Jason staggered, his landing slightly off as he touched down on the roof. He’d misjudged that distance. Or maybe his blink had been longer than he realized. He shook off the ache, shook his head to clear the creeping fog, and headed for the next rooftop.
He hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a couple of weeks. The nightmares had come back, the ones he used to get right after the Pit, memories in stark clarity as laughter rang in his ears. He felt the crowbar come down nearly every night. On him. On Robin. On anyone he’d ever loved.
Needless to say, it didn’t make for an enjoyable night.
But this was. This had to be. It was the first team-up Batman had ever requested and this was Jason’s chance to make it right. Well, he couldn’t fix everything, but he could try, and hopefully Batman would see that he was trying. Random encounters on patrol or Oracle pinging him for Arkham breakouts didn’t count.
This was Batman reaching out. This was Batman giving him another chance. And Jason couldn’t fuck this up. At any cost.
The case was Mask-related, which meant that Jason was pretty much the subject matter expert, and the target was a warehouse in the Bowery. There was a shipment coming in tonight, and their objective would be to sneak in, tag it, and sneak out. It wasn’t a mission that called for firepower, but Mask had a lot of guards skulking about, and Jason had agreed to play an extra set of hands and provide cover for Batman and Robin.
Jason reached the meet-up point.
…Make that Batman, Robin, and Nightwing.
“Hood!” Robin chirped cheerfully, bouncing towards him like Jason had never beaten him into the ground with his own weapon. Apparently one rescue—and Jason had only switched from observer to how-dare-you-he’s-just-a-kid when the kid’s attacker had raised a crowbar—was enough to completely flip Robin’s opinion of him. “How are you?”
Batman and Nightwing both watched, silent. It wasn’t a comfortable silence.
“I’m fine,” Jason said, the voice distorter mechanizing his words like always, “Streets looking normal. How’s our target?”
“Quiet,” Batman said with his trademark growl. Something about the angle of the cowl hinted at disapproval. “Nightwing will be joining us. There are three high-level entrances, we will each take one when the shipment approaches. Once the shipment arrives, we will tag each crate with a tracker. Retreat the moment you finished your allotment. This is supposed to be a stealth mission, so no engaging and no noise.”
Jason nodded in agreement, taking the pouch of trackers that Batman was holding out and clipping it to his belt.
“If you’re spotted, divert attention to the main office to make them think you’re trying to get inside, and retreat as soon as possible,” Batman’s gaze paused on Jason, “No killing.”
Jason bit back the caustic comment he wanted to make. He’d known that was the condition of working with Batman again. He just jerked his head in a sharp nod.
“Regroup here,” Batman said, “Secondary base is the safehouse in the Bowery. Make sure your comms are tuned.” There was a slight pause as everyone checked, and Batman turned back to face the road and the warehouse. “The shipment should be arriving in the next ten minutes. Wait for my signal.”
Jason breathed in and out, slow and deep. He could do this. He could ignore Nightwing’s frosty silence and Robin’s thrumming tension and the way Batman didn’t seem to want to look at him. This was just the first step. He knew that the way back would be hard.
He crouched on the rooftop and bit back the groan as his muscles protested. He could hold it together. It was just a simple mission.
The distant sound of an engine approached, and Jason tensed. It was time.
The mission started off smoothly. No alarms went off at their entrances, the crates were unloaded in a heap in the center of the warehouse, and the guards wandered back to their posts. There was a raucous game of poker in one of the side rooms.
Jason felt slightly dizzy as he swung down to the ground floor, but he shook it off and began the slow, mind-numbing process of sticking a tracker on every crate. His assigned allotment had nearly twenty, and they were stacked in such a way that he had to go delicately climbing over them to reach the center ones.
His limbs were beginning to feel like weights. It took more and more concentration to lift them, and Jason had to resort to pinching the inside of his wrist when he felt his eyes began to slide shut. He didn’t have time for sleep. Especially not now.
