The first step was to kill Bruce.
Jason sat hunched on the edge of the fire escape. His suit open to release the cling of body heat into the night.
In his hand he held a detonator.
In the alley below him sat the Batmobile. Sleek, black, and rigged to blow.
He would only get one chance at this.
If he could kill Bruce, Gotham would be his. He could continue to take over criminal organisations, he could step on all painted freaks that tried to make crime their own sick twisted playground, and in doing so he could save this fucked up mess of a city.
That’s what Bruce never understood. You can’t take crime out of Gotham. All you could do was control it. Kill all the freaks and put all the bad guys to work. As long as it wasn’t poisoning the water or messing the kids then it was better. As long as monsters like the Joker were gone then at least…
Bruce walked around the corner. No. Not Bruce. Batman.
His cape hugged around him. His face directed down.
Of course he wouldn't look up. Of course he wouldn't see him.
Jason watched as he walked back towards the car. He watched him climb into it.
Now. He should push the trigger now. He should end this.
Bruce wouldn’t feel a thing. Perhaps a little bit of heat. But then it would be over. He would be dead and his city would be Jason’s to save.
Bruce started the engine.
Now. He had to blow it up now. Right now.
His finger moved against the trigger. But it didn’t press down. He didn’t press down. He sat, finger on the button, and watched as Bruce backed out of the alley and drove away.
Not like this, he tried to tell himself. He couldn’t kill Bruce like this. He needed to look into his eye. He needed to know why Bruce hadn’t killed the Joker. Why he had taken in the new kid after what happened to him. Why he had… just… buried him and moved on. How could he have just buried him and moved on? How had Bruce been able to do that to him?
Jason shoved the detonator into his pocket and dropped down to the alley floor. For a moment he stood on the warm concrete where the batmobile exhaust had struck the pavement. He felt that heat slowly drift away until the patch of ground was indistinguishable from those around it. Then, just as he was about to leave, there was a thunderclap.
He frowned up at the murky orange of Gotham smog.
There was no storm.
Yet the sound come again… and again... and then something was breaking through the smog and catapulting down towards him.
He stared, feet rooted to the ground, as the meteorite spiralled down into Gotham. It missed the alleyway by mere feet and ripped through the roof of a nearby building to smash down into the street.
Cars swerved, people swore, and out of the crater walked a girl.
Her hair was gone, her face nothing but a mass of burns, her body covered in blood. She got three steps before falling to one knee. Agony was written on every line of her ruined body. Weariness and defeat bowed her head. She spoke one word…
…and then she died.
He watched in horror as she fell forward onto the tarmac. This person who had fallen from the sky. Already just another body swallowed by Gotham.
He raced forward, fell to his knees at her side, and watched his hands hover uselessly over the wreck that was her body. She was dead. There was no way she couldn’t be. How she had even walked the few feet she had was beyond Jason. All the major bones in her body were broken. Parts of her were burnt away from what had to be an energy blast of some kind. Blood poured from every place it could.
It was a gruesome picture, made worse by a single piece of her face which somehow survived the carnage. A piece of flesh around her right eye. Just enough to confirm that she was in fact human.
A flare of pink bright enough to burn his eyes and then something was lifting off her body.
“Jason Todd of Earth.”
He stared as it slipped onto the second finger on his right hand.
“You have great love in your heart.”
He jerked back. Tried to yank it off. “No! Fuck! Get off m—!”
“Welcome to the Star Sapphires.”
This piece is going to be a bit of an experiment for me. I haven't quite decided where it's going to end but I am hoping to maintain this short sparse chapter format as I think that's something that's a bit more achievable for me right now. I am open to suggestions especially regarding couples. I haven't decided if I want to include any romance in this fic.
Beep beep. Beep beep.
Bruce looked at the caller ID and frowned before opening the line. “Lantern.”
He bit back a remark at the use of his name. “What do you need?”
“I’m in Gotham.”
“No! I…” a distortion over the mic. “It’s Carol. We were fighting Parallax and he hit her and… God, Bruce, it broke her shields. She fell. I saw blood. I saw… I… I… I can’t find her. She’s in Gotham. She has to be in Gotham. That’s the way she was falling. She has to be in Gotham.”
Bruce listened to the franticness in the man’s voice. The terror. The pain.
He took a U turn. “Take it easy, Lantern. I’m on my way.”
“She’s not responding,” Hal continued as if he hadn’t heard. “The ring can’t detect her. God, she… why did she come out? She shouldn’t have come out. This is…”
“Where are you?” Bruce interrupted.
“I don’t know. I’m in a street. There are people standing about. And… Christ. Carol!”
No answer. All he could hear was footsteps. Yelling.
More yelling. The sound of the ring activating.
“Lantern! Tell me where you are.”
“Get the fuck off her! Get the… no. No no no no no…”
The line went dead. He immediately called it again and sent a separate call to the Watchtower. Hal didn’t pick up. Wally did.
“Yo, Bats. You would not believe the light show that’s been going on over your city tonight. There was green, there was pink, there was yellow, and even some blue.”
“Where is Green Lantern?”
“Eh. I don’t know. Not here.”
Bruce’s fists tightened around the wheel. “You’re standing on a satellite equipped with the best on-board cameras on the planet. You can see ducks cross the street in Cambodia.”
“Hal is in downtown Gotham. Look for him. There will be a crowd of people and…”
“Eh, Jeez Bats, I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t see a thing through that smog cloud you’ve got over your city. What’s this about?”
Bruce hung up on him. He tried Hal again. Nothing. Tried Clark.
It didn’t even ring.
“Hey, you’ve reached the voice box of Clark Kent. I’m out of town right now so please leave a message after th—”
Clark was on Ddaxon Five dealing with peace talks. Bruce knew that. He’d sent him there. Fuck.
He sped up.
Gotham was a big place and soon he would reach the intersection that would take him over the South Bridge or propel him up toward the city centre. Without a clear idea which half of the city he was aiming for it would be a coin toss which route he went down. Unless…
Flash had said there were lots of lights. Green lights. Pink lights. Blue lights.
Unless there were Blue Lanterns visiting Earth that could only be one person.
“Computer. Call Kyle Rayner.”
The man answered on the third ring.
“Kyle,” Bruce said, relieved. “Were you involved in a battle tonight?”
“Eh… yeah. It was Hal’s big bad fear monster. It knocked me away and when I came back it was dead and everyone else was gone. I figured Hal can be like that. I just went home.”
“I need you to come back to Gotham.”
“Huh? Is it still alive?”
“As far as I know, no,” Bruce grunted. “But I need you to help me track down Hal.” A pause. “I think he’s with Carol Ferris.”
“Well that’s no…”
“I think she’s dead.”
Jason climbed in his safe house window, slammed it shut behind him, and closed the curtains. His hands were shaking. His right heavy under the weight of the ring.
He tried again to yank it from his finger.
“Come on you fucker. You pink fucker. You…”
It sat on his finger. The design oddly delicate and the stone in it glowing a soft pink.
Pink. Not green. Not red. Not yellow. Pink.
Not powered by will, or rage, or even fear… but love.
“You really picked the wrong guy,” Jason snarled as he began to peel off his suit. “You want some bleeding heart pining after her bastard boyfriend. You want someone who’ll look good with their tits half out. You want a girl. You don’t want me.”
He managed to get his top half out of his costume. It felt good. He’d been wearing the equivalent of a wet suit in order to trick the Batmobile’s sensors and get close enough to her to plant his explosive. It had worked.
It would have worked.
If only he’d had the guts to pull the trigger.
Now he had a dead girl’s ring on his finger and when Bruce discovered the bomb he would have Batman breathing down his neck.
The explosive could be tracked back to the Gotham Dockyards. From there Bruce would be able to pick up his trail at least until the Bowndry and maybe even his old safe house. If Bruce was lucky – which he usually was – he would be able to get a physical description from someone in the area and maybe even a lead that will take him to one of Jason’s weapon stores.
Jason was meant to kill Bruce so he could start reshaping Gotham unhindered. Instead he’d won himself a profile on the Batcomputer. A profile that Bruce wouldn’t even know was him and the replacement Robin wouldn’t look at twice. A profile that will be ‘just another whack job’ until Bruce saw his face.
Maybe it would still read ‘just another whack job’ even then.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” He fell back on the sofa, kicked off his pants, and once again trying to yank the ring from his finger. “Why won’t you come off?! GL takes his off! I’ve seen it! Why won’t you come off? Fuck! Talk to me!”
“I know you can talk! You said my name!”
The ring remained silent.
“Fuck!” He slumped back, exhausted. “Fuck you, girly ring. Fuck you, fuck tonight, and fuck all this shit.” A long pause. “This was not how tonight was meant to go.”
This time the ring’s silence felt like agreement.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “I don’t figure this was the way it was meant to go for you either.”
He lay for a while, staring at a random patch in the ceiling. After a while a cockroach scampered across it.
He looked at the cockroach, looked at the ring, and pointed his fist towards the animal the way he’d seen the Green Lanterns do growing up.
He tried thinking about the beam of light that would fly out and burn the creature to a crisp. He tried to imagine it. He tried to force his desire for its death through the ring towards it.
He lowered his hand with a bitter laugh. “Trust me to get the useless ring.”
The cockroach scurried away and he stood to shake off the last of his armour and walk across the apartment. He fished in the fridge until he found a beer. There was no way Bruce would be able to track him down to this safe house and even if he could… he needed a drink. He needed to forget about Bruce, he needed to forget about the cockroach, and he needed to forget about the ring on his finger.
He needed to forget about the woman that died in a crater outside Crime Alley.
Hal stayed at Wayne Manor that night.
He didn’t sleep.
He sat in the middle of a massive sitting room, drank herbal tea brought to him by a long faced butler, and talked. It was all he seemed able to do. Words that come up like vomit. Words he could barely attach any meaning to. But words Bruce – the big black eyed bastard – listened to all the same.
“I was gonna marry her,” Hal heard himself say. “Not, like, soon or anything. I hadn’t figured it out yet. But I was going to do it. I was going to propose and then I’d give her a ring. I would make it a Green Lantern ring as a joke but really I’d have a real one in my back pocket. She would have loved that, you know. She would have got the joke. She wouldn’t have laughed. She was never the ‘ha-ha’ kind of gal. But she was funny.”
Another mug of herbal tea.
Hal stared at it. Stared at the murky brown with a hint of green. “She’s dead. I can’t believe she’s dead. I can’t…”
He didn’t cry. Instead whenever he thought of it he convulsed as there was a lump of bitter black poison inside him he needed to cough up. Something if he let out he was scared it would rip him in two. “I… I loved her. I love her. She’s dead. I… I can’t believe she’s dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said.
And for some reason that was the worst thing he could have possibly said.
“No. Don’t be fucking sorry. Be shocked. Be… it’s too soon to be fucking sorry you prick. As if you knew her. As if you had ever taken five goddamned minutes to get to know anyone outside of your cave and your contingency plans.”
“Shut up! I don’t want to talk to you right now.” That was a lie. He did want to talk to Bruce. He just didn’t want Bruce to talk back. He wanted to sit here and talk and talk and talk and talk as if somehow that would eventually make all of this make some sort of sense.
But Carol was dead… he kept saying it and a part at the very front of his brain had already accepted it.
But it didn’t make any sense. Carol couldn’t be dead. She was alive so very recently. They were drinking banana juice, arguing about planes, and having sex hours ago. Someone who was alive hours ago shouldn’t be dead now. Someone whose dishes were still in his sink and coat still in his locker shouldn’t be dead.
“She probably would have rejected my proposal at first,” Hal went on. “Because she’s funny like that. And I wouldn’t mind because I would get it. I would get she was just being funny but deep down I would wonder if she wasn’t… and then she would laugh and take the ring and… and…”
“What happened to her ring?”
Bruce studied him. “I think you’re in a better position to answer that than me.”
Hal clenched his hand into a fist. Every time Bruce opened his mouth he wanted to punch him. He didn’t know why. Maybe because the only reason why he was here with Bruce and not home was that Carol was gone. His Carol. Carol who liked beer not wine, who couldn’t wash dishes without everything tasting like soap, and who always left hair all over his shower.
Inexplicably it was that thought - the idea of her hair somehow splashed all over the shower - that finally broke him.
He hunched forward, buried his face in his hands, and heaved like he was going to throw up. He heaved and heaved and heaved and heaved. And somehow, amongst all that heaving, he finally managed to cry.
Jason didn’t know what woke him.
The room was empty, the sun blocked by the heavy hang of the curtains, and judging by the wall of empty beer bottles on the coffee table beside him, he’d done a good job medicating himself into unconsciousness.
But he was awake and it wasn’t his head that hurt. It was his heart.
A dull throb that felt like… grief.
He rolled onto his back with a low moan and rubbed at his chest. It didn’t help. In fact it sent a light wobbling clumsily across his closed eyelids.
He opened his eyes and glared at the ring on his finger, glowing a sharp pink. Far brighter than it had been last night.
Whatever was going on it was probably a good bet it was to blame.
“You’re just going to sit on my finger, not make a single energy blast, and mess up my sleep. Is that it, girly ring?”
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes. “That’s it. Should have figured you’d turn out to be an arsehole.”
“Energy level less than one percent.”
It was the first thing the ring had said since locking itself on his finger.
Jason didn’t roll over or open his eyes. “What happens when it’s at zero?”
“Do you fall off my finger? Cause, I would be okay with that.”
“How do I even recharge you?”
“Via a violet lantern.”
“What the fuck is a violet lantern?”
“A portable container for violet light energised on the emotional spectrum.”
“Where the hell am I going to find one of those?”
“Nearest known lantern located: Ferris Airbase, Coast City.”
Jason snorted. “I ain’t going to Coast City. I got shit to do here. I got a plan.” A plan to take back Gotham. A plan to rule her the way the ugly bloodthirsty city deserved to be ruled. A plan not to fix a single goddamned thing… but to control it in a way so it wasn’t so random. So pointless. So cruel. To separate the criminals from the monsters, to control the former and put down the latter. To be the Batman Bruce should have always been. To be the bastard this sick twisted city deserved.
But the first step of that plan had been to kill Bruce.
He’d needed to kill Bruce. Not just to get rid of Batman but to get rid of that niggling mix of anger and pain sitting low in his gut whenever he thought of the other man.
But he’d failed. When the time came to pull the trigger he couldn’t do it. So now what? Did he just go on? Continue to take over criminal organisations? Continue to make a name for himself? Continue to wear the hood? All knowing Batman would start hunting him sooner or later? All knowing he would come face to face with the man that buried him? That had buried him and not noticed when his grave went empty?
But wasn’t that what he wanted? Wasn’t that why he had spared him? So he could show him what he’d become. So he could beat him. So he could look Bruce in the eye one last time.
Even so, he needed a plan to defeat him. Sooner or later Bruce would find him. He needed to think of some way to deal with him. A real plan that would give him the edge in a one on one fight.
He could use firearms. Bruce was good against gunmen but if Jason added them into a hand to hand fight they could give him an edge. Or maybe he could arrange the turf to play to his advantage. He was always good on the rooftops and could set traps. Or he could keep his identity hidden so Bruce wouldn't know he was fighting someone who knew his style and his weaknesses. Knowing Bruce it wouldn't take him long to figure it out but if Jason then called him 'Bruce' that could ruffle the old bat's feathers. Philological warfare. Playing with emotions... emotions...
He looked down at the ring.
It shone back up at him. A constant pink.
Fuck, I can't believe I'm considering this.
“Okay girly ring,” he sat up. “How do I get to this airbase?”
Tim was the one that found it.
Normally he wouldn’t be caught dead under a car. It was software he liked, not hardware. But when they were driving home that night the Batmobile’s on-board computer had beeped and flashed as message that said it was unbalanced. Not by a dangerous margin. Not close. But when Tim asked Bruce about it the man had dismissed him without a second look.
“Probably the tires.”
Tim had just changed the tires. That was one of the chores Alfred made him do in exchange for cleaning the suits. He would be damned if his tires would be blamed for the Batmobile being out of balance. He didn’t care if it was by a minor degree or not.
Bruce didn’t look like he would be ready to leave anytime soon so Tim jacked up the car, rolled out the creeper, and slid in under the car on his back. Once there it took him approximately two point seven seconds to notice the bomb.
An hour later it was disarmed and sitting on the workbench. It didn’t look as scary under the fluro lights as it had under the car. All the splayed wires and red lights cartoonish rather than creepy. Even so, the way Bruce behaved, it was as if it were still armed.
“This…” Bruce stared at it. “This doesn’t make sense…”
“Why?” Tim bounced at his side. “Is it a weird design? Does it come from a super villain lab? Does it have alien bits?”
“It’s a cheap device,” Bruce muttered as if speaking to no one in particular. “Build by hand from parts sold in the Dockyards.”
“The particles on it are also from the Dockyards.”
“So we go to the Dockyards?”
“It wouldn’t have done any real damage,” Bruce went on absently. “The blast would barely have broken the Batmobile armour.”
“So we were never in danger?”
“Except that it was placed right over the fuel line.”
“What does that mean?”
“And there is the question of how it was put there to begin with. Someone tricked the Batmobile’s sensors. That person needed to know not just what the Batmobile was capable of but how it functioned and how it was put together.”
Tim stared. “How would they know that?”
“I don’t know.”
Tim would never admit it, but he hated it when Bruce said he didn’t know something. At least when Bruce didn’t answer his questions he could imagine that was because Bruce’s mind was already to many steps ahead that Tim’s query didn’t compute. But ‘I don’t know’ meant they were missing some vital piece of information. ‘I don’t know’ meant some bad guy somewhere out there had the edge.
“So,” Tim licked his lips as his brain backtracked. As he tried to take stock of what they did know. “This… Dockyard bomber somehow got close to the batmobile and knew where to place the bomb so it would do the most damage.”
“But they must have screwed up somewhere because we’re not dead.”
“No,” Bruce’s fingers twirled the edge of a wire as if it were the lock on a lover’s head. “That’s what doesn’t make sense. He could have blown us up. But he didn’t. He had a change of heart.”
“Um… yeah… how often do bad guys have a change of heart?”
“Not often,” Bruce muttered. “Which is why this doesn’t make sense. Why would someone go to the effort of planting this and then not use it?”
Tim’s brain clicked into line behind Bruce’s. “Especially since they also somehow got the plans to the batmobile to know how to do it. That can’t have been easy.”
“Yes…” Bruce looked at him and then away. “Someone very badly wanted us dead… and then they didn’t.”
“Circumstances changed?” Alfred suggested.
“Yeah,” Tim nodded his agreement. “I didn’t go out on patrol with you last night. Maybe they wanted both of us? Or maybe it was an order from higher up? Or maybe…”
“Maybe,” Bruce muttered, his gaze targeted and yet distant. “Maybe they did have a change of heart.”
Jason ditched the hood and went with a balaclava. The Red Hood might still be a new player in the pop criminal market but even he had a reputation to uphold… and that reputation didn’t involve breaking into far off airbases to steal something that probably looked like it belonged to a five year old girl.
But – by fuck – he’d forgotten how itchy balaclavas were. He was fifty percent sure he’d already scratched off half his face. Whatever this violet lantern was it better be worth it.
“Okay, ring,” he growled, one hand in his balaclava rubbing at his nose and other on his gun as he jogged along the side of the dimly lit building. “Here we are. Ferris airbase. Now where is the lantern?”
The ring didn’t answer. Not with words, anyway. Instead a beam of pink light shot off to point at a small office block wedged between the air tower and a hanger.
At least he hadn’t gone passed it already.
He picked his way around the side of the building until it became clear he was going to have to run across the open tarmac at least part of the way. It would take less than thirty seconds but he would be completely exposed while he did it. If there was anyone in any of the buildings looking out or if someone came around the corner they would be sure to see him.
And these military types tended to shoot first.
Still the ring pointed resolutely forward.
“Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck…”
He pulled his hand off his gun and sprinted across the open airstrip.
“Hey you!” Someone yelled in his head.
“Stop!” Another imaginary voice called out.
“Take him down!” Barked a third.
But outside his skull there was nothing but the sound of his boots hammering on the blacktop and the rush of his heartbeat in his own ears. No one had seen him. No one was firing at him.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck…”
He slid into the gleaming face of the building like a baseballer returning home and yanked on the door handle. It was locked. Of course it was locked. What else had he expected? A red carpet covered in rose petals?
He was about to step to the side and shove his elbow through the nearby window when the doorknob twitched. He froze, eyes locked onto the handle. He was just starting to think maybe he imagined it when all at once it turned. Someone was inside… and they were coming out.
He flew behind the nearby garbage bin and pulled his gun from its holster.
“Now would be a good time to stop glowing, ring.”
It didn’t respond.
“For fucks s—” he shoved his fist into the underarm of his jacket, smothering the light, and cocked his gun.
A moment passed.
Finally a man walked by rubbing the back of his neck and yawning. Jason had expected a security guard or at least someone in army camo… instead this guy wore rumbled civvies and wobbled on loose ankles as if he were drunk.
So, even air force arseholes broke the rules sometimes.
Jason waited until drinking-on-the-job was around the corner, counted to ten, and then slipped out of hiding.
The previously locked door was hanging wide open and light from his ring was pointing insistently at the darkness beyond.
“Fuck,” he said one more time because this was a fucking mess… and then he stepped inside.
The office beyond was neat. Very neat. The desk a Spartan square, the filing cabinets a uniform grey, and the books on the shelf in alphabetical order. The only thing that broke the harmony was the trash which was full and a line of clearly kid-made airplane sculptures sitting along the edge of the windowsill. One was pink and covered in sparkles.
Jason ignored the planes and followed the ring’s beam of light to one of the filing cabinets. In the bottom shelf behind a pile of old tax returns he found… nothing. The ring’s light shone down into the empty space with dogged persistence.
“Where is this thing?”
“Pocket dimension,” the ring answered.
“How the fuck am I meant to…?”
The door slammed.
Jason looked up.
The drunk man stood on the welcome mat, his eyes wild and his fist glowing a vicious green. When he spoke his voice was jilted. “Who. The hell. Are you.”
“Oh wouldn’t you like to know.”
The ring. “Power failure, imminent.”
The man held up his fist. The green one. “Answer me!”
Jason could have shot him. He could have surrendered. He could have tried to run away or made up some story about being a two bit thief after a Rolex. Instead he opened his mouth and four words fell out. Four words that weren't his.
“She loved you, Hal.”
The man faltered, his fist shook. “H-how do you know my…?”
Jason spun around, reached into the back of the cabinet, and from nothing pulled out a lantern. Then everything disappeared in a blaze of violet light.
“What are the odds?”
“Yes. The odds. What are the odds?”
Bruce frowned down at the baterang he was working on. He didn’t answer.
