself was my mistake. I could have checked your work before sending it and I didn’t, but that’s different from being the one to…”
“Yikes. Chill, would you?” Jason leans back in the booth. “It’s a couple shitty numbers. No one cares. Better you than me. I’ve already exceeded my fuck-up quota.”
There’s a silence. “Did you blame me on purpose?”
“Huh?” Jason stares at him. “Why does it matter?”
“It…” Tim’s eyes dart back and forth. “They don’t…I didn’t make the mistake.”
Irritation makes Jason’s neck prickle. He throws a hand up. “Then call ‘em back! Set the record straight! Remind ‘em you’re perfect! I don’t give a crap.”
“I…what?” Tim looks horrified. “No. I can’t.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Because. If I tell them it wasn’t me, they’ll say it doesn’t really matter.”
“So? That’s a good thing!”
“No. It’s not. Because it does matter. But if I say something, then they’ll say it doesn’t and what that really means is it’s weird I cared that much.”
“It is definitely weird you care this much.”
Tim’s face suddenly relaxes marginally, a hopeful look in his eye. “You could call back and set the record straight.”
“Or just maybe find a way to mention it naturally next time you talk to Dick?”
Jason plunks his elbows on the table, leaning his face in his hands. “Jesus Christ, kid. What the hell is wrong with you? It is just a fucking chart.”
“Then WHY didn’t you tell the TRUTH about it?!”
The diner’s buzz of noise dies down a bit briefly in response to Tim’s raised voice.
A waitress walks toward them with a stern look.
Tim stands abruptly, rattling the silverware on the table.
He drops a couple twenties and grabs Jason’s arm, and Jason has enough self control not to put Tim through a window. Tim leads him out of the diner, past the waitress, out the door, down the sidewalk, through the empty alley to where Jason parked the car.
Tim whirls on him. But his eyes aren’t really angry. They’re wide and wild, like an animal’s.
“I helped you today,” Tim says. “You needed data about which people were visiting those particular libraries on Tuesdays and my help cut the time it would’ve taken you to collect it alone in thirds. You owe me!”
Jason feels his hair stand on end. His voice is a scoff. “Leave it to one of you to decide I owe you shit!” He steps into Tim’s space. “That was a mutual partnership! You said it yourself!”
“It wasn’t mutual if you screwed your part up!”
“It was a couple numbers! It doesn’t matter!”
“It mattered enough for you to tell someone you claim not to care about that it wasn’t you who did it.”
“I DON’T WANNA HEAR THAT FROM YOU!”
“Why?!” Tim is up in his face. “Why do you get to pick what gets heard?! I didn’t mess up the chart! And even if I did, it would still be better if they thought it was you. You kill people and they still get excited when you pick up the phone!”
Jason grips Tim’s shoulder, moving him out of his space with purposeful care.
“Shut up,” Jason says, his voice coming out cold to his own ears. His hands hang at his sides. “Me, what I do, is none of your fucking business. And if having panic attacks about people thinking you make typos on charts is the worst thing in your life, then pardon me for not feeling sorry for you at all. Whatever this is,” Jason takes a step back, “is not my fucking problem. Go cry to Dick about it or something.”
Honestly, Jason expects another outburst.
It’s where the tension was leading.
But when he looks up, Tim actually does look like he’s about to cry.
It catches Jason by surprise.
And then the look’s gone, and Tim’s face is carefully blank. His mouth a tight line.
He turns and walks out of the alley.
Jason watches him go, watches Tim’s shoulders tight around his ears until he’s out of sight.
There’s a sour feeling in Jason’s stomach. Something vaguely like guilt, but more seething than guilt, because he feels like he just got tricked into being someone’s bad guy. And it’s not an unfamiliar feeling.
Jason feels stupid, for letting his guard down. For kind of actually enjoying the easiness of working with Tim. For suggesting the diner when Tim’s stomach started to grumble. He should’ve just said goodbye.
But then, as Jason’s starting the car and the anger is dying down, his brain rehashes their little argument a few more times, and Jason finds himself frowning for different reasons than before.
Cuz, okay, yeah, the idea that having a panic attack over people thinking you make typos on charts did seem like something to scoff at when Jason said it, but hearing the words roll around in his head a few more times, it’s making Jason uneasy.
What did Tim mean by that, exactly? When he said even if Tim had been the one to make the mistake, it would’ve been better for Jason to be blamed? In his anger, Jason had heard it as a statement that Jason mattered so little, trashing him extra wasn’t gonna do anything, but as little Jason can claim to know Tim, now that he’s calm, he can admit that doesn’t sound like Tim at all.
So what did Tim mean by that? When he said it would be better for Jason to be blamed because they still got excited when he called even after he’d killed people?
Does Tim think they’ll be angrier at Tim for fucking up a stupid chart than they would be at a murderer?
It’s such a dumb fucking thought.
But a chill runs up and down Jason’s whole body.
It occurs to him how off that whole actual conversation was. Yeah. There’s something really off about this.
There was something off about how Dick reacted when he found out Tim had sent the information instead of Jason. Like…
And Jason doesn’t exactly want to care, but he kind of does care.
The sun is setting. The sky is orange and growing dark.
Jason keeps thinking about the scared-animal look in Tim’s eyes.
Fuck. Why did Dick call Jason when Tim was the one who sent the info?
