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Jason Todd was in a narrow, dark, frighteningly familiar space, and for a moment, he thought he must be dreaming. He'd had this dream before—the wooden sides of the casket pressing against his palms, the low ceiling overhead, and he could almost taste the stale air on his tongue. He was dead, or at least he was supposed to be, and as he pounded against the hard surface above him, dirt drifted down into his nose and mouth. Real dirt.
Fully awake, he choked off the scream that was starting. This wasn't a dream.
Jason felt around the interior, checked for wires within his reach or anything that might make the damn box explode if he tried to get out. You could never be too careful with the crazy element. Feeling nothing, he let his head fall back against the wood.
No one was going to hear him six feet under. No one was coming for him. He'd learned the hard way that you couldn't rely on anyone—not even Batman.
Okay. Time to assess. He was in a pine box, buried who knows where, and he could probably punch his way out of it and crawl through the dirt to the surface. He'd done it before, but then he'd been half out of his mind with terror and possibly brain damage, and he hadn't been thinking about anything except getting out.
This time, Jason had the disadvantage of being perfectly aware of how screwed he was. Someone had put him in a ... box. He refused to think of it as a coffin. Coffins had cushions and satin lining. This was plain wood, unvarnished pine. Some villain had definitely cheaped out on him. He was probably going to get splinters.
At least Jason figured he'd be able to bust his way out of this crate without too much effort. He still had the scars on his knuckles from where he'd punched through that mahogany monstrosity he'd been buried in the first time around. Nothing but the finest for a Wayne—even an adopted one. Even one who had screwed up and gotten himself killed.
Back then, once he'd pushed free of the wood, he'd been overcome with dirt, had to hold his breath and practically swim to the surface through a sea of earth and mud. It had been raining that night, and thank god. It had probably made his job easier, although he would've been pissed if he'd drowned in muddy slop trying to claw his way back to life.
The last thing Jason remembered was going to sleep in his own bed. That meant someone had gotten into his apartment in spite of his security and Oracle's monitoring system. Someone had drugged him and taken him somewhere and fucking buried him.
But they'd apparently left him his cel phone.
Jason grabbed the phone that was lying on his chest and tapped the screen. Light flooded the small space. He blinked. Whoever had grabbed him had left him the phone for some reason. Was he supposed to make one last call? Ask for help? Tell someone he loved them? As if.
Was the bastard who did this to him going to call and taunt him while he breathed his last? It was Gotham—it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. Did they give him a cel phone to trace just to lead someone to the wrong location? He didn't know what kind of sick mind he was dealing with. If he had an inkling of who had done this to him, he might know what he should do next.
"Steady," he told himself, breathing slowly and evenly. He used what little light the cel phone cast to scan the interior of the box he was in.
Then he took a deep breath and dialed a number he knew by heart but used rarely. As Jason counted each ring, a feeling of hopelessness started to build. On the sixth ring voicemail picked up.
"Christ," Jason said, genuine panic starting to run through his system. It wasn't that late. Of course Dick was probably still out on patrol. Jason had come in early because there hadn't been much going on, and he was tired. With any luck, Dick was having his calls patched through to his comm.
He waited for Dick's annoyingly cheerful greeting to end. "Dick, it's Jason. Pick up, okay? I'm in trouble—"
"Jay?" A familiar voice cut through the phone, and Jason had never felt a greater sense of relief in his life. Maybe he had a chance of getting out of this alive. "What's wrong? Where are you?"
"I'm—someone's—Christ, Dick, someone's buried me." Jason's voice came out sounding shaky and scared, and damn it, he needed to hold his shit together. He was the Red fucking Hood!
There was a silent pause from the phone. "You—did you say someone buried you?"
"I'm in a goddamn pine box." Jason hit the lid with one fist, a handful of dirt falling from the seams, and Jason felt his stomach turn. This was really happening. Again.
"Fuck," Dick breathed out, and he swore so rarely it reaffirmed exactly how dire Jason's situation was.
"But you have your phone?"
"We'll trace it," Dick said confidently, just as Jason knew he would.
"It's probably not going to work."
"We have to try." Dick sounded determined, and Jason closed his eyes for a minute. He could imagine Dick standing on a rooftop somewhere, running through his options. The easiest one, the surest, and the least damaging to Jason's pride would be—
"Nightwing to Oracle."
"I need you to trace Jason's personal phone. Now." Dick was abrupt, something Jason didn't think he'd ever heard Dick be with Barbara, and there was a moment of affronted silence before the tapping of keys could be heard through the phone.
"What's he done?" Barbara asked quietly, and Jason liked Babs, he honestly did, but way to believe the worst, BatGirl.
Jason answered, "He's part of this little threesome, beautiful, so maybe more help and less judgement?"
"Jay's in trouble, and I need to find him."
"According to his phone, he's in his apartment," Barbara said. Jason could tell she was wondering what the big emergency was.
"Is there any possibility—"
Jason laughed somewhat hysterically. "There's no fucking way. I'm in a goddamn pine box, Dick. When I push at the roof, I'm eating dirt. Believe me, I know the signs of buried alive. I'm not in my apartment."
Jason could tell Dick was on the move. He wasn't sure how he knew. It wasn't like Dick was breathing hard, but he was definitely moving, heading in the direction of Jason's place. Jason didn't know where he was, but he would've bet his favourite bike he wasn't anywhere near his apartment. This was a waste of time, and maybe they'd think of some other way to track him, but—
He became aware Dick was speaking to him. "Come on, Jay, I'm on my way. You're going to be fine."
Jason wanted to cry when he heard that strained optimism. Dick didn't quite believe it either, but they had nothing else to go on at the moment, and Jason was going to have to hang in there at least until Dick made it to his apartment.
There was a click on the line that Jason knew—Barbara wanted to talk to him. Privately.
"What are you mixed up in, Hood?" Barbara asked.
"Nothing," Jason said. "Not that you'll believe me."
Jason knew Dick and Barbara weren't hot'n'heavy anymore, but Babs was still fiercely protective when it came to Dick. Barbara was just one more person who felt Jason could never measure up to the great Dick Grayson.
"You're trouble, Jason. You always have been."
Jason felt anger burning in his chest. "You're actually blaming me for this? How the hell is this my fault?"
"Whatever you've gotten yourself into, you're going to drag Dick along—"
"Last time I checked, Dick's a big Boy Wonder."
"Yes, but he would do anything for you and you know it."
"Kill someone?" Jason shot back.
"Almost anything," Barbara corrected. "He considers you his brother. He loves you, and if you get him involved—"
"If I'd had anyone else to call, I would've," Jason said, letting anger override the panic he was feeling. "So why don't you make yourself useful and see what the hell happened to your state of the art security system that let someone walk into my apartment while I was sleeping. And where the fuck is Dick?"
Jason couldn't hear anything but computer noises, and he realized Dick must've been a lot further away than Jason had initially thought. Otherwise he would've been here by now, and maybe Barbara's little chat had distracted him from his situation. He still wasn't her biggest fan and the feeling was obviously mutual.
"Your security system's been off for hours."
"That's impossible. I set it right before I went to bed."
"Wrong. It's completely dead," Barbara said. "You thought you set it. Someone circumvented the system, but made it look like everything was working."
"Who could've done that?"
"Someone smart. They knew the footage uploaded to my server. All I've got is a shadowy figure in all black."
"Isn't there something you can—"
"I'm trying to repurpose a camera from that rooftop dive bar near you. Dick's almost there. Other than that..." Barbara sounded almost apologetic, and suddenly Dick was back on the line. Breathing hard. He'd clearly been running flat out across rooftops, and Jason hoped to God there was some kind of clue in his apartment as to where he'd been taken because otherwise Dick was going to be crushed, and Jason was going to have to try plan B. His knuckles were not looking forward to that.
"Barbara." Jason didn't care if he sounded desperate. He was. "If there's something else you can try, do it."
"We're assuming your phone's GPS data is accurate and you're in your apartment." Her voice said she didn't think Jason was there anymore than Jason did. Dick was the only optimist in this group.
"How do we test that?"
"You'd have to take the sim card out of the cel phone."
Jason let out a stuttery breath. He could feel sweat running down his face. "That's going to cut us off."
"It only has to be for a few seconds. Long enough for me to tell if the sim card in the phone you have is the one we're receiving GPS data for."
"What if the phone doesn't work after? What if—"
It was Dick who answered, and it was the same voice he used when he knew he was asking someone to do something frightening. "It'll work, Little Wing. You'll only be alone for a few seconds, and I'll call you right back. I promise."
"I promise. You're not going to be alone. I'm coming to get you, Jason."
Jason pulled in a deep breath and pushed down his fear. Batman had been coming to get Jason when Joker beat him and left him in a building rigged with explosives. Batman hadn't gotten there in time.
But this was Dick, and there was something in Dick's promises that made a person trust and believe. Dick was on his way, and he hadn't worn out all of his chances like Batman had. Even if Jason wasn't at his apartment, Dick would figure out something. He'd find a clue to where Jason had been taken, and he'd rescue him before the air ran out.
"Okay." Jason could hear the shake in his own voice. "I'm going to take out the sim card. I'll—I'll talk to you soon."
Before he could change his mind, Jason popped the case off the phone, laying it carefully on his chest. He was going to be doing this blind. He took off the back of the phone, setting it beside the case, then extracted the battery and laid it beside the other parts. He slid the piece of metal holding the sim card in place, and carefully balanced the card on the end of his finger. It was about the size and weight of a contact lens. Jason counted to ten in the darkness, then carefully reconstructed the phone, relieved when the screen lit up almost immediately with Dick's incoming call.
"Are you okay?"
Jason breathed and nodded even though Dick couldn't see him. "Yeah."
"The phone says you're in your apartment," Barbara said. "I've just about got the damn camera focused—"
"I'm two blocks away," Dick said. "Just hang in there."
The sound of clacking keys and a grapple firing were familiar and comforting as Jason lay in the dark and tried to figure out how he could be buried alive and still be in his apartment. It sounded like one of the Riddler's sick jokes: When is a dead man not a dead man? When he's Jason Todd.
"Oh my God," Barbara exclaimed softly, and both Jason and Dick responded with, "What?"
"There's a coffin in Jason's living room."
Dick heard Barbara's statement the same time he landed on the fire escape outside Jason's apartment. He slid the window open and eased inside. "Jason, can you hear me? I'm right here."
"Get me the fuck out of here," Jason yelled, and Dick could hear pounding from inside the full-sized coffin that was sitting where there was usually a coffee table. There were a couple of shovelfuls of dirt on the lid.
"There's a lock." Dick ran his hands quickly around the seams of the coffin, checking for trip wires. When he didn't find any, he pulled out his lockpicks and set to work. He could hear Jason's harsh breathing through his ear piece and Dick couldn't imagine the terror his little brother was feeling right then.
"Okay, I've got it."
Dick cracked the lock open, pulled up the lid, and Jason was out of the box before Dick could even extend a hand to him.
"Fuck!" Jason said, and bolted. He was across the room and out the window, bare feet clambering on the fire escape to the roof before Dick could say a word.
"Is he alright?" Barbara asked.
"He will be," Dick said quietly, following Jason to the roof. "I'll take it from here, Barb. Thanks."
"Just be careful."
"Exactly." There was a small click as Barbara signed off.
Dick found Jason standing near the rooftop edge, shaking his limbs out as if to restore feeling to them. Dick's first impulse was to go to him, comfort him somehow, and he was within reaching distance, hands already extended, when Jason stopped him.
"Don't," Jason said, voice shaking, and now Dick could see the white face smudged with dirt, the fear and anger at war in Jason's expression. Dick stopped, but it almost physically hurt him to do it, knowing how much Jason was suffering and not being able to do anything about it. "I just need a minute."
It took everything Dick had to stand a few feet away, listening to Jason gulp in the chill night air as if he couldn't get enough. He looked so vulnerable standing there in rumpled sleep pants and a threadbare Superman t-shirt, his feet bare, hair sticking up in all directions. When his breathing finally evened out and he hung his head, there was an almost imperceptible nod.
Dick moved closer and put his arms around Jason's shoulders, pulling him in. Jason was taller and broader in every respect, but it didn't seem to matter as Jason dropped his head on Dick's shoulder and let Dick's arms encircle him. It was clear who the big brother was, and Dick was so grateful that Jason let him play the part, let him make up for some of the ways he hadn't been there when Jason had been a kid.
"I've got you," Dick said softly, and felt Jason relax a fraction. Maybe the Red Hood was a total bad-ass who didn't need anyone, but Jason Todd was still a pretty messed up not-quite-a-kid who needed more than he'd ever admit. He needed his family, and Dick held on as long as Jason would let him.
"I need a shower," Jason said suddenly, pulling away, and Dick let him go, knowing making Jason feel trapped wasn't going to help the situation any. "Are you—"
"I'm staying till you grab that shower and a few things. Then we're getting the hell out of here."
Jason nodded. "I've got a safe house—"
"You're coming to my place." Dick held up a hand. "No arguments. Someone got close enough to kill you tonight, and until we know who, you're not staying alone."
Dick expected a protest, but it didn't come. Instead he got a quiet "okay," which told Dick more about Jason's state of mind than anything else. He was scared and it took a hell of a lot to scare Jason.
An hour later Jason let Dick push him into bed and pull the covers up around him.
"If you try to kiss me on the forehead, I will punch you in the face," Jason said sincerely.
They'd already had the "I'll take the couch" argument, which nobody won, and Jason finally gave up as Dick manhandled him into the monstrosity Dick called a bed. It could've easily slept four, so Jason figured the two of them could manage. He felt less light-headed—whatever they'd knocked him out with must've been wearing off—but whenever he closed his eyes he felt the darkness closing in around him.