The acrobat was sitting at his desk a hundred miles away and was being displayed across four of the Batcomputer’s monitors. The quality of video was good enough to be able to pick out the rough shape of his Bludhaven apartment but not the details. Bruce didn’t know if that photo in the background was of Dick with friends or family.
“Look Bruce,” the man said, adjusting the camera. “I know you hate not having an answer but this seems a little farfetched. A guy rigs the Batmobile to blow. Yeah. Okay. I’ll believe that. A Star Sapphire crash lands down into your city on the same night. Yeah. I’ll believe that too.”
“Not saying it didn’t. What I’m saying didn’t happen is your would-be-bomber turns out to be a secret bleeding heart who stops what she’s doing because a hot pink lady lands in her lap and hands her a ring. Seriously, I ask again. What are the odds?”
“The location was…”
“What does location matter? Hell. We don’t know if anyone on Earth got the ring. It could have flown into space.”
“It wouldn’t have had enough charge,” Bruce muttered. “Not if Carol’s shield failed. And it wasn’t with her body.”
“So that means it has to have gone to the bomber?”
“Why else would they have changed their mind?”
“Maybe they didn’t. Maybe their detonator malfunctioned. Maybe they had a sudden fatal heart attack.”
Bruce sent the man a look.
“Hey,” Dick threw up his hands. “How is that idea any crazier than yours? Heart attacks are a heck of a lot more common than lovey dovey murderers.”
“I have Tim scanning the CCTV footage,” Bruce said stiffly. “We’ll know soon enough.”
“Eh,” Dick made a face. “No, you won’t. You don’t have footage of the alleyway where the car was parked. I know. I know you. You never park anywhere where there are cameras. So, if you don’t know what this bomber looks like how are you going to know if the person you see getting the ring – assuming someone does get the ring – is the bomber or not?”
“And you’ve got Tim trolling through all the footage? Jesus, Bruce. He’s a kid. Send him to bed. He’s got school in the morning.”
“He’s still in the worship-where-you-walk phase of being Robin. I know. I went through it myself.”
“I wish it would have lasted a little longer,” Bruce muttered.
Dick either didn’t hear or tactfully decided to ignore him. “Once he learns to stand up to you then everything will be peachy. Until then don’t pretend his agreement with your crazy ideas makes them good. He’s just bobbing his head because you’re Batman… but you’re wrong about this one. If the bomber is a Star Sapphire then Killer Croc is the Queen.”
“Bruce! Bruce!” Tim raced around the corner clutching a screwed up post-it note. “I found it! I found it!”
“The accountant place. Camera four.” He read from the post-it note. "Timecode oh six eleven twenty four ten.”
Bruce brought up the correct file and plugged in the numbers as Dick sat and slowly shook his head.
The clip Tim identified started a second before Carol Ferris crash landed down into the road. The landing happened left of frame and was blurry at best. If he didn’t know what he was looking at he would assume it was a car crash.
“Can you see her ring?”
“No,” Tim said. “There are a couple of bright flashes. Nothing more. But look.” He poked at the screen. “This person comes from the alley where the Batmobile was parked and they’re wearing all black.”
“All black,” Dick’s voice was mocking through the computer’s speakers. “They must be the bad guy.”
Bruce studied the shape of the newcomer as he first leant over Carol and then after a few energy discharges ran away as other gathered around. From the angle they were observing the scene at it was impossible to tell who he was and if he had received the ring or not…
“The only problem is the timing,” Tim said. “If this is the person that rigged the explosive it means they got the ring after they already changed their mind about not blowing up the car.”
“Also,” Dick poked his hand above his head, mimicking a child in a classroom. “That’s a dude.”
Tim frowned. “So?”
“So… there has never been any male Star Sapphires.”
“That’s not true,” Tim protested. “Kyle…”
“Kyle doesn’t count,” Dick said. “He can use all the colours but he can’t use any of them very well. And he was never actually chosen by a violet ring.”
“In theory it is pos—” Bruce began.
“Ah-huh.” Dick interrupted. “In theory. But it’s never happened in practise. I mean, as far as I know. But even if the ring did pick a guy why would it pick a wound-be bomber? Doesn’t sound very love-like to me.”
Bruce rubbed at his brow. “Dick. Listen. If this is…”
“No,” the man leant back in his chair. “You listen and you listen good. You listen too, Timmy. This is important. I get that you’ve been under a lot of stress recently but you’re wrong. There is no way the crook that tried to blow up your car is flying around space in pink right now. Seriously. No freaking way.”
Jason was in space.
How the hell did he end up in space?
And why was everything pink?
He squinted out at the stars smeared across the blackness in front of him and then looked over his shoulder to look at the ones behind… as if the stars there would somehow be able to tell him something the ones in front of him couldn’t.
They all shouted the same message.
You’re really lost.
The last thing he remembered was Ferris Airbase. There had been a Green Lantern there. A drunk Green Lantern. Jason had somehow pulled out the violet lantern out of thin air and then… then there had been a burst of light. Bright. Blinding. For a split second that light had torn him away from himself. He wasn’t an idiot in a balaclava anymore. He wasn’t a man looking for a weapon. He was a fifteen year old boy sitting bloody and alone in a warehouse as the whole world blew up around him.
“Shit shit shit!”
He’d panicked. He hadn’t had a panic attack since he crawled out of the pit. But in that moment all he could think was get away, run away, fly away, far away, far far away...
Well, he got far away alright. Now he just needed to figure out where the hell he was and how to get back to Earth. Preferably Gotham but at this point he wasn’t picky.
“Ring. Where am I?”
“Space Sector Two Eight One Four. Upper central Quadrant. Approximately seventeen quantum leaps from Omnicron Certi IV.”
Well, that told him a whole lot of nothing.
He peered out into the star smattered blackness unfurling endlessly around him. There were no planets close enough to make out and he had no idea which direction he’d come from. Heck, he had no idea if he was horizontal, vertical, or upside down… not that those concepts even existed in space.
He swore one more time and raked his fingers through his hair. Or, he would have if his hand hadn’t bumped into something sitting low across his brow. Something that felt oddly like… a crown? He felt the ridged shape of it and paused as he noticed the colour of is arm.
He pulled his hand back to blink at it in shock.
Behind the soft purple glow that seemed to be protecting him from the vacuum of space his fingers were encased in a hot pink second skin that extended all the way up to his biceps… and then stopped… and didn’t start again.
“Ah! Okay! Where the fuck are my clothes?”
The ring’s voice sounded, if anything, even more monotonous than usual. “Pocket dimension.”
“Pocket dimension? Fucking pocket dimension?!”
“Where the hell is this pocket because it’s sure as fuck not on me.”
“Answer me, dammit! I’m floating somewhere between Uranus and the edge of the goddamned universe wearing nothing but a banana hammock and go go boots!”
Jason looked down at his body. Beneath the glow – which was what was causing everything to look a little pink and was definitely the only thing keeping him alive right now – his thighs, shoulders, and most of his chest was on full display. He wouldn’t have minded, really he wouldn’t, except that meant all of his scars were out in the open too.
He hated his scars. Especially the biggest one. An ugly massive Y planted in the middle of his chest.
His autopsy scar.
“Fuck,” he looked away from it. “Fuck. Just… this isn’t funny, ring. Give me my clothes back.”
The ring didn’t do anything. Of course it didn’t. Stupid fucking…
“Fine! That’s the way you want to play it? At least take me home!”
The ring flashed. “Plotting course for Zamaron.”
Jason frowned. “Zama-what? No. Goth—”
He lurched forward and suddenly the stars were blurring past, his fist held out in front of him as his ring dragged him forward through space.
Died in the line of duty.
Not ‘gave her life stopping an impossible monster that would have eaten the planet if it could’. Not ‘a hero with so much love in her heart it should have killed her years ago’. Not even ‘a damn good pilot and kick-arse superhero who was wasted behind an office desk’.
Just… died in the line of duty.
The kind of epitaph given to extras in a war movie.
Hal watched numb as a line of men he didn’t know carried her casket from the hearse to the open grave. Long, square, and made out of pale chestnut coloured wood. It didn’t look big enough to contain all that he knew Carol was. Her smile, her laugh, her dry sense of humour.
It didn’t even look like it could fit her body.
But somehow she was in there. Somehow the woman who a week ago he was having the most amazing sex of his life with, who was wrinkling her nose over his pancakes, and who had left hair all over his shower was dead.
Carol who always let him fly the new planes. Carol who somehow managed to pay the insurance required for him to fly new planes. Carol who always knotted her hair behind her head in the mornings. Carol who was terrible at doing dishes. Carol who loved cheesecake. Carol who told him who to vote for when he’d been on Oa for months. Carol who never fired him even when she probably should have. Carol who loved cartoons on Sunday, drank beer not wine, and had the most beautiful kisses in the world… gone.
“Ashes to ashes,” a man who didn’t even look like the right kind of priest was saying as he tossed dirt down onto the coffin. “Dust to dust.”
That made Hal angry. The mundanity of it. The cliché. The curt dismissal of life.
He swallowed down the bitter black feeling, bowed his head, and endured. The moment he respectfully could, he escaped. He climbed into his car and sped off.
Carol wasn’t there among the mourners. Not her spirit. Not her soul. Not even, it seemed, her memory. There were work officials, distant family members, and even a small contingent of men in army uniforms… but no Carol.
He would have thought, after all the love Carol gave the world, they would be able to muster enough of their own to give her a decent funeral. But the only love – to only shred of real understanding – he had felt since she died hadn’t been from anyone he knew. It had been from her replacement.
The kid in black.
He didn’t know how violet rings worked. He knew, at their core, they were similar to green lantern rings. They could create constructs, protect the user from hostile environments, and propel themselves and anyone attached onto them through space. But love was a much more volatile emotion than will. While will was the strongest and simplest emotion – the one the guardians has chosen to harness when they established the corp millions of years ago – love had other powers. Powers which weren’t so easily explained.
The kid had shown up in Carol’s office dressed like a cartoon thief. Black gloves, black hood… all he was missing was a striped t-shirt and he could have been a bad cosplay of the hamburglar. But then he’d said those words, those four simple words, and his entire world had flipped upside down.
“She loved you, Hal.”
In that moment Carol might have been dead but she hadn’t been gone. Not the way she was gone at the funeral.
Hal pulled up outside his apartment and yanked the handbrake on.
The ring. It had to be the ring. It had known who he – Hal – was and it had known Carol’s feelings for him. It was just an AI. How could it have known those things unless a piece of Carol had somehow lived on with it?
Perhaps if he got that ring he could find that piece of Carol. Perhaps he could unlock a message she’d left for him. Perhaps... perhaps he could even figure out a way to bring her back.
After all, if his time in the Justice League had taught him anything it was that death wasn't as absolute as they had once believed.
It was a long shot but if the ring could somehow save her... he had to try. She would have done the same for him. She wouldn't have rested until he was back in the cockpit of one of her planes begging for another chance to take her out to dinner.
But if he had any hope of bringing her back he needed that ring... and with the speed at which the kid took off it could be anywhere this side of known space by now. While the Star Sapphires recognised the space sectors they didn’t give them much credence beyond using them as map markers. The kid had no obligation to this sector any more than any other. Even if he did, anyone who would strap a gun to their hip and break into an airbase clearly wasn't the sort that cared much for rules.
He’d also taken Carol’s lantern which meant he had no reason to come back to Coast City.
But… he was human and he would eventually return home. Where exactly ‘home’ was Hal couldn’t be sure… but Carol’s ring had been running on fumes when she died. It had to have been. There was no other reason why her shields would have failed. Whoever this kid was, the ring couldn’t have gone very far to find him.
And when the kid had spoken it had been with a low end Gotham accent… perhaps the ring hadn’t gone far at all. Perhaps it had hop skipped and jumped right onto the finger of one of the bystanders that saw her crash… just like his ring had done when Abin Sur had crashed.
Maybe that was why the ring had chosen a man. Limited options given the power levels.
Whatever the case, he might have no idea where the kid was now but he knew where he might return to. Sure, Gotham was a big place… but if there was any chance there was a piece of Carol in her ring… then he had to try.
He kicked the car back into gear and pulled away from his apartment. It was a long trip from the West Coast to the East but if he was going to get into Gotham without Bats breathing down his neck he needed to do it the old fashioned way… by burning oil and not willpower. Once there he needed to find the kid, find Carol’s ring, and figure out how to save her.
Because she had to be in there somehow. She had to be. He couldn’t survive it if she wasn’t. He couldn’t just throw dirt on her coffin. He couldn’t pretend pouring alcohol into the Carol shaped hole in his life made it any easier. He couldn’t move on. Not from her.
He would find the kid. He would find the ring. He would find Carol… and he would save her. No matter what.
The first thing Jason did when he landed on the alien planet was fall to his knees and puke.
He didn’t care anymore. His whole life felt like one bored god’s joke after another. From the moment he refused to change the design of the Robin costume, stupidly believing it was somehow magic, to crawling screaming out of a putrid green pit of madness and death. Now this.
He should never have gone to Ferris Airbase. He should never have thought this ring would do anything but fuck with him. Anyone who had ever pretended to want to help had always just fucked with him. Talia. Bruce. Now a goddamned piece of jewellery.
He should have let it power down, thrown it in the trash, and continued with his plan. He could have used guns and booby traps to give him the edge over Bruce. He could have revealed his identity and used the Joker to throw the man off balance. He could have had the confrontation he wanted.
Instead he was galaxies away from everything he had ever known, wearing a suit that seemed designed to humiliate him, and retching his guts out into a patch of neon purple grass.
When he looked up and saw a blue troll in a pink bikini he wasn’t even surprised anymore.
“Leave me alone.”
“You are not well, sister.”
For a troll it sounded surprisingly human. In fact, it sounded like it was from down the road from where he grew up. Its lips didn’t move in sync with the words though. Jason guessed the glowing pink arsehole on his finger was translating for him.
The troll looked more bemused than offended. “Ah,” a smile showed off a mess of lumpy gnarled teeth. “You are new.” It approached, wrapped a massive blue arm around his shoulders, and hauled him gracelessly to his feet. “It is okay. You’ll get used to it.”
“Get off me. Get off me!” Jason yanked himself away from the creature and spun around to point his ring – his useless ring – at it. “I don’t know what the hell you are but you don’t get to touch me!”
The troll opened its mouth to say something and then paused as it studied him. A small wrinkle formed between two bony brows as its eyes raked down his body to settle on his groin.
“Hey, my eyes are up here, ugly.”
“I…. I’m sorry. You must forgive me but in most anthropoids it is the male that…” the troll trailed off.
Jason looked down at the unmistakable shape of his crotch and back up at the creature.
Understanding passed between them.
“We should go and see the Queen,” the troll said, its voice suddenly very cold.
“The Queen,” Jason rasped. “Oh yes, the Queen. Sure, I’ll see the Queen. I’ll see her right…” he took off at a run.
He could have tried to use his ring. He could have tried to fly away. He could have tried to blast the troll and see if it fared any better or worse than the cockroach. But he was done asking the ring for help. Every time he did his life ended up worse because of it.
So he ran.
He ran and ran and ran and ran.
He ran down a decorative stone path, swerved into a field of long purple reeds, and scrambled over the rocks he found at the other side. Then he kept running. Through another field, along another path, and down a bank until somehow he found himself surrounded by buildings. They were sleek and alien. Like claws curving up toward the sky.
They were also not uninhabited.
He stopped and stared at the bizarre collection of bodies walking, floating, and slithering by. Most seemed to be the same species. The sort of humanoid alien people used to make toys of before Superman showed up. Large angular black eyes, blue skin, and heads both elongated and bald. But others were clearly something completely different.
He saw something that looked like a giant squid caught in the middle of a heated argument with a big breasted lizard. Beyond them there were two women who could have been mistaken for human if they had the right number of arms. Further along was a girl that looked like she belonged in Santa’s workshop laughing with the most beautiful tree Jason had ever seen.
And then there was the troll. Floating down from the sky and pointing its ring at him.
Before he could run he was wrapped in a ball of violet light and lifted off the ground.
“Let go of me! Put me down! I didn’t ask for any of this! I didn’t want it! Let me go home!”
A laugh sounded from below. “New girl, Th’rae?”
The troll studied him.
He glared at the troll.
“Not quite, sister," said that voice that sounded like it came from just down his street. "Not quite.”
It has happened! The very lovely and extremely talented Shaish has created some fanart of Jason in his new costume. It is, quite frankly, gorgeous. You can check it out here: link. Don't forget to like and share so they can feel the love.
“Reinforced fuel line coverage, new experimental blast retardant metal, and sensors that will activate if something dense it placed anywhere on or near the undercarriage.” Bruce ran his fingers along the new metal belly of the batmobile. “I’ve already changed the suspension. Once we replace the engine the extra weight won’t be an issue.”
“Quite the upgrade, Master Bruce.”
“What else would you have me do, Alfred?” He slid out from under the car to grab a rag and wipe the last of the grease off his fingers. “The bomber may strike again and this time they may not hesitate. We have to be ready.”
“Is there…” Tim stood almost shyly at Alfred’s side. “I mean… could it… stand up against a lantern attack?”
Bruce fixed the boy with a frank look. “No,” he answered.
“So…” Tim licked his lips. “If the bomber does have the violet ring…”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Alfred put a careful hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It is as Master Richard said. The odds of that are very low.”
Tim didn’t look convinced.
Bruce didn’t feel convinced.
Dick was right. The odds of the bomber wielding the violet ring were low. What’s more, the timing didn’t make sense. If the bomber had been the one to inherit the ring they had done so after the opportunity to blow up the batmobile had already passed. Therefore the ring couldn’t have been what changed their mind.
Even so, a worm of doubt still niggled at the back of his skull.
A ring of love. An act of mercy. It didn’t feel like a coincidence that these two things had happened in virtually the same spot on the same night just moments apart.
But if the ring hadn’t caused the mercy… the only other logical explanation would be that the mercy caused the ring. If the bomber’s act of sparing him that night was somehow one of love then the ring could have detected it. When Carol fell the ring may have dictated the direction of her decent so that it would be in the prime place to attach onto a new host with minimum energy expenditure.
The only issue with this theory would be that it would require the bomber to know him personally. Not just that, but they would have to have some kind of strong emotional attachment to him. To love him.
Bruce angrily dismissed the idea.
Not only was it unlikely it was also incredibly narcissistic. It assumed that he – Bruce – was somehow at the epicentre of all this… and that was exactly the kind of arrogance that had killed Tim’s mother. Exactly the kind of egotistical bullshit that had driven Dick away. Exactly the kind of disregard for others that had taken Jason from him…
All of them his boys and all of it his fault.
Tim was looking at him expectedly.
He looked away. “If the bomber has the ring we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, we’ll assume it went to someone else.”
“It is as Dick said,” Bruce forced himself to say the words. “The odds that the bomber has the ring are very low.”
Alfred nodded his agreement, one hand still settled on Tim’s shoulder.
The boy, if anything, look betrayed.
But that’s the way it had to be. The bomber couldn’t have loved him. That was even more unlikely than the theory that the ring caused the change of heart.
Still… in the off chance that it was true then who could it be? Perhaps one of the women he had dated in the past? The figure in the video had looked masculine but that could have just been the poor quality footage or perhaps it really was just a bystander. Perhaps the real bomber had stayed in the ally and the ring had flown to them, too small and fast to be detected on the CCTV footage.
But who out of his past relationships would want to kill him enough to plant the bomb?
Talia immediately came to mind… among others.
“You’ve…” Tim was studying him. “Thought of something… haven’t you?”
“Master Bruce,” Alfred looked downright disapproving. “You know the odds are…”
“I know the odds, Alfred. Like I said, we’re assuming the ring went to someone else." A pause. "I’m just… covering the bases.”
Alfred sighed. "Master Bruce..."
The list of women who he had affairs with who might now wish him dead was frighteningly extensive. But, if he was going to start somewhere he might as well start with the women that already fought him on a regular basis. The one who had, when they were younger, already both confessed her love and tried to kill him. The one who had lived most of her life right near the location where Carol had crash landed.
“Alfred. Where were the last known whereabouts of Selina Kyle?”
The troll didn’t fly him to a castle. Instead they arrived at a flat topped hill crowned with an immaculate circle of towering pink crystals. Underneath a collection of women were gathered in the stone courtyard. Some wore civilian clothes. Some wore sapphire uniforms.
In the middle of it all stood the Queen.
Jason wasn’t sure how he knew she was the Queen. She wasn’t on a throne, in a ball gown, or drinking tea. She wasn’t even wearing a crown. On a planet where everyone, even Jason, was wearing a goddamned crown the Queen went bare brow. But the moment he laid eyes on her he knew who she was.
Perhaps it was the way she stood quietly in the middle of it all.
Perhaps it was that she wore the simplest dress.
Perhaps it was the two heavily armoured guards standing behind her, their rings and spear tips glowing an ominous violet.
“What is this, Sapphire Th’rae?” The Queen asked as the troll’s flying ball carried him down into the fray.
“It is our newest member,” the troll said as it set him awkwardly onto his feet. “I found him in the fields.”
The Queen’s eyes narrowed. “Him?”
“It would appear so, my Queen.”
A shocked murmur rippled through the onlookers. A couple edged forward to peer at him and a few others touched their rings as if anticipating an attack.
The Queen studied him, black eyes unreadable. “Perhaps it was only a matter of time,” she mused as if to herself.
“It’s the rings!” One of the blue skinned aliens snarled. “Just as I’ve always said. We should never have adopted the guardians’ technology. Wielding violet light through the star sapphire stone may have been dangerous but at least our methods were our own!”
“Enough with your fear mongering,” another retorted angrily. “We program the rings. The design may be of Oa but they serve us. Have they not sought out and brought many deserving star sapphires in these last years?”
“But,” a third looked concerned. “It is a man.”
“And who is to say he is not deserving? We have shared our power with worthy women of all races and it has served us well. Perhaps it is time to welcome men into our fold as well.”
“That is insan—!”
“Quiet,” the Queen said.
The woman who had been speaking slammed her jaw closed so hard Jason heard her teeth clack together. The others bowed their heads.
The Queen was the same species that seemed to be the majority on this planet. Blue skin, black eyes, and an elongated head atop a narrow neck. Her gaze was unwavering and had never left Jason. “What is your name, man?”
“None of your goddamned business,” he answered.
A shocked shiver of outrage from the onlookers.
“Hm,” the Queen’s face remained impassive. “I am Queen Aga’po. I am the leader of the Star Sapphires… and the ruler of this planet.”
“Good for you.”
She approached. Her guards moved like twin shadows behind her. “You are not the first man ever to wield violet light… but you are the first man ever to be selected by one of our rings.”
