Tim pulls into the cave a little after four in the morning. He parks his bike. Crookedly. Sloppily. Honestly, he’s just glad he managed to dismount without falling over.
The chair by the Batcomputer is waiting for him like an old and probably toxic friend. The report is dull. It was a slow night.
He checks his schedule, then his watch. He has a meeting in four hours.
There’s time to squeeze in one or two hours of sleep. Not at his apartment, but he can take a nap here. To be safe, he should do it now, in case something comes up. He tries to remember the last time he slept. The unread reports stare up at him from the screen. He thinks about climbing into one of the medical cots on the other side of the cave.
He puts on a pot of coffee instead.
His domino tugs at his skin painfully as he pulls it off. He should be used to the feeling by now, but he’s annoyed anyway. Then he’s annoyed that he’s annoyed.
Groaning, he scrubs a hand over his face. Breathes deep. Counts to ten. He should be used to all of this by now.
The chair is waiting for him and he settles back into it, warm mug cradled in one hand. He pulls up the most relevant reports and starts reading.
The clock is ticking.
He’s so zoned into the screen he doesn’t notice the Batmobile roaring into the cave until the tires squeal as it skids to a halt.
Tim starts, splashing long-cooled coffee across his lap as he lurches upright. Bruce is practically throwing himself out of the driver’s seat. He stalks around to the back of the car and Tim stares, confused.
He calls out. “Mask?”
Bruce grunts a negative.
Tim circles the car in time to see Bruce haul something—someone out. They’re big, but not quite as tall as Bruce, clad in black Kevlar and brown leather, wrists cuffed. Tim stops in his tracks when he recognizes the man.
It’s Jason fucking Todd.
The whole fuckin’ disaster starts like this:
Jason’s casing a warehouse in New York, looking for some stolen power cells, when the Batman shows his ugly mug out of fuckin’ nowhere.
As soon as he sees the flutter of cape, Jason ducks down behind the one of the crates in the warehouse, hoping he wasn’t just spotted. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he whispers furiously. He’d be willing to trade his own left leg for a sightline, but he can’t risk moving. The Bat will see him if he moves. Every second that goes by without knowing if he’s made, his pulse pounds louder and faster in his ears. There’s blood in his mouth and he knows it’s not fuckin’ real, fuckin’ stop it.
He yanks the helmet off, suddenly claustrophobic, and sucks in a breath of unfiltered air. He takes a few lung-fuls, trying to stay calm. He can finish the job. It’s fine. He’s fine, and this is fuckin’ dumb and he can finish the job. He can.
And then he thinks: Fuck this shit.
He turns to leave, helmet in hand, and runs straight into a motherfucking nightmare.
He jerks back, blind, his pulse shooting through the fuckin’ roof. A kick and a gut punch in quick succession and he’s left wheezing, half-mad with panic, and then a heavy gauntlet is wrapped around the side of his head and—
That’s a wall.
Jason swallows convulsively, his tongue feeling heavy and too-big in his mouth. The warehouse lurches psychotically and he wonders for a minute if one of the rogues managed to manipulate physics somehow, but then it settles down.
The ringing in his ears fades a bit and he swallows again, trying not to vomit. He’s curled in on himself, lying on the ground. He blinks, trying to clear his vision as the warehouse lurches again.
No, this time it’s him that’s moving.
Batman’s iron grip is wrapped around the collar of Jason’s jacket, dragging him up like he doesn’t weigh a thing. Jason gets a flash of the suit, the warehouse behind it, and then a face-full of pissed-off vigilante. He’s thrown against the wall, hard, and then Batman’s all up in his face again, armored forearm pinning him by the throat.
“I told you to stay out of Gotham,” the Dark Knight thunders, and Jason scowls. He hasn’t been in Gotham in months.
“Does this look like fuckin’ Gotham to you?”
The arm under his chin shoves up and back and Jason’s hands jerk up to scrabble for a hold on the armor as his feet stop touching the ground.
“I haven’t been anywhere,” Jason drags in a painful breath, “near Gotham. I swear to fuckin’ God.”
The Bat lets him back down, gasping, and scowls: “Then what are you doing here?”
“I’m following a lead.” Jason tries to sound placating but, Jesus fuck, aggression is his default setting. He’s pretty sure it comes out as a snarl.