"You want me to leave the light on?" Dick asked.
"No," Jason said, even though it was tempting. He'd slept with a light on for months after he'd crawled out of his grave the first time, but he wasn't about to admit to needing a night-light to Nightwing. The light clicked off, and the bed barely moved as Dick got in.
"You want something so you can sleep?" Dick asked, and Jason hated how perceptive he was. The thought of a peaceful dreamless sleep was tempting.
"Nah," Jason said, trying to brush off how much he wanted to say yes. He was also paranoid enough to want to keep his wits about him.
Dick had poured him two fingers of Scotch without asking as soon as they'd gotten to Dick's place, and Jason had downed it gratefully and taken a second hit when it was offered. Dick hadn't even said anything when Jason had lit up a cigarette and nervously puffed at it a half dozen times before stubbing it out in the sink. Sure, it was a bad habit—the Robins kept telling him that—but he didn't think today was a good day to think about quitting.
Jason rolled onto his side, facing away from Dick, as far away from his brother as he could get and be in the same bed. "I'll be fine."
"We're safe here, Jay."
"Yeah? Don't mean to be a downer, but that's what I thought about my apartment."
"Believe me, we've got the best security possible."
Oh, great, Jason thought. All he needed was Batman standing guard outside. As if this whole experience wasn't humiliating enough. And Barbara would definitely be checking in on them with her peek-a-boo tech. Maybe she wouldn't abuse the all-access pass she had to Dick's life, but she certainly wasn't above a little friendly spying for the greater good.
Jason didn't know how Dick explained the camera in the bedroom to girls he brought back here, but maybe Dick liked girls who were into that kind of thing. Grayson always was a bit of an exhibitionist. Jason had checked his place pretty thoroughly after his own security system went in, just to make sure there weren't any unexpected cameras he hadn't approved. His bedroom was a camera-free zone.
Dick's hand suddenly gripped Jason's shoulder, and Jason hadn't heard him move. Not a good sign. He was definitely off his game tonight.
"No one's going to get to you while I'm alive," Dick said with conviction, and the thought wasn't as comforting as it was meant to be. Now Jason had a lump in his throat, visions of a dead Nightwing bloodied and bruised and laid out in front of him. What would Bruce think of him then, if he got Dick killed?
Jason laughed roughly. "Let's just make sure no one gets to any of us, okay? Got that, Spy Girl?"
Jason could've sworn the security camera in the corner nodded at him, its red light a strangely reassuring presence in the dark.
Dick gave him plenty of room, but Jason was acutely aware of his presence, and surprisingly it helped. He wasn't alone. Dick would have his back—and so would Barbara and Bats, the Replacement and even Robin, although Jason didn't want the two younger boys anywhere near this mess. If someone was gunning for him, then they could come after him. Anyone laid a hand on those kids, and Jason wasn't sure he could stick to his policy of kneecaps and shoulders.
"I might wake you up," Jason said into the darkness. He hated admitting it, but he figured Dick should have some idea what he might be in for.
"I still get nightmares."
Jason didn't even need to qualify what he was saying. Dick knew. Nightmares about his first death, about being buried alive, about clawing his way out of his coffin. Green-tinged nightmares of the damn Lazarus pit and the demons he feared lurked in his soul because of it. And regular every day nightmares where he couldn't save someone—usually the kid or Tim, but sometimes it was Dick. Or even Bruce. At least those were the kind of bad dreams they all had, not just him.
"Go to sleep, Jay-bird," Dick said, and squeezed his shoulder. "We've got you."
"Mother Hen," Jason said softly, but didn't protest when Dick left his hand close enough that Jason could feel the tips of Dick's fingers against his back.
Barbara felt rather than heard the presence behind her.
"I was wondering when you'd show up."
"How are they?"
"Secure for the night." Barbara tapped the screen that showed two dark-haired men asleep on opposite sides of a huge bed. There was a real-time clock in the corner of the screen. No one was going to get looped video past her again. "Jason's pretty restless, though."
"Hm," was all Batman said. "What did you find out?"
"There aren't any hits out on Red Hood as near as I can tell."
"You don't trust him," Batman observed.
"Neither do you."
Batman gave a minimalist shrug. "I don't trust anyone. Show me who did this."
Barbara pulled up the footage of the lone black-garbed figure circumventing Jason's security system. There was roughly 15 seconds of data before the person had cut the feed and slipped in a loop of the empty living room. It wasn't uncommon for Jason's place to sit empty during the day—Barbara hadn't noticed anything peculiar. Everything had shown as functioning normally. She was going to have install alarms specifically against tampering.
"Moving a full-sized coffin is not a one-person job," Barbara offered, when Batman wasn't forthcoming. "They were very sure of what they were doing. The drug must have been administered while Jason was asleep and its effects had to have been near instantaneous or he would've fought. Something would've been disturbed."
"I could find no traceable evidence."
That in itself said they weren't dealing with amateurs or run-of-the-mill thugs. Someone who left no evidence behind had knowledge and training. They were dangerous.
"Keep a close eye on them," Batman said, heading for the window.
"It's not true, you know," Barbara said. "There are some of us you trust. Dick. Alfred. Tim. My father. But Jason's always been a wild card."
"And you resent Dick's renewed relationship with him."
Barbara bristled. "I just don't want to see Dick get hurt. You know how he is. He opens himself up to people, and he inevitably gets his heart ripped to shreds. Jason's not the type to be careful with someone."
Batman paused, looking once at the screen where Jason tossed fitfully. In his sleep, Dick rolled over and reached out a hand, laying it on Jason's arm, quieting him. "I think you underestimate them. Both of them."
"I hope you're right," Barbara whispered to an empty room. "I really hope you're right."
Jason felt as if he were sleep-walking through the next few days. He was exhausted, paranoid, and Dick's attempts to cheer him up were starting to get on his nerves.
"Enough!" Jason yelled after Dick's third attempt to get Jason interested in a television movie. "Is there any reason we can't go on patrol? Are we grounded?"
Dick looked guilty. "We're not sure who's got it in for you. We were waiting—"
"Till I go insane? Because that's what's going to happen if I have to stay cooped up here much longer." Jason flopped onto the couch beside Dick. "Please, Dick. I need to do something. Punch some bad guys. Shoot someone."
"In the leg. Or the shoulder. Nothing fatal, I promise." Jason didn't even have to work at putting on a pitiful expression. "I won't even take the guns. I'll use your stupid sticks. Or just my fists. Please, I'm dying here."
Dick's face went sober. "Three days ago someone could've killed you. We have no idea who or why. Doesn't that make you the least bit worried about going back out there?"
Jason shrugged. "If they wanted me dead, they would've killed me. They didn't. They didn't want information or ransom or anything at all, it seems. So I think I'm probably safe."
"We don't know—"
"I think it's Scarecrow," Jason said finally, admitting aloud what he'd been thinking since it happened. "I think he wants payback for that little episode in the sewer tunnels."
Dick just looked at him. "It's not exactly his style. There was no evidence of fear gas."
"Didn't need it," Jason admitted quietly. "Maybe he's in on it with someone. Not exactly like villain team-ups are out of the question."
"True, but I think we need to be careful until we know what we're dealing with."
Jason stared at Dick in disbelief. "If that's the criteria for hitting the streets, neither of us will ever be able to leave this apartment again. Come on, we'll be together. You said it yourself, nothing's going to happen to me when you're with me."
"Don't make me beg."
Dick let out a frustrated sigh, and got off the couch, cuffing Jason lightly on the side of the head. "Don't make me regret this. Get your gear on."
The first night out nothing happened. Nightwing and Red Hood broke up a couple of gang fights, stopped a few muggings, and rescued a really wet, angry cat from a sewer grate.
"That was not a friendly animal," Jason said. "He put an inch deep scratch in my hood, and you've got blood on your face."
Dick swiped at his bloody cheek. "He wasn't as grateful as I would've expected under the circumstances."
They looked at each other, the cat still hissing at them from a few feet away, and burst into laughter. It was good to laugh, and some of the tension Jason had been carrying started to slip away.
"Where to next, Bro?"
The second and third nights were much the same. There seemed to be some kind of escalating gang war and they spent a considerable amount of time helping the GCPD quell the worst of the violence. Jason noticed Nightwing didn't leave his side when they were fighting, and although it was kind of nice to be fighting alongside Dick instead of against him, Jason didn't need a babysitter.
It was late when they got back to Dick's apartment, and Jason hated to seem ungrateful. He appreciated everything Dick had done for him, but this couldn't go on. He was getting too comfortable at Dick's place, too comfortable in general, and he wasn't ready for how it made him feel. He needed to get back out there, get a place of his own, and go back to hitting the streets alone. Family team-ups were fine in an emergency, but the Red Hood was a lone wolf. It wasn't doing his reputation any good to look like he needed backup from Nightwing, of all people.
"Jason, what's wrong?" Dick asked when the lights were out.
Jason sighed and rolled onto his back. "Look, I'm not trying to be a jerk."
"But I'm cramping your style."
Dick formed a gun out of his thumb and index finger and made pew-pew shooting noises.
"It's not just that." Jason rolled his eyes. "I need to find a new place. I can't stay with you."
"You could," Dick offered, and Jason closed his eyes. This was exactly his worry. Every time something bad happened to him, the Bat-clan circled around him and made him feel safe. A part of things. But Jason knew it was only a matter of time before he screwed up and disappointed them, and then where would he be? No, it was better to be alone. That way there wasn't anything to lose.
Dick sat up, leaning against the headboard.
"Jason, I know you have a hard time believing this, but there's nothing you can do that would make you not part of this family."
"You don't know that."
"Yeah, I do. Jay, you're not the same guy that came back to Gotham seeking revenge. You were messed up by the Pit, and Talia wound you up like a bomb and sent you back to us hoping you'd explode and take us all down with you."
Jason flinched. It was true, and sometimes he was still so angry at Bruce—
Dick reached out and touched one of Jason's clenched fists, and Jason forced himself to relax. Being angry was almost more reflex than anything else after years of hating and hurting. Even though he'd forgiven Bruce a long time ago for not saving him. It was that the Joker was walking around, ready to kill again, that Jason had a harder time with. He let out a breath and appreciated how Dick just waited for him to get himself together.
"I know you mean well," Jason started, and Dick laughed. "What?"
"We do, you know. Mean well. We have our hearts in the right places, but I guess you need more space than we sometimes want to give you."
Jason felt a hand brush through his hair, and he shook his head to dislodge it.
"It's just that, I remember what it was like to lose you, Jay. And none of us wants that to happen ever again."
"It's going to—"
Dick put his hand over Jason's mouth. Gently, but firmly. His voice was soft and sober.
"When you're a miserable old coot yelling at the neighbour kids to keep off your lawn, fine. But not before that, okay? I don't know how to get this through your stubborn head, but you're family. We love you."
Jason made an annoyed sound under Dick's hand, but resisted the urge to lick him. It wouldn't necessarily make Dick let go, and it almost certainly wouldn't stop him from finishing his speech. The longer this dragged on the more likely it was that Dick was going to get huggy.
"And we're not okay with you taking on the whole world by yourself when we're perfectly willing to help. Because, honest to God, Jay, I don't know what we'd do if we lost you again."
Dick's voice cracked a little, and Jason pulled himself into a sitting position, all business.
"And I don't want to be responsible for you, or one of the others, getting hurt. Obviously someone's trying to rattle my cage. We're not going to draw them out with the togetherness routine, and if we do, all it's going to do is end up with someone taking a shot at you to hurt me."
In the darkness, Dick grinned like a mad fool, and Jason thought back over what he'd said. Oh, Christ! He was never going to hear the end of this.
"Would you cry manly tears if someone shot me?" Dick said. It was impossible for him to sound serious with that big a smile on his face.
"I might just shoot you myself," Jason mused, before Dick was in his personal space and hugging him tight. "What's Barbara going to think when she sees us hugging in our shorts?"
Jason felt Dick shrug, but he didn't let go. "I'll help you find a new place next week, okay? Just humour us a little more. Besides, it's not so bad here, is it?"
"Aside from the hugging," Jason said, but couldn't bring himself to put any bite into it. Dick promptly kissed him on the forehead, then scrambled back to his side of the bed, just as Jason's pillow thumped against his back. It was all out war in a few seconds, and after a few minutes of beating each other silly with Dick's excessive number of pillows, they flopped back onto the bed, drained.
"Goodnight, Jay," Dick said through a yawn. "I'm glad you're here."
"'Night," Jason returned, not entirely at ease with his feelings, the way Dick always seemed to be. He wasn't even sure he believed in unconditional love, what families were supposed to offer. Sure, they'd have his back, but Bruce's moral code only allowed so much. Of course, Jason wasn't in jail or Arkham, and he'd certainly done enough to deserve either. Instead, he'd been given chance after chance to come back to the fold, to be family again, both on and off the streets.
Jason lay in the darkness and listened to the soft, easy breaths of his brother, still amazed Dick had welcomed him back with open arms. Well, after he'd stopped trying to kill everyone. Talia really had done a number on him.
He thought about what Dick had said, about helping him find a new place, and Jason knew it was time exactly because he honestly could've stayed with Dick and been okay with it. He hadn't slept this well in a long time, hadn't ever slept well sharing a bed with someone, and every instinct was telling him to get out before he got in too deep.
He was afraid it was already too late for that.
A solid week after the incident with the coffin, life felt almost normal. Jason and Dick were helping the Robins take down a bunch of drug runners in an abandoned apartment building. Half the group headed for the roof, the others for street level.