He held his ground as she came to a stop before him.
“I am… curious.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, lady. Your ring fucked up.”
She was at least two feet taller than him. Not bulky like the troll but scaled up like a picture zoomed in. “Did it?”
“Look,” Jason spoke up at her. “I’m not into this whole love thing. I’m not in love with anyone. Heck, I’ve only ever fucked one person and I just did it because I could and to get back at someone else.”
A snort from the onlookers. “It is a man, alright.”
The Queen ignored them. Instead she reached out and – to his shock – pulled the ring off his finger.
Instantly he was back in his balaclava. Hot, itchy, and smelling of nervous sweat. He ripped it off to stare down at his black pants, leather jacket, and the gun once more belted onto his hip. The same clothes he had worn during his break in at Ferris Airbase. His clothes.
Warm. Safe. Familiar.
If the Queen had noticed his change of attire she didn’t show it. Instead she studied the ring for a long moment, a look of incredible sadness trickling down over her face. “This is Carol’s ring.”
A few gasps of dismay and hushed ‘no’s from the gathered crowd. One even clutched at her chest and shook as if on the verge of tears.
The Queen closed her eyes. “I assume then, man, that you are from Earth.”
“Yeah,” he rasped and stuffed the balaclava into his back pocket. “And – you know – I would really like to go back there. So why don’t you just keep that,” he pointed at the ring. “I don’t want it. Give it to some hot alien chick who looks good half naked. Send me back to my planet. I promise I won’t bother you or your little intergalactic girls club again.”
She looked at him for a long time. Then… “Carol was a good person, Man of Earth.”
“Never said sh—"
“She taught me much about love,” the Queen ploughed on. “And acceptance.”
“But above all she taught me one thing…” she opened her palm and the ring shot back toward him.
He clenched his hands into fists before he could latch onto him but it sat hovering in the air in front of him. As insistent as a dog waiting to be fed. “Damn it. I said I didn’t want it!”
“…the rings never make mistakes.” She finished.
“Fuck you,” he snarled. “You can’t make me take it!”
“Sapphire Th’rae,” the Queen turned away from him to address the troll still looming over the scene. “I trust you can find accommodation and organise training for our new brother.”
The troll looked at him, clearly unhappy. “If I must, my Queen.”
“Wait. You’re knocking?”
“Like…” Tim stared at Bruce. “For real? You’re not just pretending to knock or…”
Bruce sent him a look so strong it was detectable through the cowl. “Pretending to knock?”
He blushed. “I… I don’t know. It’s just that we never knock. We always sneak into places. Stand in the dark. Surprise them.”
“There is no surprising Selina, Robin.”
“But… knocking?” He stressed the word. “She might be the bomber. Shouldn’t we at least tr—?”
Tim sucked in a breath, hugged his cape around himself, and tried desperately not to feel like an unseasonal two-bit trick-or-treater. It didn’t work. As awesome as the Robin costume seemed when he was running across rooftops it always felt silly performing everyday tasks in it. Not that they went to see a maybe murderous Catwoman every day... but still.
The door swung open.
“Hm,” a woman stepped out, looped her arms around Bruce’s neck, and pushed her body against his. “I thought I saw you following me around. What’s the matter? Are the city’s bad guys running scared? Do you need someone to chase arou—” she caught sight of Tim and a look of frank annoyance snaked across her face. “Oh. You brought the kid.”
Bruce pulled her arms off his neck. “This is business, Selina.”
“Yeah,” she stepped back to lean against the doorframe. “Should have figured. What do you want?”
“Can we come in?” Bruce asked
“You got a warrant?”
“We’re not the police,” Tim pointed out crisply.
“Yeah, kid, and I’m not an informant. You want information you play by my rules.” Her eyes snaked back to Bruce. “So what is it? No.” She held up a hand. “Let me guess. You want the low down on this new Red Hood guy, don’t you? Well, I can’t tell you much. He hasn’t been active for a few days and when he is active he just blows away small time bosses and takes over their operations. People have been saying he has a beef with Black Mask but that’s just rumours.”
“Isn’t all your information just rumours?” Tim muttered.
“Huh,” she cocked her head at him. “This new bird of yours needs his wings clipped.”
“My wings are fine.”
“Keep tweeting little Robin. Cats like to play with their prey and the noisy ones are always the best.”
“I’m not looking for Red Hood,” Bruce said before Tim could retort. “I’m looking for someone else. Someone with a ring.”
“You're going to need to be more specific."
“A violet lantern ring.”
Her eyes flashed. “A violet lantern ring? As in green lantern but…?”
She ran her tongue along the edge of her lip. “That is one bauble I didn’t know what floating around… is it shiny?”
“It’s dangerous,” Bruce answered.
“Well in that case…” she stepped away from the door and waved an arm in welcome. “Come in. Make yourselves comfortable. Tell me all about it.”
Bruce ducked as he moved through the doorframe.
Tim glared at her as he followed.
She didn’t look like he imagined the bomber. For one thing, she wore Hello Kitty pyjama bottoms and had hips that didn’t seem to match with the body he’d seen in the CCTV footage. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t guilty… and if she did have the ring he needed to be ready.
Though, he had to admit, her apartment wasn't exactly a threatening environment. Brightly coloured Persian rugs covered the floor, a stack of high heeled boots sat by the door, and he was pretty sure he could see at least five multicoloured cats peeking out at him from the tangle of second-hand furniture.
“There is a small chance whoever has the ring knows me personally,” Bruce began as he came to a standstill in the middle of the apartment. His black cape and cowl looking distinctly out of place among the haphazard clutter of ordinary life. “That’s why I’m here.”
“How small a chance?” Selina asked as she closed the door.
“Small. But if it is true whoever they are likely also has… some kind or emotional attachment to me.”
“Oh? What kind of emotional attachment?”
“A strong one,” Bruce growled.
“Mm-hm. I see now.” She perched herself on the edge of the sofa. A kitten wriggled out of the cushions to crawl into her lap. “You think I have it.”
“There is also a chance the person who has the ring may want me dead.”
“You definitely think I have it.”
Bruce didn’t answer.
“And this is your plan? You think I have a super powerful ring and some sort of beef with you so you just come here and knock on my door?”
“That’s what I said,” Tim muttered.
“Do you have it?” Bruce pushed.
“No,” Selina answered. “Violet isn’t my colour. I haven’t heard anything either. But…” she studied Bruce curiously. “Why do you think the person who has the ring has a strong emotional attachment with you? Do you just assume everyone who is trying to kill you is secretly infatuated with you?”
“I am just covering the bases.”
“That’s some funny bases.”
“If the ring bearer loves m—”
“Ah. There it is. The L word.” Selina held up a finger and did something Tim thought only Alfred could do… she interrupted The Batman. “You think whoever is trying to kill you loves you. Well, I’m flattered Bruce, but as much fun as we have - as much as I care about you - I am not in love with you.”
An awkward silence.
“You once told me…” Bruce began.
“…that I loved you,” Selina nodded. “I know. I was young, Bruce. I didn’t know what love was. I have Holly now and… others. I look after them. It may not be romantic love but it is love and it has taught me what we shared was not love."
Five seconds passed. Then ten.
Tim looked uncomfortably between them.
"Don't get me wrong," Selina added. "My feelings for your were strong. They still are. I care about you. But that's not the same as..."
“I see,” Bruce said.
“So,” she went back to stroking the kitten in her lap as if nothing had happened. As if the awkwardness hanging around them wasn't heavy enough Tim could feel his knees shaking. “This begs the question. Who are you looking for? Is an angry ex-girlfriend?” A hard look. “Or is it someone who truly loves you?”
Bruce didn’t answer for a time. Then… “The prerequisites of this assumption require it to be the latter.”
“Good,” Selina smiled. “So now we just need to find someone who loves you - truly loves you - and also wants you dead. That shouldn't be too hard. Right?"
The troll dropped him to the ground with none of the pomp and circumstance she had used in front of the Queen. His heels struck the polished stone hard enough to send a shock of pain all the way up to the back of his skull.
“Ah! What the fu—?!”
“This,” a meaty blue fist waved at a nearby building, “is where you shall sleep.”
“I’ll sleep where I want to sl—”
“That,” she pointed to an arena cut into the belly of the valley below, “is where you train.”
“I’m not going to tr—”
“There,” her finger moved to jab towards another building opposite the arena, “is where the food is.”
“Great,” Jason said. “So where are the urinals exactly?”
The troll sent him a flat look. “Careful, Earth Man. You were lucky today. You may find some of your new sisters not as forgiving of your disrespect as our Queen was.”
“Well my ‘new sisters’ can suck my c—”
“I would suggest you get your rest,” she went on in that voice that still sounded like it came from his street. A voice he was still hearing despite not wearing the ring. A voice no doubt broadcast into his brain by her ring glowing at him from her knuckle like an ugly evil eye. “I will return in eight of your hours to begin your training.”
“No! Listen to me, damn you. I’m not going to tr—”
She lifted off the ground. “Sleep well, brother. I advise you wear your ring tonight. You didn’t make many friends during your audience with the Queen.”
“Friends?” He snarled. “You think I care about friends? You’re holding me hosta—”
It was no use. She was already gone.
“Fuck!” He yanked his ring out of his pocket. “Why?! Why did you pick me?! Why are you doing this to me?! You think this is funny? Why won’t you just… just…” he sucked in a ragged breath. “…take me home.”
The ring stared back at him. Silent.
For one wretched angry moment he considered throwing it down into the valley below. Let some bright pink chipmunk choke on it for all he cared. He didn’t want anything more to do with it. He didn’t want to ever see it again.
If he was on Earth he would have done it. But he wasn’t on Earth. He was on an alien planet and the ring was his only hope of ever getting back. Back to Earth. Back to Gotham. Back to everything he had left there. His life. His plan. His confrontation with Bruce.
“I hate you,” he rasped and shoved it back into his pocket.
He didn’t care what the troll said, he couldn’t stomach the idea of putting it back on. Not yet. It might be the only chance he had of returning home but at least with it off he could wrangle together some fragile sense of control. He wasn’t being engulfed in light or dragged around space or shoved into a leotard with bits cut out of it. He was in his clothes, on his feet, and he had his gun.
He was… himself again. At least for a while.
He sucked in a steadying breath and took stock of his surroundings. It was sunset, the stars were starting to peek through the haze of twilight, and in the distance he could see a scattering of glowing pink women zigzagging across the sky. From where he stood they weren’t much bigger than fireflies.
It would have been beautiful… if it didn’t also feel like a Barbie themed acid trip.
He looked over his shoulder to study the building behind him, the one the troll had said was meant to be his accommodation. It looked like a flower bud with every second petal torn away. Most of the open sections had been replaced with thin sheets of pink crystal but two were empty forming massive twin archways. One at his end of the building. One at the opposite side.
There was no door. No curtain. No way to close off the interior from the outside world.
There also wasn’t any beds.
All he could see from where he stood were what looked like four massive auger seashells made out of dark stone.
Oh hell no.
He walked towards the nearest one and stopped when his fears were realised. There were blankets inside it. These were the beds.
He'd slept a trash bag and a cardboard box but he would be damned before he spent a night snoozing in a space the size of a coffin. That was something he just… couldn’t do. Not anymore. Nor did he like the fact that there was multiple shells, one with someone's personal items and a lantern sitting beside it. This wasn't a bedroom. It was a dormitory.
With a snarl Jason yanked the blankets out of the nearest shell and marched back outside. He ignored the path leading down into the valley and instead set out across the fields.
He walked until he couldn’t see the flower bud building, until the rise and fall of the land had hidden the valley from view, and then he walked some more. He kept walking until he found a leafless tree with long thick branches that twisted like a tortured willow. Then he climbed.
He didn’t go very high. No more than five metres above the ground. Not too high as he couldn’t jump down if he needed to but not too low as to be easily reachable by someone walking by either. Once there he lashed his thickest blanket between the forked trunks and carried the rest into the makeshift hammock with him.
He didn’t sleep.
He just stared out at the world and thought about everything that had happened. From his panic attack to being lost in space to being interrogated by an alien queen. All because he’d had the bright idea to charge up the extra-terrestrial power ring that had accidentally rolled onto his finger.
"You idiot. You stupid fucking idiot."
After a while he realised that it wasn’t sunset after all. The sun was moving along the horizon rather than sinking into it. An eerie endless dusk.
Perhaps it was the outlandishness of that. Perhaps it was the mess of thoughts tangling together in his mind. Perhaps it was because he was finally alone for the first time since arriving on this planet… but at that moment his heart throbbed painfully in his chest. A blunt ache just like the one he’d felt when he’d first woken up with the ring on his finger.
Not strong enough to curse about but not quite weak enough to be ignored either.
“Come on. Just…” he closed his eyes. “Come on..."
“Come on!” Hal punched the vending machine. “I just want a goddamned Coke! Is that too much to ask?!”
The machine relinquished neither his drink nor his dollars.
“Please! Just a Coke. Just one damn…” he broke off with a ragged sob. And if that wasn’t rock bottom he didn’t know what was. He was crying over a vending machine. Over a can of Coke. Over his wretched useless impotence. “Please just… I can’t… I need...”
He knew what Carol would say if she were here. He could hear the words in his head as clearly as if she were whispering them in his ear.
“Only you, Hal Jordan,” she would say. “Only you would put money into the vending machine that looks like it has been here since the seventies.”
“Hey,” he would answer with a grin. “The other one only had Pepsi. I hate Pepsi.”
“You can’t tell the difference,” imaginary Carol reminded him.
“Yes I can. Pepsi tastes like shit.”
“Bullshit. That was your last dollar wasn’t it?” He could almost hear the slosh of liquid in a can as, in his mind’s eye, Carol waved her drink under his nose. “Do you want some of my Pepsi?”
“God yeah,” he rasped out loud.
Pretend-Carol snatched it playfully back. “Then you should have used the right vending machine.”
He gritted his teeth. Something between a smile and a grimace of pain as he imagined what would follow.
He would try to grab the can from her. She would dance away. He would chase her… and if no one was around he might even use a construct to grab her and pull her in close. The Pepsi would spill but by then neither of them would care. They would kiss, they would laugh, and when they got home they would peel off their shirts – sticky where the drink had splashed on them – and spend all afternoon in a lazy haze of sex, cartoons, and talking about people they used to know in the air force.
If Carol was here losing money to a vending machine would be annoying, stupid, and something he would laugh about later.
But Carol wasn’t here… and somehow that made even the littlest thing unbearable.
“I’m going to bring you back, babe,” he promised. “There is a way. There has to be.” With a surge of bitter emotion he pushed himself away from the vending machine and raised his ring towards it. “There is always a way.”
A blast of green energy shot out and smashed into the machine.
No construct. No cleverness.
Just a shot of raw emotion.
The glass smashed, a storm of singed one dollar notes flew off into the air, and a parade of Coke cans fell to the ground. Dented, twisted, and leaking. One rolled toward him leaving a slim trail of spilt drink behind it. He picked it up anyway, swiped the foam off the dripping top, and cracked it open in earnest.
It tasted gross. Like burnt aluminium and gravel.
He finished it anyway, dropped the empty can onto the ground, and walked back towards his car. He pulled away from the service station as a confused woman emerged to stare at the ruined machine in shock as a junkie darted from the shadows to feverishly gather up the fallen money.
Hal ignored them and accelerated toward the main road. It was mostly empty save for a couple of semi trailers and a few pick up trucks. He wasn't surprised. After hours of driving he had finally left behind the shimmering cities with their stacks of traffic and started to cut a straight path through the Midwest. It was still a long way to Gotham but if he kept up the pace he would get there in a day or two. Then all he had to do was look up at the sky and wait. Sooner or later the kid with Carol's ring would put on a purple and pink light show... and when he did Hal would be ready.
Jason didn’t remember falling asleep but he knew the moment he woke up that it had been a mistake to do so.
Three women floated uncomfortably close around him. One had blue skin, another red hair, and the third three sets of eyes. All of them wore rings. Three sharp points of colour. Three angry little eyes.
He slowly slid his hand down to rest on his gun.
The blue one saw him looked at her and dragged the corners of her mouth up in an eerie smile.
“Sleep well, brother?”
He didn’t answer.
“You are lucky. The weather here can be… temperamental.”
“I did not know your kind nested in trees,” Red Head said as she floated around behind him. “How odd.”
“Carol didn’t,” Six Eyes noted. “Carol slept in the living quarters with the rest of us.”
“Yes. That’s right,” the first said. Her voice pitched with false levity. “She didn’t mind sleeping in the same room as us.”
Jason slowly switched the safety off his gun. Stayed silent.
“Tell us, Earth man, are all the males of your species offended by Zamaronian soil? Or is it just you?”
He let the question hang for a moment. Then… “You want to know about men?” He twisted if face into an ugly mockery of lust. “I could teach you a few things.”
Confusion and then outrage ran across their faces like a stadium wave. “You disgus—”
He swung out of his hammock, rolled when he hit the ground, and straightened with his gun ready in his hand. “But, I got somewhere to be. Nice chat. We should do this again sometime.” He began to back away through the grass.
“What’s the rush, Earth Man?” They dropped down to the ground and began to walk after him. A pack of lionesses following a lone zebra. “It is not yet time for the morning meal.”
“Yeah, well, thought I would take a run, you know. Meant to be good to get some exercise before breakfast.”
“Strange. We thought much the same thing.” They didn’t slow.
“Okay, that’s enough,” he planted his feet and lifted his gun. “I’m done playing. Back off.”
They didn’t stop.
“I mean it!”
“He has already lost his ring,” Red Head sneered, all pretence of hospitality gone. “Perhaps it has realised its error and left.”
“It is not his ring,” Six Eyes said. “No man has ever worn a star sapphire ring. No man ever should.”
Jason’s finger tightened around the trigger. “I don’t need a ring to take out your ugly arses.”
“You sully our sisterhood,” Blue said as she came to a stop, his gun almost pressed against her breast, her smile long gone. “You disrespect our Queen. You mar the splendour of Zamaron.”
“I didn’t choose this.”
“But yet here you are.”
The moment stretched.
“Oh…” he let his shoulders slump and gun sink to point at the ground as if in defeat. “Well… in that case…” He attacked.
It wasn’t much of a feint but it worked long enough for the heel of his palm to meet Blue’s nose. The blood that splashed over his palm was purple and cooler than that of a human.
She screamed and staggered back as a shimmering second skin of violet energy activated a second too late to save her nose.
“Beast!” Red Head snarled as a glowing pink sword and shield appeared in her hands. “I’ll take your hand for that!”
Six Eyes kept it simple and pointed her ring.
He lifted his gun. He doubted it but, if he was lucky, his bullets would be able to rupture their force fields and do some damage. Maybe a kneecap or – better yet – a ring finger. He didn’t want to kill. Not until he had a way off this planet. But if it came down to it he would wring whatever satisfaction he could.
The troll drop out of the sky to land with enough force to shake the ground beneath him.
Red Head. “He attacked us!”
“He is young and stupid and does not yet know better. You are not.”
Six Eyes. “He is a man, Th’rae! You would defend him?”
“He was endorsed by the Queen. You would disregard her?”
“Go,” Blue said and pushed her way to the front of the three, a hand over her bleeding nose. “Take your pet. Teach him to make a mockery of the Star Sapphires. But don’t think I’ll forget this.”
Jason cursed loudly as the troll wrapped an arm around his middle and hauled him gracelessly off the ground.
“…I know you won’t.”
“Fuck,” Jason croaked as they lifted off and swooped through the air. “What are you doing? Why the hell didn’t you pick me up in one of your bubbles?”
The troll snorted. “A thank you would be nice.”
“I didn’t need help.”
“Yes you did,” she said.
Within seconds they were in the training arena he saw from the hilltop last night. It was much larger that it had looked from above and from its centre he could see a line of star sapphires moving toward the mess hall.
The troll sighed and looked at the purple blood on his fist. “Of all of them, Earth Man, you had to choose the Zamaronian to hit.”
“Aren’t you all Zama-what-ians?” He snapped and wriggled in her one arm embrace. “Put me down.”
A sad smile snaked across the creature’s face before she set him onto the shorn pink grass. “No. We are not all Zamaronian. I am from the planet Okaara in the Vega system. A ring came to me seven of your Earth years ago after I lost my tribe in the Great Wars of Avarice.”
Jason didn’t know what to say to that. He wiped the blood on his fist off on his jacket and shoved his gun back into its holster.
“Those that look like the Queen – with blue skin and black eyes – they are Zamaronian,” the troll went on. “This is their home world. For many thousands of years they alone wielded the power of the Star Sapphire. It was only recently that the secrets of Oa’s lantern technology was revealed and they were able to harness the violet light into a central battery and forge rings of their own. After much debate they decided to send them off world to see out new members to join their ranks.”
Low. “Good for them.”
“These are things you must know, Earth Man.”
“Because,” she crossed her arms, “your predecessor, Carol Ferris, was reason why they chose to share their power.”
“I don’t c—”
“It was she who was the first non-Zamaronian to harness the violet light of the Star Sapphire. She who wore the Star Sapphire gem before it was turned into the central battery. She who convinced the Queen to forge rings… and it was she who organised the deal that gave them the technology to do it.”
“Great,” he snarled. “Hip hip hooray Carol. So what?”
“It is her ring you wield, Earth Man. It is her legacy you inherit. She too was an outsider when she first came here. The first alien among the Zamaronians. But she was good and had great love in her heart. She showed them they she could be trusted despite being different.” A pause. “You just punched a Zamaronian in the face.”
He glared back at her. Unmoved.
She sighed. “I can see we have a long way to go,” she raised her ring. “Your training begins now.”
Bruce hated coming here.
“Hey, fuck you Batman!”
“It’s the Bat!”
Bruce hated that he was desperate enough to come here.
“I’m going to get you Batman! I’m going to skin you alive!”
“Look at me! Look at me, Batman!”
“Batman! You coward!”
“It’s been a while, Batman.”
Bruce hated that he would even consider coming here.
“Curiouser and curiouser, Batman.”
“Hey! B-Man! Don’t you touch him! Don’t you dare touch my puddin’!”
“Batman,” the voice drifted through the others like oil through water. “Darling.”
But he needed to make sure…
“Joker,” the name tasted wretched on his tongue. Like anger and loss and pain.
“Me?” Vicious rows of yellowed teeth pressed up against the glass. “You’re here for me? Little old me? Is it Christmas already? I've been extra naughty this year.”
The guards stepped forward. “Step away from the door, inmate!”
A cackle of broken laughter. “Am I coming out? Or is he coming in?”
“Step away from the door!”
“He’s coming in isn’t he? Tell me he’s coming in.”
