Jason Todd had a lot of things to hate at the moment: Gotham's perennial rain, the hard dense cobblestones in Crime Alley, and criminals who had more friends than he did. He could handle fighting multiple opponents. He'd been trained by the best, after all; then he'd been trained by people who fought dirty. He had no qualms about defending himself, to the death if he had to, but he'd been trying really hard lately not to off anyone on Batman's turf.
"Todd?" A steel-toed green combat boot nudged him in the side, then stepped a careful distance away. Jesus, even that small pressure against his already battered ribs, was murder. "Are you dead again?"
Jason wondered what the kid would do if the answer was yes. Probably give him a swift bruising kick in his possibly broken ribs, or leave his body there to be picked over by Gotham's criminal element and the ever-circling crows. There was a heavy sigh from about three feet away.
"Do you require assistance?" Damian asked.
Jason, with an impressive bout of swearing, rolled onto his back and to a sitting position. He pressed the release mechanism on the hood, leaving him with a red domino and a sweat-soaked head of dark hair.
"No, I fucking don't need assistance."
"I saw you fall."
"Yeah, did you also see me take down fifteen guys before one fucker snuck up behind me, clocked me with a shovel, and shoved me off the goddamn roof?"
"No," the boy said, grinning. "I only saw you fall."
Damian Wayne managed to make Robin look like a scary carnivorous bird instead of a chirpy little sidekick. Maybe it was better that way, Jason thought. It was a whole lot less likely someone would take a crowbar to the kid.
Jason ignored the green gauntleted hand that was thrust in front of him. He wasn't accepting help from an entitled thirteen year old wearing his old colours. Well, Dick's old colours, to be fair. But Jason had made them look good—Dick had just looked like a circus doofus.
"Your ribs are damaged. The way you're breathing indicates—"
"Indicates I got pushed off a fucking roof, kid. Go home. Aren't you a little young to be out on your own? Haven't you heard what happens to little birds who go off by themselves?"
Damian didn't blink. Not that Jason could tell given the flat lenses in the domino. "Who says I'm on my own?"
Jason laughed at that, trying to hide the fact it hurt like a motherfucker. "Because there's no way the old man would let you down here by yourself with me if he was anywhere in the vicinity."
Direct hit. It was all there in the defensive stance. Baby bird had slipped the nest.
"Go home," Jason repeated. He rose to his feet, careful to keep the pain off his face. He didn't need sympathy from a kid who barely came up to his chest. "Or I'll be tempted to shoot you again," he added, grinning.
Damian muttered something in Arabic, but Jason had hung around Talia long enough to recognize the phrase. "Now, now, baby bird. That's not nice. What would your mother say?"
"She would berate me for not having struck you down while you were at a disadvantage."
"Yeah, she probably would," Jason said fondly. As much as Talia had screwed him, literally and figuratively, he couldn't help but admire her. Given the men she'd had in her life, it was a small miracle she'd been able to care for anyone at all. She didn't always show her emotions in reasonable ways, but at least she still had them. More than Jason could say for Bruce most days. He was pretty sure Bruce had all feelings surgically excised a long time ago.
"But Father would expect—"
Jason felt the familiar flare of anger at the thought of Bruce's expectations. He wondered if he'd ever be able to escape them, or that feeling of being a disappointment. The Robin who was dumb enough to get himself killed.
"Go home, kid!" This time Jason whirled on him, taking a menacing step forward, letting the savage burst of pain show on his face as anger. "I don't need your help. I don't want your help. Go find some other sap to help out of the gutter."
With that Jason limped away, ignoring the feel of eyes on his back. His lungs felt like they were on fire, and every step he took made his ribs shift painfully. But he kept going, refusing to look back, and headed in the vague direction of home.
Jason was practically a sitting duck limping down the street the way he was. The neighbourhood he was in, he couldn't have done much more to paint a target on himself, and even the Red Hood tucked under his arm wasn't going to deter anyone for long.
He would've taken a cab, if cabs bothered to come down here when they didn't have a fare. He even considered dragging himself to Leslie's clinic, but it was too far in the opposite direction now. His apartment was closer. He pressed on, looking for a good spot to get back to the rooftops. He'd have better cover there, less traffic. Fewer people to see him looking like he was ripe for a take down.
"You want some help?"
Jason looked up to see Red Robin perched on a fire escape halfway up a brick building that had seen better days. Tim was crouched on the steel railing, which Jason knew was slick with rain, but he looked completely comfortable and perfectly balanced.
Jason scowled and kept walking.
"Red," Tim called. "You look like hell. Why don't you let me take you home?"
Jason shook his head. "Not without dinner and a movie, Red. What kind of boy do you think I am?"
Tim flipped easily over the railing, and landed silently in the alley behind him. Jason could sense him doing it, knew when Tim's careful approach brought him alongside.
"The kind of boy who needs a hospital, I'm pretty sure," Tim said. Jason couldn't see much of his face beneath the Red Robin cowl, but Tim's jaw was clenched, his mouth unsmiling. "I could hear you wheezing three stories up. We need to have someone take a look at those ribs, Hood."
"We don't need to do anything. You need to go home. Just like I told the other little bird." Jason squinted at Tim. "But you knew that already."
Tim sighed, putting a hand on Jason's arm. The effort to shake him off was going to cause too much pain, but the fact he wasn't doing anything about Tim's friendly gesture was telling Tim exactly how much pain he was in. Jason couldn't win.
"Jason," Tim said quietly. "Let me take you home. Alfred can—"
"No." Jason wasn't being brought back to the Cave by his Replacement so they could all gloat over how bad a job he was doing on his own. "Baby bird's got a big mouth."
"Then let me take you to emergency, a drop-in clinic even. You're—actually, I don't even know how you're still walking. You're dripping with sweat, you're white as a ghost, and I can practically hear your ribs grinding against one another. What the hell are you trying to prove?"
"Just get me to a rooftop," Jason said as vehemently as he could. Even he could hear the rasp in his voice, and he was having a hard time catching his breath. Shit. "I can make it home from there."
Tim shook his head, but wrapped an arm tightly around Jason's waist as Jason looped an arm around Tim's back. The grapple secure, Tim said, "Hold on," then they were moving, pain hitting Jason with the force of a battering ram. Jason lost consciousness, and when he came to they were on the rooftop. He found himself leaning heavily on Tim. He immediately tried backing away, but the Replacement wasn't having any of it.
"You passed out. I'm not just leaving you here."
"I closed my eyes, that's all," Jason tried. "I'll be fine."
"No," Tim said in a voice that didn't allow for argument.
"My place is two blocks from here. I can see the freakin' window, Tim. Take me home. I'll lie down, swallow some painkillers. I just need to lie down. This isn't—this isn't how I want to go back to the Cave, okay? I have to do it on my own terms."
Tim looked at him sympathetically. "This is stupid. You need a hospital."
"Please," Jason said, desperate, and he could tell from the expression on Tim's face that he'd won. The two blocks to the apartment window felt like it took hours. By the time Tim helped him over the sill and dropped him on his bed, Jason was breathless from the pain. He grabbed the jar of prescription meds off the bedside table and swallowed a bunch of them dry. He could feel tears pricking at his closed eyes as he continued to ignore Tim. Eventually, Tim's voice faded, leaving Jason in warm darkness, pain constant as he drifted in a place between waking and sleep.
"Jason. Jay, come on. Wake up."
Jason didn't want to wake up. Being awake meant the fire in his abdomen would need attention, and he didn't think he could move. He hadn't hurt this bad since—well, since he'd died.
Someone pulled one eyelid open, flashed a light in his eye, then did the same with the other. All he could see were fading blobs of light dancing against the inside of his lids. A cool cloth was laid over his forehead, and he sighed with relief.
He could feel hands pulling at his jacket, working it off his shoulders, then more than one pair of hands prying him out of the body armour he habitually wore. He should be worried, but he wasn't. His security system was pretty much impenetrable, so if someone had gotten into his apartment, it was probably because Oracle had let them, making them allies. Jason hadn't yet figured out a system she couldn't hack.
There was something familiar in the voices around him, in the touch of cool hands against his feverish skin. He hurt everywhere, but someone was trying to help him. He wasn't stupid enough to try to resist under the circumstances. Of course, not having the strength to put up a struggle made his decision easy.
He tensed when hands moved carefully over his rib cage, cataloguing his injuries. He could hear worry in the voices, but the hands were deft and sure, only applying enough pressure to ascertain the level of injury. Jason was grateful for it because even the slightest press on his abdomen had him curling into a ball. Fuck, he was in bad shape. He was pretty sure there were tears on his face from the pain. The ribs were broken, that was certain, and God only knew what other damage he'd done getting home.
He could hear a siren growing louder and louder until it sounded like it was right outside his building. Somebody must be hurt.
"You're hurt, dumbass." The voice was familiar, but Jason couldn't pin down who it belonged to. Somebody he'd hurt. Somebody who shouldn't be helping him, but was. Jason told him to go away, but all he got in response was a snort of laughter. "I'd like to see you make me. Go ahead. I'll wait while you pick a fight with gravity."
"The paramedics are on their way up. Don't get him riled up, Tim."
Jason knew that voice.
"Yeah, buddy, I'm here," Dick said, and Jason felt a cool hand touch his face. He couldn't help it—he leaned into the touch. God, he felt awful. Awful enough he would take comfort where he could find it. He reached out and tangled a hand in Dick's t-shirt.
"Broken ribs," he managed to croak out, as if Dick couldn't tell what was the matter.
"It's worse than that, Jay. I'm pretty sure you ruptured something. You're bleeding internally, but the ambulance is here now. You're going to be okay."
"I'm not going anywhere." Jason felt someone squeeze his hand, and he clung to it as if it were a lifeline. If he'd been aware he was doing it, he might've felt embarrassed, but all he could think about was trying to keep breathing through the pain.
"Grayson, they're here."
That had to be Damian. Seemed like the whole gang was there except for Bats, and Jason knew it was only a matter of time before he showed up too.
A finger against his lips stopped him and Dick spoke directly into his ear. "He doesn't know, and we're not telling him till you say the word, okay? Just let these people help you, little brother. We won't leave. I promise."
Jason relaxed and relented. A Dick Grayson promise was worth its weight in gold, and Jason knew Bruce wouldn't hear about this from Nightwing or any of the Robins. Jason let them take him then, didn't protest as the ambulance attendants secured him onto a gurney and took his vitals, calling out numbers that were much too high to be healthy.
Somewhere between his apartment and the elevator, he lost consciousness.
"Jason, open your eyes." The voice continued to coax him. It was soothing and annoying all at once, and it didn't take Jason long to attach a name to the voice's owner. Dick. For some unknown reason, Dick Grayson was sitting at his bedside in the middle of the night, playing nursemaid. Jason was going to strangle Tim when he saw him next.