"We'll take the high road," Dick called to Jason, following a guy up the fire escape.
"That means you two take the low road," Jason said, making shooing motions at Tim and Damian.
"Shouldn't we split up a little more equitably?" Tim suggested, landing a kick to one guy's midsection as he headed for the stairs.
"Yeah, Hood," Damian said. "Right now you've got all the brawn, and we've got all the brains!"
"We've got all the pretty, you mean. And I'm going to tell Nightwing you said that, brat," Jason teased, pistol-whipping one guy who just wouldn't stay down. "See if we take you for ice-cream after we're done here."
Jason made sure the two guys were down and zip-tied before he followed Dick to the rooftop. He had a moment to appreciate how amazing Dick was as he gave a spinning kick to one guy, turned and vaulted out of the way of a crowbar aimed at his head, and took out the second guy by dropping to the ground and sweeping his legs out from under him.
Maybe there was still a little bit of hero worship left in Jason.
Jason went after the two who were trying to make it to the next rooftop over. He slowed one done with a batarang to the knee, and tackled the other, bringing all his weight to bear as he pushed the guy into the asphalt rooftop. They rolled and both came up swinging.
Under the hood, Jason was grinning. This was his element. This was where he belonged.
Then he saw Dick's two guys running back towards the fire escape, and Jason dodged a punch while he watched for a batarang to take down the frontrunner. Instead they made it to the stairs and disappeared. Jason swung his head around to check on Dick, and got blind-sided with a kidney punch. He dropped to one knee, breathing through the pain, and he could see something was very wrong with Dick. He was walking deliberately to the edge of the rooftop, staring at nothing in particular, and then he started to raise his arms like he would've done in his circus days when he was preparing to leap. Without a grapple.
Jason ducked another swing, pulled out his gun and shot his guy in the kneecap.
"Sorry, man. Priorities," he said, and Jason ran faster than he ever had in his life towards the edge where Nightwing was precariously balanced. Jason grabbed Nightwing's uniform at the neck and hauled back with all his strength. Dick fell backwards taking Jason down with him so the two of them ended up in a heap on the rooftop.
"What the fuck was that?" Jason demanded. "You looked like you were about to take a swan dive off the roof. There's no net, Circus Freak!"
"Tim! Tim fell!" Dick said, and Jason's heart leapt into his throat for half a second. Until he realized he could hear Tim in his ear piece loud and clear, insulting the criminal element's intelligence below.
Dick, meanwhile, was scrambling to look over the edge, but his limbs didn't seem to be processing quite right. Jason grabbed him by the shoulders. "He's fine, but I don't think you are." He pulled off a glove and held a finger in front of Dick's face, moving the finger back and forth. "You're not tracking. You were, like, fifteen feet away from me, how the hell did those guys get the drop on you?"
Dick rubbed at his neck, and Jason saw a tell-tale spot of blood. Blow dart, probably, straight into the blood system, and from the way Dick was having trouble making his body work, whatever it was had some kind of paralytic agent in it and probably a hallucinogen. Jason was pretty sure it hadn't been Thug One and Thug Two either. Subtlety was not really in this gang's vocabulary. He looked around, but couldn`t see anyone else.
"I've gotta go—" Dick said plaintively, pushing Jason away, and trying to get to his feet without any success. "Robins—need me. Have to—save them."
"They're fine." Jason kept his grip on Dick, not convinced he wouldn't try to go over the edge to "save" the two boys below. "Listen to me. They're fine. You're hallucinating."
"I have to save them," Dick's voice was pleading and Jason didn't know what to do with a Nightwing who was broken. Dick had always been the one who had it all together. Jason undid his hood and dropped it, leaving the red domino he habitually wore under the hood—and okay, he knew he had issues. One neurosis at a time.
Dick stared at him like he was a stranger, and then tried once again to get away from Jason's relentless grip. There was no one else with them on the rooftop anymore; Jason's guys had helped each other limp away, and Jason didn't give a damn at the moment.
"Christ, you're like a drunk eel! Stop it! It's Jason. I'm trying to help you." All Jason could think was that Batman would have a fit if he heard them using real names over the comms. That was rule number one.
"Jason!" Dick said suddenly, and Jason had a moment of hope that the damn drug was wearing off.
"Jason's dead. I wasn`t there to save him," Dick said, and the look on his face was heart-breaking.
"Hey, come on. I'm Jason, I'm right here." He ripped off the domino, ignoring the sting of pulled flesh that came from not taking it off properly. There went rule number two: always wear your mask when in uniform. "I'm alive. No saving required."
"What the hell's going on up there?" Damian's voice was steady, but with an undertone of worry.
"Nightwing's down," Jason said, knowing the two Robins fighting thugs below were going to freak out even as he said it. "He'll be fine, but we've got to get him out of here. Red, is B. at that opera thing tonight?"
"Yes, but what's happ—"
"You two get the hell out of here. Now. Rendez-vous at D's place," Jason said in a voice that didn't allow for any argument. Through the comm Jason could hear Tim and Damian retreating, although they weren't happy about it.
Jason tapped his comm. "Hood to A."
Alfred's voice came on the line an instant later. "You called, lad?"
"Big Bird's hurt, and we need a pick-up. How fast can you make it to the old Runford building?"
"Five minutes," Alfred said, and Jason could tell the car was already rolling at a speed the Bentley didn't usually travel. "What's happened?"
Jason looked at Dick's wide, frightened eyes as he stared into the night, seeing something that wasn't there. Parents falling. Dead Robins. Jason didn't dare let go of him.
"He's been drugged. He's definitely not in touch with reality at the moment. Some sort of paralytic, and maybe fear toxin?"
It certainly seemed like Scarecrow's touch, and everyone knew Dick's recurring nightmares usually had people falling to their deaths. Jason wasn't particularly sure what Tim or Damian was afraid of, nor did he really want to find out. Not like this.
"Should I summon the Master?"
"No, I think we can handle it. Just need a lift back to D's place."
"Are you sure the manor wouldn't be more—"
"I'll take care of him," Jason said, sharper than he'd wanted, concern driving his tone. "Just get here!"
"Steady, lad," Alfred said. "I'm capable of speeding and talking at the same time."
"Used to him looking after you instead of the other way around?"
"I wouldn't go quite that far," Jason said, but yeah, that was basically the truth of it. Dick was the first Robin, the oldest, the big brother. They all looked to him when they needed someone to run interference with Batman, or with Bruce. It was Dick more than anything else that made them a family. He kept them together and now ...
Jason held tighter as Dick struggled to get away from whatever he was seeing. He'd pulled off his mask and he wasn't talking anymore, but tears were making their way down his face. Jason couldn't stand to watch Dick fall apart. He closed his eyes, held on to Dick, and waited for Alfred to signal he was there with the car.
Dick's apartment was further away than Jason had anticipated, but then he'd been measuring time in rooftops not red lights. The Robins were sure to have beaten them there, and Jason was counting on Tim to have dug through Dick's supplies and come up with an appropriate antidote.
"You're sure you don't require any assistance?" Alfred said, pulling around to the back of Dick's apartment building. Jason shook his head. Dick had quieted down to a dejected, miserable pile of humanity. He was conscious, but only barely, and Jason had very little trouble manoeuvring Dick over his shoulder.
"He'll be okay. We'll look after him."
Alfred gave Jason a pleased look and a curt nod. "I never doubted it for a moment, Master Jason. Please call if you have need of anything."
Jason slipped into the building and up the back stairs. By the time he reached Dick's apartment, he was breathing hard. Dick was heavier than he'd expected; all that muscle he'd built up as Batman. Jason leaned against the apartment door, almost falling through when Tim pulled it open suddenly.
"Get in here. Is he okay?" Tim's face was a mix of anger and concern. "You said fear toxin. I've got a couple of different antidotes we can try."
"What was all that about people falling?" Damian asked. He was standing back, as if bringing Dick home unconscious didn't matter to him, as if it was something that happened all the time, but Jason could see the worry on the kid's face.
"He's hallucinating. Tim, help me get him into the shower," Jason said, and between the two of them, they managed to get Dick into the bathroom. Jason got the Nightwing costume undone and shoved it down to Dick's waist, leaning him up against the shower wall.
"Hold him up, Tim," Jason said, stripping out of his own leather jacket and body armour. When he was down to a t-shirt and boxers, he took over from Tim, stepping back into the shower, and turning on the cold water.
"Go get the antidote. Whatever you think's going to work fastest. The cold water should help him shake off the paralytic."
Dick came alert with a shout, and Jason held onto him so the two of them didn't go down in the slippery tub. Jason ducked the weak punch aimed in his general direction.
"Dick! Come on, it's Jason."
"Jason," Dick repeated without recognition, and then his face fell again. "Jason's dead."
"Here we go again," Jason muttered.
"He's obviously remembering you before you grew into a gargantuan—"
"Not now, Damian." Jason held the squirming Nightwing. "Come on, Tim! Hurry it up."
"Okay, okay." Tim burst into the bathroom with a pair of syringes. "Try this."
Jason shook his head. "I'm going to have to hold onto him. You give it to him."
Tim frowned, but nodded, and Jason was pleased. He knew it was tearing the two younger kids apart to see Dick like this, but he couldn't deal with that right now. He pressed his back up against Dick, so Dick was immobile against the shower wall. Except for his arms.
Jason grabbed Dick's right arm in both of his and attempted to hold it steady enough for Tim to insert a syringe. It wasn't going to be easy, especially with Dick's other arm now wrapped around Jason's throat, putting pressure on his carotid artery, which meant he had at most ten seconds before he passed out, depending on how good Dick's instincts were.
Tim's eyes were wide, but he got the first syringe in, and backed off. Jason felt his vision start to purple, but he didn't fight, just let the darkness close in.
He woke up on the bathroom floor. Alone. His hair and clothes were damp and his head was aching, so he hadn't been out long. Maybe a minute. He could hear a thump from the bedroom, which was probably the Robins getting Dick into bed.
Jason rolled to his feet and steadied himself on the edge of the sink. He looked pale, but at least he didn't have any bleeding gashes. He was hoping the Robins wouldn't let him face-plant into the tub.
Tim popped his head around the door. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Is he out?"
"I gave him a sedative first. Figured it would be easier to give him the antidote if he wasn't trying to fight us off. He'll probably be out for a few hours at least."
Jason nodded, and followed Tim back into the bedroom. Dick was laid out on the bed, with Damian very awkwardly trying to tug off the last leg of Dick's uniform.
Jason grabbed his duffel from beside the bed, and pulled out jeans and a dry t-shirt. His shorts were dry enough. He pulled on his jeans and tugged the wet tee over his head. He started to pull on the new one, when he realized the boys were staring at him.
"What?" Jason pulled his dry t-shirt down over his chest. He knew he had scars, but it wasn't as if they hadn't seen him without a shirt before.
"Since when do you have clothes here?" Damian asked.
"You don't?" Jason said flippantly, not sure how else to answer. They hadn't told the Robins about what had happened, and Jason was positive Batman hadn't told them either.
Damian rolled his eyes, finally freeing Dick's foot from the uniform. "Of course, I do. So does Tim. Even Father keeps things here. But since when do you?"
Jason's cheeks flushed. He should've known that getting too close to Dick would cause everyone else to be suspicious of him. No matter what he did, he couldn't get past their distrust.
"Jason, it's not a problem," Tim said. "We're just curious. You've made it pretty clear you don't want any of us getting too close. Sure, there was a while with movie nights and stuff, but then you were 'too busy.' So, yeah, it's kind of a surprise to see you with a duffel of clothes at Dick's."
"My apartment's been compromised," Jason admitted, crossing the room to help Damian roll Dick under the covers. Jason gently lifted Dick's head and placed a pillow under it. He turned to face the two younger boys. He made a decision.
"It's late. Get ready for bed, and then I'll tell you everything."
"We're staying the night?"
"We're all staying."
In the end, Jason chickened out and let Tim call Batman and bring him up to speed. He justified it by saying he had to stay on guard in case someone made another play for one of them. Tim had the good grace not to call him on it, but Damian wasn't known for his tact.
"I'm perfectly capable of protecting Grayson while he's unconscious," Damian said, sounding affronted that Jason could have thought otherwise.
"I know that, squirt."
Truthfully, at the moment, sitting on the bed beside an unconscious Nightwing, Damian looked pretty much like the thirteen year old kid he was, complete with pajamas that didn't make him look like a ninja. Jason was surprised.
"We watched over you in the hospital," Damian continued, and Jason remembered the kid standing between him and Batman. But the kid wasn't getting it. It wasn't about him.
"This is on me," Jason said, watching Dick twitch in his sleep. The antidote would help, but it wouldn't entirely prevent nightmares.
"Meaning?" Tim said, coming into the room. He was wearing blue pinstripe pajamas and looked like an underfed account executive.
Jason sighed and grabbed a chair, pulling it close to the edge of the bed where he could see out the window and watch the door at the same time. He put his two favourite handguns on the bedside table, and started to clean a third. Damian rolled his eyes, but Tim nodded at the wisdom of the precaution, and climbed into bed on the other side of Damian. Jason raised an eyebrow.
"Do you guys sleep over a lot?"
"You don't?" Tim said smugly, tucking three pillows in behind him. "You promised us a story?"
"Yeah, I guess I did."
Jason wasn't prepared for the anger he faced when he finished bringing the Robins up-to-speed.
"You didn't think we needed to know this?" Damian said, his scowl dark as a thundercloud. "You really think we're children who can't be told the truth?"
"Someone put you in a freakin' coffin, Jason! How is that not worth mentioning?"