The Joker pranced away gleefully to sit like an eager school child on the toilet seat. Back straight, feet planted, hands resting on his knees.
Bruce kept his eyes locked onto him as the guards opened the cell and moved to the side giving him access to the room beyond. He stepped through and waited until the door was locked behind him before speaking.
“What do you know about my car?”
A low snicker of laugher. “Your car?” Joker’s grinned stretched. “It’s big and black and it hurts when you ram it into me.”
“Why?” Joker leant forward to rest his chin on his hands, elbows planted on his knees. “Are you feeling self-conscious, Batsy? Did someone say mean things about your precious car?”
Bruce studied him. His pupils were blown, face stretched toward a shark like grin, and eyebrows arched into angry spires… No twitches. No tells. Nothing to suggest he was lying. Nothing to suggest he was withholding information. Just that cocktail of malice and adoration. That mix that Selina had made him realise was needed for his theory to be true.
If the bomber and the ring bearer were the same person then they needed to love him. Not lust, not passing infatuation... love. And they needed to also want him dead. There were not many people on the planet that fit that criteria. Fewer still who knew of his Batman persona... in truth he could think of only one.
Could it really be him? Could he be the one that had planted the bomb on his car? Spared him? Then taken the violet ring? Would a violet ring really choose Joker?
If so why was he in Arkham? How had he gotten access to the Batmobile plans? Where was the ring?
No. It didn’t make sense. Joker didn’t love him. He was obsessed with him. Obsessed with hurting him. That wasn't love.
But who else?
Joker’s grin grew. More teeth. More hunger. “You’re stuck aren’t you?” A low whisper. Wretched and gleeful.
Bruce stayed silent.
“Some little flea has bitten you. Bitten you so hard it’s gotten to you. Gotten deep deep down to your bones and you… you don’t know who it is. You can’t figure it out. You’re stuck.” His laugh rasped through his teeth. “World’s Greatest Detective. Stuck stuck in the mud.”
He advanced into the room, seized the Joker by the front of his shirt, and yanked him up onto his feet. “It was you. You planted the bomb. You have it.”
“Oh, Batsy. I’m flattered you thought of me…” the man’s hands came up to wrap around his wrists but instead of pushing him off he pulled him closer. “…but do you really think I would waste time playing with your car when there are other things you care about so much more.” Those green eyes swirled. Ugly. Evil. “Everyone's been saying you have a new boy blunder.”
He slammed Joker back against the wall. So easy. It would be so easy. So simple. So quick. Then it would be over. It would all be over. It would have all been for something… even if that something was just death. More death. More pain. More… the Joker pulled him forward… pressed his throat against Bruce’s fingers… egging him on.
Do it. Do it. Do it.
He yanked his arms away from turned abruptly for the door. Fast. So fast he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t an escape.
“Oh Batsy! You’re t-too much! Y-you’re…” the words broke down in a fit of howling laughter.
Under his cape his hands were balled into fists and shaking.
It was a mistake to come here. Stupid. Dick was right. It didn’t make sense. The bomber and the ring bearer weren’t the same person. They couldn’t be. Even if they were it wouldn’t be him. A ring of love would never choose him.
The guards pulled open the door and slammed it closed the moment Bruce was through. It didn’t do anything to shield him from the laugher echoing around him. Animalistic. Inhuman. Savage brays of delight that still somehow slipped across all other sound like oil in water.
Jason gingerly peeled off his shirt and inspected the bruises scattered liberally over his arms and chest. He’d had worse but usually only after going toe to toe with someone who wanted to do him some real damage. He’d never been left so colourful from training before.
But then, he’d never fought a ten foot tall troll who could make flying fists out of nothing but a fluffy feeling and some light in training before either.
He dropped his shirt on top of his jacket, kicked out of his pants, and tried not to look at himself as he splashed down into the softly bubbling spring. There was a thin waterfall spilling over an overhanging outcrop of rock. He stepped under it and groaned in relief as he felt the liquid splash over his shoulders. He didn’t know if it was water or something else. Just then he didn’t care. It was the best thing he had found since landing on this strange planet and didn’t taste like any poison he knew when he swirled it around his tongue.
He had seen a mix of star sapphires of different races bathing in the pools further along the rocky outcrop. They had been laughing and talking, not seeming to give any credence to the concept of modesty. He didn’t suppose he should be surprised from people who flew around space in low cut leotards.
When a few had spotted him and stopped what they were doing to watch with blatant curiosity, waiting for him to take off his clothes, he had left. It hadn’t taken him long to find more private pools and the scattering of star sapphires that seemed to prefer them.
He ducked his head under the stream as the sweat and stiffness of the last twenty four hours washed away. Only when his fingers started to prune did he climb out and use his shirt as a towel, flinching but not letting up as he scrubbed over his bruises.
It wasn’t punishment. Just a reminder.
“Hah!” The troll has grinned as a fist shaped construct had slammed into his shoulder and knocked him spinning to the ground. “You are fast, Earth Man, but not as fast as Carol. Again!”
He left his now wet shirt hanging on a rock, zipped his jacket up to his chin, and absently to make sure the ring was still in his pocket when he put his pants back on. As he made his way back he noticed most of the star sapphires were gone or flying toward the dining hall.
The trip that took them mere moments to make took him almost twenty minutes on foot.
The murmur of conversation died the moment he walked inside.
In the following silence the stares seemed somehow loud. Each pupil locked onto him a drum that beat against the back of his skull. Those eyes followed him as he made his way across the room to what looked like a bar manned by a large yellow creature with eight arms.
“Um,” Jason licked his lips. “You got food?”
“Tck,” Eight Arms made the noise Jason somehow knew was mocking and shoved a covered plate towards him. There was writing on the lid, all of it alien except for two words. Carol Ferris.
He frowned and pulled back the cover to see what it was. There was some cooked meat, something leafy and green, and a large yellow fruit which had been cut open to reveal a pink centre. None of it looked like anything he would find on Earth. It smelt even stranger. But he was hungry enough to take it away without comment.
As he passed the other tables he heard a few voices whisper ‘male’, ‘Earth Man’, and ‘replacement’.
He ignored them, carried his food outside, and found a patch of grass away from the prying eyes of the sapphires. There he sat down, balanced the plate across his knees, and used his fingers to pick apart the food before eating it.
The meat tasted slightly fishy, the leaves were oddly sweet, and the fruit wasn’t like anything he could name. But despite that it wasn’t… bad. Just different. Alien. Like everything else here.
“Carol would always insist on implements to carry her food from her plate to her mouth.”
He looked up.
The troll floated out of the sky to sit with surprising elegance on the grass beside him. She carried a bowl of her own food. It looked like a stack of raw crabs covered in clear glaze.
“I’m not like Carol,” Jason said around a mouthful of meat.
“Hm. No you are not. I bring it up because it occurs to me that perhaps the males of your species require different things than…”
“I’m not like Carol,” he said again. Sharper. “That’s it.”
The troll looked at him and then away. “Very well.”
They ate in silence for a moment. Then…
“You did well today, Earth Man. You know how to fight.”
“Were you a warrior on your home world?”
He considered lying for a moment. Decided there was no point. “A criminal.”
The troll didn’t say anything as that information settled in. Finally… “I do not need to teach you how to fight. But you do need to learn how to use your ring. You will need to put it on tomorrow.”
“I’ll put that thing on when I’m good and ready.”
"When will that be?"
"When I'm ready." When he was alone and the costume didn’t feel quite as degrading. When he could deal with any bright flashes of light and panic attacks away from prying eyes. When, if he ended up puking into the bushes again, at least it would be in private. “Just…” he took a bite of the fruit. “Tell me how to use it. I’ll figure the rest out on my own.”
“You want me to tell you? You don’t want to be taught?”
“It would be easier if I showed you.”
“Yeah, well. Not for me.” A pause as he swallowed the fruit. “Tell me how to fly. I want to know how to fly.”
The sooner he learnt how to fly the sooner he could get home.
“There is more to it than just flying,” she said with a look that told him she knew exactly what he was thinking.
“You said it yourself. I can already punch. I don’t need it to do that for me. I can already take a punch too. I just need to fly.”
Again. “There is more to it than just flying.”
Angrily. “Like what?”
She studied him before continuing. “All power rings allow the bearers to fly, shoot energy beams, and create constructs. But, every colour of the emotional spectrum also has special abilities.” She ate one of her crabs. “Some of these powers are inherit. Some can only be used by experienced users. Some individuals have even managed to access unique and often extraordinary powers in times of stress.”
“Let me guess,” Jason said bitterly. “Carol.”
The troll didn’t answer.
“Gee,” Jason went on before he knew what he was doing. “What a shocker. Here I am on an alien planet with an all-powerful ring and I’m still just a failed replacement. Guess what they say is true. The more things change the more they stay the same.”
“No I don’t want to talk about it,” he snapped.
“But,” she tried again. “If you need to ta—”
His hands bunched into fists “No! I don’t! Why won’t anyone on this planet listen to me? I said I didn’t want to talk about it! That means I don’t want to talk about it! Not to the Queen! Not to you! Why is that so hard for you people to understand?”
“That is n—”
“Who even are you?” Jason twisted to face her directly. “What are you? You look like someone from Pandora fucked someone from Mordor. But for some reason you think you know me. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. You’re just following me around like a—”
“The Queen told me t—”
“I don’t care what the Queen told you! You’re not my mother!”
A long pause. Heavy. Ugly.
“No,” she said at last. “I’m not your mother.” She picked up her food and rose into the air. “You did well today, Earth Man. We shall train with your ring tomorrow.” She left.
Jason stared after her, his anger quickly evaporating away to be replaced by a crippling hollow feeling. “Fuck. Fuck.” He needed a cigarette. He needed something a hell of a lot stronger than a cigarette. He needed something that would make none of this seem so real. Something which would take everything away for an hour or two. But his pockets were empty. Empty of all but the ring sitting firm against his thigh.
He pushed away his food, appetite gone.
He shouldn’t have yelled at her. She might be a troll. She might have the hairiest legs he had ever seen beneath a bikini bottom. Her training might be brutal enough to leave him covered in bruises. But she was the closest thing he had to an ally on this planet and her lessons his only hope for getting home.
He didn’t go back to the tree that night. He didn’t go to the dormitory either.
He walked, not watching where he was going and ignoring the looks he could feel aimed at him whenever he passed a group of people. He walked for what felt like hours and then he kept walking. He walked until he found himself in a field of malformed pink crystals with grass instead of a path under his feet.
Then he lay down.
The grass was long and once in it he couldn’t see anything but the nest of undergrowth. He stared into it until his thoughts quietened enough for him to close his eyes. This time he remembered falling asleep. When it came he embraced it gratefully.
Tim sat on the chair front of the batcomputer and watched the GPS marker move across the map. It was close now. Already off the main roads and speeding through the woods toward the batcave. In a minute it would be here. He would be here.
Tim tried to think of what he would say when Bruce arrived.
‘You liar’ seemed too childish. ‘You arsehole’ felt even clunker, a kid trying to sound like an adult. But at that moment his brain couldn’t seem to construct anything more articulate. Perhaps, ‘I’m thirteen, I’m not a baby. You can’t just send me to bed and tell me you’re fighting Killer Croc when I know...’
He was yanked from his thoughts as a message flashed up on the screen.
It was short. Only a couple of lines long. It was also encrypted. Each word a jumble of letters and numbers with a handful of symbols scattered throughout. Only the moniker was spared. A single signature not even disguised with a superhero alias. Not ‘Wonder Woman’ or ‘Flash’ or ‘Green Arrow’ but Tal—
The roar of the batmobile echoed off the cave walls.
He closed everything, switched the monitors to standby, and turned to watch the car rocket into the central parking bay. As always, the sound of the engines was deafening in the rock walled cavern and stirred a stream of bats out of their hiding places. They swirled around the car as it stopped and Batman rose out of it like some kind of Phantom of the Opera tribute.
There wasn’t a mark on his uniform. Of course there wouldn’t be.
“How did it go?” Tim called out. “With Croc?”
The man turned his head to study Tim sitting at the computer and then walked over to the weapons rack. “Good.”
“Good?” Tim echoed. “Just good?”
Bruce ignored him and began stripping off bits of his armour. His belt. His gloves.
He kept the cowl on. Lenses down. Shut off.
Tim swallowed the bitter angry taste on his tongue. “Usually when you fight Croc he leaves a mark or two on your armour.”
“Hm,” was all Bruce replied with.
“You’re not even wet. I don’t even know how you would wade through the old sewer system and not get wet. Especially since you didn’t take a zip line.”
Bruce turned his head towards him. “I told you to go to bed.”
Tim felt that sting like a slap. He ignored it and ploughed on. “I thought it was strange that you suddenly found a lead on Killer Croc after months of nothing. And that you wouldn’t want help taking him down. So I came down here to see where you were on the map. I wanted to know where he’d been hiding. But the batmobile was already at Arkham by the time I looked. For a second I thought that meant you had already caught him. For a second I was really impressed.”
Bruce didn’t say anything. He just watched. Waited.
“But,” Tim croaked, the lump of anger inside him finally cracking under that stare, “then I remembered Killer Croc was moved to Blackgate last year. His cell in Arkham was decommissioned. It was unsafe for staff, they said. I remember it was in the newspaper.”
A low growl. “That’s enough Tim.”
“No,” he pushed himself to his feet. “It isn’t. You lied to me! You were never going to get Croc you were going to Arkham to see Joker!”
Bruce was silent.
“I know it was the Joker,” he rasped. “You never let me help if the Joker is involved. Never. I’m your partner. I can help. I’m ready.”
The man’s face was unreadable through the cowl. “You hacked the batcomputer.”
He had. There was no way he would have been able to monitor the batmobile’s location on his clearance alone.
“You think the Joker is the car bomber,” Tim pushed forward. “Because he loves you and wants to kill you, just like Catwoman said. You think he has the ring.”
“No,” Bruce said firmly stepped passed him to look at the computer. “He’s a monster. He’s not capable of love.”
“But if it’s not him then…”
“Dick was right,” Bruce said stonily as he isolated the code Tim had used to hack the computer and started setting parameters to ensure it couldn’t work a second time. “The bomber and the ring bearer aren’t the same person.”
He stared and the bubbling sense of betrayal returned. Stronger with the humiliating threat of tears burning sharp behind his eyes. He blinked them furiously away. “N-no! You said…”
“I was wrong.”
“It makes sense! We don’t have any other leads!” If the bomber wasn’t the ring bearer then they had no way of tracking down the person responsible. Analysing the pieces of the bomb had already led to the dockyards and from there to a string of abandoned apartments and low key criminals all who knew nothing or who seemed to have disappeared off the face of the planet.
If the bomber didn’t have the ring, if they couldn’t find them that way, then they wouldn’t find them until they struck again… and if they had the plans to the batmobile there was no knowing what else they knew. How else they could strike.
“You can’t just give up,” Tim said. “There has to be someone else. There has to be. It’s can’t just be a coincidence. That’s what you always say. There is no such thing as coincidences.”
The man spun to face him in a snap of cape. “Who?”
“I… I don’t…”
“Who, Tim?” Bruce said again. “Who loves me? Who truly loves me and also wants me dead?”
“Look I… we haven’t tried everyone. It… Maybe it’s another villain. Maybe Catwoman lied. Maybe it’s…”
“It’s paradoxical,” Bruce growled. “Impossible.”
“…Talia.” Tim didn’t know why he said the name. Perhaps because he was so desperate he was letting out any idea that came to mind with absolutely zero vetting. Perhaps it was because it was still at the forefront of his brain because of the message. Perhaps it was just to try and get some kind of response out of Bruce other than dismissal.
Whatever the reason, it worked.
Bruce didn’t react. Not at first. But it was the total lack of reaction that gave him away.
Softly. “How do you know that name?”
Tim blushed. “I… eh… while I was logged into your account a message came. I just figured it was a JL thing. It was encrypted. I couldn’t read it. But it was signed Talia.”
Instantly Bruce was back at the computer. It took him moments to find the message, isolate the encrypted text, and attack it with a bombardment of codebreaking software.
“What is it?” Tim asked, confused. “Is it important? Is it…?”
The batcomputer broke the code in record time. Whoever Talia was she obviously didn’t want this message to go unread.
Beloved. You know what this is about. Meet me tomorrow at the top of Robert H. Kane Memorial Bridge at midnight. Bring the boy. – Talia
Tim’s eyes widened as he read and re-read the message. Beloved. She called Bruce beloved. Why would she do that unless… a cold realisation settled in his stomach… she was someone who loved Bruce. Yet he had never heard of her before. That meant she was either someone Bruce considered unimportant… or who he thought was dangerous.
Someone who was dangerous who loved Bruce…
Could she be the bomber? If she could send a direct message to the batcomputer she had to be either a terrifying hacker or powerful enough to employ one. Perhaps that was how she got the plans. Perhaps…
His eyes flicked down to the end of the message.
Bring the boy. She wanted him to be there. Why would she want him to be there? She didn’t know him. She didn’t have anything to do with him. Yet she was explicitly asking for him. Why?
Bruce turned to look at him, clearly thinking the same thing.
“Is she…?” Tim couldn’t finish the sentence. “Could she be…?”
Bruce sat still for a long time before finally peeling back his cowl. Underneath he looked somehow older. Like the Joker or perhaps the message had sucked a couple years of life out of him. “It would seem a possibility.”
Jason needed to piss.
He also needed a blanket.
He pulled his knees closer to his chest and hugged his jacket tighter around him. The fact that he was missing his shirt and that his hair was still damp wasn’t helping. Neither was his aching bladder. But he knew as cold as he was it would be colder when he stood up out of his nest of grass to find a plant to water.
He lay there for a few more minutes fighting the inevitable. When it became obvious that the pressure in his groin wasn’t going to magically disappear or sleep return he groaned and sat up.
The field he had chosen to sleep in was in the basin at the base of some mountains behind which the sun had slipped. A few rays of light spilt over the ice tipped peaks and splashed down onto the far horizon but otherwise it was dark. The closest thing he had seen to night since arriving on Zamaron.
But that wasn’t the only reason why it was colder than normal.
The malformed pink crystals that shared the paddock with him were oozing cold. Now that he was sitting up he could feel the radiation from the nearest pressing against him. Icy. Constant. Like the open door of a freezer. It sent a shiver down his spine.
“Fuck.” He lurched to his feet. Stiff sore. “Fuck.”
If someone had offered him a spot in the spiral stone shell coffin beds just then he might have taken them up on it.
He wandered through the crystals until a found a spot that seemed just as good as any. He yanked open the front of his fly, aimed into the grass, and finally gave his bladder some relief. As he urinated he stared forward at the crystal directly opposite him. It was roughly the same size as him, foggy, and had sharp jagged edges. It also stood on two legs and had appendages that almost looked like… arms. Thrown up as if to shield its face.
He frowned and turned to study the one beside him. This one was roughly seven feet tall and had been standing there long enough the edges had been eroded by the weather. The shape wasn’t as humanoid but not that he looked at it it didn’t seem natural either.
He tucked himself away, walked up to it, and tentatively pressed his palm against the crystal’s pink surface. It was cold but as he swiped his fingers across it he wiped away condensation leaving it transparent. Like wiping the steam off the mirror after a shower. Only he didn’t see his reflection in it… he saw an alien.
“Shit!” He staggered back in shock.
It was frozen in the stone. Something between a praying mantis and a crocodile. It reared forward as if in the process of attacking.
He turned to the humanoid one and ran towards it wipe the fog away from its face. Sure enough another alien was revealed. This one looked human enough that he could see the terror in its eyes and read the shape of its body.
He wiped a few others clear. More aliens. More men. All of them frozen in a moment of either defiance or fear.
“I see you’ve found one of our prisons, Earth Man.”
He spun around to see a Zamaronian sitting on top of one of the crystals watching him. For a moment he thought it was the Queen. That was the only Zamaronian he had seen without a crown and wearing a dress. But then he noticed her nose.
It was broken.
“This is what you star sapphires do to men?” He said.
In the darkness he couldn’t read the woman’s expression. “This is what we do to criminals, Earth Man. Isn’t it strange that so many of those happen to be men?”
“You can’t do this!”
“Why?” Her voice was deadly soft. “How is this any different than Oa’s sciencecells? Why do you accept the Green Lantern’s self-appointed role as police of the universe but not ours?”
He jabbed a finger toward the nearest crystal. “They’re not in prison. They’re frozen.”
“They’re being rehabilitated.”
“How is this rehabilitation?!” Jason yelled. “You can’t keep people like this.”
“Yes we can,” she said and slipped from the crystal down to the ground with deadly grace. “Our longest staying prisoner has been crystallised for many millennia.”
“Millennia,” he tasted the word. “How… then how is this…? How can you think this is…?”
“Some emerge. Some don’t. The crystal teaches them the value of love. If they can’t accept that then why should they be allowed out into our world?” Her ring activated with a flash and her dress disappeared to be replaced with the star sapphire uniform. She raised her fists and pointed her ring at him. “Why should anyone without love in their heart be allowed to step foot on this planet?”
For the first time Jason felt the very real threat of her presence. It wasn’t like yesterday with her and the other two sapphires. This wasn’t just bullying. This time the danger was real. The difference between a water pistol squirting in his face and a shotgun.
They were out in the middle of nowhere. They were alone. There were hundreds of crystals here. If she put him in one no one would ever find him. They would just assume he figured out how to fly and took off into space.
“Hey,” he held up his hands. “Hey. Wait a sec. Just… think for a sec.”
Her eyes were black.
“Seriously?” He rasped. “You hate the fact that I have a ring and a dick that much? Come on. I ain’t worth it.”
Her lip curled. “You’re begging.”
“I’m asking. What the hell are you doing? I’m just some guy. I’m just…”
“Yes.” She sneered. “You’re just some guy. Some male just like all the others. You’re just as thoughtless and destructive as all your kind. Men are the same no matter what race they’re part of. Yet you’re here. Defiling Carol’s memory. Polluting this planet. Disrespecting us at every turn.”
“I didn’t want any of this.”
“Then this is an act of mercy.”
He went to draw his gun. A blast from her ring shot out and shattered the weapon at his hip. He cried out in pain as the bits bit into his thigh and staggered back. “Shit shit shit shit shit…” The explosion had torn open his pocket and driven shards of metal into his flesh. Blood was running down the inside of his pant leg and his ring was falling to the ground.
He dove for it as a second blot shot from her ring and struck his leg. It was cold. Terrifyingly so.
“It is time to test to see if you truly have great love in your heart, Earth Man!”
He looked down to see the pink crystal expanding up his body with horrifying speed. His body felt still and cold in the crystal. Dead. He fought back the white out of panic and jammed his ring over the first knuckle on his finger. Too late. The crystals covered his head. For a moment he could see nothing but pink. Taste nothing but terror.