"Get the fuck out," Jason said. It came out as little more than a whisper.
"There you are," Dick said. Jason realized there had been fingers pressed against his pulse, and he could feel the erratic pounding of his own heart. It echoed in his ears like a klaxon. "Do you know where you are?"
"My place," Jason said, but he hadn't opened his eyes yet, so honestly he had no fucking clue. He figured he would've noticed if someone had moved him, but maybe not. He'd been pretty out of it when Tim brought him home.
"No, you're at the hospital."
Jason forced himself to open his eyes then, grateful the lights were low and the drapes were closed. It still looked like it was night, though. He didn't know how much time he'd lost.
"What—?" Jason tried to sit up, but Dick's hand sprawled on his chest kept him from moving. "What day is it?"
Jason focused on Dick's face. He looked pale and haggard, his dark hair hanging limp and disheveled, as if he hadn't seen a shower in a couple of days.
"It's Monday," Dick answered, and Jason did a double-take. It had been Friday night when he'd gotten shoved off the rooftop. He let out a deep breath and tried to think back. He had bits and pieces of memory: Tim getting him back to his apartment, a siren in the distance, cool hands and cool cloths on his feverish skin, Dick promising not to tell Bruce. He'd been completely out of it.
"How bad?" Jason asked, figuring the answer was obvious given he was in the hospital.
"You're an idiot. You could've died. You had a concussion, three broken ribs, and you were bleeding internally. If Tim had left you like you wanted, you would never have woken up. You had to have emergency surgery."
Dick's voice was rising in volume as he spoke, gaining steam like a locomotive. Jason had neither the strength nor the heart to pull away. He let Dick have his rant. It was then Jason realized with a start that Dick was holding his hand. Had been holding his hand since he woke up, and probably a long time before if his sweat-slick palm was any indication. The weirdest part was how it felt familiar, as if the weight of Dick's hand on his was normal.
There was a lot more said about his stupidity, his reckless behaviour, his cavalier attitude toward his own mortality. Dick wasn't wrong about any of it, but Jason was struck by how angry Dick was, as if he'd been stockpiling every word for the last few days, and Jason waking up had lit the fuse on a ton of dynamite. He didn't think he'd ever heard Dick that upset at anyone who wasn't Bruce.
"You could've died," is what Dick eventually came back to, and Jason swallowed awkwardly and tried to find his voice. He realized he wasn't hurting anymore, at least not to the same extent, his pain a sort of manageable discomfort aggravated when he moved. Mostly he felt like he'd been swaddled in blankets, the whole world having become softer and floatier.
Dick sighed and Jason felt someone brushing the hair out of his eyes. "You could've died, Little Wing," he said again, and the old nickname Dick had called him so rarely, made his heart stutter painfully in his chest. This was why he hadn't wanted to go back to the Cave. He couldn't cope with them treating him like he was theirs, like he was family, when the truth was he could never go home again. Not with the things he'd done. The blood on his hands.
Jason tried to take a breath and found he couldn't. He looked at Dick imploringly.
It felt like a panic attack. The inability to let go of the inhale he'd taken, the pressure building in his head, his chest. He was on the brink, and if he let go, like Humpty Dumpty he didn't know if he'd be able to put himself together again. It was better to hold on as long as he could.
Dick was holding him by the shoulders, doing his best not to jar Jason's bandaged ribs, but the sheer panic in Dick's blue eyes made Jason start to shake until he was gulping in breath after breath, hyperventilating, eyes wide. Dick sat on the edge of the bed and flung his arms around Jason. His hand found the nape of Jason's neck, stroking soothingly. Dick's voice was a steady murmur of reassurances Jason hadn't known he needed to hear. God, he was so fucked. He let his head fall to Dick's shoulder, hiding his face until he could breathe normally again, until he was certain all evidence of weakness had been absorbed into Dick's now damp t-shirt. He pulled away and scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand.
"How did you even know I was hurt?" Jason settled back against the propped up pillows, looking everywhere but at Dick's face.
"A couple of little birds were pretty concerned."
"Let me guess, they called Big Bird to come to the rescue."
"Hey, it's been a long time since I've worn yellow." Dick had hold of Jason's hand again, and it didn't feel as if he was ever planning to let go. "You scared the hell out of me. When I got there, you were burning up, barely breathing, and it was pretty clear your injuries were a lot worse than you'd been willing to admit. Stupid, stubborn—"
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry," Jason said, meaning it. He honestly didn't have a death wish. He was grateful for a second chance at life, and even if it felt as if he couldn't fix so much of what was wrong between him and the rest of the Bats, he wasn't actively trying to make things worse.
"Mr. Peters?" a nurse enquired as she came into the room. Todd J. Peters was an alias Jason had used before, had identification for, and it must've been what Dick had checked him in under. But he was surprised to hear Dick answer "yes?" at the same time he did.
The large black woman grinned. "Good to have two of you answering back. First time since you checked in here, Mr. Peters." She was looking at Jason even as she flipped a page on his chart and jotted something down. She checked the IV that was pumping a clear liquid into his one arm, and the catheter that was pumping it out the other direction. Nothing like hospitals for being completely emasculating.
"You think you could eat something?" the nurse asked, shoving a thermometer under Jason's tongue when he opened his mouth to speak. He settled for nodding, and the loud growl from his stomach seemed to cement the case for food.
"Temperature's almost down to normal," she said, shaking the thermometer, and slipping it into one of her many pockets. Jason wondered if she had rope and a grapple on her person somewhere. A pen appeared and she made another note on his chart before sliding it onto the hook at the end of the bed. "You're awfully lucky your brothers found you when they did. Could've been a lot worse."
She glanced at Dick who was still sitting there holding Jason's hand. "You've got darn nice brothers, Mr. Peters. Even that little one. Face like a thunder cloud, but he was plenty worried. Even asked if he could give blood, if it would help. Yeah, you got a nice family there, Mr. Peters. Real nice."
With that she turned to leave. "I'll have them send you some lunch. Soup and such. Nothing too heavy to start with, but if you can keep it down, we'll see 'bout getting you some real food tomorrow."
"Thank you," Dick said.
"Brothers?" Jason asked, raising his eyebrow as soon as the nurse was gone. Dick shrugged.
"I wasn't about to dump you off at emergency and leave, and I couldn't exactly check you in as Jason Todd. Likewise, I couldn't be Dick Grayson either—the media would've had a field day if they'd gotten wind of it—so Tim checked what ID you were using, and created aliases for the rest of us."
"Richard Peters, I presume?"
"My family calls me Dick."
"Not just your family," Jason teased, hating himself a little for how easily it came to him. There was a time when all he'd wanted was for Dick to treat him like a brother, or at least for Dick not to be angry with him for taking over duties as Robin. Robin had been the best thing to ever happen to Jason, and he'd thought maybe Dick would understand that, but he'd just been angry a lot of the time. Angry at Bruce, angry at Jason, and it had made Jason angry right back in the way that only a teenager could be.
"So, how many brothers do I have exactly?" Jason asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
"Three," Dick said seriously. "The same number you've always had since you've been back."
"Dick." Jason knew where this was headed, and he wanted to cut it off at the pass before it got there. He wasn't emotionally equipped to deal with the lecture on family right then.
"No, Jay, you almost died because you were being too stubborn to let us help you. We're your family, whether you like it or not. We're always going to be family. Whatever your problems with Bruce, fine, keep on hating him if you need to, but the rest of us, the rest of us want you back."
Jason grabbed on to the first thought that came to mind: "Replacement doesn't—"
"Tim practically carried you back to your apartment, then stayed with you until I got there. He was frantic, so don't you dare say he doesn't think of you as family. No matter what happened before."
"I shot Damian."
"Yeah, and that was months ago. Didn't seem to stop him from being angry at himself for not realizing how badly you were hurt. He thinks he should've knocked you out and brought you to the Cave himself."
"He couldn't have carried me," Jason said. "I probably weigh twice what he does. He would've had to drag me."
"He would've found a way."
"I shot Damian to hurt you," Jason blurted out. He needed Dick to know exactly what kind of person he was. "To stop you from coming after me."
Dick's blue eyes were understanding. "I know. You did what you felt you had to do to protect yourself at the time. I get that. But Jay, you don't need to protect yourself from us. We're not going to hurt you."
Jason looked away, suddenly tired. He didn't need their pity. Whatever kindness they thought they were doing for him would turn out to be worse in the end. If only they could see that. He would let them down eventually, or they would let him down. It was inevitable.
"I think I need to rest a bit," Jason said, turning into the pillow, withdrawing his hand from Dick's hold. Dick let him go.
"Okay. Take it easy, Jay."
There was the hand in his hair again, a comforting sort of touch, and Jason closed his eyes and willed Dick to go away. Bullets, knives, a three story fall, even a fucking crowbar hadn't managed to keep Jason down permanently, but Dick Grayson was going to kill him with kindness. Jason needed time to regroup, to figure out how to extract himself from this happy loving family scenario he was expected to play out in exchange for having his ass saved.
"I'm going to run home and shower, change, that sort of thing," Dick said, the door creaking open. "But one of us will always be here, Jay. You just concentrate on getting better."
Jason wasn't sure whether it was Tim or Damian who entered as Dick took his leave, but one of them hopped up on the broad window ledge and settled in with a book. Jay could hear the telltale turn of pages as he lay there not sleeping. He supposed he should've been expecting what came next, but it was a little like being kidney-punched. It completely blindsided him.
Tim's voice was soft, but clear when he spoke: "It was a pleasure to burn."
Jason swallowed as he recognized the opening line of Fahrenheit 451. It was a book he'd read, and loved, and read again when he'd been young and impressionable, when he was still someone who believed he could place himself between the consuming fires of evil and the people who deserved to be saved. It had been a lifetime ago, and Jason felt a lump forming in his throat, one he had no idea how to banish.
Tim read on: "It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet—"
Tim suddenly snorted with laughter. Jason frowned but didn't open his eyes. "That's not where it came from," he said.
"I know, but still, you've got to appreciate the parallelism." Tim continued: "With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning."
"I would never burn a book," Jay grumbled under his breath.
"True. Maybe a warehouse full of drug dealers, but never a book," Tim agreed. "Do you want to talk, or do you want me to keep reading?"
"Read," Jason said, and was never more grateful for Tim's quiet conciliatory demeanor than when he immediately picked up where he'd left off. Jason lay there listening as the Fireman tried to make sense of his world, and Jason fell asleep to images of books with curling edges, fire licking at his feet, and the soothing tone of Tim's voice rising and falling with the cadences of Bradbury's prose.
A few days later during Dick's daily visit, Jason had a sudden thought. "The guys who did this."
"Already in custody. Tim and Damian rounded up the last of them and sent them to Gordon."