Jason swallowed. Apparently, he'd screwed up, but he'd figured if Dick didn't want to tell the Robins, then that was the best decision. He was as guilty as the rest of them of putting his faith in their big brother's decisions, which were more often made with his heart than his head.
"Dick didn't tell you either," Jason said, grasping at straws like a dying man.
"Oh, and we'll deal with him when he's conscious," Tim said with conviction. "But you're supposed to be the practical big brother. The one who doesn't bullshit us to try to protect us."
Jason looked up in surprise. He'd never thought of the Robins counting on him for something. He wasn't like Dick. He didn't think of himself as the big brother type, but he'd forgotten he wasn't the only one involved. The Robins had decided he was their big brother too, and he'd gone and let them down without meaning to. He felt like crap.
"I'm sorry," he said, not sure when the last time was he'd said those words. Probably to Dick on a rooftop months ago. And since that time, he'd been slowly putting more and more distance between himself and the others until desperation had made him reach out. It was starting to look like he only wanted to be part of the family when he needed their help. Maybe it was him who was wrong about how families were supposed to act.
Tim huffed, but nodded, and Damian uncrossed the arms that had been crossed over his chest the entire time Jason was talking. Maybe the kid would give him another chance.
"We know you kind of suck at family," Tim said, "but you can't cut us out every time you get freaked out. We need you and Dick both, okay? Bruce keeps us in the dark about everything he possibly can. We expect more from you two."
"Okay," Jason agreed, not entirely sure if he was agreeing to more movie nights and sleepovers or routine confession of his sins. He was definitely going to have to keep the kids in the loop now, or he knew they'd make him regret it somewhere down the line.
He glanced at the clock, amazed at how quickly the time had slipped away. "You two should get some sleep," Jason said, noticing that Damian's eyes were starting to droop.
"What about you?"
Jason shook his head. "I'll keep watch."
Tim immediately slipped down into the sheets and rolled over to the far side of the bed where Jason usually slept. Damian was in the middle, but he seemed reluctant to be too far away from Dick.
"He'll be alright," Jason said, turning out the light. He resumed his place at the side of the bed, the familiar weight of a gun in his hand. He knew Barbara thought he was nothing but a killer. Maybe he was. He didn't think he would bat an eye at protecting any of the three people in the room in front of him. To the death, if necessary. But he also knew they wouldn't want him to cross that line, even for them.
"Don't kill anyone," Damian whispered when the room was quiet with the sounds of sleep. "We have to be better. For them."
"I'll try," Jason said in the same whisper, and reached across Dick to give Damian's shoulder a squeeze. "Now, go to sleep."
Damian curled up and seemed to do exactly that. Jason sat back, and cradled the gun in his hand. It somehow didn't seem as comforting as it had before. He tucked it into the back of his jeans, and then wondered what to do with his suddenly empty hands.
Dick moaned softly in his sleep, and Jason didn't think about it, just reached out and took Dick's hand in his. Immediately, he quieted, and Jason sat there holding his brother's hand until dawn broke through the window.
Dick woke slowly. He had a vague, lingering sense of fear, although he couldn't say for certain what he was afraid of. His whole body ached, and his right hand felt warm and heavy. Almost as if someone was holding it.
"Hey," Jason said, and Dick was surprised how tired his little brother looked sitting by the side of the bed. "Welcome back."
"Blow dart, fear toxin and a paralytic."
Dick nodded. He remembered the biting sensation at his neck, the certainty that he was losing control over his body even as his vision seemed to narrow. He remembered pieces of nightmares: his parents falling to their deaths, Tim's hand slipping off a ledge he was desperately clinging to, Damian dropping from his arms. Jason had been the worst—falling beneath a rain of blows from a crowbar, sick laughter punctuating every bone-crunching hit. Dick saw Jason's death over and over, and there was never anything he could do to stop it.
"Guess you were right about Scarecrow," Dick said, his voice rough, and Jason laughed humourlessly and didn't let go of his hand. Dick tried to sit up, but Jason laid a palm against his chest.
"Stop. You'll wake the baby birds." Jason's voice was soft and careful. Dick looked beside him and saw Damian's dark head close to his shoulder. Tim was stuck to the other side of the bed, dead to the world.
"Did I hurt anyone?" Dick asked, glancing at the sleeping boys.
Jason raised an eyebrow. "No, of course not. I wouldn't let that happen."
"What about you? Did I hurt you?"
"What did I just say?" Jason returned, but his eyes weren't quite meeting Dick's and that was a sure sign he was lying.
Dick couldn't remember more than fragments, but he knew at some point he'd taken a swing at someone, and he had the awful feeling he'd tried to choke someone.
"Did. I. Hurt. You?" Dick repeated slowly and deliberately. He wasn't in the mood for playing games, and he gave Jason's hand a hard squeeze to make his point.
"No," Jason said, looking straight at his brother. "You threw a couple of lame-ass punches and I let you choke me out so Tim could give you a sedative. Satisfied?"
Jason slipped his hand out of Dick's, and pulled down the collar of his tee. "Not even a bruise, Big Bird. Let it go, okay? It's my fault someone took a shot at you anyway."
"You don't know that."
"We were talking about it just the other night," Jason reminded. "As payback for what happened with Scarecrow?"
"Dart and run isn't usually his M.O. And I didn't even see anyone. Scarecrow likes for us to know it's him."
Dick tried sitting up again. This time Jason rolled his eyes, but gave him a hand up instead of trying to keep him down.
"Besides," Dick said. "You weren't the only one there in the sewers. I tranqued him. He could be aiming for any of us at this point. It's not all on your shoulders."
"Is that what you think, dumbass?" Tim rolled over and leaned on one elbow, staring at Jason. "Wow, you've got a bigger guilt complex than Bruce."
"I would concur," Damian agreed, and Jason gave up because now he was outnumbered three to one.
"Fine," Jason said, "but even if Scarecrow's after all of us, that isn't any better."
"We can all take care of ourselves," Tim said, "and we look out for each other. You're the only one who tries to lone wolf it, you know."
Jason stood up, and Dick could tell exhaustion was making him tense. Whatever was going to come out of Jason's mouth next was likely to be something he would regret. Dick needed to head things off at the pass.
"Everybody just chill, okay? It's not going to help if we're snapping at each other. Let's just get up and—"
Dick rolled to his feet, but his legs were still unsteady. Jason caught him before he went down and slung Dick's arm around his shoulder.
"Come on, baby birds. Go find some breakfast," Jason said, the fight seemingly gone out of him. The two younger boys hurried out of bed and towards the kitchen. "I'll help Mr. Wobbles."
As soon as Tim and Damian were out of the room, Jason dropped Dick's arm unceremoniously. "What's up?"
Jason shrugged. "Maybe you can tell when I'm lying, but I know when you're faking."
Dick straightened up. "You and I need to be on the same page, Jay. Tim and Damian are counting on us, so no trying to take this on by yourself, okay?"
"You've already gotten hurt. Who's next?" Jason said. "Replacement? Baby bird? You want them to go through what we did?"
"No, so we need to protect them. Agreed?"
Tim let out a sigh from the doorway. "You two are worse than Bats. We're going to figure out what's going on, and we're going to figure it out together. Got it?"
Sheepishly, Dick and Jason nodded. They followed Tim out to the kitchen where Damian was already downing a bowl of cereal. "So it's settled?"
"Yup," Tim replied, going straight to the coffeemaker and turning it on. "Dumb and Dumber have agreed to try to tone down their usual over-protective selves."
"Hey," Dick said.
"And after breakfast we're going to figure out some kind of a plan," Tim finished.
"I want pancakes," Damian stated, and looked at Dick pointedly.
Dick promptly flopped down on a nearby stool and put a hand to his head. "I'm still recovering. Maybe one of your other big brothers can do it."
"Oh, for Christ's sake," Jason said, and opened a cupboard door, starting to pull out ingredients. "All of you, get the hell out of the kitchen and let me work."
No one moved, and Jason sighed. Dick hid a smile behind his hand. Maybe it was sometimes a challenge being part of their makeshift family, but Dick wouldn't have changed it for anything. Especially as he watched Tim roam around making coffee, Jason beating the hell out of the pancake batter, and Damian supervising just enough not to get yelled at. Dick thought if Bruce could see them he would be proud of the family they'd become.
The plan was to stick together. Naturally, they couldn't be together all the time, but they tried hard to make sure none of them was left alone. Jason continued to stay with Dick, and Tim and Damian were both safe at the mansion.
Robin was the least of their concerns given that when he patrolled, he was with Batman. They made Damian promise not to go out by himself, and grudgingly he complied, but only because the others had to make the same promise.
"I'm a grown man," Jason grumbled, sitting at Dick's kitchen table on a slow Monday night. "How do you think it looks that suddenly everywhere Red Hood goes, Nightwing does too?"
"Like you're hooking up," Tim said non-chalantly, and both Jason and Dick made horrified faces at him. "I'm just saying. It's all over social media. You two have gotten quite a following lately."
Jason put his head down on the table, groaning into the sleeve of his leather jacket, while Dick continued to stare at Tim in disbelief.
Tim shrugged. "People don't know that, and besides, technically—"
Jason shook his head. "I do not need to know that while we're punching through bad guys, they're wondering which of us is taking it up the—"
"Jason!" Dick shouted. "Change of subject. Tim, are you still able to patrol with the Titans?"
"For the most part."
"If you can't get one of them to ride shotgun, you don't go out," Dick said firmly. "Got it? Nobody goes out alone."
"Aw, sweetheart, I'm touched," Jason said, batting his eyelashes at Dick, and Dick neatly kicked the chair out from under him. Jason was on his feet in seconds and grabbed Dick by the waist, hauling him to the ground.
"And maybe this is why people think you're boning," Tim said casually from across the table. Immediately Jason and Dick were on opposite sides of the room, both bright red and looking everywhere but at each other.
Tim grinned into his coffee, and made a mental note to see if there really was any social media chatter about Red Hood and Nightwing. If not, he might just have to start some.
For three weeks they managed to work with their modified buddy system. Batman and Robin ran regular patrols. Nightwing and Red Hood covered Crime Alley and the waterfront. Red Robin worked with the Titans.
Then as Nightwing and Red Hood were handing over a bunch of escapees to the cops, an emergency call came through from Tim.
"Go ahead, Red Robin." Jason waved at Dick that he would deal with the call, and Dick could make nice with the cops. Jason was still a little leery about the GCPD—he hadn't always been an upstanding citizen, and all it would take was a word from someone like Batman or Gordon and the Red Hood would be behind bars for a very long time. There was no statute of limitations on murder.
"Jason, I need your help."
"We're just wrapping up. We can be there—"
"No! Just you." Tim's voice was low, his speech stilted, and Jason knew he'd either been hit hard or drugged.
"What's going on?" Jason asked, keeping his face expressionless. Dick was watching him from across the square.
"I think I killed somebody."
It took a monumental effort to convince Dick not to come along, but Jason managed by saying Tim had asked specifically to see Jason alone.
"Why?" Dick asked, suspicious. They were standing on a rooftop, watching the blue-and-whites escort seven of Gotham's finest back to Blackgate Prison.
"Maybe we're planning your surprise birthday party."
"That would be a surprise since my birthday's in spring. What's going on?"
Jason sighed. He couldn't lie to Dick, and yet he had a really hard time believing Tim could've killed anyone. Tim didn't have it in him. He was the most careful and conscientious of all of them.
"Look, I don't know exactly what the deal is, but Tim doesn't need everyone descending on him with a hundred questions. Let me check out what's going on, and if we need you, I'll call. Promise."
"I don't like it," Dick said. "Was he alone? Is he hurt?"
"I don't know, and I won't know until you let me go talk to him." Jason reached out and squeezed Dick's arm. "I'll bring him back to your place, okay?"
Dick let out a frustrated breath and nodded. "He'd better be okay. Bring him home, Jay."
It took Jason less than ten minutes to escape from Dick and reach the location Tim had given him, yet it felt like hours. Jason dropped onto a lit rooftop in the business district and looked around. He switched to a private, encrypted comm. frequency.
Jason saw a shadow move near the lighted doorway, and he raced toward it. He blanched when Tim stepped into the light and his usually bright costume was dark with blood.
"Is that yours?" Jason asked, reaching out as Tim stumbled. Maybe he should've let Dick come after all. "Shit, how much of that is yours?"
"None," Tim said, and Jason felt relief wash over him.
"Are you hurt?"
Jason took a good look at Tim's face—pale, sweaty, his pupils blown wide and dark. There were streaks of blood on his face, and he looked as if he'd plunged his gauntlets elbow-deep in someone's blood. His slow blinks and speech gave every indication that he'd had been drugged.
"What happened? And where's your backup?"
"Super Boy got called away. Emergency. Told him I'd be fine."
"Obviously," Jason said, propping Tim up against the wall and looking him over. He didn't appear to have any serious injuries, although he had a nasty bump on the back of his head. At least he wasn't hallucinating, but he wasn't firing on all cylinders either. He probably had a concussion.
"Then these guys jumped me."
"Ninjas." Tim hung onto the "s" just a little too long. He sounded a bit drunk. "Lots of them."
"How many?" Jason glanced around, but he couldn't see any bodies.
"Seven, eight? I don't know. Too fast."
"And—" Tim made a face that looked a bit like a grumpy hamster. "And—Bam! Pow!—they ninja'd me." Tim swung his hands through the air at what Jason was sure he thought was lightning speed, but was really just kind of pathetic.
"And you think you killed someone," Jason said gently, trying to get Tim back on track.