Then there was nothing but blackness.
Gotham was a shit hole.
It amazed Hal that Bruce could look around and find hope in a place like this. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps all Bruce saw when he looked at the ghettos camped out in the shadow of skyscrapers, the houses cosied up to industrial factories, and the lines of homeless under the bridge was prey. Criminals who made this city worse for the born billionaire. Bad guys for him to beat up and lock away. Targets for him direct his anger at all because he couldn’t accept his parents’ death.
That’s the kind of high and mighty leftist bullshit Ollie would say if he was here… and Hal had to admit he would have a point.
He sat in a camping chair on the roof of his hotel, reclined so he could stare up at the starless sky. Watching. Waiting. Below him Gotham’s infamous Entertainment Mile was in full swing creating a vivid soundtrack of music, sex, and raised voices.
“Hey babe, what are you doing out here all alone?”
“I didn’t do nothing! You can’t throw me out! Fuck you!”
“That was the best! Did you see? That was the best.”
“Hey, there is a line here pal.”
All of them bore the same abrupt accent as the kid that had stolen Carol’s lantern. If that wasn’t evidence enough he was only two blocks away from where Carol had died on the edge of Gotham City’s infamous Crime Alley.
He was in Carol’s replacement’s home district. He was sure of it.
Sooner or later he would come back and when he did Hal would be ready. The moment he saw a flash of violet light he would react. He didn’t care if he had to wait days or weeks. He had his lantern in his backpack and enough money to live for a month in this hotel off packaged noodles. When the new ring bearer came back he would confront him… and he would take his ring.
He knew he could.
He was a Green Lantern. While violet rings had powers the green did not, nothing matched the simple power of willpower. That’s why the guardians chose it for the corps all those millions of years ago. He was also a member of the honour guard and had enough experience to knock any ring slingin’ newbie onto their arse without batting an eye.
Once he had the ring he could figure out what connection it had to Carol and find out a way to bring her back. He just needed to focus on that. Carol.
His phone buzzed. It was not the first time it had done so in the last few hours. Hal finally relented, fished it out of his pocket, and answered. He didn’t have to look at the caller ID to know who it was.
“Hal!” Barry’s voice sounded too loud in his ear. “Christ. I’ve been trying to reach you for days. Where are you? Are you okay?”
“Getting through it.”
“You… sure? Because I came over to your apartment today and you weren’t there. Where are you?”
“Oa,” he lied.
“Oa?” Barry echoed incredulously. “You get reception on Oa?”
“I’m using my ring,” he lied again. “It’s weird.”
Again. “It’s weird.”
“I… um… I hear music.” Barry said.
“GLs party too you know,” he said on autopilot. “Sector 2912 is having a dance off with 1004.”
“I hear Kayne West.”
“It’s my playlist.”
“You hate Kayne West.”
“It’s Guy’s playlist.”
He’d never lied to Barry this much apart from that one night which started with ‘I’m not too drunk’ and ended with ‘Carol’s cool but I’m not crazy about her or anything’. He didn’t think he was doing any better job of convincing him now than he did then.
“Where are you really, Hal?”
A long pause. “I… I can’t tell you, Bar.”
“You wouldn’t understand. You would try to take me home.”
“Fuck Hal. What does that mean? You’re not in some drug den are you?”
“No. No I… trust me. I know what I’m doing. I just need to…” take Carol’s ring back from the kid that took it so he could resurrect her. But he couldn’t tell Barry that. It sounded too crazy. Despite everything they’d been through… Barry wouldn’t understand. He didn’t know Carol the way he did. He didn’t hear what the kid had said when he took the lantern.
She loved you, Hal.
“I just need to get through this, okay? I just…” Fuck, he was starting to shake. How had Barry make him shake? “…I’ll phone you later.”
“No. Hal! Don’t hang u—”
He hung up. Turned the phone off.
He needed to stay focused. Think of the kid. Think of Carol. Not worry about what Barry thought of him. At least it was just Barry. The only other league member that knew of Carol’s death was Bruce and he seemed preoccupied recently. When Clark got back from whatever planet he was on he was sure the man would hunt him down and offer the most awkwardly sincere condolences. No one on Oa knew… yet. He was due to report in to Oa in twenty seven Earth hours. Fuck. He’d forgotten about that.
He activated his ring. “Contact 674.1.”
It flared bright and a voice sounded through it. Muffled but still understandable.
“Hey, poozer. You need someone to save your scrawny arse?”
“No, Kilowog I…” he considered his answer. “I need some time off. However much I can get. Can you sweet talk Salaak for me?”
“Eh. Sure. I can try. What’s this about?”
“Nothing. Just Justice League.”
A grunt. “You know the guardians aren’t going to be happy if they hear that. Technically you shouldn’t be affiliated with any militant group other than the corps or be spending so much time focusing on one planet.”
“There are only eleven other inhabited worlds in my sector,” Hal said.
“Huh. Damn rurals. But that excuse doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re honour guard now, Jordan. You deal with all of guardian space. That’s—”
“—one hundred and eight thousand seven hundred and ninety nine inhabited worlds,” he finished for him. “How could I forget?” Kilowog had drilled the number into him during basic training. “But I really need to deal with this. Just try and buy me some time. Okay?”
“Okay,” Kilowog sounded exasperated. “But you owe me one and no promises. Salaak still hasn’t forgiven me for mixing up the food shipment the other month.”
He gritted his teeth. “Look. I can’t come in. I told you that. Just get me off.”
“Hey. I said I would. What’s the big d—?”
He cut the line with a flick of his wrist. Went back to staring up at the night sky. Fuck he was an arsehole. First he ran away from Barry’s concern then he snapped at Kilowog.
He wasn’t someone he wanted to be without Carol. He wasn’t himself without Carol. But he would get her back. And when she was back… everything would start feeling normal again. Everything would start making sense again. He would be himself again…
He just needed that ring. He just needed that ring and everything would be okay again.
Panic seized his limbs, rocketed down his spine, and flashed white hot across his brain. Dead. He was dead. She was killing him.
“No no no no please!”
Cold. Black. Still. Nothing.
“I can’t! I can’t take it! Please I…”
“Jason!” Someone grabbed him and hauled him up into a tight embrace. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. It’s just a dream. Just a bad dream. You’re here now. Come back.”
“I…” he sucked in a ragged breath. “I…” He could move. He could breathe. He was alive. He was warm. He was okay.
He was okay.
Fuck. What happened? Where was he? How did…
He opened his eyes… and stared.
“Yeah.” The man smiled at him. “I’m here.”
“I…” he frowned. This wasn’t right. “I don’t… I don’t understand.”
He was sitting in his bed at Wayne Manor. Bruce was on the edge of the mattress and had his arms around him. Tight but not too tight. Holding him. Comforting him. “The Joker had you,” Bruce explained. “In Ethiopia. But I got there in time. I saved you.”
“You…” Jason stared at him. “…saved me? But I thought…”
He remembered something. Something cold and hard and terrifying that locked his limbs down and weighed on him like death. But he couldn’t quite remember what it was. The fading tendrils of a dream. “I was somewhere else… somewhere far away…”
“Don’t worry about all that. You’re here now. You’ll forget.”
He looked up.
A man was grinning at him from the doorway. Hair shaggy, jeans tight, and smile huge.
“Oh my God. You’ve been out of it forever, man,” the acrobat practically pranced across the room to throw himself down across the foot of the bed. “I was worried about you.”
“We all were,” Alfred told him as he came in the door after Dick. “It is beyond wonderful to see you awake again, Master Jason.”
He looked at each of them. Alfred. Dick. Bruce. All of them smiling at him. All of them happy to see him. It was disorientating. Confusing. But it was also… good.
He felt his own mouth twist up to smile back. Then, almost without his permission, his arms were wrapping around Bruce. Returning the hug with a fierceness that surprised even him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean… it’s all been…”
“It’s okay. We’re here now. You’re here now.”
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Yes I do. Yes I…”
He hugged Bruce. He hugged him and hugged him and hugged him and hugged him. At some point he heard Dick snort with laughter and cuddle up in on his other side. Alfred, for his part, just laid a hand on his shoulder. Closeness. Comfort. Family.
Jason shifted his arms so he could be more open to them as well and froze when a flash of light caught his eye.
There was a ring on his finger.
It shone a haunting violet.
“No,” he said, staring at it. “No no don’t… don’t take this from me. Don’t…” too late.
He closed his eyes as a bombardment of memories hit him. Hard. Painful. Like bullets. A grin behind a crowbar. Dirt under his nails. A woman slapping him. ‘Why does he not fight back?!’ Seeing and not seeing. Drowning and not drowning. The agony of being alive again. The weight of a gun in his hand. The buck as it fired. The pinch of Talia’s nails in the back of his neck. The feel of her around him. Seeing terror when people looked at him. Building a bomb out of scrap metal. And then…
“No,” he sobbed.
“Jason,” Bruce was cradling him. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are you crying, Little Wing?”
“It’s okay, Master Jason.”
Tears were running down his face. He couldn’t stop them anymore than he could stop staring at that ring. That traitorous ring. The ring that never seemed to stop hurting him. “You can’t give me this then… then take it back. You…”
Dick. “What’s wrong?”
Bruce touched him. Gently. “We love you, Jason.”
“No!” He yanked himself away from Bruce and pointed his ring. “You’re not my Bruce!”
A blast of light shot out of his ring. It struck Bruce in the chest. For a moment the man contorted as if in pain and then shattered like he was made of glass.
Dick. “W-what did you do?! Jason. No! We lo—”
Jason turned his ring on him. The acrobat grimaced in pain before he exploded in another hail of pink crystal. A million shards sprayed back across the room.
Alfred stood among the wreckage making no effort to mime shock or horror. He just looked at Jason. “We do love you, Jason.”
“I don’t love you!” He roared around his tears and sent another blast through the butler’s chest. Like the others he fragmented and then exploded in chunks of pink crystal. “I don’t I don’t I… you’re not real. You’re just a pretty fucking lie! They would never… they don’t care. But I… I… I love…”
Bruce was standing in the doorway again. Behind him another Dick and another Alfred were ready.
He lifted his ring. “Leave me the fuck alone! You’re not real.”
“So what?” Dick said. “So what if we’re not real? We’ll love you.”
Alfred. “Were you really so happy in your other life?”
“Take off the ring,” Bruce told him. “Forget. You can live here with us.”
“I don’t love you,” he said again. “I don’t.”
“We’ll make you happy.”
“You’re not them!” Another blaze of light. The three shattered and three more slid into their place like items on a grocery store shelf. “I… it’s them.” He croaked. “It has to be them.”
Alfred. “They’ll never love you.”
His tears were still coming. Childish. Traitorous.
It would be easy, he realised. All he had to do was take off the ring, put it in the draw, and let reality slip away like a dream. He could live the rest of his life with a family that never buried and forgot about him, that never replaced him, and who loved him. Always. Unconditionally. He almost lowered his ring. He almost considered it.
But then he thought of Bruce. The real Bruce. The real Dick. The real Alfred. They didn’t love him. But the thought of not seeing them again… even if they didn’t care about him. Even if they hated him. It was like the bomb all over again… except then he couldn’t pull the trigger. This time he couldn’t not.
“Please Jason…” Bruce was approaching. Hands up. “Let me save you.”
“Too late,” he snarled as the ring shot out a bolt of energy. Big enough to destroy all three apparitions and create massive cracks to splitter across reality. More. He needed more. He needed more power. More… the energy ripped out of him in a blinding blaze of light. So much he felt his fist vibrating with it.
“Power Levels Fifty Five Percent,” the ring said.
More. He yelled in agony as the burst of energy ripped through him. So strong it felt like it would rip the flesh from his bones. So strong for a moment he thought it had.
“Forty Five Percent.”
“Thirty Five Percent.”
Twenty Five Percent.”
Everything was breaking away around him. Light was spilling in. Real light. He heaved a breath and somehow he knew it was the first real breath he’d taken since waking up in this reality. It tasted of frost, soil, and alien grass.
“Jason,” he heard Bruce as an arm wrapped around him. “Jason.”
He slammed his eyes closed as a fresh flood of tears felt and the energy somehow surged through him hotter harder.
“Power Levels Critical.”
He roared and suddenly he was ripping himself away from the crystal and flying through the air. Flying faster than should be possible. Bright. Blazing bright enough light up the countryside. His whole body encased in light.
He didn’t know how he found her. But soon he was rocketing down toward the troll. She was standing in a group of other star sapphires shielding their faces from the light streaming off him.
The light vanished all at once and suddenly he was falling. Massive blue arms caught him and then Th’rae was blinking down at him in disbelief. “Earth Man?”
He knew he was crying. He didn’t care. “Th’rae Th’rae Th’rae.”
Another star sapphire. “He’s bleeding.”
“Get him down!”
He was laid out on the grass and then two of them were cutting his pants open at the thigh. Their constructs came away red with blood.
Th’rae knelt over him, one arm still wrapped around him where he clung to it. Slowly she reached down and pulled a shard of pink crystal out of his hair. She studied it and her face twisted with grim anger. “Who?”
“I… I… it… I left them… I…”
“Easy, Earth Man. Easy.”
He cried out in pain as one of the sapphires at his thigh pulled out a shard of metal and then another. “Fuck! Ah! Fuck you! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck…”
“That’s better,” Th’rae said with force levity. “More in character. You will be back to normal before you realise it. More’s the pity.”
“They’re going to heal you now.”
A blaze of light at his hip.
“I have never seen someone expend so much energy so fast,” one of the sapphires said.
“He’s been attacked hasn’t he?” The other one whispered, frightened. “By the Predator and all the gods. Someone really tried to… We can’t leave him without any charge in his ring. They’ll try again.”
“Just because he’s a man?” The other said in disgust. “And they call themselves emissaries of love.”
Th’rae. “Where is your lantern, Earth Man?”
“I… isn’t it just…” he was still trying to stop the world reeling around him. Everything was a mess. Light. Dark. Numb. Pain. Real. Wrong. “Isn’t it w-where my clothes go when I’m in costume? T-the pocket place?”
She frowned. “A lantern is too big to fit into a mobile pocket dimension.”
“But…” Now that he thought about it he was pretty sure he remembered dropping the lantern in his panic attack somewhere in the spinning mess of stars in space. It was probably banging around the asteroid belt or being swallowed by Jupiter’s red storm. “Fuck. Can’t you just… give me one?”
“They are not easy to make. We do not have many spares lying around.”
“Ah… It… it’s…” He thought for a moment. A plan formed. Stupid. Impulsive. But all he had. “Gotham…” he lied. “It’s in Gotham. Earth. It’s on Earth.”
“It’s there. I promise. I left it in my apartment. It…” He felt a flesh rush of tears run down his cheeks. “I n-need to go to back. I’ll get it just…” he closed his eyes. “Let me go back home.”
Robert H. Kane Memorial Bridge was the largest suspension bridge in Gotham and connected the northern districts to the mainland. The support tower in the middle of Gotham River was ten feet taller than those on land and was crowned with a massive yellow and black billboard. The words ‘Welcome to Gotham City’ had been crudely edited by an enthusiastic spray-painter to read ‘Hell Comes to Gotham City.’
Bruce could only assume that was what Talia meant when she said the ‘top’ of the structure.
“Keep your distance,” he told Tim as he circled the Batwing around again. “Whatever happens don’t intervene.”
“If she has the ring what are you going to do?”
He didn’t answer.
“S-shouldn’t we try Green Lantern? Or Superman? Or…”
“No,” Bruce said. “This is personal.” He pressed a series of buttons in the cockpit and glanced once more over at the boy. He was in his most protective suit and had opted to take with him extra tools, slinging a second belt under one arm and over the opposite shoulder. “Ready?”
He didn’t sound ready. He sounded terrified.
For a split second Bruce considered saying something. Something supportive. Something encouraging. Something to make this all feel a little less like a walk down death row. He didn’t. He didn’t tell him it was going to be okay or that he had a plan. He’d lied enough to Tim.
He pulled the release and they both dropped out the bottom of the plane. For a moment he let himself fall through the crisp cold of the night sky. He could taste the promise of rain in the air. It was only when he heard Tim’s cape deploy with snap and flutter of fabric did he follow suit.
He glided down to the flat roof of the bridge’s support tower and landed crouched on the eves. Behind him he heard a grapple fire and glanced over his shoulder to see Tim scamper up onto one of the suspension wires. Close enough to be visible but far enough away to be out of the immediate danger zone.
Or at least, so he hoped.
“You’re early.” Strong. Feminine. Talia.
He straightened and turned back to face the flat barren rooftop.
She stood nearby, her gaze fixed out across Gotham River, her back to him.
From where Bruce stood he could see her left hand. It was bare. No sign of any rings. Her right was out of sight in front of her, holding her jacket closed against the cold gust of wind.
“I thought we could use the time to talk.”
“I told you to bring the boy.” She didn’t bother turning around to address him.
“No you haven’t. Don’t mock me with your latest recruit. You know who it is I wanted to see.”
He didn’t. He had no idea what boy she had expected him to bring in place of Tim. He couldn’t even come up with another name which would make sense in that context. But he didn’t tell her that. He didn’t say anything.
“Tell me,” she filled the silence. “How deep did you have to lock him in your labyrinth in order to hold him?”
“I’m not like you, Talia. I lock people out of my cave. Not in.”
She snorted. “You say he returned to you willingly? Forgive me, Beloved, but I find that hard to believe.”
“You think I would hold him prisoner?” Bruce played the bluff. “In my own home?”
“You are wrong.”
“He came back to this city of yours to deal with business.” Talia’s voice rung out. A prosecutor presenting her case. “I can only assume that business was you. Now he is gone without a trace. Your foolish moral code does not allow you to kill and knowing what he once was to you I knew you wouldn’t hand him over to the authorities.” A pause. “What would you assume in my position?”
A boy. A boy who had unfinished business with him. A boy who Talia believed he would protect from criminal justice. A boy who disappeared... still he could think of no one. Nor did he know how this boy tied into everything. Had she blamed him for his disappearance and rigged the bomb on his car? Was that it? But if so why had she spared him only to confront him now? And if she had wanted to kill him why a scrap yard bomb? She was one of the few people alive who could sneak up behind him and put a knife to his throat. An intimate kill in fitting with her modus operandi.
A monologue. That’s what he needed. That’s what he was waiting for. Her villainous speech. Her motives. Her reasons. Her plan. All laid bare.
But she wasn’t giving it to him and still… still he was missing the vital piece that would make all of this make sense.
“Leave the boy out of this,” Bruce went out on a limb. “This is between you and me.”
Talia’s laugh was harsh and mirthless. “No, Beloved. This is about him. As much as your ego demands it be about you I am not here for anyone but him.”
His eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Why?” She echoed the word and turned to face him. “Because you had your chance and you failed.”
He could see her right hand. It was as bare as the left.
But if she wasn’t the ring bearer…
“I found him,” Talia went on. “I cared for him. I brought him back. I trained him. I gave him freedom to forge his destiny away from you. You can’t take him back now. You can’t take him from me now.”
Something twisted in Bruce’s chest. “You… brought him back?”
“I know not what arose him from your shallow grave but it was I that healed him. It was I who brought back his soul.”
Bruce voice sounded thin in his own ears. “How?”
“The powers of the pit are more numerous than those you imagine.”
The boy was the bomber. The boy was the ring bearer. The boy was someone who truly loved him and wanted to kill him. The boy was someone he would protect. The boy was someone who he would take back to the cave. The boy was someone who had been dead and damaged…
…and who Talia brought back.
She studied him. Didn’t say anything.
He crossed the distance between them, seized the front of her jacket, and pushed her back towards the edge of the tower until her heels hung over the edge. “How long have you kept him from me?!”
If she was alarmed she didn’t show it. “You don’t have a right to him.”
“He’s my son!”
A sonic boom.
He looked up in time to see a bolt of violet light cut through the clouds and rocket down towards the Bowery. For a split second a body was visible, fist out stretched, flying behind the light.
He tore himself away from Talia and ran across the rooftop, hand clawing at the side of his cowl.
“Alfred! Bring the Batwing around! Now!”
“Inner City! I need t—”
Horror twisted in his gut as a second light – bright and blazing green – rose up like a bullet to meet the first. Guess who you forgot, that light mocked as it hurtled into the sky. Guess who you should have been keeping an eye on through all of this. Guess who else you’re going to fail again because of it.
Thank you guys for one hundred subscriptions! I have never written anything this popular which didn't have self lubing arseholes.
“You said I wasn’t your mother,” Th’rae called out as they hurtled through space. She flying under her own power. He towed along behind in a violet bubble. “I am starting to doubt that considering how much time I spend babysitting you.”
He could tell by the lightness in her voice that she was trying to make a joke.
He made no acknowledgement of it and concentrated instead on breathing through the dizzying lurch of their movement around yet another planet. Fuck. He could fall off buildings no problem. He could jump out of a plane without breaking a sweat. But he still wasn’t used to having nothing to brace against when moving through space. Not even air. He kept instinctively trying to arch the way Bruce taught him when falling… and every time he did his wounded leg would go from being a dull throb to a stabbing pain.
But, if he was being honest, the pain and the nausea were fuelled more by the ball anxious adrenaline sitting somewhere between his heart and his throat than by the feeling of being sling shot from one side of the universe to the other. If he was being honest it wasn't the flight he was dreading... it was what came next.
He would only get one shot at this… he couldn’t screw it up. He couldn’t.
“We are almost there,” Th’rae told him, voice softer. “When we get to Earth…”
Sharply. “Yes. I know. Get the lantern and get out.”
“We’ll be back on Zamaron in a few hours,” she promised. “Then we’ll find out who attacked you and we can go back to training.” A pause. “I want to show you how to make constructs. I think you’ll be good at it.”
An itch of guilt at the back of his skull. “I don’t know why you bother,” he said. A sting on honesty that surprised even him. “It’s pointless. I’m never going to be a good star sapphire. Not like Carol.”
For a time Th’rae didn’t say anything. Then… “Remember when I told you some sapphires activated unique powers in times of stress?”
He stayed silent.
“You assumed Carol had done this but that is not the case. She was incredibly powerful both in ability and in person. But her powers were not unique. Everything she did with her ring was within the realm of what had been done before.” A pause. “Only twice have I seen someone do something new or different. Once, when Sapphire Miri Riam used the love between two people to heal mortal wounds… and once more with you.”
Those words finally pulled him out of his head. “Me?”
She met his gaze with one of her own. “You think what you did last night was ordinary?”
“I…” He thought about the light pouring off him. Enough light to light up the countryside. “I just thought about… some people and it all came out.”
“I know. That’s not what I was talking about.”