Jason looked horrified. "You shouldn't have sent two kids after—"
"I didn't." Dick was shaking his head. "They went on their own. I was too busy trying to get you settled and running interference with the big guy."
"Are they—did they—" Jason was having trouble keeping his breathing steady again. He wondered when he'd become such a wuss about baby Robins.
"They're fine, Jay." Dick put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "They blew off some steam. It wasn't anything they couldn't handle."
"I thought I could handle them, too!"
"Well, this time there were only three of them. Most of the others had already beat a hasty retreat. We tracked a few of them to emergency clinics. It was really just a bit of clean-up. You did the hard part."
Jason snorted, his laugh turning into a cough that rattled his healing ribs. "Ow. Don't make me laugh."
But when Jason looked up, Dick's thousand watt grin was lighting up the room. It made something in Jason's chest clench, and he pressed a hand to the bandage around his middle.
"You're a dick, Richard," Jason said, but he couldn't manage to put any heat into the jab. It came out sounding entirely too fond, making Jason scowl and Dick laugh.
"I'm just glad you're going to be okay, Jay-bird. You had us worried. All of us."
Jason had been around long enough to know that was code for "Bruce wants to see you," but Jason chose to ignore it. He'd had a rough week, his body was hurting, and most of the time he was flying higher than GCPD's dirigibles with the pain meds he was on. None of those things contributed to ideal conditions for seeing the Batman. Jason wasn't sure ideal conditions even existed unless perhaps he could do it by video conference and arrange a convenient power outage.
Dick sighed. "He's going to worry until he has a chance to see you for himself."
Jason looked at the wall of windows with the view of Gotham River, and gave Dick a look. "I've been in here a week already. Are you honestly trying to tell me he hasn't seen me?"
"Staring plaintively through the window like a creepy Irish Setter isn't the same thing."
"What did I just say about making me laugh?"
"Sorry, but it's kind of true."
Dick raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean why? I was under the impression you didn't want to see him."
"Yeah, but since when has that ever stopped him from—" Jason broke off. "Wait, have you guys been ... standing guard?"
Dick flushed. "I wouldn't put it like that exactly."
"How would you put it then?"
"I told him when you were ready to see him, we'd let him know."
"And that worked?" Jason was shocked. "Has he been going to therapy or something 'cause that's downright cooperative."
"Jay, he loves you. I know you think the whole thing with the Joker—"
Jason felt his face turn to stone. "Don't."
"—somehow means he wasn't affected when you died, but—"
"Shut up, Dick. Shut the fuck up. You don't know what you're talking about."
"It almost destroyed him! You're his son, and losing you changed him. Can't you get that through your thick skull?"
Jason clamped his lips together and turned away. There was no way he was having this conversation with Dick. Not now. Not ever.
"Jason." Dick's voice was quiet, but firm. "You don't have to see him until you're ready. I promised you that. But please think about it, okay? Just think about it. He—we all care about you."
Dick left him alone then. There was no quick tousle of his hair, no comforting squeeze of a hand on his arm. Jason felt strangely bereft and hated himself for it. He knew better than to let himself believe he could ever be part of a family again, but a few days around Dick's stupidly happy good nature had disarmed him. He was going to have to start putting his armour back in place if he wanted to survive.
When Jason woke next, it was to raised voices. He steadied his breathing, kept his eyes closed even though he was aching from lying too long in one position. He really needed to stretch and move, but he needed to know what was going on first.
"He doesn't wish to see you, Father," Damian said.
It sounded like he was up in the air, probably on the window ledge that ran alongside one wall of the room. Jason had a view of Gotham's river, which meant they'd taken him to the smaller hospital, St. Sebastian's, instead of Gotham General where Dick, Tim, and Damian were all more likely to be recognized as heirs to the Wayne fortune. Here, the staff were too busy to care who the visitors were; they had too much else to do.
Jason didn't hear Batman's reply, only the low tone that indicated he was unhappy with the situation, but so far he wasn't pushing. Bruce could've easily picked his youngest son up and out of the way, but it would've caused more problems than it solved. Jason had fought with and alongside the kid—he knew how brutal Damian could be with fists and feet and that hard Wayne head.
"Grayson explained this to you already," Damian was saying, annoyance clear in his voice. "Todd is healing, but he's not ready for visitors."
"And what are you?"
Damian seemed stymied by the question, and Jason was curious as to what the answer would be. They weren't family—not really. He barely knew the boy except by reputation. They weren't blood, they weren't friends, if anything Damian only tolerated him because Dick was a beast about people he considered family, and for better or worse, Dick counted them both among that number.
"I failed to ascertain how badly he was hurt upon my initial contact, so I am at least in part responsible for seeing to his well-being now."
Jason could hear the smile Bruce was trying to keep out of his voice and off his face. If Jason had been better at reading those things when he was Damian's age, maybe things would've turned out differently.
"And I'm doing what Grayson asked me to," Damian finally said, and Jason could almost see the shoulder shrug. Damian might not have naturally understood obligation to those who needed aid, but Grayson had done a good job drilling it into the kid when Dick had been parading around Gotham's rooftops in Batman's cast-offs.
"I only want to make sure he's alright," Bruce said, and he could hear the exhaustion mingling with frustration. He could make things easier on both Bruce and the kid by saying something, but Jason found himself maintaining the pretense that he was sleeping. If either of them were paying the least bit of attention to him, both would know he was no longer asleep, but Jason knew they weren't likely to call him on it. He waited.
"He's healing," Damian said again, as if he had no other way to qualify Jason's condition. Maybe he didn't. Damian didn't know him, not well. He knew the Jason Todd that was—the one who'd been immortalized as a uniform in a glass case with the damning epitaph of "A Good Soldier." There were times Jason wanted to storm into the Cave and break that damn display into pieces. Except he'd have to deal with Bruce carefully reconstructing the whole damn thing as if nothing had happened, and Jason didn't think he could deal with that.
For whatever reason, Bruce seemed to need that memorial, even though Jason was here and alive. The idea of him—the obedient son, the fearless Robin—was what Bruce was trying to hang on to. A version of him that didn't exist, and as far as Jason could see had never existed. Not even when Robin had been Dick or Tim, and it certainly wasn't Damian either. Fearless, sure, but obedient? Jason would've laughed if it wouldn't have called attention to himself.
As it was, he noticed the conversation had stopped. He heard the soft snick of the window closing, and Damian hopping down from the ledge.
"He's gone. You can stop pretending to be asleep now."
Busted. Jason opened his eyes, surprised when he came face to face with a boy who looked entirely too much like Bruce. For some reason, Jason had expected him to be wearing his Robin uniform, but the boy was dressed in black cargo pants and a hooded sweatshirt, looking every bit as if he could fade into the shadows like a ninja at any moment. He probably could.
"Thanks," Jason said sincerely, not knowing what else he could say. The kid had stood between him and Batman, and that was never easy.
"Grayson was very clear about—"
"Yeah, well, it wasn't Grayson who had to tell Bats to take a hike. I appreciate it, kid."
Damian was eyeing him, waiting for the punchline or the other shoe to drop, Jason figured. The kid seemed the type who took things way too seriously and didn't often get the joke. He was checking to see if Jason was making fun of him.
"You're welcome," Damian finally said, giving a curt nod before settling in the chair beside the bed. He pulled out a phone and started to text someone. For a few minutes he looked like a normal teenage boy, and Jason knew anyone looking in on them would see a kid hanging out with his older brother. It should feel weird, but it didn't.
Jason let his eyes close again, knowing he was in good hands.
After two solid weeks of high dosage painkillers and exercises to make sure he was able to breathe deeply enough, Jason was told he could go home in a few more days.
"A few more days," he complained. "Jesus, if I have to eat one more green Jell-o with canned whipped cream—"
"I like the green Jell-o," Damian said with a scowl.
"You would," Tim tossed back, talking over Jason.
"—I'm going to hurl."
"No, you're not," Dick said knowingly. "If you do that, they'll keep you even longer, and I know you don't want that. Give the Jell-o to Damian."
"Can't they let me go home already? There isn't anything else they can do."
Dick looked at Jason from his perch on the end of the bed. "They've just weaned you off some pretty powerful painkillers, Jay. I think they want to make sure you're going to be able to manage before they kick you to the curb to fend for yourself."
"I'm fine," Jason said, although he felt like there were ants under his skin and he was dying for a cigarette.
"Yeah, that's why you're more twitchy than Ragdoll," Tim said, shaking his head. "I told you to ask for a Nicotine patch."
"I don't smoke that much."
"Yes, you do," Damian chimed in. "Your jacket stinks. It's a vulgar habit."
Not for the first time, Jason resented the fact his supposed siblings were trained observers. It was annoying not being able to hide anything from them, and no one seemed to feel like they needed to be polite about it either. Opinions were tossed around like batarangs and with just as much power to wound.
Jason wasn't sure why he felt the need to defend himself, but he glared at Tim and Damian for even bringing up his smoking, especially in front of Dick who had never approved. Dick gave him the expected disappointed look, and Jason threw a spoon at Tim's head.
"Hey!" he said, ducking. The spoon hit the wall and bounced off. Damian retrieved it with a look of disgust.
"I can't use this to consume the lime gelatin now," Damian said mournfully. Jason handed him the small bowl of Jell-o and a fork.
"Here." Jason turned back to confront Dick. "I just want to go home."
Dick's blue eyes were sympathetic, but Jason knew there was no point trying to get sprung any sooner. He'd had two weeks to remember Dick was absolute crap at emotional distance, and when he cared about someone, he threw himself into it hook, line, and lead sinker. He'd been at the hospital every day, bringing Jason magazines, books, food, a laptop, DVDs, anything he could possibly want to make the time pass more easily. Even after they'd quarrelled.
When Dick hadn't been there, he'd made sure either Damian, Alfred, or the Replacement had been on duty. There'd been no sign of Bruce except for the one evening Jason overheard his conversation with Damian, although Jason suspected Bruce had looked in on him several times when he was too out of it to protest. It wasn't anything he could prove, but after the first few nights the nurses had started kicking his well-meaning "brothers" out when visiting hours were over. Sometimes they simply changed and popped back in through the window, but Jason knew they couldn't keep an eye on him every minute. Crime didn't rest, and they all had jobs to do. Even if no one said anything, Jason knew Dick and Tim were pulling double-duty keeping an eye on Red Hood's territory as well as their own.
"I know you want to go home," Dick said. "Just a couple more days is all, okay?"
"Not like I've got a choice," Jason muttered, acquiescing.
"I brought the last two Fast and Furious movies." Dick knew exactly how to bargain. Even Tim and Damian appeared interested. "And the projector. We can throw them onto the blank wall at the end of the room. Almost as good as having a private theater."
"No popcorn, though," Jason said, determined not to be cheered up so easily.