Why was Tim so fucking scared of Dick thinking he’d messed up?
The sound is so loud and sudden, that at first Jason’s mind reads it as thunder. Very close thunder.
But then he registers the screeching and the sound of crunching metal, and he recognizes: vehicular collision.
It’s not on his street, but it’s close.
Split seconds pass and more booming thunder sounds.
Shit. It’s still happening.
A spike of adrenaline runs all the way through Jason’s hands. In the span of moments the air goes deadly silent and Jason can see smoke up ahead.
He jerks his car to the nearest turn-off before every alternate route can become clogged with drivers attempting to bypass the new source of traffic.
The air has filled with the sounds of distant shouts and horns honked by drivers who haven’t realized people definitely just died. Jason is already parked and pulling his helmet over his face in the backseat.
The road’s busy enough that at least a dozen onlookers have already flooded the emergency line with calls. First responders will be on their way and along with them, given the setting sun, maybe even a couple bats. But until then, on foot, Jason’s about one minute from the source of the accident. And there might be kids.
Tim, Jason guesses, is also in the area. But he’s on foot and he’s in civvies.
From what little Jason knows about Tim, though, Jason has this feeling Tim might come help in his t-shirt and jeans. In fact, Jason kind of knows that he will.
Jason gets there and it’s bad.
It’s worse than bad. Of course it is. There’s a whole city bus that seems to bear the brunt of the accident. It lays on it’s side, wheels in the air, twisted around the column of an overpass. Several cars took damage around it, either hit by it or hit by other things in an attempt to avoid it. The bus, though, is on fire.
People scramble out a crushed door, bloody and shrieking and some clawing at each other on the way out. People are jumping out of their cars to pull other people out. The way the thing’s twisted, some passengers are probably trapped.
And Jason’s used to carnage.
He’s seen violence. Experienced it. Caused it.
But it’s different seeing grizzly shit in places like old warehouses and back alleys among thugs. Here in the open, it’s jarring. The people in Gotham are tough, but no one’s ready for this kind of trauma.
Jason’s headed for a window with the edge of a stroller in view when a man with a bloody cut on his forehead tugs at his arm and begs him to help somewhere in a different direction.
Jason shrugs him off. Tells him to wait his turn. Can’t let himself be pulled in different directions like that. Gotta prioritize and stick to it or he won’t help anyone. People are going to die today. People already have died today. Jason can’t save all of them.
But he gets two tiny kids out of the double stroller through the bus window and their mom’s okay enough to sit in the grass and hold them.
Jason moves down the list.
Feels nausea roll through him when he pulls out his first body.
There’s sirens in the air.
Someone finally yells about the fire and how the bus could explode and that they’re all risking their lives and a number of the people helping stop helping, but most of them don’t. There’s still the voices of kids coming from inside.
Jason steps over bodies inside the smoke-fogged carriage, climbing around debris and dislodged seats to reach for live passengers and pass them to the people gathered behind him with arms out. It’s all smoky inside now and the air is filled with the sounds of labored breathing and coughing among everything else. But he’s got a helmet.
There’s so many people.
It’s rush hour on a weekday in Gotham.
This bus would’ve been packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
Jason imagines all the passengers holding onto each other, cushioning themselves in each others arms, saving themselves from the crash with their numbers. A human net of safety. The fantasy is wreathed in light.
“That’s it! That’s all!” someone says behind him. There’s a tug on his arm. Coughing. “That’s everyone! Time to get out!”
Jason, near the back of the bus, agrees the woman tugging his arm doesn’t seem to be wrong. One look at the bodies remaining flopped around the carriage and Jason has no illusions about finding a heartbeat among them. There’s visible flames licking slowly up some of the front seats. The bus is an oven.
“Go,” Jason says.
The woman is already going, along with the others who came to help.
Sirens wail. First responders should be here in minutes.
Jason ducks to the next body, feeling for life, looking for something to be saved.
He’s got no illusions.
But fuck if he isn’t gonna check every single one.
Some of these are kids.
He’s got a helmet.
There’s a body curled in a seat toward the back, motionless, with blood pooled around it.
The t-shirt is the same striped one Tim was wearing this afternoon.
Jason crouches awkwardly over it, one knee in the blood, reaching for a pulse.
It is Tim.
Nausea rolls through Jason in quick, forceful waves.
He squeezes his eyes shut and counts back from four.
God. God. God. God.
Jason looks down at the lifeless face, reaching out on reflex, brushing shaking fingers over a colorless cheek.
Tim’s eyes open and Jason nearly shouts.
“Shit! Oh, shit!” Jason says, jerking his hand back. He immediately touches Tim’s face again. “Hey. Hey. You’re okay.”
Tim’s eyes have that glazed look that comes from a certain amount of blood loss, but he’s looking right at Jason and there’s awareness in his eyes.
Shit. And the kid’s barely moving. Doesn’t even look like he’s breathing, but then Jason realizes abruptly that it’s on purpose. The kid’s controlling his breathing, keeping it steady under the smoke. And—
“Please,” Tim says, hoarse. His body seems to strain around the word. “Please! You need to…He needs…” Tim’s head lolls and Jason realizes it’s meant as a gesture. Down. “The smoke…”
And that’s when Jason sees it.
Under the protection of Tim’s curled leg and arms.
A toddler out cold against Tim’s chest.