Tim's face crumpled, and his hands dropped into his lap. "I didn't mean to," he said, staring at the blood covering his gloves, and Jason felt his stomach turn. He remembered what it was like to kill someone, to know you'd taken a life, and even if the person deserved it, it couldn't help but weigh on your conscience. He didn't want Tim to have to deal with that.
"I must've blacked out. Just for a minute," Tim admitted, sounding shaky but a little more like himself. "I came to and two guys were down. I was covered in blood."
"Where?" Jason asked tersely, and Tim pointed to the section of the rooftop shrouded in darkness. "You stay right here. Don't move."
Jason marched into the dark, prepared for anything. He flipped to night-vision and immediately saw two bodies on the roof. Both were dressed in black, but from the heavy scent of blood in the air, Jason could tell things were bad. He went to first one body, then the other, and felt for a pulse. He couldn't find one. There was blood everywhere.
Jason sat back on his haunches and thought for a second. Tim used a bo-staff. At most, the injuries should've been blunt force trauma. Bumps, bruises, broken bones. Not enough blood to leave Tim dripping from it.
Jason went over the first body again, searching for wounds. He found none. At least nothing that would cause that degree of blood loss. It was the same with the second body. Nothing that appeared to be a serious injury. No broken neck. Nothing.
Jason took a deep breath and willed himself to be patient. He found the pulse point, in the neck this time, and waited. He felt a small pressure under his fingers that was gone almost as soon as he'd registered it. He waited again. Yes, there was a pulse, although it was slow enough that anyone checking quickly would reasonably make the assumption that the person was dead.
"If it sounds like a dead guy, and looks like a dead guy, it's probably a dead guy," Jason said to himself, as he checked the second victim with the same results. Neither man was dead, but appeared to be in either some kind of drug-induced state of paralysis or a self-induced state of deep meditation, both of which could mimic the appearance of death if one wasn't looking for more than quick verification.
Tim hadn't killed anyone, but someone had sure wanted it to look like he had—at least to Tim. If that was somebody's idea of a joke, it was a sick one, and Jason felt his anger building. He could plug both of these guys on the rooftop, and no one would be the wiser. It would serve them right for playing dead and scaring the shit out of a seventeen year old kid.
"They're dead, right?" Tim's voice came from behind him, and Jason jumped to his feet.
"Oh God, Jason, what am I going to do?" Tim turned and threw up, and Jason was right there to help hold him steady.
"Tim, listen to me. You didn't—"
"It was an accident!" Tim interrupted. "I guess. I don't remember. Dick—Dick is going to be—and Bruce. Oh God, Bruce."
Jason shook him. He got what Tim was feeling, he really did, but he also didn't need the reminder live and in colour of exactly how disappointed Dick and Bruce would be if Tim crossed that all-important line. The one that separated them from the bad guys. The one that made Jason a bad guy, too. Good guys to the right. Killers to the left.
Jason knew guilt and regret and that sick turning of the stomach that came from killing. But unlike Tim, he also knew the adrenaline rush and the power and the feeling of control. He'd always told himself his actions were justified, but now he couldn't say for certain that was true.
And watching Tim freak out about how Dick and Bruce and the others would take it made Jason feel a surge of familiar anger. He knew how they would react. They would rally around Tim. They would find a way to get him through it because it had been an accident. He hadn't done it on purpose. Not like Jason. Tim had nothing that needed to be forgiven. Tim would be embraced where Jason had been vilified.
Jason looked at Tim's pale face, his lips wet from throwing up, and Tim's desperate blue eyes. He wanted to feel sympathy. He wanted to fix the situation for the kid, but part of him was hurting so badly he was blind with it. His original anger at coming back and being replaced, wanting revenge, wanting Bruce to hurt and hurt badly, resurfaced with the strength of a freight train, and Jason slapped Tim across the face.
"Tim, for fuck's sake, you didn't kill anyone!"
"It was a set-up. To make you believe you'd done it. They're using some kind of neurotoxin most likely." Jason stepped back, breathing hard. He was shaking and his fists were clenched to stop himself from doing more damage than he'd already done. "It's okay, Timmy. You're clean. I'm still the only killer in the family."
"That's why you called me, isn't it?"
Tim looked at Jason, speechless, and Jason knew Tim was reeling from a concussion and whatever drugs they'd doped him with. It wasn't fair to hound the kid, but he was doing it anyway. Well, life wasn't fucking fair.
"Oh, I get it," Jason said bitterly. "You need someone to fly the friendly skies with, you call Dick, but if you need someone to cover up a murder, you call me. Is that about right?"
"No! I thought—I thought you'd understand."
Jason slipped an arm around Tim's shoulders. "You made the right call, kid. What's that saying? 'A good friend will help you move, but family will help you move a body?' Big brother's here."
"Oh, God," Tim said, looking like he was going to throw up again. "I so regret calling you."
Jason laughed, but there wasn't any humour in it. He tapped his comm. to a frequency he knew Dick would be monitoring, waiting for his call.
"Red Robin needs an assist, and I'm no longer the right brother for the job. You're up, Big Bird."
Jason rattled off the building's address, then leapt off the roof into the night. He couldn't be there when Dick showed up. He needed to get away from them all for a while. Too much family togetherness had made him forget exactly what they thought of him, but Tim had reminded him pretty damn clearly tonight. He was the killer. It's what he would always be.
Maybe it was time he just accepted it.
"Nightwing to Red Hood."
"Hood, are you there?"
"Jason, you need to come in. Tim told me what happened. Everything that happened. Please just come home, and we can talk about it."
"You didn't come home last night, Jay, and you've disabled all your tracking devices. I know you're still monitoring this frequency. I know you're not giving up on us, and we're not giving up on you. Tim's okay, by the way. Shaken pretty badly, and he has a nasty concussion, but otherwise he's okay. Well, if you don't count the fact he feels like crap because of what happened with you. He didn't deserve that, Jay-bird. Why do you think Tim called you in the first place? He looks up to you. You were his Robin, and he's beating himself up over this. Whatever triggered you. Jay, we know who you are. Please, you need to come home."
"Damn it, Jason, get your ass home! We're worried about you. Someone's clearly got it out for Robins, and we don't care what you did or what you said, just come home. Please, Little Wing. At least let us know you're alright."
That, of course, proved to be Jason's downfall. Or what Jason preferred to think of as Barbara's betrayal.
It was a downpour like Gotham hadn't seen in years, and Jason was miserable.
He was on the roof of Dick's building, it was three in the morning, and he was aching in every muscle and joint. He'd had a lot of anger to take out, and what better place to do it than the streets of Gotham. Criminals had definitely heard Red Hood was back on the streets and looking for trouble. Of course, trouble had a way of fighting back, and Jason had the bruises and black eye to prove it.
He felt a little like he'd been on a bender, one fight blending into the next into the next, and punctuating it were these desperate little pleas from Dick over the comms. Jason felt torn into pieces. He didn't know what to feel or what to do. He just knew he was miserable where he was and he wished he could take back what had happened with Tim.
"Red Hood to Oracle."
Jason waited for the admonishment about being off comms for so long, about not letting someone know where he was. It didn't come. Barbara waited in silence, and when Jason spoke his voice sounded exhausted even to his own ears.
"I need you to get a message to Nightwing."
"He's fourteen steps down the fire escape and through a window. I think you can deliver it yourself."
There was the Barbara he knew.
"If I wanted to do that, don't you think I would've done it already?" Jason said. He'd taken the hood and his mask off, and now his hair was soaked through, bangs slick against his forehead, water running down his neck into the collar of his jacket.
"I don't know. Maybe you like getting soaked to the skin with cold rain. Who am I to judge?"
Jason laughed. Who, indeed? "Look, just tell Dick I'm okay. I'm—I'm sorry about what happened, but I need—"
"Tell him yourself," Barbara said, and before Jason could react, he heard the pounding of feet on the fire escape. Shit. He was fumbling with mask and hood and trying to get to his grapple when someone hit him square in the chest, and there were arms wrapped around him like a vice.
To Jason's surprise, it was Tim's unruly mop he saw when he looked down. "Tim?"
"I'm so sorry," Tim said, frantic, and Jason looked up only to see Dick standing at the edge of the roof, getting wetter by the second. Tim kept going: "I'm sorry. I never meant to make you feel like that. Please don't leave again."
Jason stared up at the night sky, rain pounding on his face, and he swore under his breath even as he let his arms come up and around Tim.
"I'm not leaving, kid. I never should've—"
Then Dick was there too because it was impossible to keep the man out of a group hug, and Jason felt a hand at the back of his neck, warm and familiar. Tim was squashed in-between them.
"No, you shouldn't have, but you're home now, and that's what matters," Dick finished for him.
"If the three of you get pneumonia," Barbara said across the comms, "I'm not visiting any of you. For God's sake, go inside!"
Once they made it down the slippery fire escape and through Dick's open window into the cheery apartment, Jason couldn't remember why he'd been so keen to leave. He'd felt at home there the few weeks he'd been staying with Dick, and the last two nights he'd spent at one of his safe houses had seemed anything but safe. He'd felt alone—something he rarely experienced anymore.
"Go back to bed, Timmy," Dick said, tossing Tim a dry towel for his hair. "I'll be there in ten minutes."
"Don't let him leave," Tim said, sounding a little desperate, and Dick gave Tim a gentle prod in the direction of the bedroom.
"I said I wouldn't leave," Jason reaffirmed although he wasn't sure he felt ready for the talk Dick probably wanted to give him about not freaking out on Tim, and not running away, and all the other things Jason realized he shouldn't have done.
Reassured, Tim wandered into the bedroom, swiping at his wet hair.
Jason stood there, waiting for Dick to say something.
"You should take a hot shower; you're freezing. I'll grab you something to sleep in. The couch is all yours if you're not comfortable sharing right now."
Dick turned towards the bedroom, but Jason caught his arm. "That's it? You're not going to yell at me for taking my issues out on a seventeen year old kid? Again."
Dick shook his head. "You know you screwed up. You don't need a lecture from me. Unless you really, really want one."
Jason held up his hands as if in surrender. "No, that's okay. I'll take you up on the shower, though."
Jason let the hot water pound into his flesh and work away some of the tension. He felt way older than his twenty-one years.
"Clothes are on the seat," Dick said.
Jason let out a deep breath. "It wasn't Tim's fault."
"It wasn't your fault either, Jay. None of us have been through the kind of trauma you have. We know you have triggers."
Jason closed his eyes. His triggers had triggers. His whole damn psyche was a game of Russian roulette. He was a fucking mess, and Dick knew it, but he was kind enough not to say so. Jason didn't know why it was so much easier to keep it together when he was busting chops and kicking ass than when someone reached out to him or made him feel something unexpected.
"You said—you said you know me. That you know who I am. Are you sure about that?"
"Yes," Dick said, and Jason smiled because what other answer had he been expecting? This was Dick, after all. He believed in people's goodness even when they showed him otherwise.
"No, I mean—"
"I know exactly what you mean, Jason, and I know who you are. You're my brother. You want me to say you're a killer? I won't because I don't believe that. I know you've killed people. I'm not stupid or naive. None of us are. But I don't think you're like the people we put away."
"Not that different."
"You were a fifteen year old kid who was beaten practically to death," Dick said, and there was sadness in his voice. "You came back from the dead, got dumped in a Lazarus Pit, and had Talia Al Ghul there to push all your buttons. You wanted to know Bruce loved you enough to kill the Joker for you—"
"Stop." Jason closed his eyes under the shower spray, and tried not to let the wave of hurt take him again.
"—and you were so angry and so hurt, you couldn't see straight. You came back and figured you'd been replaced, as if you didn't matter."
Dick took a step closer to the shower. Jason could see him silhouetted in shadow on the other side of the curtain.
"You matter, Jay. To all of us. And we will tell you that every day if you need to hear it. We know what you've done. We know who you are. They're not the same thing, and you've been forgiven for a long time now. You just need to forgive yourself."
Jason let out a shaky breath. Damn Dick for always knowing how to cut through to the heart of things. It hurt, but at the same time it was like the lancing of a wound. Every time, he seemed to bleed a little less and heal a little more.
"We love you, and we're not letting you go. No matter what you've done. No matter what you do. You're family, and family is there no matter what. I know you think we would have treated Tim better than we treated you if it had turned out he killed someone, but you have to remember, when you came back, you came at us with everything you had, Jay. We had no idea what happened to you except that you were trying to kill us. None of us wanted to hurt you."
There was a pause, and Jason waited. He could tell Dick wasn't done, but that he was weighing his next words carefully.
"Jason, I know you, and I know you're a decent guy who's been kind of messed up by everything that's happened. All of us have moments when we think about crossing that line. Sometimes we even step over it."
Jason couldn't help it. He snorted. The thought of Dick ever killing someone was laughable.
Suddenly the shower curtain was pulled open and the water turned off. A towel was thrust at him.
"Get out. Now." Dick was angry, and Jason didn't know what to do except what he was told. He wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped out of the shower.
"I never told you this, and I'm not sure I should tell you now, but I let Tarantula kill Blockbuster. I stood aside and let her do it instead of stopping her."
Jason shook his head. "Not quite the same as pulling the trigger yourself."
Dick's face grew dark, and he nodded. "Well, then, how about the time I beat the Joker to death because he killed my little brother?"
Jason stared at Dick stunned. "That's impossible."
Dick looked Jason in the eyes. "Is it really so hard to believe?"
"He's still alive."
Dick sighed. "You can ask Batman if you want. He'll confirm it. The Joker wasn't breathing when he got there."
Jason realized what Dick wasn't saying. "He resuscitated the fucker, didn't he? Christ. There is something really wrong with their relationship."