Tim snapped his fingers. "They have it on the snack trolley that comes around. Microwaveable bags. I'll buy some and heat them up in the little lounge at the end of the hall." He was out the door before Jason could say another word.
Dick started setting up the projector on the moveable table they served Jason's meals on, and Damian kicked his boots off, planting himself on the bed at Jason's feet.
"Make yourself at home," Jason said, rolling his eyes. The kid nodded seriously around a cube of green Jell-o and Jason didn't have the heart to tell him to find another spot to watch the movie. Jason shifted his pillows so he could see around the Robin who had pretty massive shoulders for a thirteen year old, and as soon as there was room beside him, Dick was attached to his hip like a friendly octopus.
"Personal space?" Jason tried, but Dick just grinned at him.
"Family," he countered, to which Jason could only give a put-upon sigh and allow the close quarters. Tim came back with four packages of popcorn expertly popped in handy paper bowls (thank you, Orville Reddenbocker), and handed them out like prizes. He and Damian pushed at each other for a couple of minutes until Tim decided to lie on his stomach, his feet sticking up into the air and occasionally kicking back entirely too close to Jason's healing ribs.
"Tim, watch your feet," Jason said, catching the offending items and pushing them down beside him. "If I have to stay in here longer because you boot me in the ribs—"
"I won't," Tim said around a mouthful of popcorn. "I have complete spatial awareness of my surroundings."
Damian snorted so loudly it sounded as if a popcorn kernel had gone up his nose. Jason more or less tuned out the insults Tim and Damian were lobbing back and forth in favour of actually watching the movie; he figured unless they were throwing popcorn or physically attacking each other, they didn't need him butting in, and he found himself drifting in and out, carried by the warmth of three extra bodies on his bed and the sound of familiar bickering voices.
Jason woke up leaning against Tim, who had at some point taken Dick's spot on the bed. Damian was asleep at Jason's feet, curled up like a hedgehog in a protective ball.
"Where's Dick?" Jason whispered, righting himself. He wasn't entirely sure how Dick and Tim had managed to change places without waking him up. Obviously, if someone needed to switch a bag of sand for a priceless idol, those were the two guys who should be doing it.
"He had to go. GCPD had some kind of standoff downtown. The signal was up."
"Last I checked, it wasn't a Nightwing signal."
"No, but since he was wearing the cape for a year, it's pretty hard for him not to get involved."
"Yeah? How does Bats feel about that?"
Tim shrugged. "I think he's grateful for the help most of the time, even if he won't say it. I'm glad you're awake, though. I should take Damian and go. They might need us."
"I didn't want to wake you."
There was the lump in Jason's throat again. Damn it, he needed to get back to his apartment and away from all these people or he would be ruined. Jason watched as Tim shook Damian awake with far more gentleness than he'd expected given how the two of them behaved most of the time. Damian groaned sleepily, taking the boots Tim handed him.
"'Night, Todd," Damian said, looking at Jason oddly. Before Jason fully understood what was happening, he found himself on the receiving end of an awkward hug.
"Um, goodnight, squirt." He slipped an arm around Damian and squeezed back while giving Tim a bewildered look over Damian's shoulder.
"Grayson said I should make an effort to express gratitude with basic forms of physical affection," Damian said, hopping off the bed and turning to go. "Thanks for the movies."
"Anytime, kid," Jason said. He raised an eyebrow at Tim, who just grinned, obviously already familiar with Damian's quirks.
"Goodnight, Jason," Tim said, and when both boys were gone, Jason felt something he hadn't in a long time when he'd been by himself. Lonely.
"Fuck," he said to himself. "I've got to get out of this place."
Jason could only blame it on early behavioural conditioning when he woke in the wee hours of the morning with a looming shadow standing beside his bed and was strangely comforted rather than freaked out. At least until he remembered Batman wasn't supposed to be looming anywhere near him until Jason said the word, and he hadn't.
"Watching people sleep. Still one of your creepier qualities, Bats."
"I was looking for the boys."
Jason laughed, and it didn't hurt his ribs as much as it had even a day ago. "Sorry to disappoint. Nobody here but me, Bats. You might try the pediatric ward—ha, ward, get it?—if you're in need of more black haired, blue-eyed kids to play dress-up with."
Bruce pushed back the cowl. He looked more hurt than anything else, and Jason suddenly felt about two inches high. He always did the wrong thing when it came to Bruce, always read things wrong.
"They left here about eleven," Jason said. "Did they at least make it back to the Cave? Did they meet up with you and Dick?"
"Nightwing wasn't with me."
"But he left here when the Bat-signal went up. That was at least a couple of hours before Tim and Damian left." Jason blanched at the realization. "Are you saying you don't know where any of them are?"
Bruce nodded, tugging the cowl into place and turning on his heel to head out the window.
"Oh no you don't." Jason pushed himself out of bed, ignoring the twinges in his abdomen. "You don't get to drop a bombshell like that, then bail out the window. I'm coming with you."
Bruce stopped, looking Jason over from bedhead to bare feet. "You're in no condition to—"
"Fuck you, Bruce. Go ahead and try to leave me behind. I'll be out of here in five minutes. I'll find them myself."
"If I have to," Jason said stubbornly. "I know you've got an emergency cache of clothes someplace in this building. Failing that, I'll just steal some. Patient rooms, doctors' lockers."
"I can't talk you out of this?"
"Why does it matter to you?"
"Because they're my brothers!" Jason said, realizing as he said it how true it was. Maybe he hadn't always felt that way, and yeah, maybe he'd even resented the brood Bruce had accumulated over the years Jason had been gone, but they'd been there when he needed help. He wasn't about to leave them out there, in trouble and all alone, with only Batman looking for them.
Bruce looked at him appraisingly, then finally nodded. "Fine, wait here."
Jason stepped forward until he was nose to nose with the heavy cowl. "I swear to God, if you're not back here in three minutes, I'm going after them myself."
As soon as Batman disappeared through the window, Jason dug out his cel phone and speed-dialed Dick's number.
"C'mon, Dick. Pick up the phone." Jason started assembling things he needed to take with him. Wallet, switchblade, a couple of batarangs he'd lifted from Tim's backpack. It was a small pile. He didn't have his guns with him; mostly because Dick wouldn't bring them to him, just like he wouldn't bring Jason pants until the hospital officially released him.
"I know you," Dick had said. "I bring you pants, and next thing I know I'll be getting a call that says you've gone over the wall and are hobbling home."
Dick's cel phone went to voice mail.
"Dickie-bird, if you're there, pick up. No time for jokes, man. Bats is here. You, Replacement and the kid seem to be off the grid, so if you're okay, give me a call. Otherwise, me and the old man are coming looking for you. Fuck, Dick, where the hell are you?"
"Still no answer?" Batman was back, setting a pile of clothes on the bed.
"No, but I only tried Dick."
"I have the Bat-computer calling them at regular intervals."
Jason tugged off the hospital gown he'd been wearing, and grabbed the black cargo pants from the pile. They were almost a perfect fit, which made him grin absurdly. He was pretty much the same size as Bruce these days. Maybe a little narrower through the chest and hips, but just as broad in the shoulders. Jason was maybe a half inch taller than his former mentor.
Bruce sounded surprised, and Jason supposed it made sense. He'd been a stocky fifteen year old when he'd died, and a fully grown man by the time he'd gotten his head on straight. After crawling out of his coffin. After the dunk in the Lazarus Pit. It didn't make much sense to Jason either, and there were days he looked in the mirror and didn't recognize himself.
"Yeah, I finally grew into my shoulders." Jason reached for the black shirt on the pile. He'd just pulled it carefully over his head when he realized Bruce was staring at him.
"Like what you see?" Jason bit out viciously, hating the feeling of being evaluated and found lacking.
"No." Bruce gestured to Jason's taped ribs. The bruising spread well beyond the taped area and had turned an ugly purple. "I don't like it when any of you are hurt."
Jason closed his eyes, and turned away, pulling the shirt down to cover the bruises. He slipped the lightweight tac vest on, following it with a leather jacket and a black domino mask.
"Nothing in red, huh? You really need to expand your colour palette, Bats."
"Jason, look at me."
"We have to go."
Jason tried to push past Bruce, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him cold. Another example of that damn Robin conditioning. A hand like that had always meant stop. Wait. Rarely it had even meant I'm proud of you, but Jason could count those times on one hand. Still, they had made him feel ten feet tall, like the luckiest kid in the world.
"How much pain are you in?"
The question caught Jason off-guard. He wasn't used to a Batman who seemed concerned.
"Nothing a hit of Vicodin or Percocet won't fix."
"With those ribs, you're of no use to me in a fight."
Jason smiled because here at least they were on familiar terms. Batman thought Jason was a liability. He shoved his feet into socks and boots, then stowed his wallet, the batarangs, and the switchblade in various pockets, reaching out a hand to take the ear piece communicator Bruce offered. "Then let's try to avoid fisticuffs if we can. I'm taking the elevator down. I'll meet you at the back entrance."
"Oracle." Bruce hopped onto the window ledge, preparing to depart. "Any word on our lost flock?"
"Nothing yet. I have your location as St. Sebastian's. Are you okay?"
"Fine. Red Hood is joining me for the search."
"Say again?" Barbara's voice was clear over the ear piece.
"Red Hood is—"
"Hey, beautiful," Jason said. "Miss me?"
Immediately, Jason could hear fingers flying over keys as he headed into the hall and towards the elevator, easily dodging the night nurses.
"You're in no condition to leave the hospital. They only cut your pain killers back this morning, and your ribs are nowhere near healed."
"Listen, BG, I know you hack because you love, but do you think you could do something useful and show me as having been released, so the hospital's not in a flap when they realize I'm gone?"
Jason ducked into the elevator, making one quick stop at the dispensary to pop the lock and grab a bottle of high-quality painkillers.
"Would you also like me to scrub the security cam footage of you stealing narcotics?" Barbara asked pleasantly, as Jason circled around to where he could hear the purr of the Batmobile.
"I left fifty bucks on the counter," Jason grumbled. "It's sort of an emergency."
He slid into the front seat beside Batman and immediately swallowed three of the capsules from the bottle he'd taken. He could tell Barbara was waiting for some kind of word from Bruce, and this was the part Jason had never had patience for.
"Scrub the footage," Batman said, throwing the car into gear. "Let me know the minute you get any kind of tracking on them."
"Do we at least have a place to start?" Jason asked.
"The sewer tunnels down by the water filtration plant."
Jason rolled his eyes. "Don't the bad guys ever get tired of trying to poison this city's water supply?"
"The tunnels down there block a lot of telecommunication signals. The boys might be fine."
"If you thought that's where they were, why bother coming to the hospital?"
Bruce stared straight ahead as he drove even though he knew the streets blindfolded and there was no traffic to speak of. Jason felt as if he were thirteen all over again.