Just twenty crates. Just fifteen. Just ten. Just five—
“This is Nightwing,” crackled over the comms, “A couple of guards are strolling back in here, I’m heading to the outer hallway to create a distraction. Still ten crates left to tag on my side.”
“Acknowledged,” Batman said gruffly, “Hood, finish Nightwing’s remaining crates. Nightwing, retreat as soon as the distraction is established.”
“Acknowledged,” Jason echoed along with Nightwing, forcing his exhaustion down.
He needed to finish this mission. It had to go right. It had to.
Straightening to his feet after he finished the last crate, Jason nearly crumpled as the world went dark. When it cleared up again, he was clutching the nearest crate, half-collapsed and dizzy. He had no idea how much time he’d lost.
There were shouts coming from the far hallway now. Shouts and echoing gunfire.
“Everyone, get out the moment you’re done,” Batman ordered, “Hood, status?”
“Almost done,” Jason croaked out, thankful that his voice distorter hid the waver in his tone. He forced himself upright and took the wavering steps towards Nightwing’s crates. God, he was so tired.
He just wanted to sleep.
Just a little.
Just close his eyes and—
No. Jason squeezed his hand into a fist so tightly it hurt. He had to stay awake. Just a little while longer. He could do this. He could do this.
He found Nightwing’s bag of trackers on top of a crate and began hunting through the stacks to tag the remaining ones. It felt like he was moving through a haze—the sounds of a fight were distant and echoey, his own breathing sounded like it was coming from far away, and his hands were moving alternatingly too slow and too fast. Or maybe that was his head.
“Okay,” Nightwing’s voice crackled over the comm, slightly breathless, “The good news is I definitely distracted them.” The gunfire got louder, sharper—automatic, Jason identified by the continuous rat-tat-tat. “The bad news is we need to leave, now.”
“Acknowledged,” Batman said sharply, “Robin’s with me. Hood?”
“On my way out,” Jason responded, even though it was taking him a small eternity to unhook his grapple gun.
“Great,” Nightwing said, upbeat, “Good work, everyone!” Jason felt the tug of pressure that the grapple had found a mark, but he couldn’t see it. Everything was going gray. “Mask isn’t going to know what hit him.”
Jason saw the upper railing a second before impact, and managed to turn ungainly flailing into tipping over the railing and sprawling on the other side, barely disengaging the grapple in time. He tried to get up again, but his legs were protesting, shaking too hard to bear his weight. He couldn’t see anything and it took him a stretching moment to realize it was because his eyes were closed.
“I’m clear,” Nightwing said, the gunfire gone from his end.
“Clear,” Robin echoed.
“Clear,” Batman said evenly.
The world was swaying around him. Jason knocked his helmet against something and it took him too long to realize it was a wall. He could barely tell which way was which and his limbs weren’t listening to him. The exhaustion had caught up and it wasn’t letting go. But it was okay. The mission was over. It had gone well.
Jason had finally done something right.
“Clear,” Jason said, and then he couldn’t hold his head up anymore.
“—ood! Hood! Red Hood! Goddammit, you asshole, fucking answer!”
The shouting was distant and tinny. Comm, Jason recognized, before all the other questions came in, like, why was Dickhead yelling at him, why had he fallen asleep with his comm, where was he, his neck was at an awkward angle—
“Hood! Where the hell are you?!”
Jason shook his head, clarity returning slightly. He should. He should probably answer.
“‘M here,” he nearly slurred, the voice distorter smoothing it out, “What happened?”
“What happened?” Nightwing sounded enraged, “What happened is that you’re at neither the primary or secondary base and you were radio silent for fifteen minutes! Where the fuck are you?!”
Was he supposed to go back to base? But—the mission was over, wasn’t it? Or was there a problem? Did something happen?