“Burning all a ring’s power up at once tells me two things. One, you have more love in your heart than you like to pretend. And two, that you are a typical male.”
His frown deepened into a scowl. “Hey fuc—”
“To borrow the words of Carol, ‘there is nothing special about revving an engine.’ You burnt up all your power in mere moments and the vast majority of that was wasted on a light show. You need to be trained in precision.” She worked her massive lips into what looked like it was meant to be an encouraging smile but with a tad too many tusk-like teeth. “Don’t worry. It is a good place to be. Most recruits struggle to accept their feelings and unleash their power. You have the opposite problem. I admit it is not something I expected from you.”
“Okay,” he managed a snarl. “What the fuck is this? You told me I—”
“What you did which was unique was find me,” Th’rae went on. “You flew straight to me. You knew where I was… you knew where you could find a heart aligned with yours. An ally.” Her gaze was unwavering. “That is… a good power to have in times of stress.”
“Maybe I could just smell you,” he snapped.
Her smile faded. “Maybe, Earth Man. Maybe.”
They flew in silence for a time.
Jason was just about to try and sort out the words that would dissipate the now awkward silence when Th’rae spoke again.
“We are here.”
“Here? We’re in the middle of…” his heart skipped a beat as he realised the planet coming up on their right hand side was the moon. A little beyond it was Earth. It looked exactly it did in all the movies. Yet, somehow, it was also completely different.
Perhaps because the way they were approaching it made it look East up.
It was silly. He knew there was no up and down in space. But, all of a sudden, he felt the need to right himself so he was looking at it the way it would appear on a map. North up.
Th’rae glanced at him as they fell into orbit. “Where is your home?”
“I…” he blinked. He needed to focus if he was going to pull this off. “Um…” He tilted his head and let his eyes skim down. “There.”
“There is a city on the coast of that continent. It’s…”
Th’rae swooped forward and the planet went from being a marble floating in nothing to the biggest thing in the world approaching them at high speed.
She broke through the atmosphere in a burst of red heat without even blinking and then rocketed down through the cloud. The city rose to meet them… sprawling, messy, and cut through with a twisting river.
It sparkled in the sunlight.
Th’rae slowed as they neared the ground and followed his pointing finger to settle on the street outside a two star hotel. Cars screeched to a stop, pedestrians screamed, and a dog scampered forward to sniff curiously at Th’rae’s feet as she settled on the pavement.
“Hello,” she said to it. “Do not be alarmed. I am a member of the Star Sapphires. I wish you no harm.”
“Okay,” Jason swallowed down the bile that had flooded his mouth at their descent as the bubble dissipated around him. “Okay. Shit.” He needed to act quickly. The longer he delayed the more chance of something going wrong. He fought back his queasy nervousness, his lurking sense of guilt, and the pain of being on his leg again. “I’ll just go get the lantern. You stay here.”
“I should come with you.”
“You can’t fit through the doors.”
Th’rae glanced at the building. Realised he wasn’t lying. Frowned. “The Queen told me not to let you out of my sight.”
“Look,” Jason held up his hands. “I’m just going to get it. I don’t even know how to recharge yet so it’s not like I can run away. I’ll be right back and then you can take me back to planet pink. Okay?”
“Very well,” she muttered, clearly unhappy. “You have three minutes.”
“Yeah. That’s not going to happen.” He limped slowly into the building, ignoring the people gaping at him and the scantily clad troll trying to hold a conversation with a labradoodle.
Once he was inside and out of sight his causal stroll became a brisk hop. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck…”
He moved through the hotel lobby, cut straight past the elevators, and escaped out the back door into the alleyway beyond. It was open and led into a park full of flowers and ferns. Not the kind of alley people would be afraid to cut through on their way home for work.
Whatever city this was it was clearly nothing like Gotham.
He looked down used the pad of his thumb to roll the ring around his finger until the star shaped insignia was once again facing outward. It glowed fierce violet.
It had been almost too easy.
When the Queen had ordered them to retrieve the lantern on Earth he had insisted his leg was bothering him and he needed to take another bath before they left. When it became clear that for that action he expected privacy Th’rae had reluctantly given him room. It had been simple once he was out of her sight to double back from the bubbling pools, cut through the undergrowth, and hobble his way up to the dormitories.
There, just like last time, he found a lantern.
He hadn’t known if another lantern would work with his ring... but he’d had to try. If he had any chance of pulling this off he needed his ring to be charged.
When he’d first pressed his ring to the lantern it hadn’t responded. He’d tried again and, stupidly, even turned the lantern around to shove his fist into the opposite side. Still nothing. No! He’d thought. He needed this to work. He needed it. If this didn’t work he wouldn’t be able to carry out his plan. He wouldn’t be able to get away from Th’rae. He wouldn’t be able to see… a bolt of energy blasted up from the lantern to flood into the ring. Strong enough it sent a flood of agony up his arm and hurt in the back of his teeth.
But it had worked.
He’d left the lantern noticeably dimmer than when he’d found it and returned to the pool to splash some you’ll-never-believe-it’s-not-water on his face moments before Th’rae came to find him.
They’d left less than ten minutes later, Jason holding his fist closed to hide the glow of his inversed ring.
He’d done it. He’d gotten away with it. He had charged his ring and no one had caught him.
Now come the tricky part.
“Okay,” he whispered. “Okay. I can do this.” He pointed his ring up toward the sky. “Just like before. You can fly. You can fly without losing your head. It’s easy. Just don’t think about it. Just think about…” Bruce. Dick. Alfred. Gotham.
The ring flared.
“Yeah.” He gritted his teeth. “That’s it. Come on, you pink fucker. I’m playing by the rules now. I’m doing this for love… or the closest thing to love I’ve got.” He closed his eyes. “I want to see them. I want to tell Bruce he’s an arsehole and a cunt and a then I want to punch him in the face. I want to tell Dick he’s not as good as he thinks. I don’t care if it’s a lie I want to tell him that. And Alfred I… I want to eat his damn cookies. I want to eat his cookies and say sorry.”
He felt a wave of energy wash down his body and knew if he opened his eyes he would be back in his star sapphire costume. The bitter ugly feeling that thought invoked rushed to the forefront of his brain and for a moment the energy around him felt like it glitched and rewashed down him. He clamped down on the wretched reaction before it could mess him up more and tried to focus on what he was doing.
“But really…” he continued. Voice barely audible to his own ears. “I just want to see them. I don’t care if they don’t see me. I don’t care if they don’t want to see me. I just need…” he rocked onto his toes and then lifted off the ground.
It was easy. As easy as taking a step to the right rather than the left.
“Fuck yeah, pinkie. I knew you and I could get along.”
He opened his eyes and almost fell out of the air when he saw his costume was different. Black blocked out bare flesh and a white star symbol sat right where he usually buckled his belt.
He reached up to touch his brow. The crown was still there. Of course the crown was still there.
“Okay. Compromise. I can do that.”
He needed to get out of here. Th’rae would come looking for him any second now.
He leant forward and suddenly he was flying across the city, weaving between buildings and swooping under overpasses. When he was sure he was far enough away that Th’rae wouldn’t see him he gained altitude and picked up speed.
This… wasn’t bad. In fact it was good. Liberating.
It was different when he was in control… not the ring, not Th’rae, not his own damn panic… him.
He shot forward. Faster. Then faster again.
The city fell away. Then, after a few minutes, the continent.
Soon he was swooping around the curvature of the Earth, cutting through cloud, and shaking with adrenaline.
The ring was thrumming with power. He knew if he was wielding it properly he wouldn’t have to give it a pep talk before it worked. He also knew what Th’rae has said was right. He could feel himself burning more energy than he needed to. It fizzled in the air around him and shone bright enough to reflect off the clouds.
It didn’t matter. All he needed to do was get to Gotham and then this – all this – would be over. He could have a cigarette, bash up some bad guys, and finally have his confrontation with Bruce. Perhaps he would even skip the taking control of Gotham’s underworld part. Perhaps he would just walk up to the manor and knock on the door.
The sun went out like a light as he crossed over Africa.
He wasn’t going as fast as Th’rae was when she took them through space. Not close. But it was fast enough that within half an hour the smog stained city crested the horizon. There was rainclouds around it. He could have laughed for joy at that. Of course there was rain clouds. It was Gotham. His Gotham. Rainy, shitty, home.
He swooped down through the brewing rain and shot down towards the main island.
It all looked so… familiar. So human. Streets, buildings made of brick, and…
Something bright, green, and terrifyingly fast shot up towards him. He tried to dodge but it maneuverered in front of him and suddenly his limbs were locked together by a tangle of glowing green chains.
A surge of panic. “No no no no no! Fuck you! Let me go!”
A glowing green man floated into his line of sight. Tall. Lean. Ring shining bright enough to cut through the night.
“I’ve been waiting for you, kid.”
The feel of the green constructs on him and the clear and intended threat of the man’s position floating slightly above him shook him down to his core.
Ever since this ‘ring of power’ landed on his finger he had felt nothing but powerless. He’d been yanked from his planet, put in a crystal prison, and had been held hostage by a troll at the order of a queen. He couldn’t do that anymore. He couldn’t.
“This doesn’t have to get ugly. I need her rin—”
“Get the fuck off me!”
Violet light burst off him and shattered the green chains.
The lantern threw up a shield to block the spray of green and violet light. For a moment he seemed shocked, then his jaw squared. “Fine. That’s the way you want to play it?”
Something massive and green slammed into him and drove him down through a billboard and onto a rooftop. Somehow he’d managed to get some sort of shield up before connecting with the cement but it still hit him hard enough to rattle his bones.
It hurt more than he thought it could and when he rolled over he saw the Green Lantern hovering above him. Ring pointed down. “Game on.”
Me at the start of this story: 'I'll write five hundred word chapters to keep it short and on point and to fit into my workload'.
Me now: *posts chapter of over two thousand five hundred words* Yeah...
Also, while I knew some people were fans of Jason's costume I knew it wouldn't exactly be fair to keep him in the classic look when Carol was allowed to wear this in New Guardians. This fan made suit was the inspiration for the 'belt star'.
I really hope this chapter made sense. It had a couple of twists in it so I am super keen to know what you guys think!
Hal wasn’t an idiot. He knew he was the bad guy here. He knew he was doing something that, if he was looking on as an observer, he would object to. He knew he was breaking his oath as a Green Lantern and the unspoken moral code of the Justice League. He knew what he was doing was wrong.
But, for the first time in his life, he didn’t care.
Carol was more important.
He would do anything for the chance to bring her back… anything. Even if it meant hurting a stupid kid that didn’t know when he was outmatched.
Without warning the kid surged up to meet him. No constructs. No energy beams. Not even a proper shield. Hal didn’t have time to activate his defences before a shoulder rammed into his gut with enough force to push the air out of his lungs and throw him back in the air. The second blow was a punch aimed at his face which Hal barely managed to dodge. In doing so he ran into the third which met with his collarbone.
He brought up his arms and activated his shields.
He’d thought knocking the boy through a billboard would at least stun him. He was wrong. Whoever this kid was he was a real player. Someone who was used to being hit, to fighting when hurt, and who’s lean muscle mass probably didn’t come from a gym.
Hal swung his fist.
The kid lurched back only to be struck by the fist shaped construct Hal had made. It met with his jaw, jerked his head to the side, and sent him spinning into a water tower with a solid thud. He cried out in pain.
“Give me the ring!”
The kid lifted his fist and a bolt of violet shot towards Hal.
He dove to the side and constructed a second shield. Damn it, but that was a strong blast. The kid was drawing a lot of energy. A fatal amount if he ever landed a blow. But, despite that, he didn’t seem very comfortable using his ring. He hadn’t made any constructs, had gone for the physical approach first, and even now he seemed a little uncoordinated as he hurled himself back up into the air.
He was still just a rookie. A kid. A stupid kid.
“Stop! I don’t wa—”
Another shot of violet.
Hal caught it on his second shield and quickly retaliated. The kid ducked under one blaze of green, barely escaped another, but the third clipped him on the shoulder and sent him spinning back into the water tower. This time he landed on the roof of the structure and lay prone.
Hal dove. He was on the boy in a second, pulling his right arm around and trying to yank the ring from his finger. It resisted him. That was not unusual. Rings often had minor safeguards against a stranger simply pulling it off. But he was a Green Lantern. His own ring flared, Carol’s started to slip… Before he could pull it over the first knuckle the hand closed into a fist and jerked forward to meet his face.
He lurched back with a cry and dragged them both off the edge of the tower.
They fell. They flew. They fell again. Grappling. Grunting. None of it the epic battle that should have happened between two emotional spectrum warriors. None of it big or noble or right.
When they met the rooftop Hal wasn’t sure if he’d flown into it or if they had just fallen from the sky. Either way, his shields were much better than the kids and the direction of their fall meant Hal landed on top.
“Give it to me!”
He was gripping the kid’s left wrist, his knees were pressed down into the boy’s thighs, and his free hand was on the kid’s face. Holding him down.
“Give me the ring!”
“F-fuck…” the kid gurgled up through a froth of blood. “…y-you.”
The kid punched him in the gut. Once. Twice.
He yanked his hand away from the kid’s face and managed to put up his shield before the third punch struck. He saw the kid grimace in pain as his fist met the web of willpower and took the chance to grab at Carol’s ring.
As before, both the ring and its bearer fought him.
He gritted his teeth and a glowing green knife appeared in his hand. “I didn’t want to…”
He froze. Stared at the kid.
Blue eyes stared back up at him. Vivid. Angry. Hurt.
“She loved you,” the kid rasped. “She fucking loved you, you prick. I-I can feel it… I…”
“So she is in the ring!”
“No… fuck! Get off me! Leave me alone!”
“No!” Hal roared. “She’s in there! I know she is! How else do you know my name?! How would you…?!”
“She’s dead! S-she died. I was there. I saw!”
“She can’t be dead!”
He was about to plunge the knife down when something hit him. A flurry of black fabric, a punch that would have knocked him out cold if his shields weren’t up, and then the kid was gone and he was enveloped in a mushroom cloud of bitter tasting smoke.
“I… no! Bruce!” Hal lurched forward through the smoke. “You don’t understand! I need her ring! Just give me her ring! You can take the kid just…” A flood of tears he hadn’t realised he’d been holding back… holding back for days. “…don’t take her away from me.”
His heart hurt.
Not his fists. Not his new bruises. Not whatever was causing blood to leak out of his mouth.
Just like it had hurt the first time he had woken with the ring on his finger and again the first night on Zamaron. But worse. It was so much worse now that he realised…
“It’s him…” he rasped. “The Green Lantern… Hal… it’s… it’s him… I need to… he needs to know she loved…”
“Jason,” said a voice. “Jason.”
“She loved him so much… she just wanted… wanted him to know…”
“Stay with me Jason. Keep moving. Come on.”
“T-that was her dying wish. I… I don’t understand it I…” he staggered and an arm held him up. Gripped him. Like it was terrified of losing him. “She said his name… she wanted him to know…”
“Only one more block. We have only a few seconds. Come on.”
“I can’t,” Jason rasped as he was heaved another few staggered steps forward. “I… I can’t take anymore… All he wanted was the ring. If I had given him the ring none of this…” he closed his eyes against the sickening swirl of the world but still his heart hurt. A dull ache. “Please… no more fucked up p-powers… no more… it hurts… I don’t want to feel…”
Hal. The pain he was feeling in his chest was Hal’s. The man that Carol had loved. The man who had just attacked him. He hadn’t realised it until he had him pinned and then… something had snapped into place. A circuit had closed.
He had to help him.
He blinked until he finally managed to piece out the shape of the alleyway he was in. Someone was pulling him forward. He caught sight of a black glove, a cape, and a double pronged cowl.
The man’s head snapped around to face him. “Jason?”
The ache in his chest worsened tenfold. “I… I have to go back.”
“I’m not losing you again!”
He stared. The cowl's lenses were up. He could see Bruce's eyes. Vivid. Blue. Desperate. “Bruce…”
“We need to get into the Batwing and get the cloak on befor—”
“You’re too late!”
Hal dropped out of the sky in front of them, the contours of his body shimmering and eerie emerald green. He still held the knife construct in his hand.
“Hal,” Bruce snarled and stepped in front of Jason. “This has gone too far.”
“No, Bruce. I need that ring. It’s the only way I can bring Carol back. It’s the only way.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do! She’s in there. I know she is. How else would he know my name? How else would he know she loved me?”
“Look at him! He’s a Star Sapphire! You know their powers a—”
“I know everything about the Sapphires!” Hal flung his arms out. “I am in love with one of them. I know about their Queen, their powers, and even their goddamned oath. And you know what they say? Right in the middle of that oath? Love conquers all. Do you know what that means? That means love conquers everything… even death.”
“No,” Bruce said. Low. Angry. “It doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how much you love. It doesn’t matter how much to scream and rage against the world. How much you beg to bring them back. The universe doesn’t listen. The universe doesn’t care.”
“Carol is mo—”
“And if they do come back – if by some twist of fate your wish is granted and someone you love returns to you – then it won’t be because of anything you do. It won’t be because you love them.”
“It will be because someone somewhere can use them. It’ll be because some bored cosmic being has decided to pull their strings for a few moments longer. It will be because they have a purpose… and it has nothing to do with you. You’ll be lucky if by some accident you find out they returned at all.”
Hal brought his fist and up and Jason moved.
Bruce hadn’t expected him to move. He thought Jason was concussed. Delirious. Perhaps he was right. But it was that lack of expectation that allowed him to shove Bruce to the side just as the blast of green shot forward.
It slammed into Jason’s chest and for a moment there was nothing but pain.
He fell back, clutched at the open wound in his chest, and breathed. He should be panicking. He should be staring it horror at the blood dripping over his fingers and dropping in a steady drip drip drip down onto the floor. But he wasn’t.
He wasn’t scared or angry or upset.
He was tired.
“I… I didn’t mean…” Hal was on the ground walking toward him… and Jason didn’t know if it was to take his ring or to try and save him. It didn’t matter. He could see Bruce moving out the corner of his eye. He knew in a moment whatever motive Hal had would be irrelevant. Bruce would attack him, Hal would fight back, and… no. He was so tired. He didn’t want… he didn’t want to be a part of this anymore… he didn’t want to see this unfold… he just wanted it all to…
A flash of light blasted out of his ring.
It struck Hal’s knee, broke effortlessly through his shield, and enveloped him from the feet up. The man frowned at first. Confusion, discomfort… then horror as he realised what was happening. He struggled, tried to break free with his hands, and finally pointed his ring too late as the power flared up to consume him. When the light retreated Hal was left frozen. Encased in shimmering pink crystal.
And the pain in his chest…
“Jason,” he heard Bruce. Breathless. Desperate. “Jason!”
The pain in his chest was fading. Everything was fading. Fading into something dark cold and distinctly familiar. And finally finally he felt a sting of panic.
“I’m here. I’ve got you, Jason. I’m not letting you go. I’m…”
His ring started to slip off his finger.
And that was the last thing Jason remembered.
Everyone had forgotten about him.
Bruce. Alfred. Even Dick who he’d frantically tried to send a communication to when the others failed to respond. None of them had answered.
“W-we don’t have him,” Tim stammered. “We d-don’t. The light. It’s him.”
The blade pressed harder against his throat. “Him?”
No one had stopped to pick him up or give him instructions. No one had even told him what was going on. All he knew was what he was able to infer… and that was terrifyingly little.
Most of Bruce and Talia’s conversation had been lost to him. From where he had been crouched on the bridge’s taunt steel wire the sound of wind had been too loud.
But he had heard one thing.
The final word Bruce had yelled before grappling up to the batwing and disappearing toward the city centre. Towards the purple and green lights shining like fireworks just before they exploded.
“J-Jason,” Tim croaked. “Jason. It’s Jason. The p-purple light.”
Bruce didn’t talk about Jason much. But Dick had sat him down and told him what happened. He told him all about Ethiopia, Joker, and the bomb.
But if Jason had somehow survived, if he was the bomber, then it made sense. All of it. Someone who hated Bruce but also loved him. Someone who knew how the batmobile worked. Someone who knew how to build a bomb out of scraps found in Gotham Dockyards. Someone who Bruce would protect and try to save.
Someone who would cause Bruce to forget about him. Someone who would cause even Alfred to forget…
The only person who hadn’t forgotten him was…
The sword bit into his neck as he swallowed.
“Jason’s the purple light?” She pushed.
“Yes. T-the violet lantern. The star sapphire,” he licked his lips. “It’s Jason. Bruce didn’t know until you… something you said must have told him. I don’t know. I didn’t hear. I just heard him yell Jason and… I-I don’t know anything else.”
The woman studied him somehow looking predatory and powerful despite her civilian clothes. In her right hand she held a sword loosely against his jugular. In her left she held a communicator.
“Ubu,” she said into it. “Do we have a visual?”
“Not yet, my lady. The weather is interfering with the satellite images. They’re not in view of CCTV. The drone is still moving into positon.”
“Tell me when you do,” she said and clicked off the signal. Her eyes never left him. “How could Jason be the violet lantern?”
“H-he put a bomb on the batmobile,” Tim said a little too fast, “but didn’t detonate it even though he had the chance. On the same night a violet ring choose a new person. Bruce figured out the ring bearer and the bomber were the same person and we p-profiled him but we couldn’t figure out who it was unt—”
“Violet,” she interrupted him. “It’s not the same as what Green Lantern wields is it? It’s…”
“Love,” Tim croaked, his whole body shaking. “It’s the ring of love.”
In surprise. “Love?”
Her brows lowered. A minute movement which on anyone else would mean nothing. On her it seemed to mean the world. “I had thought the pit destroyed that in him.” A pause. “I suppose if anyone was to inspire it in him again it would be Bruce… not I.”
Tim had read Talia’s profile. He had known before they left the batcave that she was a skilled fighter. But he hadn’t expected her to follow him when he tried to escape the scene nor had he expected her to catch and subdue him only one tower further along the bridge from the one where she confronted Bruce.
She had been fast and deadly efficient.
The communicator in her hand crackled to life.
“Go ahead, Ubu.”
“We have a visual.”
“Confirmed positive ID on the purple light wielder. It is Jason Todd.” A pause. “He is dead.”
Tim sucked in a breath.
For the first time Talia looked like she’d been thrown off balance. “Dead? He… Bruce let him die?”
“The Batman is trying to resuscitate him.”
“Will he be able to?”
Ubu’s voice was stony. “No. His wounds are too great.”
Talia didn’t say anything.
All he could hear was wind buffering against the bridge, the cars below, and the first few drops of rain striking the brick around him.
He couldn’t stop shaking. He knew whether he lived or died now depending on how well Talia took this news. If she broke down he might be able to escape. If she flew into a rage there was nothing he could do to stop her slitting his throat.