And a bent metal bar sticking out of Tim’s stomach.
“D-Driver started seizing behind the wheel,” Tim babbles. His breaths are wet and wheezing. “I saw. I saw it coming…but, no time. I couldn’t…No…time…”
Tim half-sobs, half-coughs, and blood dribbles down his chin. His eyes shut and a high whine escapes through his teeth.
“Hey,” Jason says. He takes the toddler, feeling the tiny heartbeat hammer against his hands through its ribs. The tiny child’s clothes are wet with Tim’s blood. Jason’s voice shakes through the modulator. “Hey, you protected the little guy, right? You did good. You did real good.”
When Tim opens his eyes he’s crying.
Jason feels sick.
“I’m gonna get him outta here,” Jason says. “I’m gonna get him safe. Don’t you move.”
The toddler’s breaths are strained, probably from the smoke. Jason wonders absently if the little guy passed out with the crash or if it was the lack of good air that did it.
He gets out into the dusk and hands the kid off to a bystander, yelling short instructions about smoke inhalation and the paramedics who just got here.
And Jason should probably add something about sending the firefighters with their tools for cutting people out of badly warped vehicles. The mix of different sirens tells him everyone’s here now. Tim’s gonna need the help. But Jason’s focused on the fire that abruptly climbs the length of the bus in a few lightning seconds. He’s busy running.
Flinging himself inside past shouts.
Dodging around debris and corpses.
Clearing flames before they can engulf the space between him and the back of the bus and running. RUNNING! As the bus groans and gives with the heat and a shower of debris and bus seats and warped metal and glass rain down across the space in the span of a heartbeat.
Jason crouches over Tim, using his back as a shield. He pulls Tim’s knees tighter just in time to keep his feet from catching fire.
Tim screams from the movement.
Jason’s bracing his arms, grunting through pain and effort as heavy, burning rubble hits his body.
The noise is louder than the feeling of it. The whole damn vehicle sounds like it’s being put through the disposal. And Jason expects worse, honestly, but it stops.
It’s darker around them.
The space is more confined.
Jason realizes that in a good and also horrible chain of events, some of the seats and siding from the other side of the bus collapsed down on them in such a way that they have been blocked off from the fire’s path.
They have also been blocked off from an exit.
A couple cautious prods and Jason has both surmised that the debris over them is unstable and that he is not physically capable of moving it in his own strength.
Tim is staring up at Jason with wide eyes.
“Th’ b-baby?” Tim gasps.
Jason swallows. “He’s out. He’s safe.” A hand on Tim’s hair. “Don’t talk.”
The bar in Tim’s stomach goes all the way through.
It’s attached to the frame of the seat he’s in, bolted to the bus floor. Jason feels around it for weakness, but it’s not going anywhere. Tim is literally pinned to the bus. Pinned like a bug to a board.
Every breath he takes seems painful.
Jason is ripping off cloth from his own shirt and trying to stabilize Tim’s body around the rod.
Tim makes soft, hoarse noises of pain. His eyes stay glued to Jason like a lifeline. The look of relief about the toddler is replaced by something like confusion and something like fear.
“Just breathe,” Jason says. “Let me think.”
Tim lifts a shaking hand. He presses a palm to the center of Jason’s chest with a lack of strength Jason tries not to think about.
“Need to go,” Tim says. “You n-need to…get out.”
“Fuck, I would if I could.” Jason chuckles unsteadily. “Gonna have to be patient here, baby-bird. Looks like you and I are trapped for now.”
“Oh. God.” Tim’s face crumples. He’s too pale. Jason can tell even in the dimness. “I’m so s-sorry…”
“Hey. Hey. Easy. Don’t talk, remember?”
But it’s too late. Tim’s apology turns into a sob with turns into another cough, which ends in more blood streaming down his chin and more restrained whines of pain.
“Shit. Shit,” Jason says, holding the side of Tim’s head uselessly. The scraps of shirt are already soaked through with blood.
Tim’s eyes close as he seems to try to regulate himself. Every breath he drags in is a broken wheeze. The smoke’s gonna kill Tim before the flames or the metal in his gut can.
Jason’s movements are limited in the confined space, but he manages to get the helmet off and makes short work of pulling out the respirator and fitting it around Tim’s face.
God, the air is thick. It’s fucking suffocating. Smoke and burning fabric and smells Jason doesn’t wanna think about. Cannot let himself think about.
“You’ll be okay, kid,” says Jason. “You’ve survived worse.”
Tim flinches his face away and hits Jason’s chest. “Why did you come back?!”
He’s got that scared animal look. He looks macabre, face ashen and smudged, respirator coiled over his nose and mouth like a spider, sweaty hair in his eyes.
His chest is heaving under his bloody t-shirt.
“Why did…?” Jason blinks. “What?”
Tim hits him again, more like a shove, with a weak, loose-knuckled fist. “You’ll die,” Tim says, tears streaming down his face. “We’re stuck. Cuz I…”
Oh my god.
Oh my fucking god.
“Y-You,” Tim gasps, “shouldn’t have…”
“Shh,” Jason says. He pushes the damp hair away from Tim’s face. “Hey. No one’s gonna die. Trust me. Heh. I know all about dying.”
Tim is, like, the one person Jason can usually count on to laugh at that kind of joke.
This time, though, doesn’t have that effect.