“Thought we were going our separate ways,” Jason said, still trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind. The words came out sharper than he intended and he could practically hear Nightwing bristle. “What do we need to regroup for?” he asked tiredly, “Mission went well.”
This particular bout of consciousness wouldn’t last, he could already feel it dissolving. He tried to get up, but he didn’t have the energy to pull himself up. His head was throbbing dully.
“We still need to debrief,” Batman said in his low, rough tone.
“Generally, when you’re part of a team, you don’t just go flouncing off on your own,” Nightwing bit out, caustic.
No. Jason was trying. He couldn’t fuck this chance up. The burst of terror the thought inspired provided enough of a jolt that he could force himself to his feet, leaning heavily against the wall.
“Sorry,” Jason said, clipped because each word was an effort, “Didn’t know.” The world was rocking underneath him and it took all his control to raise his feet for every step.
“Where are you?” Batman asked pointedly.
“I’ll come to the rooftop,” Jason said, body drooping as he reached the window he’d entered through. He spent a series of stretching seconds leaning against the windowsill, until something in his stomach lurched and Jason realized he’d been about to tip out.
He took a deep breath and scrunched up his face. Just a little longer. If he sat through this debriefing—if he showed Batman that he could be part of the team—then he’d get another chance. He couldn’t fuck this up. Not now. Not after he’d worked so hard.
Jason unhooked his grapple with shaking fingers, and aimed it with blurry vision. The grapple caught with a slight jerk, and Jason boosted himself out of the window, muscles burning in protest.
This time, he definitely didn’t notice the water tank’s struts until it was far too late to disengage, and Jason just let go of the grapple to go stumbling across the gravel. The roiling and the dizziness combined to send his stomach churning and Jason clawed at his helmet with weak hands until the locks finally disengaged.
He ripped the thing off, sending it clattering somewhere, and cold air hit him like a slap as he braced on his hands and knees, trying not to retch. A sharp flare of pain radiated from the back of his skull with every inhale, and his arms were trembling trying to hold him up. He was pretty sure he was going to faceplant into the gravel.
He just—needed a couple of seconds. Just enough to recollect himself. The stinging air helped draw him slightly back to consciousness and Jason had to hold it together long enough to last the debrief. It couldn’t possibly take that much time, everything had gone more or less according to plan. He just needed—
Jason spun immediately, heart leaping into his throat, but that had been a very bad decision because the world spun with him, nausea crawling up his throat. By the time it settled, Jason was tipped over, leaning heavily against someone and struggling to breathe.
“Deep breaths, Little Wing,” a voice coached into his ear, in tune to the hand rubbing down his side, “Deep breaths. You can do it. Where are you injured?”
Jason was ready to fall straight to sleep, with the steady heartbeat under his ear and the arms wrapped around him.
“Hood,” Nightwing said in a sharper tone, “Report. Where are you injured?”
“I’m not injured,” Jason replied, struggling to stay awake. The jolt of horror that he’d messed up proved to be great incentive, and he straightened, pushing free of Nightwing’s embrace.
Everyone was on the rooftop. Nightwing was kneeling next to him, Robin was hovering on the other side, clearly concerned, and Batman was crouching in front of Jason, expression blank and exuding displeasure.
“You nearly collapsed,” Batman said forbiddingly, “You are not fine.”
“I’m not—I’m not injured.” Fuck, his voice sounded so goddamn small without the distorter. “I just—I’m tired, that’s all.”
“Tired,” Batman repeated. The word itself sounded like a judgement. “You came on a mission while exhausted enough to collapse on your feet.”
That was definitely disapproval. Jason had heard it enough to recognize the twisting feeling in his stomach.
“I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely, throat dry, “I didn’t—I wasn’t trying to—I just—I wanted this mission to go well.” Batman’s expression was getting darker and darker. “I’m sorry I messed it up—” Jason’s voice was beginning to crack—“I won’t—I won’t do it again, I swear, I’ll—I’ll be better next time.”
I won’t do it again.