The older man grunts, unimpressed. “What lead?”
“Not one from Gotham, if that’s what you’re getting at.” Jason’s trying to rein in his rapid pulse, but he’s not having much luck. There’s still blood on his tongue, but he can feel it dripping down his chin now, so it’s probably real.
“From where, then?” The demand is accompanied by a hard shake, slamming Jason’s unprotected head against the wall.
“Fuckin’ here,” Jason says, blinking stars from his eyes and cursing himself for taking the helmet off. “Jesus Christ, B.”
“Are you currently operating as the mercenary White Phantom?”
Jason stares. “What the fuck is a White Phantom?”
The older man grunts, apparently satisfied, and Jason nearly falls when he lets him go. As it is, he crashes hard to one knee, throwing a hand against the wall for balance, and nearly blacks out from how bad it jostles his ribs. By the time he’s back on his feet, his helmet is tucked securely under Batman’s arm.
He’s trying to convince himself not to run and leave it behind when company arrives.
“The Batman,” the man hums, sounding pleased. “I’ve been expecting you.” The man’s eyes flick down to the red helmet, then to Jason. “Red Hood, is it?”
“Not interested, man,” Jason huffs. “Looking for some missing contraband, not—” he eyes the freaky, glowing staff in his hand suspiciously, “—whatever the fuck you are.”
It’s the wrong thing to say, apparently, because the man curls his mouth into a snarl. “Then I will destroy you as well,” he vows, and levels the staff just as Batman hurls a Batarang. The man—witch? Is he supposed to assume he’s a witch?—dodges, but misses his shot as a result. Jason’s hair gets blown forward by some sort of rebound from the white pulse of probably-magic splashing against the wall. Spooky as shit.
“Hey,” Jason says, but has to pause to dodge another pulse. “This fight needs to be not here—”
The witch is standing right in front of one of the crates and if Jason’s right about their contents, that’s really bad. “Batman!” Jason yells. “We gotta relocate! NOW!”
But Batman’s not listening, stepping out of the path of another blast as he throws a Batarang. Jason tracks it as it tumbles end-over-end, headed straight for the white, glowing crystal at the tip of the staff.
Fuck, Jason thinks, and watches in what feels like slow-motion as the witch’s eyes widen comically. He drops the staff and fucking disappears, just poofs into thin air.
An instant later, the Batarang hits the crystal and fuckingexplodes, catching the nearest crate, which also explodes, and Jason thinks:
Oh, fuck, not again.
Bruce’s eyes snap open. He’s face-up, the cowl’s on, and he’s lying on a hard, uneven surface. Damage: low. Bruce lurches up—and immediately falls back, the blinding pain in his head stopping him in his tracks as easily as a brick wall.
Damage: moderate. Possible concussion.
To his left, someone’s groaning. He can hear rubble shifting as they drag themselves to their feet. A man. Large. Hurt, but moving anyway.
Bruce breathes past the pain, swallowing back bile, and manages to turn his head.
The younger man is walking away unsteadily, one hand hanging limp at his side while the other trails along what’s left of the wall. As Bruce watches, he stumbles, barely managing to stay upright. He gets about fifty or sixty feet away, then stops abruptly.
The pressure in Bruce’s head mounts, his jaw clenches. Hood’s panting as he hunkers down and braces his feet like he’s walking into the wind. His next step sends him reeling backwards, crashing to the ground and clutching his helmetless head.
Bruce grunts in pain…in unison with the younger man.
“Batman,” Red Hood groans from his spot on the floor somewhere to Bruce’s left. “You alive? I think we got fuckin’ whammied.”
Bruce opens his eyes, turning to look at the younger man sluggishly.
“There’s some sort of barrier or something.” The man flails a hand in the direction he tried to walk.
Jaw clenched tight, Bruce drags himself to his feet and takes a look around. The warehouse is pretty much destroyed, the structure is heavily damaged, and all the nearby crates are burning with strange, white flames. Except there’s no heat coming from them, so…
Magical flames. Probably.
While he was taking stock of the surroundings, Hood must’ve moved, because he’s propped up against a piece of the wall when Bruce looks back his way, head tilted back to rest against the concrete and blue-green eyes watching Bruce, gaze sharp. “Stay down.” Bruce grunts, keeping him in his line of sight. “Where’s the barrier?”