"The point is, Bruce doesn't want any of us with blood on our hands. He's spent his whole life trying to protect us from that. It's the one line he can't cross, Jason, and he wouldn't be Batman if he did. He'll protect you from it just as much as the rest of us. You know that."
"Yeah, I know," Jason said. Bruce had shown him that when he'd chosen to wound Jason with a batarang rather than let him kill the Joker. Of course, when Jason had the chance, he hadn't managed to kill the Joker either, and he wondered about that a lot on late nights. If he had the chance again, he honestly didn't know what he'd do, and that said something. It should be a clear choice, black-and-white. Joker was a killer, a psychopath who lived to torture and torment his victims. It should be a no-brainer to end the misery, but Jason knew deep down, now that his brain was working right again, he didn't want to be the person with blood on his hands all the time. He couldn't be. Maybe it made him weak, but being part of the family meant more to him at this point than knowing the Joker would never kill again. It was selfish, but at least he was being honest with himself.
"Jay-bird, don't ever think you don't mean anything to us. No matter what you've done in the past."
Dick went in for the hug, and Jason let him, even though it was awkward, and he was still dripping wet and only wearing a towel. He hugged back because Dick had just told him what was probably his biggest secret. Jason knew Dick had more reasons than most of them for wanting the Joker dead—he just hadn't realized his own death might have touched Dick as much as Barbara's crippling.
"Thank you for telling me," Jason said, and felt Dick nod against his shoulder.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. I just didn't want you to see it as one more time Bruce let you down."
Jason knew that's exactly how he would've seen it if Dick had told him earlier, when he was still raw with rage. Now he could see that Batman stopping Dick from killing the Joker had very little to do with Jason's death, and everything to do with saving Dick's life. Batman protected them as best as he could.
"Half-naked hugging?" Tim said from the doorway, catching them both off guard. "Twitter would have a field day with this!"
"Get out!" both Dick and Jason said at the same time, and Tim scurried out, laughing.
Dick took a step back. "No more running away, okay?"
"I'll try," Jason said. "I can't guarantee I won't freak out sometimes."
"We know. But when that happens, let us help you. We're family."
With that, Dick left him alone to change, and Jason tugged on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. Dick had dropped a blanket and pillow on the couch, and Jason settled down for the night. He wasn't alone. Not really. And it sounded as if he never had to be alone again. It was so tempting to believe what Dick was saying, but part of Jason still doubted. He didn't doubt Dick's sincerity, but that his membership to the Bat-clan really was guaranteed. He knew it was conditional.
He was acceptable only as long as he didn't kill anyone.
Weeks passed without incident. Then one Friday, Damian didn't come home.
Alfred waited in front of Gotham Academy as he usually did at the end of the school day, but Damian failed to appear. He checked his pocket watch again.
Madame Rolande, French teacher and headmistress of the school, was seeing children off when she noticed Alfred waiting.
"Mr. Pennyworth," she greeted. "Has Damian not come out yet?"
"Not yet," Alfred said. It wasn't like Damian to be late. He was headstrong, sometimes arrogant, and often tactless, but he'd learned a level of courtesy since he'd come to stay with them at Wayne manor. He was rarely discourteous.
"I'll have them call him with the intercom," Madame Rolande offered. "We'll see if we can't find him for you."
But fifteen minutes later, Alfred was still waiting, and Madame Rolande was beginning to look alarmed.
"I'm sure it's nothing," Alfred said. "You know how forgetful young men can be. It's very possible one of his brothers came to pick him up. It's Friday, after all. Excuse me, I'll just check with them."
"I'll check the security cameras," Madame Rolande offered. "Perhaps we can see who picked him up."
Alfred turned away and dialled his phone. "Master Timothy? I need you to hack something."
"There's a five minute window where there's nothing but static," Tim explained to the others as they gathered at the Bat-Cave. "Whoever picked him up, didn't want to be seen."
"But this is Damian," Jason said. "Baby bird's not going to go without a fight."
"Unless they threatened to hurt the other children," Alfred suggested. "Master Damian would not willingly expose civilians to such a risk."
Dick frowned. "Still," he said. "There are a lot of things Damian could do to get out of a situation like that without collateral damage. I think we need to consider that it might have been someone he knew."
"Or a straight-up kidnapping," Jason offered. "If it was someone after Bruce's money, Damian wouldn't want to give away that he isn't just a regular thirteen year old kid."
"God help the kidnappers," Tim muttered, but he continued monitoring their frequencies for any kind of alert from Damian.
"There's been no call for ransom," Alfred said, "but it's early yet." Unfortunately, he'd had experience with kidnappers before.
"What did you tell the school, Alfred?" Dick asked.
"I explained that you had picked him up. I figured it was best not to involve anyone else if at all possible. If it's related to the other incidents you boys have been through, then it's best kept to ourselves."
"If once is an incident, twice is coincidence, and three times is a pattern, what's four?" Tim asked.
"A mistake," Jason said between clenched teeth. "A big mistake."
He was pacing, and he looked like he was itching for a fight. The others gave him some space.
"Where's Bruce?" Tim asked. "Shouldn't he be here?"
"He's off-world with the Justice League. I'll contact him if necessary, but if there's something we can do to find Master Damian in the meantime..."
"We'll find him, Alfred." Dick was full of reassurance. "He'll be fine."
"I'm going out for a smoke," Jason said abruptly, turning on his heel and disappearing into the dark.
Dick shook his head as he heard Jason's bike start up. Tim glanced up.
"Do you want me to stop him?"
His hand hovered over the controls to the Cave exits.
"No. Let him go cool off. Just tell him to be smart."
"Jason," Tim tapped the comm. "Dick says not to do anything monumentally stupid while you're out there."
"That's what you meant!"
"I'll try," Jason said, dryly. "I'll stay on comms. Tell Mother Hen not to worry."
"Easier said than done," Dick said, mostly to himself, as Alfred put a hand on his shoulder.
"Yes, son, it is."
Jason cruised the outskirts of Gotham, trying to come up with a plan. There'd been too much chatter at the Cave, too much talk and not enough action, and it had been starting to make him twitch.
He pulled over near the river and watched the inky water flow, the lights of Gotham reflected in its dark surface. He pulled out a cigarette and lit up, inhaling shakily on that first drag before he puffed out a cloud of smoke. Staying with Dick had been—well, good for him might be too strong a word, but he'd certainly been smoking a lot less. And drinking less. Probably sleeping more, and they'd managed to pull together some half-decent meals between the two of them.
"Fuck," Jason breathed out. "Grayson's insidious."
Dick was kind of like a cheerful virus. You didn't notice him at first because he was all pleasant and nonintrusive, and then without even knowing how you got there, you were practically living with the guy. Jason remembered his plans to move out had gone by the wayside pretty easily. He'd had more hugs in the last few months than he'd probably had in his entire lifetime, and the thing was, he didn't even really mind. In fact, he was even starting to believe Dick's rhetoric about Jason being part of the family, no matter what.
And that was very dangerous.
Now, he was all twisted up inside because the mouthy Demon Brat was missing. He shouldn't care. What was the kid to him except a teenage nuisance? A nuisance that had stood up to Batman for him, but still, he was a bratty little brother who liked prissy bottled water and always fucked with his stereo settings, took control of the remote, and demanded pancakes—Jesus Christ, Jason was screwed.
Someone had taken his little brother, and there was going to be hell to pay.
"What's Damian afraid of?" Jason asked when he got back to the Cave.
"Not enough, unfortunately," Dick said, handing Jason a sandwich from the tray Alfred had brought down.
"Girls," Tim offered, around a bite of sandwich. "Social interaction? Oh, come on. Someone's got to try to maintain the Robin sense of humour in a crisis. You two are failing miserably."
Dick glanced at Jason. "What are you thinking?"
"On some level, each of the incidents has been about what we're afraid of. Let's assume this isn't a kidnapping. What's Damian afraid of? What would someone do to scare that kid?"
"Scarecrow's in Arkham," Tim said. "GCPD put him away two weeks ago."
"I was never certain it was Scarecrow," Dick said. "Fear gas was only actually used once and it's not that hard to get. The common factor, though, is fear. Each of us was put in a situation that caused us to experience our worst fears."
"And each of us was drugged," Jason said. "So, it's someone who's familiar with and has access to some very tricky toxins. That neurotoxin they used on Tim's 'victims' is not easy to come by and you can easily kill someone if it's not administered correctly. It goes for big bucks on the black market, and even then, you've got to know who to go to."
"What about all the ninjas?" Tim asked.
Dick laughed. "They're about a dime a dozen these days. Dress someone in black, give them a few martial arts kicks and a sword, and they're a ninja."
"But real ninjas aren't so easy to come by," Jason pointed out. "Those guys Tim fought sounded like the real deal."
He looked at Tim for confirmation. Tim nodded.
Dick shrugged. "I never saw them. Someone had cleared everyone out by the time I got there."
Jason narrowed his eyes. "So, in about ten minutes, between when I left and you got there, someone snuck in and moved two unconscious grown men without you, me, or Tim seeing or hearing anything. They had to have been watching us the whole time, and yet, all three of us missed it."
"I was concussed. And drugged," Tim said in his defense.
"And when they hit Dick," Jason continued. "I was maybe fifteen feet away, and I didn't see anyone except our guys. Dick?"
Dick shook his head. "Not a thing. Even after the blow dart, I didn't see anyone move."
"So, real ninjas?" Tim asked. "Definitely narrows down the players."
"Back to the point," Jason said. "What's Damian more afraid of than anything else?"
"Losing Robin," Tim said knowingly. "I know he acts like nothing really matters to him, but being Robin does. The few times that Dick or Bruce have grounded him, he hasn't reacted well."
"That's an understatement," Dick murmured.
"But we were all like that at some point," Tim reminded them. He glanced at Jason. "We've all had to come to terms with not being Robin anymore, being something else. But for Damian, this is it. He doesn't see that there could be something else for him. Not yet."
"So who's capable of taking Robin away from Damian?" Jason said, then followed the thought to its logical conclusion. He could see Dick was only a second behind him.
"No," Dick said, shaking his head vehemently. "No way. He wouldn't do that."
"Who wouldn't do what?" Tim piped up, confused.
"The Gauntlet, Dick? All the other times he's tested us to see if we were good enough? What if it's just one more test? What if that's all it's been—one great big test for all of us?"
Dick put his hands on Jason's shoulders and faced him. "Bruce buried you once and it almost destroyed him. There is no way I will believe he would do that to you for any reason on earth."
Tim looked horrified. "Jeez, Jason, Bruce wouldn't. He couldn't. He—no, he wouldn't do that."
"But, Jason's got a point. Whoever is doing this knows us. They know who we are, what we've been through, what we're afraid of."
"Look, I still think someone may be doing this because of me," Jason stated. He couldn't shake the feeling it had more to do with him than the others.
"Wow, way to have an ego the size of Mogo," Tim replied. "It's really not all about you, Jason."
Dick looked thoughtful. "What if it is?"
"Jason was the first victim. If someone was coming after Robins, wouldn't it make sense to go in some kind of order?"
"Too predictable," Tim said. "What if it was just ease of access? Jason's the easiest to get to because he's alone the most."
Jason shrugged. It made a sort of sense.
"And why is Jason alone the most?" Dick continued.
"Because he's anti-family? Because he's a lone wolf who doesn't need a pack?" Tim offered.
"I'm right here," Jason said, rolling his eyes. "And, besides, since this started, I've been hip deep in family. I'm basically living with ... son of a bitch!"
Dick nodded. "We've been looking at this all wrong. We've been asking the wrong questions. It's not about hurting us—none of us have really been hurt—"
Tim scowled and pointed to his head. Dick ignored him.
"—it's about bringing us together. To see if we'll work together, fight together, protect one another. It's a test alright, but it's not Bruce's test. If Batman's the only person who can take Robin away from Damian, who's the only person who can take Damian away from Batman?"
"Someone who also happens to have an extensive knowledge of poisons and a whole League of Assassins at her command," Tim added.
"Talia," Jason said, the pieces finally snapping into place. "Damian's mother."
When the kidnappers called, Jason had a hard time not ripping the phone out of Dick's hand and confronting Talia right there on the spot. Of course, it wasn't necessarily her making the call. It was someone using voice distortion tech to deliver a message: if they wanted to see Damian alive again, the three former Robins would come to a warehouse on the docks and retrieve him. The ransom demand was a mere $100,000.
"You believe Ms. al Ghul kidnapped her own son?" Alfred asked.
"It would explain a lot of things," Dick said. "Damian definitely would've gone with her without much persuasion."
"Yeah, she hasn't tried killing him or Bruce in quite a while," Jason said.
He wasn't feeling particularly generous towards Talia at the moment. She'd put him in a coffin. She'd shot Dick up with fear gas. She'd made Tim think he killed someone. Even if she hadn't done any of those things herself, she'd certainly masterminded the whole thing.
"I don't think she'd hurt Damian at this point. She could've hurt any of us—badly—and she didn't. I don't think that's her end game."
"Then what is?"
"She wants to know her son's going to be protected," Dick said. "So, we go rescue him."
"I really don't like the part where we knowingly walk into a trap," Jason said, and Tim agreed. "We're letting her control the game."
"Not entirely," Dick said. "We know she's not going to hurt Damian."
"Probably," Jason corrected. "She had no problem putting me in a freakin' coffin! And she knew what I went through. She knew what it—"
Dick raised an eyebrow, but Jason didn't say anything further. That was a story for another day.