"Bruce, why the hell did you come to the hospital? Especially when you didn't think I would be in any condition to help." Jason turned his head so he could watch Bruce's face, or at least what little he could see of it. Even with the cowl, there were tells, and Jason knew them all.
"I hoped I was wrong. They've been spending all their free time at the hospital. I was hoping—"
"What, that they'd all somehow lost their phones and decided to come visit me instead of checking in with you?" Jason stared at him. "They wouldn't do that, and you know it. What the fuck happened down at the waterfront tonight?"
"Scarecrow set off a localized EMP."
That explained the lack of contact, at least. Even if they'd left the area afterwards, their phones, comm units and trackers would've been fried.
"They would've still checked in," Jason said, certain of that fact.
"And a new fear toxin."
Jason narrowed his eyes. "I'm going to ask this once, and don't fucking lie to me, Bruce, or I'll walk. Were you exposed to the toxin?"
Batman swallowed. "Yes."
"Fuck. How bad is it?"
"I've taken a combination of the antidotes for two of the previous formulae. I'm not hallucinating. I'm just ..." Bruce trailed off as they rounded a corner into the waterfront district.
"You're concerned? Explain."
Bruce shook his head as if to clear it. "The toxin seems to target small, surface worries rather than deep-seated fears. It's bringing things to the forefront of my mind that I could normally dismiss or ignore."
"Like you can't shake that feeling you left the oven on?" Jason grinned at the stony expression on Bruce's face. "Or more like worrying where Robins 1, 3, and 4 have got to."
"The only thing that seems to keep the worry from mushrooming into something worse is to concentrate on the application of positive cognition."
Jason let loose a bark of laughter. "The antidote is to think happy thoughts? You must be in Hell."
Bruce pulled the car into a dimly-lit alley between two warehouses. Jason knew there was a sewer junction right below it.
"It's not easy, and you're not helping."
Bruce turned the car off, and sat there unmoving. "I came to you because I need someone I can trust, and that list of people is very short. Jim Gordon already has his hands full tonight." He paused to let that sink in. "Can I trust you, Jason?"
"Yes," Jason said and meant it, even though he resented Batman asking. "I'm even willing to overlook the fact I was your second choice, third probably if we count Babs."
"Fourth, actually," Bruce corrected. "Superman was unavailable as well."
Jason blew out a breath and evaluated the situation they were facing. Best case scenario meant Dick and the Robins were in the affected area, but hadn't been able to communicate with them because of the EMP. Even in the best case, they were probably feeling the effects of the toxin. Worst case scenario meant Scarecrow had the three of them, and was waiting for Bats to show for some kind of twisted showdown where everyone was terrified for everyone else. Oh, joy.
Jason stepped out of the car with a confidence he hadn't felt in a long time. He had a mission, and there was no way he was going to be unsuccessful. Not when Dick, Tim and Damian needed him. They'd been there for him, even when he'd done everything he could to drive them away, and he owed them. He told himself it wasn't because they were family, even though that's what he'd said to Bruce. Brothers. That had sort of landed out there by itself, like the Mars Rover on a distant planet. Jason wasn't entirely sure what to make of the impulse yet, but at the very least he owed them for making sure he didn't die from internal bleeding. He'd figure out how he felt about them being "family" again later.
"Find your happy place, Bruce, and let's go get them."
Jason stared into the trunk of the Batmobile as Batman handed him things: rebreather, a set of vials of fear toxin antidote, gloves, grapple, a handful of batarangs, a spare utility belt Jason promptly secured around his waist.
"What, no gun?" Jason pretended to be shocked. "I see extra escrima sticks and that stupid pole the Replacement uses. You don't have a pair of Glocks in there, do you? Something semi-automatic with decent stopping power? I'd even take a pair of snub-nosed .38s."
To Jason's surprise, Batman pulled out a case and handed it to him. In it was a handgun.
"Tranquilizer gun? You do know how to take the fun out of things," Jason said, loading the pistol with two cartridges from the case before tossing the case into the car and tucking the gun in the back of his waist. "Tranqs in the usual pouches?"
Batman nodded. "I don't need to tell you—"
"No, you don't," Jason said, cutting him off. "I know the rules. Do I need to take a dose of this antidote before we go down?"
"I'm not certain how you would respond. It could be dangerous given the drugs already in your system." There was a tremor of worry in Batman's voice, and Jason had to remind himself that was most likely the fear toxin talking.
"Fine. We'll save that as a last resort. Let's just get this over with, shall we?"
Batman lifted the massive manhole cover as if it were nothing, setting it aside before stepping down into the darkness. Jason waited until he couldn't see Batman anymore before he started down the ladder after him.
Dick sat in the darkness, hands and feet bound, worrying. He couldn't think of anything else to call it. In fact, he worried about not knowing what to call what was happening to him, and worried about his worrying.
Stop it! he told himself, and for a few seconds he almost felt normal. Then the insistent voice in the back of his head would remind him of a hundred small things he'd done or hadn't done, said or hadn't said.
He hadn't said goodbye to Jason when he'd left. What if he didn't get the chance? What if he never saw him again? What if—
"Nightwing!" It was Damian.
"What? What's wrong?"
"I can't tell if Dra—Red Robin is breathing. Is he breathing? You're closer. Can you tell? He got hit in the head really hard. Shouldn't he be conscious already? Is he breathing? What if he's not breathing?"
"He's breathing," Dick said, his own heart pounding hard. He hoped Tim was breathing. Why hadn't he checked earlier? He'd never forgive himself if—
"Nightwing," Damian said again, and Dick focused on getting to Tim. Dick's hands were tied behind his back. He had to kind of roll backwards so he could get a finger on Tim's wrist, which was bound behind his back. "His pulse is fine. He's going to wake up soon, Robin."
Again, Dick felt easier for a few seconds. Of course Tim would be alright. It was a knock on the head. They'd all taken far worse in the past and survived. Tim hadn't been unconscious for long. Dick let himself tip backwards so his head and shoulders were resting against Tim's chest. He could feel the even rise and fall of Tim's breaths, and took comfort from it.
"Come over here," Dick said, trusting Damian was tied in a similar manner. He heard him shuffling on his knees across the concrete floor, and worried if the knee pads gave him enough protection.
Dick shook his head. This was ridiculous. Whatever Scarecrow had hit them with was totally different from anything they'd experienced before. Dick had been prepared for hallucinations, for seeing his parents falling over and over, for reliving the worst moments of his life, and none of that had happened. Instead he'd found his heart racing over every stray thought, most of them starting with "what if."
Batman had trained them all how to focus on what was important, what was necessary to survive. Idle thoughts were easily dismissed or repressed altogether in crisis situations. This shouldn't be happening—except it was—and the only reasonable explanation Dick could come up with was that the new fear toxin concentrated on those types of small worries, pushing them to become something larger, more distracting, and ultimately incapacitating.
Damian flopped down next to Dick, his head landing somewhere around Tim's thigh, and Dick suddenly worried that they might crush Tim. He started to move, took a deep breath, then lay back down.
"We're not going to crush Red Robin," Dick said, horrified with himself for the absurdity of the thought.
"How did you know that's what I was thinking?" Damian demanded. "Are you sure? I have really stupid shoulders, and—and you're heavy."
"I am not heavy," Dick protested, but he had put on considerable muscle when he'd been Batman, so maybe he was heavier than he used to be. But he still wasn't anywhere near what Bruce or Jason weighed. He was muscular and fit and, oh, for the love of God!
"Stop. Robin, stop it. Think about what you're saying. Does it make logical sense? You know there's no reason to worry."
Damian seemed to center himself, then growled. "What's happening to us?"
A creepy cackle of laughter came at them out of the darkness. "Don't worry, boys. Scarecrow's here."
Jason followed Bruce through the dark tunnel, one hand on Batman's shoulder. The night vision lenses in the domino helped, but Jason could've done without seeing exactly how many rats were hanging out in the sewers. It was bad enough he could hear them skittering and squeaking, but every time he caught sight of their eyes reflecting back at him through the lenses, he felt a faint chill. No, he really wasn't a fan of rats.
Jason and Batman followed the direction of the sewer for probably a mile before a light ahead caused their night vision to flare.
"Can you knock out those lights while I move ahead?"
Jason was already extracting a batarang from his pocket. "Just like riding a bicycle."
Batman glanced over his shoulder at him. "If you don't think you can do it, if you're not absolutely sure—"
Jason wanted to roll his eyes and make a sarcastic comment, neither of which would've been effective under the current circumstances, so he settled for squeezing Bruce's armour-clad shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture, and said, "I can do it. Go on."
"I'll take Scarecrow and his men. You get to the boys."
Then Batman was moving, at one with the shadows along the wall. Jason knew he would be walking blind, eyes closed to minimize the effect on his night vision when the lights went out. Jason calculated the distance and angles in his head, the amount of spin he'd need to get both lights with one throw, then prepped a second batarang just in case. He took a deep breath, steadied himself and threw.
Dick heard the whirr of a thrown projectile a second before the lights went out in rapid succession. Batman. His night vision was useless at the moment, and he couldn't get a hand free to reset the lenses in the mask. He and Damian had been working at their knots, back to back, for what felt like a long time, with no success. They kept getting distracted by stupid, petty worries about whether they were doing things right, how Tim was doing, and what Scarecrow was going on about in his monologue.
The sound of fists connecting with flesh and the dull thud of bodies hitting the floor were comforting. Dick took a deep breath and assured himself they were about to be rescued. Tim would be fine. There would be an antidote to this persistent thread of worry that kept interfering with his ability to do what he needed to do.
Suddenly, someone was beside him, and Dick immediately tensed, preparing to fight if he had to.
"Calm down, Big Bird," Jason's familiar voice said, practically in his ear, and if Dick had his arms free, he would've wrapped his little brother in a ferocious hug. "Let me get rid of these pesky ropes."
Dick could feel the tell-tale motion of a blade sawing through the tough rope. "I'm really glad to see you," he said, and Jason stopped cutting long enough to give his arm a quick squeeze.
"Is Replacement okay?"
"I don't know," Dick said, straining to get a look at Tim, even though he knew he couldn't see him through the pitch blackness. "His pulse was okay, but I don't know how long that's been, and he still isn't conscious."
Tim groaned at that. "Yes, I am. I'm just not happy about it."
"And where's the kid?" Jason asked, still working on Dick's ropes. They had a thin steel cable through the middle which was causing Jason considerable grief, even with the sharp edge of the batarang.
"What do you mean?" Dick asked, alarmed. "He was right here a minute ago."
Jason searched the darkness through his night vision lenses. "Scarecrow's holding him, but he seems okay. Security for when Bats finishes with his lackeys, I suppose."