Hood points. “Just past that crate.” Bruce walks over cautiously. “Little farther.”
Bruce sets his jaw, bracing for the rush of pain in his head that…doesn’t come.
He grunts, turns back to look at Hood suspiciously.
The younger man frowns. “I swear, it was right there.”
Bruce takes another step, and another, and another.
“Huh,” Hood huffs, then levers himself upright. “I’ll just be—” He jerks a hand in a vague away sort of gesture and starts jogging.
Bruce turns, opens his mouth to order him to wait, and then drops to one knee, the world whiting out as something crushes his goddamn skull.
When he comes back around, Hood is sprawled on the ground, breathing hard and ragged. After a few minutes, he starts to get back up and Bruce barks: “Stop!”
He doesn’t stop.
“Hood,” Bruce says, trying to muster the energy to get up. “Stop. It’s not a barrier, it’s a radius.”
“What the fuck does that—” the younger man cuts himself off, looks pointedly at the space between them—fifty or sixty feet—and drops his head into his hands. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” He breathes for a minute, back turned, then says: “You sure?”
Hood sighs. “Stay put.” And he inches forward. The pressure in Bruce’s head builds and he breathes through it, dragging himself back to his feet. By the time Hood stops, he can hardly see straight.
He steps forward and the pain drops, more and more the closer he gets to the other man, until he’s only a few yards away and it’s not gone, but it’s tolerable. “A radius.”
Hood snarls, crossing his arms. “Will it wear off?”
Bruce doesn’t answer. He doesn’t know. Instead, he says: “What was in the crates?”
Hood kicks violently at a patch of the pale flames. “Some sort of energy cells. Experimental. Alien, probably.”
Hood doesn’t say anything, just stomps out the patch of fire and keeps looking angry.
“We’re going to the cave.”
Hood jerks his head up. “Hell, no.”
Bruce starts walking towards the Batmobile.
“No,” Hood repeats. “No way. I’m not allowed in Gotham, remember?”
“Hn.” Bruce keeps walking, the pressure in his head building and then easing as Hood must start following.
Hood doesn’t respond, but Bruce can hear him swearing under his breath in one long, continuous stream. When they reach the Batmobile, Bruce pulls out a pair of cuffs.
“Seriously?” Hood sighs. He holds his wrists out anyway. Bruce slaps the cuffs on and checks to make sure they adjusted themselves correctly, then grabs Hood by the elbow and starts dragging him towards the back of the vehicle.
Hood must be processing slowly, because he doesn’t start fighting until they get within a yard of the trunk.
Tim taps against the desktop impatiently, eyes boring into the side of Bruce’s head.
“Bruce,” Tim says for what feels like the millionth time. “What the hell is going on?”
Bruce just grunts, typing rapidly. He sends a message to… Zatanna Zatara? He pulls up everything they have on magical boundaries. He pulls up everything they have on Jason Todd.
Tim is so confused.
“Bruce,” he repeats. “Come on, what happened?”
The older man pushes back from the computer and finally looks up at Tim. “I was investigating a warehouse in New York when I encountered Red Hood. While I was assessing his motivations, a magic-user of some kind revealed himself and engaged in combat with myself as well as Red Hood. I believe this man to be the mercenary operating as the White Phantom. One of his blasts hit a crate of energy cells, which resulted in the explosion of the warehouse. The magic-user teleported away just before the explosion. When I regained consciousness, it quickly became apparent that Red Hood and I could not be separated by more than about twenty meters.”
Tim waits for a minute and then says: “And?”
Bruce stares at him blankly. “I headed for the cave and contacted Zatanna to have her come and break the spell. She is unavailable until later this week.”
“Why—no, how, how did you get him in your trunk?”
Yeah, obviously. Tim gives up. “Are there any other effects?”
“Not that I’m sure of.”
“And that you’re not sure of?”
Bruce waits a moment, then says: “It’s possible there is some sort of pain transference.”
“Hood sustained a head injury early in the confrontation,” Bruce says. “As far as I can tell, I did not.”
“But your head hurts,” Tim guesses.
Bruce grunts an affirmative.
“Impossible to say, with the explosion.”
“Fair.” Tim thinks for a moment, then decides. “I’m going to go check him over for injuries. That should help us narrow it down.”