"I'm not saying we take any chances. I just don't think the danger factor is as high as it might otherwise be. Besides," Dick slung an arm around Jason's shoulders, "we were always going to have to rescue him. That doesn't change, even if we know who's behind it. It's not about the money, or they wouldn't be asking the three of us to deliver it."
"Are we really taking a hundred grand with us?" Tim asked.
"I don't know about you guys, but I've got a couple of thousand bucks that's accessible quickly."
"I can cover it," Tim said and Jason nodded. "Me too."
Tim turned to look at him. "Drug money? We're not using drug money."
"It's clean," Jason said with a smirk. "Freshly laundered even."
"No," Dick said, shaking his head. "We've got one mission: get Damian back."
Damian was in a windowless room with a bank of security cameras. So far, nothing of interest was happening on any of them.
"Mother," he said to the empty room. "Did you bring me here just to bore me to death?"
"No, my son, but practicing the virtue of patience would not go amiss right now."
"What are we waiting for?"
"For your rescue."
Damian rolled his eyes. "What are you up to, Mother?"
"I'm ensuring my son is well-taken care of by those he relies on the most."
"Do you really think Father won't come for me?"
"Your father is off-world."
"Then who? Ah, Grayson is coming."
"And if he were to fall in the effort? Who would come for you?"
Damian thought. "Drake, I suppose. Or Todd."
"Are you certain? Do you trust them?"
Damian considered the question carefully. He and Drake had their share of disagreements, but now that Tim had taken on the mantle of Red Robin, he was easier to deal with. Todd was angry a lot of the time and smoked too much, but he had saved Damian's life when the Scarecrow had threatened it, and with terrible consequences for himself. Did he trust them?
"Yes," Damian said.
"We shall see if your trust is misplaced or not," said his mother.
"We're not seriously going to walk through the front door, are we?" Jason asked, two rooftops away from the warehouse they'd been told held Damian. "Have you forgotten the part where this is a trap?"
"It would be unexpected," Tim said, adjusting his Red Robin uniform. He'd decided to leave the cape behind.
"We're making a lot of assumptions." Jason tossed his hood from hand to hand. "I'm not feeling real comfortable about this. What if we're wrong?"
"Either way, Damian's in there and we're going to get him out," Dick said. "Agreed?"
Jason still didn't like the plan, but he didn't have much choice if they wanted Damian back.
As Tim started down to ground level, Dick took a moment to squeeze Jason's shoulder. "It's going to be okay, Little Wing."
"I hope you're right," Jason returned, and followed Dick over the side of the building.
They walked in the front door, and the first thing they saw was a trapeze set up just as it would've been at a circus tent. There were two tall ladders with small platforms and the short horizontal bars hung from ropes.
"Anyone else got a bad feeling about this?" Jason asked.
"We don't even have to climb it," Tim said, pointing to the open space ahead of them. "We can walk—"
He was interrupted when the floor in front of them fell away suddenly to reveal a gaping pit. It was pitch black, and there was no way to tell how deep it was, or what lay at the bottom.
"You were saying?" Dick started to climb the ladder closest to them, Jason and Tim following behind.
"Somebody's been busy," Jason said, looking down into the blackness below. "What are the chances there's a net down there instead of a floor full of spikes?"
"Let's not find out," Dick said. When he got to the top, he checked the trapeze and the ropes holding it, taking his time to make sure it was safe. "There's nothing obvious, so let's assume we're supposed to get across. It's a standard flying trapeze. I'll go across to the other bar, and I'll catch."
Tim snickered, and both Jason and Dick glared at him.
"So not the time, Tim," Jason said, cuffing him lightly on the side of the head. "Pay attention because you're going to have to do this first."
"You're the lightest," Jason said sensibly, and Dick nodded in agreement.
"If everything works the way it's supposed to, then I'll take Jason."
Dick took hold of the trapeze and stepped off the platform. It was a little like watching a bird in flight, the easy way Dick moved through the air as if he was born to it. He kicked his legs to build momentum, swung back to the platform, then let go on the forward swing only to easily catch the second bar and gracefully land on the second platform.
"Everything feels secure," Dick called, checking the anchor ropes for the second trapeze. He sat on the bar this time, and propelled it like a swing, back and forth, until he had a decent arc. Then he caught the bar with his knees and hung upside down, arms stretched out and ready to catch.
"Okay, Tim," Dick said. "Do exactly what I tell you."
Jason watched as Tim repeated what Dick had done the first time, except on the second swing out, Dick yelled "Release," and Tim let go of the bar. He kept his posture the same, with his arms outstretched, and a half-second later, Dick was holding onto him and gently swinging Tim onto the second platform. Jason let out a breath. It was one thing to rely on a grappling hook and line to keep you in the air, and quite another to have to count on someone to catch you.
"Okay, Jason, you're up."
"You realize I weigh twice what Tim does, right, Circus Freak?"
Dick laughed even as he swung back and forth upside down. "No, I didn't realize you were 300 pounds. I'll adjust my grip accordingly."
"Seriously," Jason said, stepping to the edge of the platform, more than a little apprehensive. "You've got this, right?"
"I've got this. Flying Grayson here. Just do what Tim did. When I tell you to release, let go and keep your arms extended. I'll catch you."
"Sometimes you have to make a leap of faith, Jay-bird. I'll catch you."
"I trust you," Jason said, realizing it was true, and tightened his grip on the trapeze bar. "Okay, Flying Grayson, get ready to amaze."
"Go," Dick said, and Jason let trust carry him forward.
"I wasn't aware the circus was in town," Damian said, trying to seem as if he didn't care as he watched first Tim, and then Jason be skillfully transported from one side of the warehouse to the other by Dick.
Damian glanced at the screen and saw Dick's trapeze suddenly come away from the ceiling. Jason obviously saw it happen about the same time, and helplessly reached out even as Dick was falling, the word "No!" echoing sharply in the chamber. Dick managed, barely, to shoot his grapple line into the wooden platform, and swung awkwardly onto the ladder about halfway up, hitting the wooden structure hard enough to shake it.
"Are you hurt? How's your arm?" Jason asked.
"Wrenched," Dick replied, rolling his shoulders, as if to shake off the pain. "Nothing I can't deal with."
He began to climb to the platform where Jason and Tim waited.
"You still sure she doesn't want to hurt us?" Jason asked offering him a hand up, and Dick gave him a grim smile.
"Let's keep going."
"Gee, I can't wait to see what's up next," Jason muttered. "At least if it's in my skill set, I should be able to shoot something or jack a car. If it's Timmy's, well, we can watch him debug Code. That's always exciting."
"Shut up," Tim said, and gave Jason a friendly shove.
Damian watched as his three adopted brothers made their way from the platform and into the next section of the warehouse.
Jason felt as if the walls were closing in on him. The hallway they were in narrowed and the ceiling sloped until Jason was forced to get down on his knees and crawl.
"Are you okay?" Tim asked from behind Jason, and Jason just gritted his teeth and said, "Uh-huh."
The truth was he wasn't doing okay. He'd never been bothered by tight spaces when he was a kid, but somehow being buried alive had made him a little on the claustrophobic side. What had started as a hallway was now more like an air duct than anything else and Jason tried to concentrate on his breathing and watching how Dick moved through the space ahead of him. He wasn't as slim as Dick, but he was pretty flexible for a tall guy and he found if he paid attention to how Dick manoeuvred, he could usually get through with a minimum amount of squeezing.
Dick stopped suddenly, and Jason was forced to halt as well.
Dick paused, and Jason knew whatever the news was, it wasn't good.
"The tunnel turns a corner and it's pitch black. I can't even tell how long it goes or if it narrows more."
"We've got flashlights," Jason said, pulling his penlight out of a jacket pocket. It didn't turn on. He flicked the switch a couple of times, and hit it once for good measure. Nothing. "Seriously?"
"Could've been some kind of field that drained the batteries when we entered," Tim said, shaking his own penlight. "I don't know, but all our flashlights are dead. Cel phone too."
"Fuck," Jason swore. This was obviously designed to freak him the fuck out, and if he'd ever felt anything towards Talia, it was gone now.
"This is what we're going to do," Dick said, taking charge, and Jason pressed himself as close to the metal edge as he could while Tim carefully crawled ahead of both him and Dick. They were going in order of size, and they were leaving Jason an escape route if he needed one. Jason appreciated the thought, but he knew at this point there was no turning back.
He ditched the hood and his leather jacket and reluctantly left two of his guns behind with their holsters. He needed the manoeuvrability.
"Keep your hand on my ankle," Dick instructed, "and when I move, you move. You're not going to be alone, okay?"
Jason swallowed. "Just keep talking," he said softly, and Dick did exactly that. He talked about open skies and the ocean and things that were vast, and then he started making shit up, so much so that Jason had to pay close attention to what he was saying.
"That never happened," Jason said, trying to ease his shoulders through a particularly tight corner. Tim assured him he could make it with room to spare.
"Did too," Dick said smugly. "I still have Killer Croc's broken tooth to prove it."
"Tim, is he full of shit?"
"I have no idea. I've never heard that story."
Then Jason felt arms tugging at him, and he was out, free of the suffocating dense air and the narrow walls that felt entirely too much like things he'd rather not think about.
"You're clear," Dick said, and the breath he let out sounded as full of relief as Jason's. Dick hauled him to his feet, and gave him a quick hug. "Unpleasant, but not life-threatening."
"Um, guys?" Tim said, sounding stressed.
"I'm pretty sure this is a bomb counting down, and it looks like we've got about three minutes to defuse it."
Damian turned away from the screens and stared at the camera in the corner of the room.
"Was it you who put Todd in a coffin?"
"I needed to know what he would do when faced with one of his greatest fears."
"And did he disappoint you, Mother?" Damian scowled. He didn't always like Jason or understand his behaviour, but no one deserved to go through that experience a second time.
"Disappoint, no. Surprise, yes. Of all the people he could've reached out to, he chose Dick Grayson. The two of them appear to have grown surprisingly close in spite of their history. And today, Grayson again gets him through an experience that I would have expected Jason to refuse."
"You don't think he would make every effort to save me? Even if it meant confronting his own fears?"
"I didn't know for sure, but now I do."
Dick, Jason, and Tim stood around the device talking through the procedures.
"No tripwires, no trembler."
"Looks like that blue wire's a decoy."
"Why don't they ever have a big red button that says 'off'?" Jason asked.
"I had one like that once."
"You are lying your ass off," Jason said, although he honestly couldn't tell.
"Nope. It was one of Joker's."
"Ah, so what did the big red button do?" Tim asked, getting ready to snip the two wires they'd identified as live.
"It really turned it off," Dick said. "And a bunch of balloons fell from the ceiling."
Jason snorted. "Let me guess—filled with Joker gas?"
"Yup. Tim, you want to cut those wires already? We're down to 30 seconds."
Tim snipped the wires. The timer stopped. As if on cue, all three of them looked up. No balloons.
"Mother, I refuse to participate in this farce any longer. There's no point to this."
Damian watched the monitors. So far, he'd seen the former Robins cross a pit via trapeze, navigate a claustrophobic tunnel, and disarm a bomb. He'd seen more than enough to know that Dick and the others would keep coming until they found him.
He couldn't understand why it wasn't enough for his mother.
"Mother, are you listening to me? I demand you put an end to this!"
She'd told him she was trying to protect him. That he couldn't be Robin anymore if she couldn't rely on the people he was forced to turn to for help when Batman was away. Damian hated that she was putting the others through this on account of him. They had done nothing except try to be brothers to him, and as far as Damian could tell, they were doing a good job. Even Todd. They made him feel ... accepted.
The Robins followed a staircase down to the warehouse floor where a dozen men and women in black garb waited silently for them.
Jason cracked his knuckles and punched a fist into his palm.
"This is more like it."
Dick pulled his escrima sticks from their holders on his back. "Stay close. They're likely going to try to separate us. Tim, you're probably the target."
Tim had his bo-staff out and ready as the ninjas began to circle. "Are you saying I'm the weakest link?"
Jason started throwing punches as opponents came within range. "No, he's saying you're the smallest and lightest, which makes you easier to grab."
"It makes me harder to catch," Tim said, neatly vaulting out of the way of a face-level kick.
"Just be careful," Dick said. "Both of you. I've got a feeling this party's just getting started."
A dozen more ninjas dropped down from the ceiling and joined the fray, and for a while there was nothing but the sound of flesh on flesh and weapons clashing.
"Have you got eyes on Tim?" Dick shouted. He was surrounded, and doing his best to keep Jason in sight.
"No," Jason yelled back. "Replacement? You there?"
Suddenly the lights went out and when they came on again, Dick and Jason were standing alone, blinking at the sudden change in conditions. The room was empty.
"Shit," Jason said, looking around. "They've got Tim."
"Mother. Mother!" Damian shouted, as a handful of the League of Assassins carried him out of the security room he'd been kept in. His hands and feet had been quickly and expertly bound. "This is unacceptable."
A gag was unceremoniously thrust between his teeth. He had no choice but to cooperate, at least for the time being. But the others were there, and they would save him from whatever game his mother was playing.
Even if his mother doubted, Damian had no doubts. The Robins would come.
Dick and Jason stood, breathing hard, surveying the cavernous room. The ninjas had disappeared as quickly as they had come, and the damage they'd caused had been minimal. Dick was shaking out his already strained shoulder, and Jason had a few new bruises, but nothing more serious than that.
"What's the endgame?" Jason asked. "Now she's got both of them."
Dick shook his head. "Another test? Make us choose, maybe? I really don't know."
Jason shrugged. "It's definitely her game. She's not giving us any choice but to play it out."