How many times was he going to repeat the same words to Batman? He’d already gotten his second chance. He doubted he’d get a third.
“Please,” Jason was shivering, gaze fixed at the floor because he couldn’t look up at Batman, “Please. Give me another chance. I’ll make it up to you, I swear, I’ll be better, I—”
“Jason.” That was Bruce’s voice, magnitudes softer than Batman, and Jason snapped his gaze up in surprise. Bruce reached out and placed a gentle hand on Jason’s cheek. It felt indescribably warm.
“I’m not mad at you, lad,” Bruce said softly, “Just worried.”
“But I,” Jason could barely think, his head was spinning viciously, “I didn’t screw it up?” I still have a chance? was his desperate hope.
“No, you didn’t screw it up,” Bruce said firmly, “And even if you did, you never needed to prove yourself.”
The wave of sheer relief was enough to undo him. His eyes were burning, and Jason only realized that his cheeks were wet when they stung in the cold night air. Those gasping noises were coming from him, and when Bruce reached out his arms, Jason let himself collapse into them.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed against Batman’s armor, choking on his breaths, “I didn’t want to mess it up, I wanted it to go right, I wanted to work together again—”
“Shh,” the low voice soothed, “Shh, Jason, it’s okay.”
“I wanted to be part of the team again, and I know it’s going to take time, I know,” Jason’s voice broke entirely, “I don’t want to go back to being alone.”
“You’re not alone,” the voice reassured, “As long as I am here, you will never be alone, I swear it.”
The tears were too much, the emotion wrenching out of him and leaving him drained and empty, and darkness was closing in fast. He was protected here, the safest place in the world, tucked snugly in Batman’s arms, and he was rapidly losing the fight against exhaustion.
I just want to go home, Dad.
“Okay, Jay-lad,” the voice was hoarse and cracking, “We’ll go home.”
The darkness caught up and engulfed him entirely.
He was screaming. He was always screaming as the crowbar swung, as it connected with bones with a sickening crack, sometimes on his family, sometimes in his hands, sometimes with haunting, crazed, vicious laughter ringing off the walls.
He was on the ground this time, unable to move, unable to lift a finger, stuck in place with terrifying paralysis as the crowbar fell, uncaring of his desperate pleas. To stop, to end, to please, not again, please, please—
“Jason? Jay? Shh, Jay, it’s a dream, it’s just a bad dream.”
He was no less restrained, an arm slung across his waist, tight bands of pressure on his ribs, a firm hand on his shoulder, unable to kick his legs. But it was warm, warm and soft and dark, and Jason gradually became aware that someone was stroking his hair.
“Shh, Jay-lad, it’s a bad dream, that’s all, you’re safe here,” came the soothing murmur, and Jason twisted instinctively towards his dad, burrowing into Bruce’s shirt. Bruce didn’t try to shove him off or twist away, he merely held Jason, running gentle fingers through his hair to ease out the tension.
It was working—Jason’s shudders died down under the ministrations, and he was beginning to feel sleepy again.
“Where are we?” Jason mumbled, unwilling to raise his head and look. Bruce was safe. No one could touch him here.
“My bedroom,” Bruce answered quietly, not stopping the stroking, “You fell asleep on the rooftop and I decided to bring you here.”
“Tim’s between you and Dick,” Bruce said softly. That explained the bony knee digging into his leg. “They didn’t want to leave you.” Jason tried to compute that and failed. “Are you uncomfortable? Alfred made up your room if you’d rather sleep alone.”
Jason tightened his grip on Bruce’s shirt in lieu of an answer.
He felt a soft kiss against his hair, the strokes gently easing him back down. “It’s okay, Jay-lad,” Bruce murmured, “Go back to sleep. You’re safe here.”
He was safe here. He was surrounded by his family and warm and sleepy and a thousand crowbars couldn’t hurt him here.
For the first time in days, Jason could sleep through the night.