Tim starts to walk away, but Bruce’s hand on his shoulder stops him in his tracks. “Tim,” he says. “I’ll do it.”
“No offense, B,” Tim says. “But I really don’t think you’re the best man for the job.” Not that he’s on good terms with Jason either, but, well, Tim’s not Bruce. The most likely scenario if Bruce goes in there is Jason flipping him off and playing a gleefully spiteful game of keep away with any info Bruce asks for.
“He’s cuffed,” Tim counters. “What’s going to happen?”
Bruce frowns. “Stay outside the cell.”
“How am I going to—”
Tim sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Fine.”
Jesus, this is going to be a hassle.
The cell Bruce put Jason in is small, but clearly designed for extended use. There’s a small bathroom area in the corner with a sink, shower, and toilet, no walls. The cells were not designed with privacy in mind.
Jason is sitting against the back wall, pressed into the corner with his elbows resting on his raised knees. Hands cuffed. Shoulders tense. Posture defensive.
Unsettlingly still. Tim can’t remember if he’s ever seen Jason Todd not move for longer than a second or two.
His head is tipped back to rest against the wall, eyes closed. If not for the tension in his shoulders and jaw, he could be asleep.
Bruce must’ve made him strip before locking him in, because he’s half-naked. His body armor is nowhere to be seen and all he has now is a pair of black joggers, feet and chest bare. Tim can see goosebumps on his arms. He’s lost weight since the last time Tim laid eyes on him, over a year ago now.
He looks like shit, Tim realizes, and immediately feels like a crap person for not noticing right away. The circles under his eyes are so dark they could pass as bruises. His skin has an unhealthy cast to it, looking nearly gray in the cell’s harsh florescent lighting.
He looks half dead.
Tim shakes his head and starts cataloguing injuries.
There’s blood smeared against the back wall that must be from the head wound. His hair’s dark and damp with something. It’s impossible to say if it’s blood, sweat, or just grease from the angle Tim’s got, but he’s gonna go with blood, considering the sheer amount of it smeared across the right side of his face. Underneath all the red, he’s got a nasty shiner forming over his right eye. His brow’s split open, still bleeding sluggishly. There are bruises all over the rest of his body, some of them obviously from a fight, others ambiguous. His ribs, though, are marked with the kind of patchy, dark red mottling that means they’re probably broken. There’s a slash across his left bicep, but it looks clean. Not too deep.
His hands are freshly battered, knuckles stained with blood and quickly forming bruises. It’s hard to tell if any of his fingers are broken, all ten of them are crooked. His wrists are rubbed raw from the cuffs, blood dripping slowly off the metal and into a slowly growing pool between his feet. Jason’s not doing a damn thing to stop it.
Tim swallows, suddenly nauseous.
He presses the button for the microphone and Jason flinches at the low hiss of static, eyes flying open.
“Hi,” Tim says. “I need an injury report.”
“That you, Replacement?” Jason says. Tim was expecting malice, but he just sounds tired.
“Yeah,” Tim says. “Injury report.”
Jason looks at the speaker, then at the wall of one-way glass. He closes his eyes again.
Finally, Jason says: “Why?”
Tim doesn’t know what to say.
After an awkward minute, Jason exhales and starts talking. “Concussion,” he says. “Fractured ribs. Don’t know how many. Banged up a little from the explosion. Bruises and shit.”
Tim waits for him to continue, then prompts: “Your hands?”
Jason rolls his hands open and closed a few times. “They’re fine.”
“Cuffs cut into the skin.”
“They’re not supposed to do that.”
Jason blinks his eyes open slowly and stares at the glass. “Is that my fault?”
Blood drips from his wrists in a slow plink, plink, plink.
Bruce is waiting just outside the containment area, leaned up against the exterior wall.
Tim gives him a look and he grunts, brow furrowed.
“I’m not a kid,” Tim says, crossing his arms. “You—”
Bruce is shaking his head, frowning. “I know,” he says. “I wasn’t watching you.”
“Headache isn’t as bad when I’m close,” Bruce admits.
Silence reigns for an awkward moment, then Tim says: “Do your ribs hurt?”
“I bruised them in the explosion,” Bruce confirms.
“Are you sure?”