"We have to do something," Dick said, struggling to get his feet under him.
Jason wrapped an arm around him and held him in place even though Dick could hear the sharp intake of breath as Jason's ribs groaned in protest. "Whoa. You're not untied yet. Stay put. I know right now you're worrying about every little thing, like whether you left your curling iron on, or if your suit really does make your ass look big—"
Dick couldn't help but laugh. Jason had always, always managed to cut through the bullshit, even when no one wanted to hear it, and he'd had a wicked sense of humour, even when he'd been a kid. Dick was sorry he hadn't spent more time with him then. He was going to make up for it now.
"—but—see what I did there? big butt?—anyway, you need to listen to me. This new fear toxin is making all those little things seem huge right now, but they're not, and you know it. You just have to keep reminding yourself of that. Red Robin is fine."
"I wouldn't say fine, exactly," Tim said.
"Red Robin is fine," Jason repeated, "Robin is going to be fine. Batman is kicking ass and doesn't give a damn about taking names."
"What about you?" Dick asked, trying to focus.
"Me? Well, I got out of the hospital. With pants. I've got some pretty good drugs, and I was fourth on Bats' list of people he could trust. I think I've moved up a couple of spots. Take that, Flash!"
The cable binding Dick's wrists finally snapped, and Jason handed him a batarang to cut his own feet loose while Jason went to work on Tim's ropes.
"Here," Jason said, handing over a vial of the antidote to Dick. "It's not going to make it go away, but it might help a bit. Bats was still worrying about stuff, but seemed to catch himself doing it more often than not."
Dick nodded and swallowed the vial down, then helped Tim to a sitting position and made him swallow a vial himself. Then he flicked his lenses over to night vision and went back to work on the bindings around his ankles.
In the darkness, he could see clearly now: Scarecrow pulled back into a safe corner, Damian held against him with a gloved hand covering his mouth, a syringe to his throat. God only knew what was in it. It could be more of the same or something ten times worse. The dose could be fatal. What if—
Jason nudged him gently, and Dick realized he'd stopped sawing at the cable. "I'm okay," he said, applying himself to the task at hand, trying to keep his mind blank. "Keep talking. It's distracting. It helps."
Jason nodded, sawing away at Tim's ropes. "Not to alarm you, or anything, but do you see the rats?"
Dick looked into the darkness, caught the greenish glow of eyes staring back. A lot of eyes on pointy faces with sharp teeth, and they were moving closer. "They're moving toward us."
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Jason doubled his efforts to cut through the cable. "Think Scarecrow's gone Pied Piper on us?"
"It's possible," Dick said. "I think we'd better get on our feet as soon as we can."
"No shit, Sherlock," Jason said, but it wasn't unkind, and he didn’t pause in his fight to cut through Tim's bonds. "I really don't like rats. Do you? Does anyone?"
"No," Tim muttered from the floor. "I don't want to get eaten by rats."
"You're not going to—" Jason started. "Finally!"
The ropes around Tim's feet fell away and he jumped up, then almost immediately started to go down. Jason caught him, lowering him back to the floor with a murmured, "Easy, kid. You've probably got a concussion. Wing, as soon as you're free, get to work on Red's hands. I'm going to see if I can do something about our rodent problem."
Batman loved the darkness. Even as a kid, he'd never been afraid of it. It was simply part of the natural cycle of things: day and night, light and dark, life and death. His father was a doctor, and things were explained as part of a larger picture. He was supposed to always keep that in mind, and not dwell on the small things.
Right now, the small things were all Bruce had. He could feel every minute ache his body carried, every muscle that was over-extended, the way his heart pounded in his ears like the echo of distant explosions. The antidote was helping—he knew it was—but all that meant was he wasn't completely overcome by the thoughts that plagued him. He still had to concentrate to pour his energy into activity rather than thought, and he was taking far more hits than he normally would in a match against petty thugs, even this many of them.
He couldn't spare the time to check on Jason, had to trust that his second son was doing what he needed to free the others instead of letting his temper get the best of him and going after Scarecrow without backup. While injured. Bruce should never have brought him here, never should've gotten Jason involved. And he'd put a weapon in his hands. A tranquilizer gun, sure, but still a gun. What kind of message was he sending? What had he done?
The blow to Batman's sternum knocked him to his knees, even with the chest plate in place. Scarecrow's guys were using brass knuckles to give their punches more impact against the body armour. It was working.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jason kneeling in the center of the room working on Tim's wrists. Dick had his hands free and was sawing away at the ties around his own ankles. And Damian was ... damn it. Damian was in Scarecrow's hands, and Bruce felt a knot of fear growing in his stomach. These were his children. What business did he have dragging them into this kind of life? Putting them in danger over and over.
"Batman, down!" Dick called suddenly, and Bruce instinctively dropped. The blade whirled harmlessly over his head, and he took advantage of his new position to sweep two of his opponents off their feet. He rolled back to standing, grabbing the staff one had dropped—Tim's staff—and decided he'd done his best to subdue these men without grave injuries. They were so hopped up on Scarecrow's chemicals, though, they wouldn't stay down, and Bruce was going to be forced to use strike techniques that would render the men unconscious.
Blows like that could turn fatal easily, and there was a fine line between cracking a jaw or cracking a skull open. He didn't want any deaths on his conscience; it wasn't his place to be judge, jury, and executioner, and he believed in the system even when he knew it was fatally flawed. It still had to be given the opportunity to work as it had been designed.
He was down to about half as many opponents as he'd started against, but he felt no nearer to his goal, which was to get his boys and get them safely out of there. He saw Jason stand up and yell for night vision off. Bruce counted to three in his head and blinked his eyes closed, switching lenses between one instant and the next. The room brightened with flares, giving him the advantage as Scarecrow's men floundered in the sudden blast of light.
He wasn't alone in this. Every one of his children had been trained by him and by competent others, and he had to trust they would protect themselves and each other. His duty right now was to fight. And win. He smiled at the men he faced, then beckoned them closer with his gauntlet.
Jason could see there was no longer any advantage to having night vision. Scarecrow was clearly enjoying watching the fight, and the rats weren't afraid of them in this kind of environment. This was their home turf down in the muck and the darkness. Time to change the odds.
"Night vision off!" Jason shouted, then counted to three, hoping it was enough time for everyone (except Scarecrow and his goons) to switch to regular lenses. Then he tossed a handful of flares in a circle around them, the rats immediately shying away from the light, but it wouldn't keep them at bay for long, especially if they were hungry.
From Scarecrow's corner there was clapping, and Jason turned to see Damian had been handed off to a lackey who looked entirely too much like a guy who shared DNA with the rats. His nose and chin were pointy, his face narrow, cheekbones so sharp he appeared emaciated. White wisps of hair clung to his round head, and his ears stuck out instead of lying flat. His eyes blinked rapidly and in the low light seemed almost completely black. When he smiled, all Jason could see were sharp front teeth. Fuck, Scarecrow had gotten weird since he'd been gone.
"Look, Scarecrow, just let the kid go," Jason said. It never worked, but it was worth trying. At the very least it bought time for Batman to deal with the rest of his fifteen guys, and get ready to make a move. If he'd been in peak condition, Jason would've already done something by now, but he knew his ribs made him a liability, and he didn't want to alert Scarecrow to that weakness unless there was no alternative.
"I don't think I know you," Scarecrow said, staring at him across the circle of flares. "It's not very polite to come into someone's lair without even introducing yourself. Rudeness is punished where I come from."
"Yeah, didn't your grandma used to lock you in the attic for that?" Jason taunted. "Or was that your father? Oh wait, he didn't love you enough to stick around. Yeah, that's right. You were a poor scrawny nerd who loved books, but nobody loved you."
"Insolent whelp! How do you—how dare you speak of that witch!" Scarecrow was shaking with rage, his hands rising. Jason could see he carried gas grenades.
"Rebreathers," Jason shouted a second before the grenade burst beside him, green smoke blossoming upwards in an all-encompassing cloud. He shoved his rebreather over his mouth and nose. He hated the thing, but it was useful.
"Gone," Nightwing called, and shit, Jason wished he'd known that beforehand. He might've just exposed his brothers to something worse than they were already dealing with. He ran back to where Dick and Tim were coughing in the middle of the floor. Well, at least the rats had retreated when the grenade went off.
"How bad?" Jason said through the mouth piece, waving the green haze away and concentrating on Dick's eyes. The pupils seemed near normal.
"I don't feel any different," Dick said quietly, and Tim nodded his agreement. "Maybe it was one of the formulae covered by the antidote."
They usually weren't that lucky, but Jason would take the win. Dick was almost through the cable holding Tim's wrists, Bats seemed to have the upper hand in his fight, and there was only Damian left in imminent danger. Jason had to do something about that.
He bent down and pressed the gun into Dick's hands, shaking his head at Dick's questioning gaze. He kept his voice barely above a whisper. "You've got two shots loaded. Make them count. I'm going to try for the kid. Trust me, okay?"
"Who are you?" Scarecrow was saying, staring at Jason through the cloud of dissipating gas. "You're not any Bird or Bat I know, but there's something familiar about you."
Jason stepped forward. "I'm hurt, Scarecrow, that you don't remember me. We had some fun times. Mostly you tying me up and using me to lure Batman to his death, but hey, we're both still around."
"Boy Wonder?" Scarecrow seemed puzzled. The ratty little man had his arm around Damian's throat, a syringe at the ready. "Not the acrobat. Not the detective. No, you were the one Joker took care of. He said he killed you. I'm quite sure of that."
"It didn't stick."
"Naughty, naughty." Scarecrow's face took on a gruesome grin. "Someone's been playing in the Lazarus pits. I can see it on you now, the taint of it. The madness that rots the soul."
"Don't listen to him," Dick murmured, standing up and looking for an angle. Tim was at his side, unsteady, but on his feet.
Jason moved closer, hands out to indicate he wasn't carrying anything. "You know what I remember most from hanging out together way back then? I remember what a coward you were, Crane. How a little dose of your own medicine had you curled in a ball of crazy."
"Clearly, you value this boy's life very little," Scarecrow said conversationally. The tip of the syringe in Rat-man's hand pressed against Damian's skin. "Do you wish to hear him scream? Children truly make the most delightful sounds when they're terrified."
"No!" Batman said, knocking out the last of his opponents, and everyone turned to look at him.
"Robin, drop!" Jason shouted, taking three giant steps forward and diving for Damian as the boy let his deadweight and gravity pull him away from the rat-faced man's hold. Bruce saw his youngest dropping heavily to the floor, just before Jason's bulk slid protectively around him.
At the same time Jason dived, Bruce saw Dick raise a handgun, take aim and fire. He blinked, unable to believe what he was seeing, and for the second time in less than a minute, he found himself yelling "No!", knowing it would have no effect on the events unfolding before his eyes.