Tim’s hands tremble, but they grip what’s left of the front of Jason’s shirt with surprising strength. Crying abruptly wracks his body.
Kid looks fucking devastated.
And he’s also moving way too much.
“Okay, okay,” Jason says, holding Tim’s hands in one of his own. “No more joking. Serious talk now. W-We’re okay, kid. We’re okay. We’re just a little trapped, but the fire department’s here. They’re gonna cut us out of here real soon. So why don’t we do like we normally do and just stay calm, yeah? We can stay calm. We do this all the time. No sweat. Good. Calm. Calm breaths.”
Tim’s fingers wrap slightly around Jason’s hand. He breathes.
Both Tim’s hands are just…latched like that, in Jason’s one singular hand.
The kid is seriously just a kid.
“I got…” Tim mutters, “stabbed by something. I think. M’ stomach really hurts.”
“Y-yeah, kid.” Jason can’t do this. “You’re doing good, though. Just need to stay cool and wait for paramedics. Hospital’s gonna fix you right up.”
“Are you okay?” Tim says. He looks so fucking scared.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m all good. Got off easy.” Jason’s currently breathing smoke and he’s pretty sure he’s sustained some minor to moderate burns, but he doesn’t think Tim can handle that information right now.
Tim gritting his teeth together is just visible past the respirator, and it kinda looks like this weird little smile.
“This is…is so crazy,” Tim says. His eyes roll a little into his blinks. “We do this all th’ time. We don’t…This isn’t even the craziest thing to happen.”
Tim’s eyes brighten suddenly and his body quakes with laughter. It cuts off with a strangled scream. Jason shushes him, petting his hair desperately and holding Tim’s shoulder down as Tim coughs and drags in pained gasps. Blood trails from under the respirator.
“Fuck! Easy! You got a bar through your stomach!” Jason says.
Tim looks at Jason with damp eyes and mutters, “I…do?”
But Tim takes it in stride. He swallows.
“Oh. Right,” Tim says. “I…That’s not even the firs’ time that’s happened this year.”
That doesn’t exactly shock Jason. Vigilantes’ lives don’t tend to be pretty.
But then Tim says, “Maybe it jus’ wen’ straight through where my…where my spleen used to be and it’s just…it’s all good.”
“Used to be? Where’s your fuckin’ spleen, kid?”
“It’s a…humans can live without that one.”
Jason’s jaw feels tight. His mouth is open, panting smoke so he doesn’t smell stuff. God, where are the people who’re supposed to be rescuing them?
The fire must be bad. Shit’s not stable. The thing really might explode. They’re probably doing this carefully, putting out flames before bringing out saws that’ll just cause more sparks. Fuck. Fuck!
The structure around them groans and the seats and metal that are boxing Jason in suddenly shift, collapsing down on him, pelting his back and legs. Jason locks his arms, refuses to collapse with it, but something hard smacks his head. He forgets not to breathe through his nose.
The smell of hot blood.
And Tim looks like a corpse. Just laying there. Bloodied.
Jason’s outside his body.
To a corpse and a warehouse and burning and the smell of…
Heart thudding in his skull.
Jason thinks he gags.
“Shh shh shhhh.”
Jason blinks again.
A shaking hand has migrated to the side of Jason’s face.
The sound of burning is laced with breathless, off-key, fragmented song.
Jason’s eyes are stinging and wet.
His throat burns.
Tim stares up at him, his eyes soft. His thumb smears the wetness from Jason’s cheek. He’s so pale.
He’s singing twinkle-twinkle-little-star.
It looks slow motion and fake.
Jason gapes and works his mouth.
He cannot breathe.
Tim stops singing.
“Shh,” Tim says, sounding far off. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
It’s not okay. Jason feels like he’s dying.
“I’ve got you, Jay,” Tim whispers. “You’re g-going to be okay.”
Jason’s head is pounding.
His breath hiccups. It fucking hurts!
Tim is humming the song again.
Jason’s leaning into the hand on his face.
Jason’s grounding himself with it and the sound of Tim’s voice. He’s leaning his forehead into Tim’s shoulder and gulping in panicked choking sounds until his ribs finally shudder and breathe.
Breathing makes it worse.
It hurts. The air’s bad. He coughs and each cough pulls in more bad air.
Tim’s rubbing the back of his head now. Telling him he’s doing a good job.
It feels so fucking nice.
Jason sees spots.
“Jay, it’s okay,” Tim says, stroking his hair.
Tim’s breaths are loud.
Jason grinds his forehead into Tim’s shoulder and follows the sound of Tim’s inhales and exhales.
It makes him cough.
Tim strokes the back of is head.
Slowly, painstakingly, Jason regains control of his lungs.
Oh god oh god.
How much time did he just lose?
It hits him that he no longer hears Tim and the sensation of having his hair stroked is gone.
Tim’s eyes are half-lidded, staring at nothing.
“Fuck,” Jason mouths.
He feels for a pulse.
Tim’s eyelids flicker at the touch.
A shiver runs through Jason.
He rubs Tim’s cheek.
Smears the fresh blood on his chin by accident.
The kid’s not gonna make it, he admits to himself. Not like this. Jason knows enough about bodily trauma and where it’s okay and not okay to have a foreign object shoved through you, and despite Tim’s hopes, the metal rod is definitely not just, “through where his spleen used to be,” and, therefore, “all cool.”