Finally… “Thank you, Ubu. Please signal the retreat.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She turned off the communicator and slipped it into her coat pocket. “It would seem, young detective, that our time here is up.”
“Don’t kill me,” he whispered. “Please.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “You beg?”
A small laugh. “You at least have more honesty than your master.” She pressed the blade firmer against his throat and he croaked out a cry. “That is something he will take from you if I let you leave here.”
The edge of her sword bit into his jugular. Not much. Just enough to let a single drop of blood trickle down his neck. “P-please… I…”
“But…” Talia said softly, “that is not our way.”
She removed her sword and with a twist of her wrist cut through whatever she had used to lock his wrists behind his back.
He hands flew forward to clutch his throat and his head turned to stare up at her. Shocked. Shaking. “K-killing is not your way?”
“Wasting,” she corrected him. “Wasting it not our way. You may grow to be useful and killing…” a strange expression shone in her eye. “…I seem to have just lost my appetite for it.”
“Jason…” he whispered.
“Is dead. My reason for coming here along with him. It…” her brows pulled together. “…is not the outcome I had wished for but it is the one we have arrived at.”
Tim turned his head and stared as he saw a ship floating by the tower. Not a helicopter. Not a plane. Something eerily like the new model of batwing Bruce had been developing. It purred, near silent, and would have been virtually invisible if the door hadn’t been hanging open exposing the interior.
Inside stood three assassins all with a pale green sash knotted at their hips and the snake with a second head in place of its tail stitched into a matching armband. Talia’s men.
“We must leave,” one of them called.
She slid her sword back into her coat, once again hidden from view, and without a word walked across the tower to step fearlessly over the gap from rooftop to vehicle. Once inside she turned back to face him, hair whipping around her face, caught up in the current of the near silent motors.
“Goodbye, young detective.” Her voice sounded as it always did. Strong. Composed. Eloquent. “We will meet again. Next time may it be under more fortunate circumstances.”
Tim watched, still shaking, as the door closed and she disappeared in a whine of unseen engines.
He stayed kneeling, one hand clasped to his throat, as it slowly started to rain. A little at first. Then more and more and more. He sat in it, let it soak him, and just breathed. In and out. In and out. In… and out. Alive. He was alive. It was over.
It was all over.
His throat seized and without any more warning hunched forward and began to cry. Somewhere overhead he heard a sonic boom.
Was he dead?
“…copy that, ground control. We’ll get into positon.”
He remembered the alleyway. He remembered growing colder.
“Highball. Are you ready?”
He remembered… something else.
He didn’t remember how he came to be here, flying across the desert not with his ring but with an F-15. Out in the distance he saw a matching jet weave between the mountains and rocket across the desert.
“Hal Jordan is an idiot. He’s the stupidest man on the…”
He frowned. “Hey.”
“There he is. Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“Take it easy, Boss. I was just…” His heart rose into his mouth as he realised who he was talking to. His eyes locked on the other jet making a lazy arc through the air. It didn’t take much to catch up to it. When he did he rolled upside down and flew laterally beside it.
He looked up… and in doing so looked down at the Earth. Down into the other jet. Down at the pilot. Even under the helmet and oxygen mask he knew it was her.
She looked up and rolled her eyes. “Is there a reason you’re giving me shade, Highball?”
He stared down at her. “Carol.”
“Code name’s ‘Boss’, in case you forgot. Now are we going to test these things or what?”
He stared at her.
And he knew… he knew… he wished he didn’t… but he did.
Her sigh crackled over the intercom. “What is it, Hal?”
“You’re dead, aren’t you?”
A beat. Then two. Then five.
“Ah,” Carol said. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
Hal didn’t say anything, his eyes focused on her through the dome of their cockpits. Even from this distance he could see the blue of her gaze.
A small sad laugh trickled like liquid over the intercom. “Play it cool, I thought. Act natural. After all, I think I look pretty hot for a dead chick. Not like Black Hand’s girls. You remember them?”
“I… I’m in a sapphire crystal,” he muttered. “The kid froze me. I was trying to bring you back…”
“Yeah.” Even over the oxygen mask he could see the scorn in her eyes. “And how did that work out?”
“I…” a lump rose in his throat. “I killed the kid. Fuck… I… I never wanted to—”
“There it is. That word. Want.” The jet beneath him rolled away and rocketed towards the distant mountains.
Hal flipped himself back the right way up and accelerated after her.
“That’s the problem with you greens,” her voice rose above the roar of the engines. “You will things to happen and they happen so that’s the way you think the world works. You think if you want something hard enough you’ll get it. But, us pinks… hell. It feels like our rings control us half the time. The violet light did control me when I used the gem.”
“I’m not saying love is innocent or pure,” she went on. “God no. You got to have led a very nice life to believe that. The truth is, love is a bitch. Jealousy. Loss. Unrequited love. It’s all our department and it’s way worse than anything Sinestro or Atrocitus can throw out. There is a reason why love is where it is on the colour wheel. Stuck in between compassion and rage. It’s about as far away from green as you can get. About as far away from will as you can get. From control.”
“Carol,” Hal rasped. “I… I just…”
“But that’s just it. You can’t control love, or passion, or jealousy any more than you can control life. And it sucks. When everything goes bad, when something goes wrong, when you lose someone, it’s like being in a tailspin without a parachute. You just want to cry, and puke, and for the ground to hurry up and get here so you can be finished with it.”
Hopelessly. “I just couldn’t let you go.”
She turned a long slow loop back the way they had come, low enough to pass between to hills. “I’m already gone.”
“No. No no no…” He flew after her. Chased her. Hand shaking and sweaty. “No. No you’re here.”
“You’re…” he sucked in a breath. “You’re the crystal… why are you telling me this?”
“Take a look at the horizon, Hal.”
He did. And stared. The whole world was torn open, a gaping wound that stretched from the ground up into the sky. A painted backdrop cut through. The edges were jagged and pink but through the middle it blazed emerald green.
“That’s your friends cutting you free,” Carol explained. “They’re going slow. Trying not to brain damage you. Bit late for that, I say. It’s why I’m talking to you directly. Hurrying up this process. You were getting there on your own. You really were. But it looks like we’re out of time.”
“Getting there?” He whispered… and then he remembered.
He remembered smearing sunscreen on her back as they lay on the beach. He remembered sharing the last ice cream in the back of the freezer. He remembered sex in a ski lodge cabin. He remembered her laughing over his romantic dinner of cereal with wine. He remembered them going to a kink club for the first time – something they always said they would do – and spending the whole time talking politics with a man wearing nothing but combat boots and a leather jock strap. All memories they hadn’t had time to make… given to him by the crystal. By the kid… but as beautiful as they were, all of them were coloured with the strange surreal tint of fantasy. Because, no matter how much his brain wanted it to be real, he couldn’t just dream up Carol.
She was more amazing than anything he could have imagined.
“God…” he whispered. “How long have I been here?”
She didn’t answer.
“The kid… this is what he wanted isn’t it?”
Carol sighed. “You know what he wanted.”
She loved you, Hal. The kid’s words from the night he had taken Carol’s lantern. The words that had haunted Hal since… coming back now coloured with a whole new meaning.
He wanted Hal to know she loved him. That was all he had wanted…
The controls in his hand splintered and fell away in a wave of pink sand.
“It was never meant to turn out like this.”
“No.” Carol’s voice sounded over the speaker moments before it too crumbled into a mess of shattered crystal.
He looked up to watch as, just like his, her plane started to dissolve. First the wing tips, then the tail, and finally the body, all falling away as it slowly turned to pink sand. As the cockpit disappeared he saw her. She’s taken her helmet off and her hair flew free around her face.
They didn’t fall. They flew through the air as if it were the most natural thing in the world. No jets. No rings. Just them.
“Carol,” he said as he caught up to her.
She turned back, smiled at him, and reached out.
He took her hand and pulled her up to clutch her to his chest. She crushed herself to him with equal amount of desperation and rose her head to press a kiss onto his lips. He sunk into that kiss. Plunged into it like a fish diving back into water.
When he drew back he saw she was smiling. It wasn’t a happy smile. It wasn’t a carefree smile… but it wasn’t a broken smile either.
He knew he could keep kissing her forever if he wanted. He knew he could close his eyes, forget about the rift in the sky, and kiss her until the atoms in his body flew back off into space to become part of some other space rock. He could stay here and keep denying her death or…
“Goodbye Carrol.” With those words the whole world shuddered and a spider web of pink shatter marks shot across all of existence.
He didn’t flinch. He didn’t blink. He didn’t look away for a moment as the woman in his arms slowly disintegrated into pink crystal and flew away in the wind.
And then she was gone.
He closed his eyes and felt the crystal peel away piece by piece. Only when he was off him did he realise how cold he was. He sunk to his knees, clutched at his shaking shoulders, and somehow managed to sob around his chattering teeth.
“Hey buddy. You’re okay. Breathe. You’ve been in there for a while. We got you out. You’re all good.”
He cracked open his eyes and stared at Barry kneeling on the ground beside him. Sad but smiling.
On his other side stood Kilowog.
“Hey poozer,” he said as Hal looked up. “How you doing?”
“K-Kilo...? I… I h-hurt a k-k-k…” he couldn’t get the word out. Not around his shivering. Not around his crying. Not around the mess of guilt and agony sitting lodged in the back of his throat. A kid. He’d hurt a kid. Killed a kid.
“Shh,” Barry rubbed his arm. “We know. It’s okay.”
Kilowog. “We’re going to get through this, Jordon.”
“Yeah,” Barry nodded. “No matter what you need we’re going to get it for you until you can see straight again. Okay?”
He bowed his head and nodded.
“Eh… one more thing, poozer.” Kilowog sunk to his knee. “I need to take your ring.”
He looked up.
“Order of the guardians. But don’t worry. It’s not being reassigned. We’re just going to hold onto it for a bit. They’re going to want you to pass some phyc stuff before you can get it back. Plus… there may be a political thing with the Stars. We don’t know yet but they, eh, might want you to do some time in the sciencecells. Cause, you know, unprovoked lethal force attack on a pink and all. It’s not going to happen. The guardians would never do it. It would look bad for the corps to imprison an honour guard. But… you know... there will probably be some kind of settlement. Maybe something here on Earth.”
Hal tried to process what he'd just heard. "The Star Sapphires want to send me to prison?"
“Yeah,” Kilowog sounded angry. “They preach rehabilitation and all that krub but it turns out they’re not above a little bit of revenge justice as long as they don’t have to get their hands dirty.”
“No i-it’s…” The kid had put him in the crystal not to imprison him but to tell him something. He had given him a chance to say goodbye to Carol, to feel her love one more time, and he’d… fuck.
He sucked in a breath and nodded again. Didn’t move as Kilowog gently slid off his ring. Instantly he was back in his coat and jeans, rumbled and unwashed.
“Christ Hal I…” Barry just tipped his head and rested in on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“N-no,” he tried to say. “Not you. M-me. I’m s-sorry. I…” he caught sight of Bruce standing in the doorway and for the first time he realised they were in Wayne Manor. Fancy wallpaper, plush carpet, and furniture that looked like it belonged in a haunted house. Bruce could have been the vampire. He looked even more pale than usual, his eyes shadowed and bloodshot.
Hal’s stomach twisted as he saw the violet ring glowing on the man’s right hand. Carol’s ring. The kid’s ring.
“B-Bruce I… I-I’m so s-sorry…”
“Get him out of here,” the man snarled and turned to leave. “I don’t want to ever see him on my land again.”
The Joker didn’t kill Jason. No. He murdered him. He set in motion the chain of events which led to his death. But he himself didn’t kill him. Not with the crowbar, not with the bomb.
According to the autopsy, Jason’s cause of death was suffocation. After Joker’s bomb detonated he had been trapped under rubble. Broken. Bloody. But alive. It was the smoke that killed him. Thick and black. Bruce remembers the smell of it as he frantically dug through the debris. But by the time he had torn aside the last sheet of metal it had been too late. All Bruce had been able to do was hope that Jason had been unconscious at the time it happened. He hoped he hadn’t lain awake gasping for breath. He hoped it hadn’t hurt.
It was all he could do.
He’d always thought that impotence had been a torment. He never realised it was a mercy.
Not until he was in an unnamed alley giving Jason CPR as the rain thundered down around them. Not until he was begging between chest compressions for Jason to open his eyes and getting no response. Not until he knew what it was like to have a chance to try and save him… only to realise it didn’t change anything.
If it had been a civilian he would have declared them dead. But it wasn’t a civilian. It was Jason. Jason wasn’t dead. Not anymore. Not again. Not because of him. So he’d kept going… thirty compressions. Two breaths. Thirty compressions. Two breaths.
At one point he’d thrown back his cowl, at another he had screamed at Jason to wake up, and then he’d felt ribs break under his palm… but that was okay. If it pressed the sternum against the heart, if it forced air in and out of his lungs, if it kept him alive then a few broken ribs was a price he was willing to pay. He’d already pressed his cape into the open wound on Jason’s chest. Anything to slow the blood loss.
He hadn’t realised when Jason’s ring slipped off it had landed on his finger.
Not until later.
“I am no star sapphire,” Bruce said as he walked down the corridor. “I am angry, I am scared, I am wilful. I am not… suited.”
The voice that responded sounded faintly British. Like Alfred if he were a woman. “If that were true the ring would not have chosen you.”
He turned to face her. “It did not choose me. It chose Jason.”
Sapphire Th’rae was bulky, blue, and tall enough she had to bend almost doable to get through the doors. She only had two fingers and one thumb on each hand. It was her left middle digit she used to carry her ring.
“Jason,” she tasted the word. “He never told me his name.”
Bruce grimaced. “It took him two weeks to tell me when I first found him.”
"Found? So you're not..." She trailed off.
"My children are not biological," was all he said as he drew to a stop outside Tim’s room and looked in the open door. Tim was asleep in his desk chair. From this angle Bruce could see the still healing scratch across his jugular.
All this had hit Tim hard. Of course it had. He was a kid. He didn’t know Jason. He didn’t know what all this was about. Yet he had almost died for it.
“I can’t join the Star Sapphires,” Bruce said to Th’rae. “I have… obligations I need to attend to here.”
She glanced in the room and then looked down. “It is expected a potential recruit complete a compulsory trial period before being allowed to reject the calling. But I…” her eyes flicked to Tim and then away. “…I understand this is not something you can leave behind.”
Bruce studied her. Despite the bulk of her frame her features were surprisingly human, and very readable. “You are a mother.”
She turned away. “No. Not anym... no.”
“I’m so sorry,” Bruce said. He walked into Tim’s room, threw a blanket over him, and turned out the light.
“Ear—Jason,” Th’rae used the name with deliberate emphasis. “How much older than this one…?”
She didn’t say anything as they walked down the hallway.
He stopped at the next door, knocked twice, and opened it. Dick jumped as Bruce entered and then hunched over his suitcase guiltily. “I… I’m just unpacking a bit. I, um, think I forgot my toothbrush. And shirts. I… I didn’t bring any shirts. Or socks. Or my wallet.”
“Get some sleep,” Bruce told him.
“I…” the man looked down. “I don’t think I can.”
Bruce pulled a bottle of pills out of his back pocket, rattled them, and tossed them to Dick.
He caught them and stared at him incredulously. “Drugs? That’s your answer? Drugs?”
“No, wait,” he jumped up and came over to the door. Only when he was closer did he see Sapphire Th’rae and lurking behind him and slowed nervously. “Ah… oh. Hi. You’re Killa-wing or something right? No. Wait. That was the other one. The GL one.”
“I am Sapphire Th’rae.”
“Sapphire Three?” Dick made a face. “They just number you?”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
“No.” She didn’t elaborate further.
“Ohhhhkay.” Dick’s gaze snapped back to Bruce. “Anyway, I… um… I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I should have believed you. I should have come back sooner. It’s just… when Alfred told me what happened I thought it was some kind of fucked up joke. Like, losing Jason messed me up so bad and then to hear…” he shook his head. “Man. Man.”
“Go to sleep Dick,” Bruce said. “I need you tomorrow.”
He sucked in a ragged breath and clutched the sleeping pills to his chest. “Yeah. Okay. Sure thing boss.”
Dick slung and arm around him and pulled him into a brief hug before stepping into his room and closing the door. Bruce wasn’t surprised. That was what Dick did. He communicated his affection with his body.
When he looked back up at Th’rae the alien was smiling. Small. Sad. “You are suited, Bruce Wayne of Earth. Your love might not be as colourful or fierce as Jason’s. But it is just as strong.”
He held out his hand. “I know this is a great honour, but I cannot.”
“The Queen will not approve,” she said but reached out regardless and pulled the ring off his finger. He felt a tension he hadn’t realised he’d been holding between his shoulder blades dissipate. A tight ugly knowing that as long as that ring was on his finger whenever he looked down he would remember…
That moment in the ally. That moment when he knew Jason was gone. When he knew he had failed him for a second time. When he knew he had found Jason just to lose him again.
He remembered the rain on his cheeks had been warm as he leant forward and pressed his lips to Jason’s again. One more desperate shared breath. Or had it been a kiss?
“Thank you,” Bruce rasped, pushing the memory aside. “For everything.”
She inclined her head. “It was not just I.”
“You will stay. Alfred would be upset if you didn’t after he spent so much effort preparing the room.” The butler had somehow found four king sized mattresses and put them edge to edge on the floor in one minimally used living rooms.
Again, she inclined her head.
She didn’t follow him as he made his way to the last room in the corridor. “Alfred,” he said as he stepped inside. “Go to bed.”
“Master Bruce,” the man sat in the seat. “You can’t be the one t—”
“That’s an order, Alfred.”
“Respectfully sir, you can’t expect me t—”
“I can and do,” he fixed the man with a look. “Trust me. I am not losing my mind.”
Alfred sighed. “I hope that is true, sir. I really do.” He stood, set his hand on Bruce’s shoulder for a moment, and then obediently walked out the door. Alfred’s room was at the far end of the corridor. Not a servant’s room but not as nice as the boy’s either. That man was stubborn when it came to those sorts of things. Bruce couldn’t count how many times he had told him to move into one of the nicer rooms.
Bruce took the butler’s spot in the chair and looked down at his newly naked finger.
Hal hadn’t murdered Jason. But he had killed him.
And Bruce hadn’t been able to save him.
He would never forget cradling Jason to his chest in the rain soaked ally anymore than he would forget pulling the limp and staring body up from the smoking wreckage. He would never forget the pain in his chest as he wiped ash from his cheeks or rain wet hair from his face. He would never forget looking at him and knowing he was gone.
And then a shadow had fallen over them.
At first Bruce thought it was Hal somehow free from his crystal prison. But when he had looked up he had seen a monster.
He hadn’t known Sapphire Th’rae yet. He hadn’t known what he was looking at. But he knew what it meant when she raised her fist to point her ring at them. Just like Hal had done just before he killed Jason.
Irrationally, Bruce had thrown himself across Jason’s body. Protecting it. Protecting him.
It didn’t make a difference. When the power blast hit them it was strong enough to encompass them both.
The pain had been acute and in the fleeting moments before he passed out it occurred to him that perhaps this Star Sapphire thought he had killed Jason. Perhaps this was revenge. Perhaps she was killing him.
It shouldn’t have been a calming thought… but it was. When blackness rose he had embraced it gratefully. Enough, he remembered thinking as everything faded away. That’s enough. Let that be enough.
But it wasn’t enough. It was never enough. And a few hours he had awoken with Jason’s ring on his finger and a whole new world to tackle. A world where the impossible happened. Where somehow everything he knew had been rewritten.
He looked to the side and studied Jason lying in the bed beside his chair. As he watched the boy took a slow breath in and out. Then another. And another. It still amazed him. He still couldn't believe it. That's why he interrupted Alfred's shift watching over him... because when he wasn't watching Jason breathe he couldn't believe it was really happening. He couldn't believe Jason was back. He couldn't believe Jason was okay. He couldn't believe was alive.
But he was.
I have been spoilt rotten lately with not one but two new fanarts of this series. Both of them feature the very smexy Jason in pink so if you missed him this chapter please go and check out Star Sapphire Jason Todd by Shaish and Star Sapphire Jason Todd by Dragonddai. Don't forget to let the artists know how incredibly amazeballs they are. They really do deserve it.
Jason woke slowly, reluctantly. He supposed he should be grateful he was waking at all. When he’d closed his eyes the darkness he’d seen had looked like death. Now that darkness was warm and comforting and every step he took towards consciousness brought with it new and unique pain. At first it was just his chest. The persistent tight ache of a wound slowly healing. Then it was his ribs. They were broken. He didn’t remember how that had happened but he knew the feeling. Finally it was the bruises sure to be colouring his knuckles black and the rest of him piebald.
Unable to slip back into the mercy of unconsciousness he cracked open his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. It was a familiar ceiling. One he had seen countless times before.
Wayne Manor. He was in Wayne Manor. How had he…? Memory returned in a shock of vivid colour. His lie. His escape. The Green Lantern. Pushing Bruce aside…
He yanked open the front of his pyjamas and stared at his chest. A massive star shaped scar splashed from collarbone to sternum. White. Misshapen. But healed.
He turned his head, looking for answers, and stiffened in shock when he found something else.
Bruce was sitting slumped in the armchair Jason always used to hide his cigarettes in. His eyes were closed but Jason knew he wasn’t asleep. Bruce was like the batcomputer. He could rest without shutting off. His external lights went off but inside he was still figuring stuff out. Still plotting and planning.
Sure enough when he shifted the man’s eyes snapped open.
“Jason.” He turned to face him, moved as if to touch him, then hesitated. “Are you…?”
Jason tried not to stare at him. Tried not to shake. “What happened?” His voice felt dry and painful. Like sandpaper.
The man didn’t answer at first. Then… “Hal attacked you. You were wounded and I…”
A flutter of unease stirred in his gut as his eyes flicked around the room again. It all seemed familiar. Too familiar. “You saved me?”
“Jason I…” Bruce hesitated. “It’s more complica—”
The unease ticked toward fear as he saw Dick standing in the doorway. Hair too long. Shirt too big. Pants too small. His mouth curled into a smile.
Just like last time.
No. Not again. Please.
Alfred appeared behind Dick. Ruffled, red eyed, but smiling. “Master Jason? You’re awake.”
Dick strode forward and fell to his knees beside the bed. “I… I can’t believe it’s you. I… I knew you would pull through. I knew it. God, Jay. You have no idea how fucked up its been without you.”
The fear started to taste like panic.
The butler approached slower. Almost as if afraid he was a dream that would disappear. “We all missed you, Master Jason.”
Bruce frowned and reached out in another attempt to touch him.