Bruce opens his mouth, then closes it. He leaves and comes back in sweats and a t-shirt instead of the Batsuit, frowning even deeper than before. “No bruising.”
“Pain transference,” Tim says. He checks his watch. He has to be at Wayne Enterprises in an hour. Shit.
“Could you see all his injuries?”
Tim shrugs. “Couldn’t see his back or legs. His hands are all busted up. He’s got a head wound. Looks like at least two broken ribs. And, uh, his wrists are bleeding. Says the cuffs cut into them.”
“That’s not possible.”
“I know,” Tim says. “I designed them.” He’d have to have been throwing everything he had at those cuffs to wear that deep into his skin. They didn’t have any sharp edges.
Bruce is silent for a moment. “It must’ve been in the trunk. His wrists weren’t bleeding when I put him in.”
Tim frowns. “Is that when he wrecked his hands, too?”
The older man looks vaguely upset as he nods haltingly, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Must’ve been.”
The thought makes Tim feel sick. He must’ve been slamming his hands against the lid of the compartment all the way from New York to Gotham. “Why would he do that?”
Bruce grunts, his expression grim.
“He seemed tense,” Tim says. “But not—not that upset. He’s not raging. He doesn’t even seem angry.”
Bruce just grunts again.
Tim goes to take a shower.
Tim can barely concentrate on the meeting and while he’d normally blame it on sleep deprivation, it’s Jason that’s really distracting him. He just can’t shake the weird feeling he’s getting from the whole situation.
It was the way he talked that’s throwing him off so much, Tim finally decides. Or maybe the way he didn’t move. Looking like shit, that’s normal. Or normal enough. The lack of anger was not normal. Not for Jason. The guy sitting still and silent in that cell is wildly different from the one that came after Tim, that night at the Tower, years ago now. That guy was unhinged. Excessively violent. Terrifying, if Tim’s being honest with himself. The time Jason stabbed him wasn’t much better.
The meeting finally wraps up around noon and he heads back to the manor an hour or two later, after everything’s set up well enough to run without him for a few days.
He rushes down to the cave, feeling dumb for being so worried but unable to stop. He slides to a halt at the sight of Bruce sprawled out on a cot up against the wall of the containment area, fast asleep.
He stares for a minute, baffled, then jerks his head around at the sound of voices.
Sure enough, the little brat is standing outside of Jason’s cell when Tim walks in, his posture angry and threatening. Jason’s still in his corner, eyes shut, head tipped back. He’s not bleeding anymore, but the amount of red on the floor indicates that’s a recent development. “You’re fortunate that I have more honor than the likes of you, Todd,” Damian’s seething, “or I would kill you where you stand!”
“Whatever you say, al Ghul.”
The animalistic sound of rage that Damian lets out has the ungodly effect of being both intimidating and strangely endearing.
Jesus, this kid.
Tim reaches past him to shut off the mic, then says: “I’m honestly surprised you haven’t killed him yet.”
Damian glares at him for a moment, then huffs. “Father has deemed me unworthy of access.”
Time raises a single brow. “You’re locked out?”
The struggle not to laugh is one that Tim nearly loses. When he gets a hold of himself, he looks up to see Jason staring right at him and nearly pisses himself.
Tim stares back, frozen, until he realizes Jason’s looking about four inches above his left shoulder. He shakes himself out of it. Jesus.
“You are a disgrace, Drake,” Damian says. He’s got a dumbass grin on his face like this is the best thing that ever happened to him.
Tim scowls. “Shut up.”
“I’m telling him,” Damian says, reaching for the mic gleefully. Tim tackles him.
Damian snarls, Tim grabs for his leg, and then they’re on the ground. Grappling with Damian is weird as hell. He’s too heavy for his short little body and it’s throws Tim off, makes him have to readjust constantly. He gets him in a hold, but it’s not going to last long. Damian’s got his arm all twisted and—
Tim lets go, jerking his gaze up to see Bruce standing in the entrance to the containment area, mouth pulled into a flat line.
“Father,” Damian says. Tim feels a burst of satisfaction that he’s winded. “Drake started it.”
Bruce drags a hand over his face, groaning audibly. “I was trying,” he says, “to sleep.”
“Sorry,” Tim mutters, levering himself upright. “Damian started it.”
The demonic midget opens his mouth to protest but is cut off by a single look from Bruce.