The first round plowed into Crane's chest, right over his heart, making the tall, gaunt figure fall backwards against the concrete wall. A second round slammed into the little rat-faced man, hitting him in the neck as he bent over where Jason had landed, shielding Robin with his broad shoulders.
Batman tried to blink the nightmare image away, of Dick with a raised gun in his hand, shooting down two men in cold blood.
Except there wasn't any blood. Why wasn't there any blood?
"Tranq gun," Tim said, hobbling up beside Batman and shaking his arm. "It was just a tranq gun. Nobody's dead. Not even a little bit."
Batman reached out and wrapped his arms around Tim, pulling the boy in hard against his chest and hanging on. One of the men on the floor lifted his head in a daze; Batman kicked him, and he dropped back to the ground, oblivious once more.
"It's okay, Batman," Tim said, holding on in return. "We're all okay."
"Christ!" Jason yelped as he felt the needle drag through the skin, then jab into his neck even as Ratty slumped on top of him, and Jason couldn't shake him off without doing even more damage to his ribs. He was already struggling to catch his breath. He didn't have any choice but to stay there, Damian pulled awkwardly underneath him, and the creepy Rat-dude collapsed against his back. Scarecrow could no longer be seen, but Jason knew Dick had hit him dead on with the tranquilizer dart. Even if Scarecrow had slunk off into the sewer, he should be unconscious by now.
"You're crushing me," Damian complained, and Jason let his weight rest even more heavily on the kid even though it was killing his ribs.
"Shut up, twerp. I just saved your life."
Dick was the first one to them, pushing the unconscious bulk of Scarecrow's lackey to the side and helping Jason to a sitting position, hands immediately reaching for Jason's damaged ribs. "Can you breathe?"
Dick grabbed Damian as he tried to slip away, and pulled the kid into a tight hug. Then he released Damian and put a hand around the back of Jason's neck, pulling their foreheads together. "Don't do that again. You were right in my line of fire when you leapt. I could've shot you."
"The worst you would've done was tranq me. Besides, I know which rookie cop had the highest marksmanship scores in Bludhaven PD's history. I wasn't worried."
Dick pulled his hand away, and looked at it. There was a streak of blood and something chemical smelling on it. "Jay?"
Jason's eyes settled on Dick's hand. "Oh, did I mention Rat-dude kind of stuck me with the syringe he had to Damian's throat?"
"No, you didn't mention that," Dick said, the worry in his voice reaching DefCon 5 levels.
Jason grinned stupidly at Dick's worried face and patted him on the cheek. "Don't worry, bro! I'll be right as—"
Halfway through his thought, Jason lost consciousness and sprawled forward into Dick's arms.
Jason was drifting in a haze. He'd been here before, many times recently, although at the moment recently stretched into forever. It seemed as if he'd always been here. Drifting between sleep and almost wakefulness, detached from his body in a way that told him he would regret inhabiting his physical self again. There would be pain there, considerable pain, and this was his mind protecting him from it. He understood a certain amount about that, although when he'd been fifteen and bludgeoned by a crowbar, he wasn't sure his mind had been on his side. Or maybe there had simply been no way to distance himself from what was happening to him at the time. He'd been dying, after all, and maybe the mind demanded awareness, an understanding that these were your last moments, all you would ever have, and maybe you should do something with those handful of breaths left to you.
"Jason, wake up."
Someone was holding his hand again. It was the first thing he realized after coming fully awake, and he couldn't help but smile as he let his eyes flutter open, expecting to see Dick beside him, Dick's hand clutching his.
It wasn't Dick.
The word was barely a whisper even though Jason was certain he'd intended it to be louder. His throat felt raw, as if it had been over-used, which made no sense since he'd been asleep.
"I'm right here," Bruce said, squeezing his hand, then calling for Alfred in the next breath. The two of them helped him sit up and sip some ice water through a straw, and it felt so good on his parched throat, Jason was baffled.
"How long—" It sounded like there was gravel in his throat.
"About twelve days."
He knew his eyes were wide with shock. How could he possibly have been out of it for twelve days? It was then he got his first good look around and realized he was in a room at the Manor. They hadn't taken him to a hospital; Bruce had taken him home, which probably meant there wasn't anything a regular hospital could've done for him.
Bruce grimaced. "Your voice will come back. Don't strain yourself right now. The fear toxin was—extremely potent. You were ... screaming."
Jason thought about it. A dose that left him screaming and unconscious for almost two weeks would've killed Damian. He was suddenly grateful he didn't remember anything much after collapsing in the underground room in the sewers.
"Disappeared. It was more important we get you an antidote than chase after him. As it was," Bruce said bitterly, "none of the combinations we tried worked, and synthesizing a whole new antidote took time. Far too much time."
"I don't remember."
Jason woke at frequent intervals after that, as if the excess amount of sleep from the previous twelve days was being paid back with an equal amount of wakefulness.
Usually when he woke, day or night, someone was there, holding his hand. He came to expect the feeling of pressure, like a phantom limb belonging to someone else. More often than not, it was Dick's cheerful face Jason woke up to and sometimes wanted to punch just on principle. Nobody should seem that upbeat all the time.
"Dickie-bird," Jason whispered when he found Dick asleep on the bed beside him, still clutching his hand. "Wake up, pretty bird. People will talk."
"Let them. Go back to sleep, Jay," was all Dick said, shifting closer, and Jason couldn't find it in himself to protest. Dick was warm and safe, and the bed was bigger than anything Jason had slept in for a long time. He left his hand in Dick's and let his eyes drift closed.
The first time Damian woke him, Jason almost had a heart attack. He sat up in bed so fast he could hear his ribs protest along with the springs.
"What? What? I'm awake. What's happening?"
"You were ... " Damian stared at him, his olive-skin strangely pale, and Jason knew from the tingling in his cheek that Damian had hit him to wake him up.
"Did you hit me?"
Damian bit his lip and looked vaguely embarrassed, but he nodded solemnly. "You were screaming again."
It had been a week of relatively quiet nights, he'd been told. Jason didn't remember the worst of the toxin's effects, which seemed like a substantial flaw, unless it was meant to traumatize the people who were looking after the afflicted, in which case it worked perfectly. Jason wasn't sure he'd ever get used to the idea of waking out of a deep sleep, no recollection of what he'd been dreaming, and seeing Bruce or Dick or one of the others pale-faced and sweating beside the bed having spent the last few minutes trying to wake him from whatever hell they imagined he was facing. He never remembered.
"Sorry," Jason said. He knew the screaming upset everyone, but there wasn't much he could do about it. He was just grateful he didn't remember whatever brought the reaction on. He'd had enough of those nights early on, after he'd clawed his way out of his grave, and he was only too happy to forget.
Tim always came when he was awake, and Jason appreciated the fact. Tim brought books, and even though Jason was alert enough to read on his own, there was something soothing about being read to, and Tim seemed to know exactly what books had been Jason's favourites growing up.
"Did Alfred spill all my secrets?" Jason asked one day. "Did you hack the Gotham Public Library's record system to figure out my favourites?"
Tim shook his head as if the answer should've been obvious. "You do realize they kept everything, right? All your stuff? For the longest time, they didn't even touch the room, but eventually Alfred put things in storage."
He hadn't known, although thinking about it, he supposed he should've. The copy of Fahrenheit 451 Tim had been reading wasn't just the same edition as the one Jason remembered owning, it was the same damn book. Jason knew now if he looked inside the cover, he'd find his own childish scrawl spelling out "Jason Peter Todd." Bruce had immortalized him with that glass case memorial downstairs; why shouldn't he have done the same with Jason's childhood bedroom? At least they hadn't made it his sick room.
"Jesus," Jason said. "This must've been one hell of a cheery place back then. No wonder you wanted in on the Robin gig."
"Batman needed a Robin," Tim said simply, as he always did when it came up, then picked up the book and started reading aloud again. Jason accepted it for what it was—an offer of peace between them—and decided he liked Tim for all the ways he wasn't like either Jason or Dick. He tried not to think about how Tim shared many of Bruce's best qualities, and how it had been Bruce who read to him when he'd been a kid and too sick with the flu to hold the book himself.
In spite of himself, as he grew to like Tim more, Jason found his desire to fight with Bruce diminished, his hate less virulent, and his desire for connection became a tangible thing. He had no family, and the one he'd had to start with hadn't been the kind they wrote happy stories about. The closest to a real family he was ever going to have was with Bruce and the others, but Jason was afraid of how fragile this peace between them was, how one mistake on his part could easily see him back in jail or Arkham or worse. He wasn't sure he had the strength to endure rejection like that again.
"People think someone drove the Red Hood out of town," Damian said out of the blue one day.
He was sitting on the edge of Jason's bed, doing math problems from school, even though he could probably do advanced level calculus without too much effort. School had apparently been one of those non-negotiable things, and Jason admired Bruce for trying to give the kid some kind of normality in a life that was anything but normal.
"Someone like who?" Jason asked. His voice was back to its usual timbre, his ribs were basically healed, and he'd been allowed moderate workouts for about a week. It was time for him to go home and get his life on track.
"Batman, probably. Or somebody like Black Mask."
"Oh, please," Jason scoffed. "Black Mask couldn't drive me out of town if he had a car and a road map."
Damian snorted. Jason liked that about the kid. All of Jason's jokes were suddenly new again, and Damian was a strangely appreciative audience. While Jason was wondering what other jokes he could wow the kid with, he found himself blindsided with one of Damian's rare hugs, which were usually reserved for Grayson.
"Hey, what's that for?"
"You saved my life. I didn't have a chance to say thank you before."
"All our lives," Dick said, pushing the heavy wooden door open and entering the room. He was trailed by Tim.
"Does that mean we all have to hug him?" Tim asked, as if he already knew the answer.
"Yup!" Dick grinned like an idiot, then launched himself forward, somersaulting onto the bed and crashing into Jason.
"Oh, shit, my ribs, you idiot!" Jason yelped, and suddenly, Dick was dead serious. He had a hand on Jason's ribs in an instant, checking for new injuries.
"Where does it hurt, Little Wing?"
"Why? You want to kiss it better?"
Jason laughed and easily blocked the half-hearted punch Dick threw at him, but was less successful evading Dick's tickling fingers.
"Okay, okay, stop! I give up. Uncle," Jason gasped breathlessly.
"You're an asshole," Dick said, punching Jason in the shoulder this time. "I thought I hurt you."
"You always hurt the ones you love."
It slipped out as a joke, but Dick must've caught something in Jason's face because he turned serious when he said, "Of course we love you. You're our brother. You know that, don't you?"
Jason didn't know what to say to that, and the longer he paused, the more he felt three pairs of blue eyes staring at him.
"Jason, you know you're family, right? The last few weeks, the last few months haven't proven that to you?"