"Maybe we should've done this differently. Maybe—"
Jason clapped a hand on Dick's uninjured shoulder. "No time for second-guessing. We did everything we could. We surveilled the warehouse. There was literally no way in except the front door."
Suddenly, across the warehouse, a lighted doorway opened.
"I guess we're supposed to go that way," Dick said, frustration starting to show.
"We've got this," Jason whispered as they started across the floor. "We'll get them back."
"Whatever the scenario, I'll take Dami. You get Tim."
Jason shook his head. "No. This has all been a test, and Talia already knows you love that kid. You're not going to let anything happen to him. It's me she's really worried about, so I'll take Damian."
"Jason, you don't have anything to prove."
"Apparently, I do."
They were back in the area with the trapeze, except this time there was a catwalk hung between the two platforms. From the catwalk, two sets of chains hung down, each one dangling a trussed up Robin.
"Great," Jason said, as they climbed the ladder to the catwalk. "She's decided to do it old school."
Below the two boys were bubbling vats of some kind of clear liquid.
"Tim, Damian, you okay?" Dick called, and had to assume the irritated sounds he got in answer were a combination of "yes" and "get us the hell out of here!"
Everything had been laid out with precision. There was no way to scale the sides of the vats and they were too wide to jump across without landing in the liquid. The two boys were suspended using one large chain, each of them acting as an anchor for the other. If they pulled up Tim, Damian would sink into the vat below him, and vice versa. The same if they cut or broke the chains—they'd only have time to save one. The area was too vast to attach a zipline anywhere, although they might be able to get a grappling hook into something and swing down.
"Looks like we're going to have company," Dick said, pointing to the bottoms of the ladders where a dozen or so ninjas were starting to climb, most with blades clenched between their teeth.
"Of course," Jason said, his voice overly loud. "She couldn't give us a fucking break while we're trying to rescue her kid from the situation she put him in!"
"Pissing her off might not be the way to go," Dick pointed out, watching the progress of the ninjas. "We need a plan to grab them both at the same time."
"She's made that almost impossible."
"Almost," Dick said, grinning. "There's a rapid release for the chain in the middle of the catwalk. It'll bring one up close enough to grab, and drop the other into whatever that is in the vats."
"One less Robin to feed," Jason said, and there were angry noises from the two gagged boys below.
"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?" Dick asked.
"How about rock, paper, scissors?"
Jason started for the opposite ladder when Dick grabbed his arm. "I don't think she wants us dead, but that doesn't mean what's down there is harmless. Don't do anything stupid."
"Who, me? Wouldn't dream of it, Big Bird."
"Jay, I mean it. We're not losing anybody today."
Jason headed for the side closest to where Damian was hanging. He'd still have to fight his way through a handful of ninjas, but he had the beginnings of a plan forming. It wasn't a great plan, he knew, and might end up with him dead or scarred for life, but there didn't seem to be another way to ensure both kids came out of it unscathed.
Someone was going to have to make a leap of faith, and it might as well be him.
The chain was starting to move, dropping Damian inch by inch towards the pit.
"Guess we weren't moving fast enough for her," Jason shouted, kicking a ninja off the ladder. He needed to get a grapple line secured to the platform, and his timing was going to have to be perfect.
"We need a plan. Now!"
"You know, if Bats were here, this is about the time he'd break through a previously unseen skylight, glide down grabbing both Robins in rapid succession, and manage to down all the ninjas with a concussive batarang."
Everyone in the room glanced at the ceiling.
"We can do one of those," Dick said, pulling out a batarang and aiming at the throng of ninjas that was threatening to swarm the catwalk.
"Do it," Jason said. His grapple was secure and as he forced another ninja to retreat from his punishing kicks, he did the calculations in his head. It would work exactly as he expected.
The concussive batarang went off with a bang, and ninjas toppled over on the catwalk above.
"Hit the release," Jason shouted, and Dick dived for it, but didn't hit it. In an instant, he took in Jason's position on the ladder, the grapple, and the relative position of the boys and the vats. Jason could tell Dick had come to the same conclusion he had.
"You won't have enough momentum!"
"Hit the release! Now!" Jason said, looking right at Dick. They didn't have time to argue, and they both knew it.
"Damn it!" Dick swore, and hit the button.
Talia watched from the darkness. She knew her measures were extreme, but they were necessary. These men were trusted by her son, and although Dick Grayson had proven himself to be a more than adequate guardian for Damian, she didn't know enough about Tim Drake. She sensed he was more like Bruce than the others from everything she'd seen.
Jason she did know, and that was why she worried. He had shot her child once before, when he'd been out of his mind seeking revenge. She knew what he was capable of, and how easy to manipulate he could be. His mind was a minefield, and she knew exactly where to push to do the greatest amount of damage. She'd had time to learn him and to mould him after the Lazarus pit. She'd had time to understand what sort of creature was Jason Todd, and she'd come to a clear conclusion.
He was a killer with a strong sense of self-preservation. She was certain if it came to a choice between himself and someone else, he would choose life. He'd fought for it hard enough after all.
And now, with her son's life hanging in the balance, she had to know if Jason had changed from the angry, revenge-driven young man she'd helped create. If it was possible for him to care enough about someone as difficult as Damian and to sacrifice himself to save him.
She had to know. No matter what the consequences.
Dick hit the button and several things happened at once. The chain brought Tim rapidly to the edge of the catwalk. Dick reached out and dragged him up, intent on releasing him from the chain as quickly as possible in case something went wrong.
Damian began to fall toward the bubbling vat as Jason pushed away from the ladder, de-cel line unwinding as he swung into the space over the vat. Seconds before Damian would have hit the liquid, Jason plowed into him, letting go of the line, and hitting Damian with all his weight and strength, pushing the kid as far away from the liquid as he could get him. Damian and the entirety of the chain sailed harmlessly over the side of the vat and crashed to the floor. It was a hard landing, Jason knew, but easily survivable, and infinitely better than what waited below.
Jason wished he still had his hood with him. At least it would have afforded him some protection for his face, his eyes. He hoped to God it wasn't acid. He didn't want to turn out like the Joker.
His momentum slowed by colliding with Damian, Jason didn't have the speed to propel himself over the edge. He dropped into the cold, clear liquid. The last thing he heard before he submerged was Dick's frantic voice shouting his name.
Dick watched the scene unfold as if in slow motion, and still there was nothing he could do.
He had Tim free of the chain as Jason knocked Damian out of the way of the bubbling liquid and plunged into the vat.
Dick charged across the catwalk, slid three-quarters of the way down the ladder, and leapt the last ten feet to the floor. Tim was right behind him.
"Check on Damian," Dick ordered as he looked for a way up the side of the vat. He was about to call Tim back and get him to stand on Dick's shoulders, when two arms and a face popped up at the edge of the vat, swung a leg over, and made a wet splat on the floor.
"Jason," Dick said, running to him, terrified of what shape he would be in. "Are you okay?"
Jason shook himself like a wet dog, sprinkling Dick in the process. He spat out a mouthful of liquid.
"Apparently, I am," Jason said, standing up, and checking himself over. He looked fine, and Dick reached out, finding it hard to believe there'd been no damage from the bubbling liquid. "I think it's that prissy carbonated water the kid drinks. It's not even hot."
"Don't ever do that again," Dick said, hugging Jason tightly. "You had no idea—it could've been acid!"
"Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, right? And she didn't leave us much choice."
Damian and Tim appeared then, Tim supporting Damian.
Jason winced. "Sorry about the rough treatment, kid. Busted ankle?'
"Just sprained, I think," Tim answered for him. Damian's face was dark.
"I must apologize for Mother's behaviour. She should not have involved you—"
"It's not your fault, Baby Bird," Jason said, reaching out to give Damian's shoulder a squeeze. "We don't get to pick our parents. Yours are just a little more messed-up than most. Luckily, your brothers are awesome!"
"Can we get out of here?" Tim asked, looking around suspiciously.
"Absolutely," Dick said, and took Damian's other side. Between the two of them, they helped him hobble his way to the front of the warehouse where Alfred was waiting to pick up the four of them.
"Alfred?" Tim said, surprised.
"Ms. al Ghul called and informed me a pick-up was in order. I'm here to take you home."
"Home," Jason breathed out. Nothing had sounded better to him in a long time.
Two weeks later and Dick was helping him move into a new apartment. It was a lot closer to Dick's place than Jason's last apartment had been, but he was okay with that. He was going to make an effort not to freak out and distance himself from everyone who cared about him. And everyone he cared about too.
"Can I have your stereo?" Damian asked, pushing buttons at random. He wasn't being a lot of help with the move, but Jason didn't really mind. Dick and Tim were happily organizing shit in his kitchen, and Jason was eager to leave them to it.
"No," Jason said. "I'm moving. I'm not dead."
"The coffin in the living room might suggest otherwise," Damian said.
"You still can't have my stereo, squirt."
After the move was finished, they christened the new place with a movie night/sleepover—Jason had gotten a two-bedroom place this time with a Murphy bed. The accommodations were nothing like Dick's monstrous bed, but Jason wasn't quite ready for an open invitation to be beset with Robins any time they felt like it. This family thing was still tenuous for him in some ways, and he needed to go slow. He needed to be able to set some boundaries.
"It's great," Dick said, hugging him for probably the third time that morning, and Jason sighed because clearly Dick thought he had to get in as many hugs as he could in case Jason dropped off their radar again.
"I'm not going anywhere," Jason said, addressing all of his siblings. "I know I'm prone to fuck things up, but I trust you'll tell me when I'm doing that. I can't promise it's going to be easy, but I'm trying, okay?"
"Okay," Tim said. "Can we order pizza?"
"Um, sure," Jason said, taken aback. "You heard what I said, right?"
"We got it. I want olives on mine," Damian stated.
"No mushrooms!" Tim reminded.
Dick already had the phone out and was calling in their regular order. Jason stood in the centre of the room and laughed.
"I think we broke Jason," Tim said.
Dick shoved his phone back in his pocket and threw a friendly arm around Jason's still shaking shoulders. His life was ridiculous.
"Nah, he's not that easy to break. He's a Robin."
Oracle installed a new security system for Jason, and she did it herself, which was proof she was still pissed off someone had gotten through her fail-safes. When it was done, she tested everything thoroughly and walked him through the whole system and how everything connected.
"Thanks, Barbara," Jason said sincerely. He hadn't expected her to come by his place and do it herself. He'd figured she'd have some sort of tech minion come do her bidding.
She turned her chair away from the door, and took a deep breath.
"I think I owe you an apology," she said.
Jason shrugged. "No, I get it. You're protective. It's not a bad thing."
"Maybe not, but I realize you've changed a lot since you've been back. Dick told me what you did for Damian—"
Jason flushed. "Does everybody know? 'Little brother redeems himself! Details at eleven.'"
"He's proud of you. And I think he has every right to be."
"Are you still in love with him?"
"No." Barbara sounded wistful, but firm. "But I'll always love him. It's kind of hard not to."
Jason nodded without meaning to. Yeah, Dick Grayson was definitely a phenomenon. With him in your corner, it really felt like you could take on the world and win.
"I'm not going to hurt him. Or any of them. Not on purpose."
"I know that now." Barbara turned towards the door. "You sure you don't want those extra cameras?"
"Go away, Spy Girl," Jason said, holding the door open for her. "Some things are meant to be private."
"I'll be watching you," she said with a laugh as she wheeled her way towards the elevator.
"I know you think that's reassuring, but really, kind of creepy, Babs!"
Jason closed the door, Barbara's laughter making him smile as he looked around his newly-secured apartment.
Talia stepped onto the balcony of her hotel room. The moon was full and the Gotham night was humid.
"Are you here to chastise me for ensuring our son is taken care of?"
"You put Jason in a coffin, Talia." Batman's voice was gritty and emotional. Maybe no one else would notice, but she knew him better than most.
"He was never in any danger."
"That's not the point."
"What is the point, Beloved?"
Batman loomed closer, taking up most of the space on the small balcony and blocking the moon. It was a magnificent display of intimidation—if Talia were the kind of person that worked on, she might've been a little bit impressed. Instead, she found it rather endearing.
"Leave my children alone."
"Damian is mine."
"Damian is one child. There are three others you have no claim to. Stay away from them, Talia. I mean it," Batman growled.
"What's brought on this protective streak?" Talia stepped closer, into the darkness that surrounded him. "Is it because Jason risked sacrificing himself to save our son? Did he surprise you?"
"You wanted to test his loyalty, his character. I think he's shown you who he is now, and that's not the person you made him when you sent him here for revenge."
Talia shrugged. "Things change. Priorities change. Jason was only ever a means to an end. I wanted revenge, and so did he. For a while our goals were aligned."
"I've learned what I needed to know. He will protect my son, even if it costs his life, as he would protect the others. He has made his choice."
"Jason's my son, Talia. And he's finally on the road home. He deserves the chance to have a family. And if you come near him again—"
"You have my word, Beloved. I have my answers."
When Jason arrived home from his run, there was an envelope taped to his door. It appeared to have a flash drive in it.
Great. He really didn't want to have to move again when he'd just gotten settled in. He couldn't wait to see what villain had found him already.
He booted up his laptop and shoved the flash drive into place. It was an audio file. He turned up the sound and hit play.
He listened to the file without interruption, and when it was done, he labelled it "Redemption" and tossed it in his desk. Maybe there would come a time when he would need to listen to it again, to remind himself who he was to Batman; to remind himself what wrongs Talia had done to them, collectively.
But today he was meeting Dick and the Robins for Ultimate Frisbee and ice-cream. Today, he didn't have time for the past and all the old regrets. Today, Jason Todd was home.