“I don’t care who started it,” Bruce says. He’s pinching the bridge of his nose, brow furrowed. “I just want some damn peace and quiet.”
Time exchanges a quick look with Damian. “Bruce,” he says. “You okay?”
“Fine,” he says, now rubbing circles at his temples.
Tim glances at the one-way glass of Jason’s cell. He hasn’t moved, but the tension in his jaw is worse than it was before Tim left, he’s sure. “Uh, B,” Tim says. “You might want to rethink that.”
Bruce glances up, follows his sight line to Jason. His face hardens as he lays eyes on him, making him look a little angry, a little sad.
“I’m right next to him,” he says.
Bruce shakes his head, the hardness replaced with obvious frustration. “I can’t get any closer.”
“I mean,” Tim says. “You could.”
Bruce stares at him, expression indecipherable.
“It’s possible it’s the physical barrier,” Tim points out.
Bruce shakes his head, in disbelief or disagreement, Tim can’t tell. He’s shivering, Tim realizes. He’s thrown on a sweatshirt since the last time Tim saw him, but he’s shivering.
“Bruce,” he groans, face in his hands. “It’s getting stronger.”
The man frowns at him.
“Damian’s not cold,” Tim says pointedly.
“You do not speak for me, Drake,” Damian hisses.
“I’m not cold,” Tim continues. He gestures at Bruce. “You’re cold.”
Bruce just stares at him uncomprehendingly.
For a genius, the man is so fucking dumb sometimes. “You’re cold,” Tim says. “Because Jason’s cold. It’s getting stronger.”
Bruce shifts backwards, like he’s taking a blow. He looks down at his thick sweatshirt, then at Tim’s rolled up sleeves. “Oh.”
There’s a long moment of silence, then Tim glances at the cell and says: “…You should probably give him a shirt.”
Jason, once let out of the cell, is just as creepily quiet. And by let out of, Tim means persuaded to leave, because it took a minute. A really weird minute.
Bruce insisted on the cuffs but took them off long enough for Jason to take a shower and put on some clean clothes. Jason just watches Bruce through narrowed eyes the whole time, like he’s expecting it to be some sort of trap.
It’s not, and Bruce is flagging within fifteen minutes of Jason’s newfound freedom.
Finally, in the greatest show of emotion he’s had so far, Jason snaps: “Go to sleep, old man. I’m not going to murder the fuckin’ kids.”
Bruce doesn’t deny that that’s what he was thinking. He checks the restraints over. He runs diagnostics. He says: “The cuffs will stop you if you go near any weapons or try to hurt anyone.”
Then he finally goes to sleep. Damian goes up to the manor, which leaves Tim.
“So,” he says awkwardly. “How’ve you been?”
Jason cracks one eye open to give him an unimpressed look. After a minute, he says: “You don’t have to babysit me.”
“I’m not,” Tim says quickly.
“Sure.” His tone is as dry as the fucking Sahara.
He’s not babysitting. He’s not. He just—Well he can’t exactly leave Jason alone with a sleeping Bruce, now can he? A few years back, it was like his mission in life to kill the guy.
Tim hovers awkwardly for a while, then pulls up some case files to look over.
“What’d you get out of the injury report, earlier?” Jason says and Tim jumps half out of his skin, hand automatically reaching to his non-existent utility belt for a non-existent batarang. “Jesus, kid,” Jason says. “Take a Valium.”
Tim breathes for a minute, then turns around, expression schooled. “What?”
Jason gives him a look that conveys exactly how much he thinks Tim’s blank expression hides. “The injury report. Is that why he let me out?”
“What?” Tim repeats, genuinely confused now.
“Cause I’m hurt,” Jason says. A statement, not a question.
Tim frowns. “Did he not—”
He cuts himself off, but not soon enough: Jason’s zeroed in on the slip in an instant. “Did he not what, Replacement?”
Tim doesn’t even try to hide it. “You’ve got some sort of transference thing going on. Magic.”
Jason’s brow knits together. “The hell are you talking about?”
“The magical radius or whatever? It had another component. You’re, like, projecting onto Bruce.”
“Projecting what?” Jason says, voice low and dangerous enough to make Tim think twice. But he designed those cuffs. They’ll knock Jason out in a second flat if he starts getting aggressive.
“Pain. Other things, maybe. He was cold, earlier.”