The blood coming out of Tim’s mouth alone is a bad, bad sign.
It’s a clock. Counting down from some unknown time limit. And at the end of it, Tim dies.
“M’ mom’s,” Tim slurs softly, “gon’ be so mad.”
Jason is almost certain this kid has no living family.
“Now she gotta…come home ‘r,” Tim continues, “they look like…bad par’nts…”
“Don’t talk,” Jason says, voice a rasp.
Tim’s eyes crack open a little more, rolling back into each sluggish blink. But he’s trying to look at Jason.
“Kid…” Jason says.
“W’ll you stay w’th me?” Tim says. “M’ mom ’n’ dad ‘re gonna be awhile. Don’ wanna be alone f’r this.”
“Hey. Easy. You won’t be alone for anything, kiddo. I guarantee. The second Bruce hears about this, he’s gonna be by your side so fast. You won’t be able to get rid of him.”
Jason cradles an arm behind Tim’s head.
“I…” Tim mutters. “Um…Br’ce…takes a while too s’metimes…”
When Jason glances back at Tim’s face, fresh tears are tracking down his cheeks.
Jason feels something deep within him break.
“God, kid. I am so sorry,” Jason says.
He curls his other arm carefully under Tim’s legs. Tim groans.
“Calm breaths.” Jason’s telling himself more than Tim. “Calm breaths.”
“C’n you stay, pl’se?” Tim says. His eyes roll up to Jason, wet and pleading. “Jay?”
“I’m staying.” Jason swallows thickly. “I’m right here, Tim. I ain’t going anywhere.”
He grips Tim tighter.
Jason breathes calm.
He gets his knees properly under him. Eyes fixed on the pocket of light through the rubble created by the most recent collapse.
He rises, as straight upward as he can, bringing Tim with him.
Jason slides his body up and off the bar before he can thrash around it.
The noises Tim makes are loud and terrifying and guttural.
Jason has him in his lap, hugging Tim’s top half to his chest to keep Tim from writhing into something sharp, pushing pressure into wounded flesh with his grip. Jason feels hot blood running onto his arms and seeping into his front.
And he’s crawling, kid awkwardly held beneath him, half in his lap still, half being dragged.
The sting in Jason’s eyes and his lungs in overwhelming. It feels like the smoke is flowing in and out of him from everywhere, leaking through a cracked domino. He’s so covered in sweat and other fluids that it’s hard to keep a grip on Tim.
Tim’s noises have turned to weak, breathy cries. Kid’s losing steam fast, but his body’s keeping him awake. Shit. Shit!
The opening Jason aimed for is too small for the both of them. Or even just one of them. Jason has to dig them out. His hands burn where they grip metal and he ignores it. Pushes through, scrapes through, shoves through with one hand cradling Tim’s head beneath him to keep it from getting hit as more debris rains down on them from the shift.
And then they’re out. Jason can barely breathe, but they’re out of the rubble and there’s a fucking window. Warped already. Jason makes quick work of kicking it the rest of the way to the gaping hole it needs to be. And then he’s got Tim, floppy and silent, hugged tight as he stumbles on his knees out the back of the bus.
Jason sinks to the asphalt with Tim in his arms and drags in desperate breaths.
The kid is flopped against his shoulder, white as paper, fresh blood down his chin. He’s not breathing.
Thick firefighter gloves pull Tim and Jason’s bodies away from each other. Drag Jason from the blazing bus.
Jason’s fighting it, yelling for the kid, but he can’t get the words out. His chest hurts. It hurts. Fuck!
He’s laying on the ground. Soft with grass. A rubber mask pumps oxygen to his airways. Tears and sweat burn beneath his domino. He’s struggling under a single hand on his chest, but he’s weak.
“Kid,” he says. “Kid!”
There’s the signature roar of a helicopter’s wings.
“They’re taking him to the hospital,” a voice says above him. “You need to hold still.”
Jason bats the hand off his chest and the one that tries for his shoulder as he sits. His blurring vision zeros in on the man in the EMT uniform beside him.
“Where is he?” Jason chokes.
The EMT points to the helicopter. “He’s on his way to the hospital. You have a concussion, sir. You need to lay d—“
“He’s got no fuckin’ spleen!” Jason says, and the EMT looks thrown off.
“His spleen? Just now?”
“Wh—” Jason swerves a little, catches himself with a palm to the ground. “Past injury. He told me on the bus.”
The EMT’s eyes widen. He nods. “Gotcha.”
“Call ‘em up and tell ‘em,” says Jason.
The EMT is already digging out a phone.
Jason somehow makes it to his feet.
He’s loping away, disappearing through the chaos before anyone can notice and stop him.
His heart is pounding.
He can’t drive like this, but he makes it behind a dumpster behind a closed cafe and vomits in privacy. His knees are on the ground, forehead pressed to brick, body heaving breaths and lunch.
His lap beneath him is saturated with Tim’s blood.
He starts to shake uncontrollably.
He can’t seem to pull in enough air.
It’s the concussion.
It’s the damage from the smoke.
It’s the look on Tim’s face when Jason suggested the diner instead of just saying goodbye.
Jason makes it to a safe house. Makes it through the door and to the closet. To the oxygen. To the first aid box under the bathroom sink.