Jason swallowed hard, and he looked away. "It's been swell, but it's time to get back to reality. I need to go home, and for things to get back to normal."
"And what's normal mean?" Tim asked. "You go back to being a douchebag who won't talk to us and won't let us help?"
Jason turned and stared at Tim who was red-faced and angry. It wasn't something Jason had come to expect from Tim.
"No," he said. "I—I can't go back to the way things were, but you guys have to understand, it isn't the same for me. It's complicated."
"It doesn't have to be," Bruce said from the doorway, and Jason dropped his head into his hands. This was not the way he imagined leaving the Manor. "I know you're still angry with me about certain things, and maybe we'll never be able to resolve that, but it doesn't mean you're not part of this family. You're welcome here any time, Jason, and your brothers want you to be here."
"What about you?" Jason couldn't help but ask. "Wouldn't you rather I was behind bars where I can't hurt anyone, can't kill anyone?"
"You haven't killed anyone in over a year as far as I know. I'm aware of the effort you've been making."
"So I get a gold star and an invitation to Sunday dinner?"
Tim made a frustrated sound. "Can't you ditch the sarcasm and just accept you're part of this family? We need you. All of us. Nobody's much good at saying that sort of stuff except maybe Dick, but it doesn't make it less true, and you know that. What do we have to do to prove it to you?"
"You don't have to do anything," Jason said because he didn't have an answer for Tim.
"Oh, bullshit," Tim said in a rare outburst. "You're waiting for us to let you down, for us to turn around and sell you out, to say we don't want you around because you're not good enough to be one of us, and that's bull. You were—you were Robin! That makes you part of this whether you still believe in us or not, and we don't give up on family."
Bruce put a big hand on Tim's shoulder, and Jason saw the "stop" reflex kick in. Robin conditioning at its most basic.
"It's been a long few weeks for everyone," Bruce said. "Let's give Jason some time to adjust to everything he's had to deal with, okay? The invitation to be part of this family isn't a limited time offer. When Jason's ready, he knows where we are."
Bruce took Tim by the shoulders and steered him out of the room, Damian following close behind. Dick gave Jason a rueful smile, then headed for the door.
Dick stopped and crossed to the edge of the bed.
"I'm not saying no."
"I know, Jay."
"I just need some time to—I mean, it's been a long time. You know?"
Dick nodded and sat down. "You don't have to explain yourself. You're entitled to take whatever time you need. Bruce gets it, probably more than anyone."
"I wasn't expecting Tim to be the problem."
"You have to remember Tim grew up when you were Robin. He watched you, admired you, and when you died, he's the one who figured out what had happened. He's the one who saw Batman going off the rails and tried to do something. Tim took his role very seriously because he looked up to you, Jason."
"His opinion's been going downhill since he met me, I would imagine."
"Don't do that," Dick said. "Don't act like you're this terrible guy who—"
"I'm no angel. You know I've—"
"I know we've all done things we regret, but you're my brother, Jay. That hasn't changed."
Jason laughed. "Yeah? I can remember when you couldn't stand me. When you thought I was some loud-mouthed street punk trespassing on your daddy issues."
Dick stared back at him, and Jason felt himself burn red. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"
"Yes, you did," Dick said, heading for the door. "You're right; it's probably time for you to go home. Be seeing you."
He didn't turn around as he left, just closed the door behind him.
"Fuck!" Jason said, dragging a hand through his hair. He needed to get away from here and have some time to put things back in perspective. Well, no time like the present. He found his clothes hanging in the closet, neatly pressed. He dressed, wrote a quick note, and slipped out the window into the night. He'd walk to the main road—the fresh air would do him good—then hitch a ride or use his phone to call a cab.
The sooner he was on his own again, the better.
Jason wasn't expecting what was waiting for him at his apartment. When he opened the door, the first thing he saw was a hand-lettered sign that said, "Welcome Home, Jason!" It made him feel like even more of a heel because it was clear Dick and the other two had done this days ago in anticipation of him being well enough to return.
His apartment was spotless, which it shouldn't have been considering the last memory Jason had of it was being wheeled out on a gurney. Someone had put fresh sheets on his bed, fresh towels in the bathroom, and there were groceries in the refrigerator that consisted of more than frozen pizzas and expired yogurt. Jason looked sadly at the six-pack of Dick's favorite beer, Tim's energy drinks, and Damian's stupid European fizzy water. They were trying to tell him they wanted to be part of his life, and what had he done? Bailed on them as soon as he got a little bit twitchy, and hurt Dick's feelings in the bargain.
This was why Jason wasn't keen on the "one big happy family" thing; he sucked at it. He crawled into bed and lay there for a long time, not sleeping. He had to fix things. He just wasn't sure how.
Three nights later, Jason found himself on a rooftop overlooking the financial district. It wasn't his usual haunt. He wasn't even sure why he'd ended up there until he heard a pair of boots land lightly behind him.
"You're an asshole," Tim said to him, coming to stand beside Jason on the edge of the roof. "You have all these people who want to help you, who want to be part of your life, and you constantly push them away and treat them like shit."
Jason supposed maybe he deserved that, but it still wasn't easy to hear. "Do unto others before they can do unto you."
Tim flipped the lenses in his cowl so his eyes showed. "Are you serious?"
"It's kind of the first thing I learned as a kid, Red. If you're reacting, you're already too late. Strike first, strike fast, and strike hard." Jason looked at him. He'd chosen the domino instead of his full red hood; he dropped his lenses. "You know where I grew up. I'm a suspicious bastard. Why does this still surprise you?"
Tim shook his head. "I don't know. I guess I figured you would've gotten it through your brain by now that we're not the people you need to fight."
They stood there, listening to the sounds of the city below them. Finally Jason said, "Not much happening down there. What say we call it a night?"
"And do what?" Tim asked carefully.
"I've got these vile energy drinks I'd like to get rid of, and I could go for a pizza. I hate to eat alone," Jason said honestly.
"You sure? I mean, I wouldn't want you to feel obligated. It's not like we're family or anything."
"Tim? Take the win, okay?"
He grinned. "Okay. But you'd better make up with Nightwing soon. He's driving us all crazy."
"You must repair this rift with Grayson," Damian said, swinging down onto the rooftop beside Jason. He was wearing his Robin outfit, but this time Jason could see the silhouette of Batman a couple of rooftops over. He nodded an acknowledgment.
"He won't stand still long enough for me to talk to him, kid," Jason explained. "Believe me, I've tried. So far, we've ended up playing tag across the entire west side of the city, and getting caught in the middle of a gang war down on the docks. By the time the instigators were put down, he'd disappeared."
"He'll be at the corner of 15th and Broad in about ten minutes."
"How do you know that?"
"Because that's where Red Robin's reporting you're in trouble."
Jason blinked and shook his head. "That isn't a good idea."
"Too late. I suggest you get going; you should be able to beat him there by a few minutes. You'll have time to work on your apology."
Jason grinned. "You're pretty bossy for a Robin, you know."
"I'm a better kind of Robin."
Jason laughed and caught Damian in a hug. "Thanks, kid. You're alright for a little brother."
Damian looked pleased, then rolled his eyes in exasperation. "All will be for nought if Nightwing arrives and you're not there. Go!"
Jason gave the kid a quick hair ruffle, then leapt over the side of the roof, launching his grappel at the last second. The feel of flying through the air tethered by only a slim cord of wire never got old.
Jason was winded when he hit the rooftop at 15th and Broad. He'd had to really push himself, but he'd beat Nightwing there. Of course, now his recently-healed body was protesting, so that when Dick did touch down on the roof, Jason was sitting on the ground trying to catch his breath. Dick was at his side in an instant.
"What happened? Are you hurt?"
Hands swept over Jason's chest and ribs checking for obvious damage. He waved Dick off, shaking his head.
Dick sat back on his heels and eyed Jason suspiciously. "You weren't really in trouble, were you?"
"No, but—" Jason reached out and grasped Dick's arm in both of his hands. "Please don't go. I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry for what I said to you."
"Fine," Dick said. "You've apologized. Now let me go. There's work to be done."
Dick's fist clenched and Jason worried for a moment that he was about to get slugged. "Let. Me. Go."
"Not until you listen to me. You want us to be family. You want it so desperately, you can taste it, but I'm sorry, you've got to take the bad with the good. Sometimes I'm going to be an asshole. Sometimes I'm going to freak out because I never had anybody who cared enough growing up, and now I've got you who cares too much and it scares the hell out of me."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, I've been chasing you around this city for a week, watching you save everyone you can find. You're driving yourself to exhaustion, and it's because you're mad at me and you're mad at yourself."
"Don't flatter yourself, Hood. It's got nothing to do with—"
"You couldn't have done anything to save me, Dick. You weren't even on the planet at the time." Jason shook Dick by the shoulders. "I never blamed you for any of that, and I forgave you for not wanting a brother under the circumstances."
"I never said—"
"No wonder you hated me. He kicked you out, and then I showed up and stepped into your life, your costume, your place. I know how that feels now, and it sucks."
"It wasn't your fault, either," Dick said, shoulders softening, his whole posture becoming looser and more malleable. "It's not as if you went looking to be Robin."
"And then I got myself killed."
Dick shook his head, his mouth turning downward. "I couldn't believe it when Alfred told me. It'd been two months already, and no one told me. I felt like—I felt like I'd let you down. I could've helped, could've been a mentor, a big brother, but I was too angry and too selfish to think about what you might be going through. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you."
Jason pulled Dick into a fierce hug and held on, feeling the same kind of power in Dick's arms as they wrapped around his shoulders. "I don't want to fight with you. I just—I just want—my brother back."
"You can't get rid of me, Little Wing," Dick said. "Not that easily."
"I really am sorry."
"Do you think we could maybe get off this rooftop and go somewhere else? I don't think I can deal with being mocked by Penguin for getting caught hugging. I've got that crap beer you like at my place."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah, some little birds left it in my refrigerator."
By the time they got to Jason's apartment, the window was already open for them.
"Pizza should be here any minute," Tim said breezily, grabbing another can of Red Bull from the fridge.
Damian sipped bottled water and contemplated the crappy Netflix selections. "Did you really watch 'The Notebook,' Todd? That seems self-destructive, even for you."
"Don't judge, brat." Jason peeled off his domino and his heavy motorcycle jacket, then headed to the bedroom to change.
There was pizza and beer, an awful zombie movie and worse jokes, mostly made by Jason because if you've died and come back, you've got to be able to laugh at yourself at least a little. Batman could see the four of them crammed onto Jason's old 1950s-style couch, jostling for space and tossing drinks and remotes back and forth like grenades. His boys were all together and they were safe. They would look after one another. Of that he was certain.
As he gazed over the city, he felt a sense of peace settling deep in his soul, like an anchor. Things would be all right.