“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” Jason snarls, all the stillness from earlier gone. “Fuckin’ mind-reading?”
“No,” Tim says calmly. Stay cool. Stay cool. “He’s not reading your mind. It’s just physical sensations. Seemingly only negative ones.”
Jason searches his face for a minute and must come away satisfied, because he settles down with an audible exhale. Takes a step back. A few deep breathes. Finally, he huffs a laugh, rubbing his hands over his face. “Timbo, that’s fuckin’ hilarious.”
Tim feels himself frown. He mouths the name with distaste. Timbo. That’s a no.
“Seriously,” Jason is saying. “The first time he beats the shit outta me in, what, a year? And he immediately gets hit with some crazy stop-hitting-yourself voodoo. Fuckin’ karmic.”
Bruce what? “Jason,” Tim says. “What’d you just say?”
Jason waves him off, still looking amused.
“When you and Bruce were in the warehouse,” Tim insists. “What happened?”
The older boy frowns slightly, cocks his head like he’s trying to figure out Tim’s angle. “We were working different cases, but they must’ve been connected. Ended up in the same warehouse.”
“And?” Tim prompts.
Jason scowls. “The fuck do you think happened?”
Tim just stares at him. Why would he be asking, if he knew?
Come on, man.
“He showed up looking for a merc. Found me instead.” Something in his expression is hitting Tim as off. He looks…upset? No. It’s not anger. It’s— “Do you really need me to spell it out?” he snaps, and Tim has it. It’s hurt.
“He showed up looking for a mercenary,” Tim repeats slowly, feeling like he’s in over his head. “And you were there. So,” Tim swallows, “he assumed you were the mercenary?”
Jason sends him a scalding look. “Yeah, dipshit. Jesus. I thought you were supposed to be smart.”
Tim barely notices the insult, still trying to wrap his head around beats the shit outta me and do you really need me to spell it out. He can see it playing out, now, with a sick sense of clarity. Bruce arrives at the warehouse looking for the mercenary he’d been tracking. Big kill count. Several in Gotham. Finds Jason, armed, in armor.
That bit, sure. For the life of him, though, he just can’t picture Bruce—what, smashing Jason’s head into the wall? That must’ve been what happened. It’s a nasty head wound. There were dried blood tracks all down his back and side before his shower and he’d listed off his worst injuries and then said banged up a little from the explosion.
The concussion, the ribs, none of that was from the explosion or the witch, it was from the fight beforehand.
The fight that left Jason beaten bloody and Bruce…
“Why isn’t Bruce hurt?” Tim says suddenly.
The look Jason sends his way can only be described as incredulous. “I don’t fight the motherfuckin’ Batman. Not anymore. Do you think I have a death wish, Replacement?”
What? “You said—”
“He knocked me around a little,” Jason dismisses. “I didn’t fuckin’ fight him.”
Jesus. He wasn’t fighting back.
“Kid,” Jason’s saying. “Snap the fuck out of it.”
“Sorry,” Tim says absently, running through possibilities. Mind control? Hush? Maybe—
“Seriously, kid, what the fuck.”
“We’ve got to get him in a cell before he wakes up,” Tim realizes suddenly. “He doesn’t know we’re on to him. Maybe he doesn’t even know. Is that why he’s so tired? Maybe—”
“Whoa, whoa, slow down, champ,” Jason says, hands extended, palms facing out. Alarmed. “What’s going on?”
“You weren’t fighting back,” Tim says impatiently. He tries to move towards Bruce, but Jason steps into his path. “Somebody must be controlling him. Or maybe it’s not him at all. Shapeshifter, maybe. He wouldn’t—”
“Tim,” Jason says slowly. “I don’t know what’s going through that head of yours, but Bruce is fine. He’s just taking a nap.”
“Jason, you’re not listening—”
Tim’s frustration grows as Jason herds him away from Bruce, back towards the computer.
“Bruce is fine,” Jason repeats. Tim thinks he’s trying to be soothing. “Everything’s fine. Just breathe.”
“I’m—” fucking breathing he means to say, but he runs out of air.
“That’s it. Come on, man. Deep breathes. Slow.”
Tim breathes. “Fuck.”
“Fuck,” he says again, then drops his head into his hands. “Is he still out?”
“Like a light.”