And he stays there. Laying in the tub, half-dressed, smelling like burn cream, curled around an oxygen mask.
He wakes up and stitches his head in the bathroom mirror.
He sleeps again. A good fourteen hours. On the hallway floor this time.
He opens his eyes to afternoon light.
He feels like shit.
His whole body screams at him for standing, but he’s gotta eat something or he’s gonna die.
Cold canned ravioli is surprisingly pleasant on his scratchy throat. The tomato’s kinda a bitch, though.
Jason finishes off a pack of chocolate pudding to soothe the sting and catches his reflection in the microwave door.
A shower happens immediately after.
Jason’s suddenly very aware of the bloody handprints on the back and sides of his neck from Tim stroking his hair and he needs them right the fuck off.
He scrubs his skin under water that isn’t hot yet, clawing off clothes he didn’t take time to shed first, twinkle-twinkle-little-star echoing off the insides of his skull.
Blood pools around his feet and continues to run down the drain for what feels like a very long time.
He ends up on the couch. This safe house doesn’t have anything closer to a bed. He’s in fresh clothes. His skin and his hair are clean, wounds treated.
He breathes oxygen through the mask and watches the quality of light change against the wall as the sun slowly makes its way across the sky and sets.
He’s in that warehouse again. Hurting. Dying. But he knows Bruce is coming for him.
Jason doesn’t know shit about Tim.
But he knows when he looked down as Tim died and told Tim Bruce would come for him when he heard, Tim didn’t believe him.
Jason keeps thinking about this one time, when things had been bad with Mom for a while already, but then just one afternoon she made him a grilled cheese on the stove and she ate one with him.
It’s been years since Jason thought about that.
He doesn’t know why he’s thinking about it now.
He doesn’t know why it happened, or why it never happened again after that.
But he knows that he loved it. He felt a mile tall. Plenty of kids, he thinks, probably don’t even fucking notice when their mom cooks for them. When she stays and eats at the same time. Jason sure as fuck never cared before things got bad. Before she stopped.
But this one time might be Jason’s favorite memory with her.
He was so starved for love in those last days, she probably could’ve done anything to acknowledge his existence, and Jason would’ve treasured it as sacred.
The kid is probably dead.
Killed by a trip to a diner that put him on that specific bus at that specific time. An argument that hurt him enough to make him choose public transportation over the ride home Jason was supposed to give.
Jason will live the rest of his life knowing that.
Jason will live knowing Tim’s last words were for Jason to stay.
A week passes.
Jason doesn’t leave the safe house.
Days in, a headline on his phone lets him know that Tim didn’t die. He’s hurt bad, but he made it through surgery and several days of complications and he’s stable. He’s recovering. His family is with him, which Jason assumes means Bruce and the rest of them, even though Jason’s pretty sure Tim’s not related to anyone biologically or legally anymore.
Jason doesn’t cry when he reads the news. He doesn’t really feel anything. Just nausea. He dry-heaves in the sink a few times and then that’s it.
He spends a second week in the safe house.
Jason wakes up one afternoon and he’s not alone.
Dick sits on the arm rest of the couch.
Jason blinks up at him.
Dick’s in civvies. Casual. Nice, but rumpled, like they’ve been slept in. He smiles and his smile looks tired.
“The fuck are you doing here?” Jason says, sitting.
“Haven’t seen you in a while.” Dick gives a little shrug. “Wanted to make sure you were okay. You haven’t been answering your phone.”
“That’s on purpose.”
“Red Hood was on the news, you know? Evacuated a whole bus full of people after a crash. Managed to get Tim Drake-Wayne out right before the thing exploded. There’s video circulating. It’s pretty amazing.”
Jason feels a glare settle over his face.
Something’s burning in his stomach.
“You did good, Jay,” Dick says. His eyes are on his knees. “He’s going to be okay.”
“I showed up for the kids. He was just there.”
“We’re grateful you showed up.”
“I put him on that bus.”
Jason’s hand clenches over his thigh. “After you called. I got pissed and I made the kid so fuckin’ sad he picked public transportation over a ride home with me. That’s why he was on the bus.”
Slowly, Dick’s posture seems to melt. The look in his eyes sets Jason on edge.
“It’s a random chain of events. You didn’t cause the crash,” Dick says. And his voice is too soft. It’s too kind. “Jay, you risked your life running back onto that bus to save Tim. You both almost died. You know that, right? He definitely would have if you hadn’t gone back for him. If you’re looking for forgiveness for what happened before the crash, I think you’ve probably earned it.”
Jason stands. “I’m not asking for forgiveness! I’m telling you to keep your goddamn praise!”
Dick’s hands are up. “I’m not trying to praise you. I’m grateful…”
“What the fuck for? The kid’s in the hospital! What the fuck are you doing here? What gives you the right to forgive shit?!”
Dick stands slowly. The tiredness in his face seems deeper. “It wasn’t your fault, Jason.”
“Who the fuck cares?!” Jason steps into his space. “The kid had a bar ripped outta his stomach! Who the fuck cares if it’s rational? You should be pissed! You should be pissed outta your fucking mind! Fuck! Dick! I ain’t the one who needs your fucking kindness!”
The air goes silent.
The only sound in the room is Jason’s breaths.
Dick’s whole face is wan. His arms hang limp at his sides.
Several long seconds crawl by.