“No!” He jerked himself away. “G-get away from me! I… I got away. How am I back here?”
They all stared at him. Shocked. Stricken. Still.
“Leave me alone!” He raised his fist. Saw his ring was gone. Oh fuck. Oh no. Oh God. He scrambled back to the other side of the mattress, heart thudding and breath rasping in and out of him in small frantic gulps. He was back in the crystal. He didn’t know how it happened. He didn’t remember being entombed. Perhaps he had never really escaped. Perhaps he was still on Zamaron. Perhaps going back to Gotham had just been another test… and this… this was him going back to level one. But this time he had no ring. How was he meant to get away without a ring?
“Jason,” Bruce was watching him like he was a wild animal. “It’s okay. You’re not going to hurt you.”
“No,” he sobbed. “Why did you bring me back here? Why won’t you let me go?”
Dick stared at him. A tangle of horror and heartbreak on his face. “Jason no. Don’t say that. We lo—”
“You’re not real!”
Alfred’s face was unreadable.
Bruce seemed almost desperate to touch him. To lay just one hand on him. “We are real, Jason.”
“No! Don’t lie to me! You’re just some perfect happy dream wher—”
“Guys?” A nervous voice. A new voice. “Is everything okay? I heard yelling.”
Jason looked up.
A boy stood in the doorway. He was gangly, his body not yet quite caught up with his upward growth. Despite it he had a bandage on his neck and bruises on his knuckles. Jason knew what those sorts of marks meant. He knew who he was looking at.
A bitter black feeling swelled in his gut as he stared at the boy. He was wearing a t-shirt with a hacking joke on it. Some message buried in zeros and ones. That probably meant he was smart. Not as smart as Bruce but smarter than Jason. The muscle he could see on his legs probably meant he was decent at the physical stuff too. Not as good as Dick but good enough. His hair was also neat and conformist. A top of the class kind of kid. The sort that would do exactly as he was fucking told.
Of course. Of course Bruce would upgrade. He’d downgraded when he picked Jason to be his next Robin and look how that turned out. He had to get his hands burying him in the backyard. Had to pretend to be sad while the media asked him about his missing son.
His gaze snapped back to Bruce. “You fucking cunt. How long was I buried before you found him? How the fuck could you take another after what happened to me?”
“Jason. It wasn’t… I suff—”
“Oh you suffered did you? You had a hard time? I died, arsehole. I died! You know what that’s like? Did you even really care?”
“Hey, jaybird,” Dick looked like he wanted to climb onto the bed but knew now was not a good time. “It’s not like that. It was never like that. Losing you… it destroyed us.”
“Then why is the Joker still alive?! Why did you replace me?! Why was it Talia who brought me back?!”
“Jason please just…”
“I know what went down. I shouldn’t have been surprised that you didn’t notice I had come back. It’s what you’re all like. You avoid the fucking issue. This is exactly what I should have expected from…”
This wasn’t a fantasy. The realisation hit him like a blow to the face. This wasn’t his perfect false family. This wasn’t the crystal. This was real.
This was his real family. His real, fucked up family. Bruce who couldn’t hug him, Alfred who stayed silent and dignified even with his clothes rumbled, Dick who was too fucking perfect even when he wasn’t.
“Oh fuck…” he stared at them all one at a time. “Y-you’re real. You’re here. I’m… I’m not dreaming this. I…”
Bruce’s hand was still on the bed. Reaching towards him. Wanting to touch him but not knowing how to transverse the last couple of inches to make it a reality.
In an instant all Jason wanted was for that hand to reach out, pull him forward, and for them to hug the way they did in his dream. All he wanted was for Dick to stop crouching on the floor and flop across his knees. All he wanted was for Alfred to fuck dignity and say something. But, just like them, he didn’t seem to know how to make that happen. He didn’t seem to know how to cross the final threshold.
“Oh fuck… I fucked this up. It wasn’t meant to…”
“Fiona wants tea.”
They all looked up at Robin. He blushed. He actually blushed. The precious little goodie two shoes nerd replacement blushes. Of course he does.
“Like Shrek. But blue. I… I’m sorry… I can’t remember her name and Dick called her Fiona last night.”
Dick sucked his lips between his teeth and didn’t comment.
“I will get the lady some tea,” Alfred said with a small tilt of his head and left.
Jason didn’t want him to go but the meaning of the conversation had penetrated his brain. “Th’rae? She’s here? She found me?” He shouldn’t have felt happy with this discovery, but he did. “Can I talk to her?”
“Yes,” Bruce said and stood. “I will tell her.” He was out the door faster than Jason thought possible. Robin followed in his heels like a good little puppy.
“Wow,” Jason muttered. “He couldn’t wait to get out of here.”
“Hey,” Dick made a face. “Don’t say that. It’s not true.”
Dick sucked in a breath and let it out. “Man, you have no idea. Just… when he comes back tell him to show you his chest.”
“Trust me. He loves you. He cared when you died. We all did.” Dick settled his chin on the edge of the mattress. “I still can’t believe I’m talking to you. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up.”
“You’re not creative enough to dream this shit up,” Jason said on autopilot.
Dick blinked and smirked. “You’re Jason alright.” And then he finally climbed onto the bed and sat opposite him. “My bitchy Little Wing.”
He could see where this was going. “I’m not calling you Big Bird.”
“I know, I know. You’ve got size issues and it hurts to have to remind yourself that I’m big.” He winked. The shit.
He kicked him.
Dick’s grin grew and he kicked back.
Soon they were sitting, shoulders braced against the bedframe and feet pressed together in an impromptu push war. Sole to sole. “I missed you, Jay. I really did.”
“Yeah right,” he said but this time there was no malice behind the words. He spoke them as if he didn’t believe them. Perhaps he didn’t. Not just then.
“Earth Man.” Th’rae took three goes to fit through the door and once inside she blinked at the two of them. “I… uh… am glad you see you well.”
He studied her. “You have no idea which one of us is which, do you?”
She pursed her lips. “Your species is remarkably similar.”
“The Zamarons are freaking identical and you tell them apart.”
“Damn,” Dick whispered. “I was hoping you weren’t going to give it away and she would take me back to the planet of hot babes.”
Jason kicked at him one more time and would have got him in the balls if Dick hadn’t blocked with his shin. “Okay,” he laughed and rolled off the bed. “Message received. I’m going.”
Jason wanted to tell him that it was an accident and that to leave wasn’t the message but said nothing as he walked out the door. It was strange being in the same room with Dick again. It was strange being able to interact with him. It was strange how normal it all seemed.
Th’rae settled herself on the floor beside his bed and sipped some tea from a cereal bowl. “Despite what your brother believes I am not going to take you back to Zamaron.”
He nodded. “Good I…”
“Now that I know you can fly yourself,” she said and dropped a ring on the bedside table.
He stared at it like it was a poisonous snake.
She frowned as she read his reaction. “You really don’t want it, do you?”
“I…” he tugged unhappily at the sheets and said something that surprised even him. “I don’t know.”
Th’rae thought for a long moment. “I… understand. And I have already broken this rule once. It cannot do much harm to break it again.” She reached out and gently picked up the ring. “If you do not wish to take it I will not force it on you.”
“Won’t the Queen be pissed?”
“I will tell her you died.”
“You? Lie to the Queen?”
Softly. “It would not technically be a lie.”
His smile vanished. She knew. She knew about him dying. How did she know? Someone much have told her. But who? Why? “Who told you I died?”
“I was not told,” she said. “I was there.”
“You…” understanding bloomed. Putrid. Terrifying. “I died? In that alley? No. I… I didn’t. I couldn’t.”
“A ring does not leave a host like that unless the host’s primary life indicator stops. In most species that indicator is a heartbeat.”
His hand rose to touch his chest. “My heart stopped?” He’d died. He’d died again. This time in Bruce’s arms.
He felt like he was going to puke.
“How did you survive?” She put down her tea bowl. “Remember when I was telling you about special powers manifesting in times of stress?”
“And my power was knowing where to go for help?” He muttered. “Is that how you found me? Did I summon you?”
She clucked her tongue. “So arrogant.”
“Once I realised you were gone I took a guess and flew to the city on the exact other side of the planet. Sure enough, I was only there a few moments before I saw the glow from your ring.” Her brows pleated. “Though… I was too late. You were dead and your father—”
“He is not my father.”
“—was trying to resuscitate you. He wore the ring.”
Jason frowned. “He…?” He quickly put the pieces together. “Did he use a special power?”
She huffed and crossed her arms. “No.”
“So it was me?”
“It was I.”
Th’rae looked unimpressed. “Why are you surprised? I wield a ring too.”
He tried not to let any of the awkward shame he was feeling show on his face. “I know…”
“I also, for a reason I don’t understand, do feel some small affection for you Earth Man. It was stressful seeing you felled. Worse to witness your father’s love and grief.”
Love. That word sunk into him. Warm and cold at the same time. Bruce loved him. Bruce. Loved. Him. And he…
“Miri Riam,” Jason whispered. “You told me a Sapphire named Miri Riam used the love between two people to heal mortal wounds.”
“Miri Riam is going to have to find a new special power,” Th’rae said as her meaty face split into a smile.
Jason threw back the blanket and hauled himself to his feet. Th’rae lurched up in shock but made no attempt to stop him as he raced across the room, leaning on the wall the whole way. Fuck his ribs hurt. His chest hurt His knees felt like they were going to give at any moment.
“Earth Man? Jason? Are you…?”
He almost feel through the door and looked up and down the corridor. Bruce wasn’t far away. He and Dick were talking at the end of the hallway where it swerved sharply towards the East Wing. He started forward when he saw Jason.
“You should stay in bed. It’s not…”
“Show me your chest.”
Bruce squared his jaw and glanced in the room at Th’rae as if somehow this was his fault. Then he pulled up his turtle neck sweater and showed his chest. There, planted in the mess of other scars, was a massive blast shaped scar identical to the one on Jason’s chest.
“I did nothing,” Bruce said softly not meeting his eye. “Th’rae shared the wound. It was not fatal at fifty percent severity and she was able to use the ring to close both of them.” A pause. “I… I remember no more but she tells me the power also stopped my heart for a moment to start yours.”
Horror and outrage bubbled up in Jason and he spun to stare back in his room. “You did what?!”
“No, Jason,” Bruce grabbed his shoulder and turned him back. “She didn’t mean to. It’s the ring. I… I only wore it for a few days but I know it’s not something you control. It’s not what she wanted. It’s what I wanted. It’s…”
Jason didn’t know how but suddenly he knew what he needed to do. He lurched forward and wrapped Bruce in a savage hug. The man caught him, clearly thinking he was falling and then tensed when he realised what was happening. Then he hugged him. And hugged him and hugged him and hugged him.
“I’m so sorry, Jason. I’m so sorry.”
And it was imperfect and awkward and messy and real. It was real. Oh fucking God this is real. I was going to blow up this arsehole and now… now…
Th’rae sighed as she wriggled back out through the doorframe. “There is no lantern is there? You just came back for this.”
He didn’t deny it.
“Where is it?”
“Space,” he half sobbed half laughed.
She sent him a look. “Where in space?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did it look like?”
He thought about it. “There were stars.”
A heavy sigh. “The Queen is going to have my head. No lantern. A dead recruit. Relations with Oa bumped back a few centuries.” She rubbed her brow and gave up trying to figure out how to get through the door. “At least I discovered I have the same abilities as Miri Riam.”
Jason frowned. He couldn’t believe he was asking this. He couldn’t believe he was even considering this. “What happens if I put the ring back on again?”
Bruce didn’t say anything. A stonewall wrapped around him.
Th’rae turned her head to regard him. “Training takes between seven to ten months Earth time. Then, if you choose it, you will be a Sapphire. You will be pelage yourself to the sisterho—eh—order and serve both Zamaron and the cause of love.” A pause. “These are turbulent times. Your ring will take you dangerous places, The Queen will send you others, and you may even be summoned to war.”
He leant his head on Bruce’s shoulder. “Great. More war. Space war with space police or space monsters. And what are we? Space relationship shrinks. Oh yeah. That’s going to end well.”
Th’rae tiled her head. “We?”
He opened his mouth to say something. Closed it. Opened it again. Closed it again. “Fuck.”
I'm sorry I haven't responded to most comments on the last chapter yet. I really just wanted to get this one finished asap.
The final chapter is an epilogue of sorts. I hope you like it. :D
Jason stood on the hill opposite the central power battery and rocked nervously back and forth on the balls of his feet. He was on the shitty side of Zamaron where the sun stayed high in the sky and the soil was mostly broken shards of pink crystal. Normally Jason liked hanging out here. It was isolated. Less people staring at him, or saying shit about him, or trying to make friends with him to show how open minded they were, or talking to him like he was an animal that was about to pee on the rug. It was nice being away from all that. Not that he hated all Sapphires. There were a few he legibly got along with.
Miri Riam was the only Zamaronian that seemed to be able to smile and it not seem fake. Zayla taught him alien dice games and got him drunk from chewing on black gum. Tk’iti looked like a hornet crossed with a crab and was clearly as much of a misfit as he was on the planet of mostly beautiful humanoids. Beylianamu breathed fire when she hiccupped which was both the funniest and the most terrifying thing ever.
Th’rae was the only one he really trusted, however. The only one he went to when he really needed help.
He wished she would hurry up and get here now.
He could see the Queen and her usual entourage of royal guards standing on the crystal dais at the foot of the battery. With them was a Sapphire reporting on a mission. At any moment now she would leave and the Queen would summon him.
He could do this. He could do this. It would be easy. He passed all his tests. He could fly, he could make constructs, and he could even recite the relevant laws from book of Oa in case he ever met a Green Lantern who would try to pull him up on ‘unauthorised use of the emotional spectrum’ or some other bullshit. All he had to do was smile, nod, and then he would be a fully-fledged Star Sapphire. Easy.
He looked up in relief as Th’rae dropped out of the sky, his bulky black rucksack slung over her right arm.
“What took you so long? And what the hell are you wearing?”
“I have been gone for not a minute,” she settled on the ground. “Your tree house is not easy for me to fit into. And these are the skulls of my ancestors. I thought I would wear them today to celebrate your achievement.”
“Um. Okay. Skulls of ancestors. That’s… normal.”
She offered the bag to him. “Your ‘Earth Care Package’?”
“God yes. You’re a fucking angel,” he said and took it out of her hands to rip it open. Inside was all the luxuries he couldn’t find on Zamaron. His leather jacket, toilet paper, The Complete Works of the Brontë Sisters which Dick had put in as a joke but which had turned out actually fucking decent, an old school iPod because the battery on those took a freaking age to die, steak spice, some jelly lollies, photos of boobs, more secret photos of dicks, a toothbrush and hairbrush that he didn’t use much now that he could make constructs, a gun, a pack of cards, nice socks, cucumber seeds because if there was anything that pissed of the small shitty minority of Zamaronian female purists more than growing alien plants it was growing penis shaped alien plants, some shampoo, some hand cream, and finally…
He pulled out a cigarette. His last cigarette. The one he’d been saving for months.
“He’s to me,” he toasted and used his ring to light it.
Th’rae made a face as he huffed out a mouthful of smoke. “I don’t understand this custom of inhaling impure air in order to celebrate.”
“Not to celebrate,” he said.
“Helps with the nerves.”
She lifted her brow. “You have no reason to be nervous.”
“Yeah?” He met her gaze with one of his own. “I’m about to go into the central battery. You know what’s in there? The star sapphire. The star sapphire.” He took another long drag from his cigarette and blew it away. “It mind controlled Carol for, like, years. It’s the conduct for an entity of light. It could make my ring explode and take my arm with it.”
“Only if you try to charge using pure emotion,” Th’rae said. “There is a reason charging without an oath is painful for you and impossible for most people. It’s not safe. It’s…”
“Like sticking a key in a power socket. Yeah, yeah. I got it the twentieth time you told me.” Another mouthful of smoke. “I’ll say the oath.”
“Will you?” Th’rae looked suddenly nervous. “Because you have made a habit of charging without it.”
“Yeah, but usually it just hurts a bit and is bright. Worth not feeling stupid by saying a rhyme. This time’s different.” This time he was charging from the central battery. If he let that fire at him unchecked it could blow the meat off his bones.
But if he was honest that wasn’t what was making him nervous. Sure, it was part of it. But it wasn’t even most of it.
“I never graduated before,” he said. “From anything. Not even from middle school. They kicked me out of the ceremony because I punched a kid who said Robin was lame.” Peter fucking Jenkins. It was worth not walking across stage to see his puffy little cry baby face. But this was different. This wasn’t middle school. “What if the Queen’s changed her mind?” He went on. “Or what if I fuck up? I don’t even mean now I mean… first mission, I kill a whole bunch of people. Everyone will say it’s because I’m a guy and…” he trailed off.
“Since when have you cared what the others say?”
“Jesus Th'rae, I’m serious. It’s not that I…”
“You’ll be fine,” she said and slung an arm across his shoulder. "Trust me. I almost blew up a planet in my first year. You can't do worse than that." Her skin felt rough against his.
She seemed to be thinking the same thing because the next thing out of her mouth was a question. “Where is the rest of your suit?”
Jason's grin was forced. “I was feeling kinda awkward what with everyone showing so much skin. Thought I could try out a new look for graduation.” Just for graduation. He would be back to normal after this. He just wanted to go shirtless because…
“He just wants to show off his scar,” another Sapphire said as she dropped out of the sky.
Jason feigned ignorance. “What scar? Oh this one? I forgot it was there.” The star shaped scar in his chest was white and risen. While hardly perfect it looked a little like the Star Sapphire symbol. It also covered up his autopsy scar. Not completely but enough that when he looked at his chest he thought about the time Bruce saved him and not the time Bruce didn’t.
While he used to hate seeing his chest it was now something that made him feel stronger. Something that made him feel loved.
Those were feelings he wanted to hold close today.
“The Queen is ready to see you,” the new Sapphire said.
Th’rae squeezed his shoulder gently and took the backpack back as he crushed his half-finished cigarette under the heel of his boot. “When next I see you, you will be a true Sapphire.”
“Yep,” he said awkwardly.
“Congratulations, Earth Man,” the other Sapphire said, surprising him. She was a Zamaronian and while most didn’t seem to mind his presence on their planet they by and large ignored him.
“Thanks...” He stood. Not sure what more he should say.
“The Queen is waiting,” Th’rae reminded him.
“Eh… yeah… right.” He lifted off the ground and flew across the valley towards the platform at the foot of the central battery.
Perhaps he should have felt grateful for the Zamaronian’s unexpected acknowledgement. The shock of it had momentarily quietened his nerves so when he landed in front of the Queen he didn’t do something stupid like stammer or bow.
“Sapphire Jason Todd of the planet Earth,” she addressed him. “You have completed your training to our sister’s satisfaction and to mine. Are you ready to take your place amongst the Sapphires?”
He blinked. As usual the Queen’s dress seemed remarkably less ornate than that of her entourage. A simple purple frock that seemed muted and conservative on her blue skin. It was her imposing height more than anything that seemed to afford her power.
Jason realised he had asked her a question. He had rehearsed this at least a hundred times with Th’rae. Still, for a terrifying moment, he thought he would forget his lines.
The Queen studied him. “Do you promise to serve the cause of love in all your dealings and answer the call when the course of love is threatened?”
She gave him a look.
“I do,” he corrected quickly.
“Do you pledge yourself to the sisterhood and promise to aid your fellow sapphires when aid is asked for?”
He thought of the Sapphire who had tried to entomb him in crystal. “As long as I figure they’d do the same for me.”
Low. “I can order you to undertake another six months of training, Earth Man.”
“I mean, I do.”
“Good.” She once pitched her voice to carry. “Do you swear to serve and protect Zamaron, her allies, and her interests with the full power of your ring?”
Once more. “I do.”
She stepped forward. “Then welcome, brother. You are now truly a Star Sapphire.” She took his face in her large blue hands and tilted his head up so she could put a simple chaste kiss onto his lips. “Follow your heart.”
He blinked up at her stupidly. “I… um… I will.”
She smiled. “Of that I have no doubt. Go. Say the oath. And take this with you.” She made a motion and one of the guards brought a lantern forward.
He blinked as she placed it in his arms. “Wait… what? This is mine? You made me one?” He’d been leaching off Th’rae’s for the last six months which he could tell was an arrangement she was less than happy with.
“Yes,” the Queen said. “Don’t lose it this time.”
“Hm.” She didn’t sound convinced but she waved him upwards anyway. “Fill it from the central battery and then you will be one of us.”
He nodded, hugged the lantern to his chest, and rose off the ground. The central battery was huge. A lantern shaped monument that blazed with light. It was also where all violet lanterns got their light. This would be the first time he was allowed inside.
He looked at his ring. “I can’t believe you talked me into this.” As always it didn’t say a word.
He flew up to the edge of the circular opening and landed on the curved stone floor. It was like standing in front of the bat signal. Bright… brighter than it seemed from a distance… but not blinding. Not quite. He brought up his free hand to shield his eyes, sucked nervously at the taste of tobacco still on his teeth, and walked into it.
Floating in the centre of the central battery was two skeletons, their faces tipped towards each other as if seeing something divine in each other’s hollow eye sockets. Between them hovered a single spark of light.
It was a stone. Small but thrumming with so much power he could feel it in his teeth.
The Star Sapphire gem.
Inside which dwelled the Predator. The living entity form of violet light. The Parallax of love.
He could feel it observing him. Could almost see it. A dragon. Massive. Toothed. Horned. Deadly but beautiful.
It didn’t respond. Of course it didn’t respond. It was inside the sapphire gem. It probably wasn’t even awake. Even if it was, it was the spirit of love. The spirit of love didn’t say ‘hi’.
“Okay. Yeah. I’m just going to…”
He held up his lantern, ready to charge it. For a moment he was almost tempted to skip the oath. He knew could say nothing, just imagine people he loved, and it would fill the lantern… just like he did when he first got the ring. It was like the urge to jump off a cliff. A ghostly urge to do something he knew would almost certainly kill him… or open his body up for the Predator to possess.
He dismissed it.
He was a Star Sapphire now. A real Star Sapphire. That meant this oath finally meant something. That meant saying it now was an achievement. That meant he had made something of this strange pink thing that landed on his hand all those months ago. He’d made it. He was here… Somehow everything that had happened to him had led him to this moment… and he wasn’t going to fuck it up.
“For hearts long lost and full of fright,” he began. The air crackled with power and the ground shuddered beneath his feet. “For those alone in Blackest Night. Accept our ring and join our fight,” both his lantern and his ring were blazing with light. He could feel it. Warm and buzzing. Not painful. Not overwhelming. Beautiful. “Love conquers all,” he finished at a whisper, “with violet light."