Tim opens his eyes. Jason’s crouched in front of his chair, looking less and less worried as time goes on and more and more uncomfortable.
“Do you want, uh,” he says, “water or something?”
“Jason, we have to get him in a cell. For his own—”
Jason’s frowning. “Tim,” he says. “No offense, but the fuck are you smoking?”
What? Tim stares at him for a minute. “I’m not crazy.”
“Not saying you are,” Jason says. “Just…high?”
“Look, kid, I think you misunderstood something.”
“I didn’t,” Tim says. Did he? “Bruce, or whoever the hell he is, found you in the warehouse, thought you were the mercenary he was looking for, snapped, and beat the shit out of you.”
Jason’s forehead wrinkles slightly. He looks baffled. “Why are you—What are you worried about, here?”
Tim stares at him. “Jason,” he says. “You weren’t fighting back, and he beat the shit out of you.”
Jesus. Tim thinks he’s going to be sick.
“Listen, Jason,” he says. “I know you haven’t been around in a while, but that’s not normal. That’s not Bruce.” He gestures sharply to the other end of the cave.
Jason squints at him, head cocked. “I think you maybe need to sleep.”
Tim growls in frustration, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. Yes, thank you, he does need to sleep, but that’s not the fucking point.
“If it were Bruce, he never would’ve kept hitting you once you were down,” Tim says slowly, trying to get the idea through Jason’s thick head. Jesus, does he think so little of them these days, that he didn’t even question it? Tim pulls his hands away to look at him and has to double take.
What the hell?
Jason is upset. He looks hurt again, under the layers of anger and irritation masking it. “Don’t fuck with me, Replacement. Jesus.”
“Stop fucking with me,” Jason repeats furiously. “You little asshole.”
“Jason,” Tim says. “I’m not fucking with you, I—”
The older boy laughs, sharp and mean and angry. He’s standing up now and Tim stands, too, to decrease the looming advantage as much as he can. “I really thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad,” he says, the bitterness as cutting as any blade. “I thought, hey, family time, you know? Haven’t seen anybody for ages.” He shakes his head, jaw clenched tight. “Should’ve fuckin’ known.”
“Jason,” Tim pleads.
“Put me back in the cage. I’m not listening to this shit.”
“What? No, Jason—”
“Put me back in the goddamn—”
“I’m not locking you up! You’re going to stay right there and listen to me, dammit!”
Jason stares at him silently for a minute, then huffs angrily and drops himself back into his chair, shoulders hunched defensively.
“Jason,” Tim tries. No response. “Jason, come on.”
“I’m not playing your games, dipshit. Let it go.”
“Jason,” Tim pleads, eyes darting across the room to make sure Bruce is still asleep. “I’m not playing games. This is serious.”
Jason stares at Tim for a minute, then exhales, and all the anger seems to melt away. “I know he wouldn’t do that to you,” Jason says after a long moment. He’s staring at the floor. He looks tired. Sad, maybe. “Is that what you wanted? You win. Ha ha.”
“Jason,” Tim tries again, but he doesn’t know what to say, how to get through to him. It’s like he’s not listening to a goddamn word that comes out of Tim’s mouth.
“I’m really not in the mood,” Jason says, hollow. Almost brittle. “How about a raincheck.”
Jason growls, but it sounds less angry and more…wounded. Vulnerable. “What’s your goal, here? You trying to get me angry enough to throw a punch? I ain’t dumb. I know what these hunks of metal are for.”
“Jason,” Tim says. “That’s not—"
“I get it, alright?” he says. “He likes you better. Is that what you want me to say? He doesn’t hit you because—what? Because you’re better than me? Because you’re not a murderer? Tell me what you want me to say so you’ll leave me the fuck alone.”
Tim can’t stop staring. “Jason,” he says finally. “Please. I’m not trying to get you to say anything. He—He would never do that to you, do you hear me? What happened last night, that wasn’t him, that was someone—something else. We’ve just gotta—”
Jason’s face twists and he jerks to his feet. “Fuck this,” he says, turns, and just walks away.
Fuck. Oh, fuck.
Tim goes after him, but he realized too late and—
“Wake the fuck up, old man,” Jason says and Bruce jerks back into consciousness. “I’m tired of my playdate. Put me back in the goddamn cage.”