Two dewey tears drip down Dick’s cheeks with one of his blinks.
Dick bats them away, glaze lowering, and mutters quietly, “I know that.”
Jason swallows. The fight feels like it’s bled right out of him and onto the floor.
“Dick,” he says. “He didn’t fuck up the chart. I did.”
Dick sniffles. He meets Jason’s eyes.
“Why was he so scared,” Jason says, “about being blamed for a fucking typo?”
Dick’s eyes widen into something that looks like horror.
He’s fighting back more tears.
It makes heat rise up in Jason’s insides again.
“Forget it,” Jason says.
“Shut up.” Jason takes a step back. “I don’t want to hear it. Whatever stupid explanation for how you’ve been treating that kid to make him like that. It’s not good enough. You know it. Do better.”
“I never meant to…”
“I don’t care.”
Dick bites his lip. He nods.
“It’s a sad, shitty day,” Jason says, “when I have to tell you to do better at this stuff.”
Dick’s laugh is flat. “Yeah. Well. You’d be better at it if you wanted to be.”
It sounds like a dig. Dick doesn’t say it like one, though. And Jason’s throat is tired of yelling.
“He’s been asking for you,” Dick says.
Jason’s hands twitch.
Dick sinks to the couch. Rubs a hand down his face.
Jason stares at him.
“Sorry,” Dick says. “Guess I could’ve led with that. I wasn’t trying to keep it from you. I just…didn’t want it to come off like I was pressuring you. To be there with us.”
He steps to the opposite end of the couch and takes a seat.
“So Bruce is really there with him?” says Jason.
“Yeah,” says Dick. His smile is strained. “Won’t leave his side. There were a lot of complications, Little Wing.”
He leans forward a little, hugging his arms.
“He’s gonna be okay,” Dick says.
The sun’s gonna start going down soon. It’s that blindingly bright it gets right before that happens.
“He’s really been asking for me?” Jason says.
“Yeah.” Dick gives him an odd look. “Actually…since he started waking up more coherent, he’s been trying to send the rest of us home. He might do the same with you. But you’re the only person he’s asked for.”
The thought of being asked for just to be sent away by Tim makes Jason feel irrationally hurt.
Of course Tim’s asking for him. The last thing Tim did before passing out in agony was get Jason’s word that he wouldn’t leave him. And then Jason had promptly left. Jason owes him a visit. Owes Tim an opportunity to tell him to fuck off in person. If that’s what Tim wants.
Jason runs a hand through greasy hair.
“I’ll get a shower,” he says.
The hospital smells like antiseptic. Sneaker soles squeak against linoleum floors. The lights are fluorescent and make that dull but ever-present buzz.
It’s distinctly uncomfortable.
Bruce is sitting in the hall outside Tim’s room flipping through a magazine.
Jason’s going to ask what the fuck is going on, but he’s distracted by how shocked Dick looks.
“Why aren’t you with him?” Dick says, coming to stand close in front of Bruce like their words are private.
Bruce’s eyes dart to Jason only once as he explains, “He realized he could tell the nurse to send me out. He’s an emancipated minor. I have no right to stay.”
Dick looks concerned.
Bruce looks like death warmed over.
If Jason thought Dick looked tired, Bruce is the equivalent but without the hard-earned life lesson that if you don’t take good enough care of yourself, you can’t take care of other people. He looks like he hasn’t seen a shower or a razor in days. His clothes are so wrinkled Jason’s surprised Alfred hasn’t intervened out of pure shame.
Of course, with how much Bruce and Dick seem to be staying here, Alfred’s probably got his hands full with the Demon Brat.
“Are all visitors outlawed, or is it just you?” Jason says.
Bruce turns to him. “You’ll have to ask the nurse inside.”
Jason ignores the uneasiness in his every breath and goes through the heavy door to Tim’s recovery room.
A nurse blocks his path.
The room is dim and there are faint sounds woven into mostly silence.
“My name’s Jay,” Jason says. “He asked for me.”
Something changes in the nurse’s face.
She gestures for him to wait where he is and backs away to the hospital bed.
There’s a lump of thin blankets with a mound in the middle. Flashes of deathly pale skin and thin limbs. Tubes and wiring disappearing beneath fabric and into flesh.
Dark hair against a slightly off-white pillow case.
A face Jason can’t look at.
He clenches his hands to hide the immediate bought of tremors.
Oh god this was a mistake.
The nurse approaches Jason. Tells him Tim’s sleeping, but to go ahead and take a seat. Be gentle if he wakes up.
Jason stands on linoleum, feeling adrift.
He finds himself beside the bedside.
Tim’s gaunt face is tilted to the ceiling, his pale mouth parted slightly as he half-breathes through the cannula in his nose. His closed eyes look bruised.
Jason’s never seen the kid so sick.
He saw the kid near death and Tim looks closer to dead now than he did back then.
Jason can see the line jumping up and down from the heart monitor.
Tim’s chest shifts gently through breaths.
Jason reaches under Tim’s jaw for a pulse anyway.
He feels it.
He draws his hand back. He walks around the bed.
Toes off his shoes.
He climbs up. Careful. Positions himself around wires and tubes, still managing to sit against the propped pillows where he can listen to the kid breathe. He leans back.
The first sob catches him off guard.
It’s loud, breaking from his chest convulsively. Jason grips his mouth like a vice, stifling himself. Muffling it as more comes, again and again and again.
Tim looks so drained. Jason’s scared he’s gonna wake him up. But he can’t stop. If he moves to leave, he’ll lose what little control he’s keeping. Before he can come up with a plan, he’s taken over. He buckles forward into his knees with hands over his face like a muzzle and rides it out. Cries so hard he almost pukes.
Cries for a long, long time.
When it’s over, he’s on his side, staring at Tim, who hasn’t stirred at all. Jason’s breathing long, shuddery breaths, sniffling away residual tears and snot. His head feels puffy. He lets his eyes close.
For the first time in two weeks, Jason’s chest feels empty and still.
He wakes up to the feeling of a cold hand over his.
Jason stares down at the pale fingers. The tubes taped to the back of the hand and the hospital band around the wrist.
His eyes migrate to Tim, who is watching him with sunken, half-lidded eyes.
Jason feels something in him loosen.
“Hey,” Jason says.
“You came,” Tim says, his voice quiet and medicated.
Jason shifts his hand, holds Tim’s carefully. “Course I did. You asked for me, right?”
Tim swallows. His fingers tighten against Jason’s.
“I told Dick,” Jason says. “That I fucked up the chart.”
Tim’s expression slowly melts from blank to mortified. “Oh. Oh, I didn’t…You were right. S-Sorry. That was stupid.”
“It wasn’t stupid. I’m the one who’s sorry, kid.” Jason’s eyes ache. He cards his free hand through Tim’s hair, letting out a shuddery breath. “Why don’t you want Bruce and Dick in here?”
“What…?” Tim says.
“Bruce and Dick-face. You sent them out. Do I need to punch somebody?”
“I…” Tim looks puzzled. “No. They’re fine. They just…they don’t wanna be here.”
“They’re in the hall right now.”
“No. It’s not…They don’t wanna be. They just think they have to.”
“Kid, you nearly died.”
“I…I know. But I’m fine now. I’ve got good insurance. They can go home.” Tim’s eyes close, his brow screwing up. “They don’t have to be here. Can you tell them?”
“It’s cool that you think they listen to me of all people.” Jason chuckles at Tim’s exhausted frown. “What about me, huh? I don’t have to be here. You ain’t makin’ me go home.”
His eyes open.
He meets Jason’s gaze. His voice is so quiet. “You wanted to get burgers. After we teamed up.”
Tim’s hand trembles in his.
“Been a while, huh?” Jason says. “Someone wanting to get burgers? Asking you to come?”
The look on Tim’s face says it all.
Jason wants to hit something.
Maybe, when the time is right, he will.
For now, he reaches up and smudges the tear under Tim’s eye.
“Kid,” he says. “I know what it’s like. Being the family fuck-up. Being treated like an outsider by people you want to…to want you.”
“Look,” Jason says. “I don’t know much about this situation, but the difference with me is I actually fucked stuff up. It kinda seems like they just treat you like you do.”
The kid trails off. Looks so fucking puzzled and torn.
He doesn’t know this kid. Not really. But he’s seen enough to understand that Tim points blame inward. That if he actually knew how to blame Bruce or Dick, he probably wouldn’t be working for them anymore. Not if the look on Dick’s face at the safe house was anything to go by.
“What you said,” says Jason, “about me killing people and them still being happy when I pick up the phone?”
“I shouldn’t have said that.”
Jason shakes his head. “They’re happy I pick up because I kill people, kid. That’s why they’re in the hall. It’s not because they have some obligation. It’s because that family forgets to care about people until they think they’re losing them.”
“I ain’t much better,” Jason says. “I’m only here cuz I saw you empaled on a bus.”
Tim’s pinched brow smoothes as Jason rubs his hair. He lets his head loll against Jason’s palm.
“If you care about that,” says Tim, “then it has to be real.”
And he doesn’t say it meanly. It’s almost like being empaled was trivial and Jason caring is what’s special. In that tired, honest voice. It makes something in Jason twist.
Jason scoots a little closer. Tim presses into his arm weakly, eyes shutting, sighing contentedly as Jason continues to rub his forehead with his thumb.
He’s so pale. His face is relaxed enough, but there’s subtle markers Jason knows to look for. He can tell even with all the meds that Tim’s still in a deep amount of pain.
Jason knows rationally that he didn’t actually do this to Tim, but it’s hard not feeling the weight of guilt. Not when he knows this wouldn’t have happened without him.
“It was nice,” Tim mutters. “On the bus.”
Jason smiles a little. “The bus? Where you got empaled?”
“Yeah.” Tim sighs a sleepy breath. “You were with me. You were nice.”
Jason closes his eyes, pursing his lips for a moment.
“You gave me pets…on my face jus’ like this,” Tim says. Jason’s hand stills. “’S nice.”
Tim is fading into sleep.
His little face still pressed to Jason’s hand.
“I’m glad I was there,” Jason whispers.
Tim smiles faintly.
“Mm…” Tim mutters. “Wish you were my brother…Jay…”
Couple breaths later and Tim is asleep.
Jason lets his forehead lean into Tim’s hair.
He understands down in his soul for the first time in his life Bruce’s thing with adopting kids on impulse.
Not that that’ll ever actually be a thing for Jason.
Jason’s dead on paper.
Pretty sure you have to exist to legally adopt kids.