This invasion thing had gone to shit really, really quickly. But hey, they won. The downside? Jason Todd was now curled up on the ground, all by his lonesome, facing the brunt of the toxins that had been released into the air.
Whatever it had been, it was ridiculously potent. He felt parts of himself crumbling, dissolving into nothingness and leaving behind his beaten, ragged core. Leaving behind the rotting corpse of a bird with broken wings, who had been on the wrong side of a rusty crowbar and a maniac’s ire.
A strangled gasp left his lips, heart clenching in a desperate attempt to will him back to existence, to will him to keep fighting, keep living. To cling to some small part of him, however pathetic it was.
He was himself. He was…more than a symbol, more than a fallen solider, more than a cautionary tale. He was Jason Peter Todd, and he would keep fucking fighting, damn it!
(Or would he?)
Letting loose a soft snarl, he pushed himself up on shaky arms, staving off the prickly pain the toxin brought him. All the little heroes milling about had gas masks on at this point, but the one he had found was long gone. Given to some old lady, too slow to escape before the initial wave hit the city. The stupid, hopeful fool in him hoped she made it out alright.
(Hoped she might remember him as a good person. Not a hero, not a saviour, just…good. Another part of his battered heart shattered, shards of desperation carving wounds in his soul. All he wanted…someone to think he was good.)
Every bone in his body protesting, he managed to rise onto shaking limbs, clumsily pulling his jacket closer around him. There was a chill in the air, gray clouds blocking out any chance of sunshine. The cold was certainly helping the havoc the toxin was wreaking on his body, only strengthening the hallucinations and dark despair.
He would just have to make it to a safe-house, make it somewhere quiet, alone, and there he could pass out—die—peacefully. Idly, he wondered if Talia would keep her promise, in the face of his second death.
(“Cremate me. Cremate me and spread my ashes in that dessert, over the broken remains of that damned warehouse. That’s where Jason Todd died.”
“Are you sure?”
“…Yeah. That way, we can all pretend this second life, this…hah, this tragedy…didn’t happen. Let him pretend it didn’t happen. Let him keep the memory of his faithful little sidekick; that’ll be my last present to the old man.”)
A strained smile made its way onto his lips at the recollection, and some long-gone part of his mind vaguely remembered Talia’s sorrow. She had been…undeniably good to him, now that he thought about it. Harsh, relentless, and recklessly selfish…but he owed her for everything. What started off as a gift for her beloved had turned into a pet project and then evolved into…affection. Tenderness. She was his son, all his son, unlike Damian, who was wholly his father’s.
A pang of guilt echoed through him. Talia…would be distraught, he knew, but he offered her all he could. His loyalty, his affection, his trust. Hopefully she would remember him as he had been, a damaged bird she nursed back to health.
(She held his shaking body in her arms, characteristically quiet even as sobs shook his scrawny form.
Across the room, on the floor, were pictures. Dozens of pictures, of the Dark Knight and his new Robin. His new son. Almost adjacent to the pictures was a bloodied knife, laying pitifully in a pool of the offending liquid.
“Does it ever get easier? Any of it?”
“…The firsts are always the hardest, my son. First kills, first betrayals…it gets easier. If you let it.”)
It would have to be enough. Whatever this toxin was, whatever it was doing to him…there would be no antidote in time. Jason didn’t think anyone had been working on one, anyways, because a full-scale alien invasion was an all hands on deck kind of thing.
Even if there was an antidote, he doubted any of it would be spared for him. Not when there were civilians, heroes…a criminal was not high up on their list of priorities.
He slammed into the corner of a wall, recognizing the beginnings of Crime Alley. His streets had been left thankfully undisturbed, but nonetheless there wasn’t a soul in sight. Street kids and the poor alike…had strong survival skills. They could smell trouble like it was their sixth sense, and he knew, deep down, they had evacuated with the others, even if nobody came for them.
I’m sorry, he wanted to say, as a jolt of realization shot through him, coupled with a burning sense of shame. I’m sorry I didn’t come, like I swore I always would.
Soon. He had a safe-house, deep in the heart of the sprawling streets, but it was only a five-minute walk from where he currently was. He could make it there in a good—
Superman. Well, shit.
“Here to take me in, Supes?” Jason snarled, turning around to glare at the brightly-dressed icon. The man in question frowned as he descended, parental concern taking over at the disastrous sight of his best friend’s second son. The boy had clearly inhaled much more of the toxin than he could take, and was clearly fighting off hallucinations…
“The rest of your family is back in the center of the attack, why aren’t you with them?”
Jason let loose a startled laugh, genuinely shocked. The boy scout actually thought…oh, boy.
“They’re not my family. I don’t have a family. Now, could you answer my question? I need to know whether or not I have to scrounge up a gun or run or something.”
Clark shook his head at the callous response, finally setting himself down on the ground in front of Jason. He knew the boy had taken on the title of the Red Hood, had murdered and terrorized his siblings…but he could hear the sincerity buried deep in the bitterness. He truly thought he didn’t have a place with the Bats of Gotham.
“Does your father know you were the reason we were able to overpower the Krux?” He asks gently, and accepts the surprised look Jason throws him. His heart pangs when he realizes it’s the most innocent look he’s ever received from the boy.
“Why would he? All I am to him is a constant reminder of his biggest mistake,” Jason spits out. He hated talking to Clark, despite the fact that he meant well. It was just…infuriating, how the man exuded hope. There was no hope in Crime Alley unless it was beaten in the thugs and rapists that haunted the streets. Unless each and every street kid had somewhere to sleep for the night. “Besides, they were too close to my streets, my people. I don’t let anybody hurt the people I’ve sworn to protect.”
“Yeah, that old lady you gave your gas mask to? She’s fine by the way,” Clark informed him, a small, tired smile gracing the Man of Steel’s face. He pretended not to notice the small huff of relief Jason released. Clark knew that Metropolis oozed hope, practically drowned in it, while Gotham had to give its blood, sweat, and tears for even a shred of false courage. Had given its blood, sweet, and tears to its caped protectors, who stood tall atop all the broken promises and hollow memories for everyone who couldn’t.
But Jason was the exception.
Jason was…unconventional. He wasn’t supported by the life force of the city; he was the city. He was the dirty streets, marred with grime and age-old bloodstains. He was the weeping children, abandoned to the streets by drug-addict parents and abusive caretakers. He was the acidic air, heaving and snarling and fighting tooth and nail to see another day.
He was Gotham’s heir, her son. Her true-born prodigy, who burned himself away to get the job done.
But murder was murder, and Bruce was steadfast and solid in his beliefs.
“Jason,” Clark’s voice was soft, cajoling. “You’re hurt. Let us help you.”
This was bad. Clark was being serious, and really wanted—expected—him to go back with him. Back to the League. Back to the Bats.
He needed to get out of there. Fast.
“Seriously? No thanks, Supes, I’d rather not be arrested today, thanks,” he rolled his eyes, despite the fact that Clark couldn’t see his eyes. There was a faint buzzing in his ears, getting louder and louder by the second, and he could tell it was one of the side effects of the drugs the Krux had used.
“You won’t be harmed,” Clark promises, tone firm and made of steel and ice and everything that he hoped screamed ‘protection’. “Not while I’m around.”
“Heard that before,” Jason mumbled before he can stop himself. Clark feels a swell of pain rise within him at the reminder of the fact that Jason Todd had suffered more than he deserved to. Was the personification of suffering, really; he was made up of death and agony.
Jason, however subtle it may be, began to feel a cold numbness spreading throughout his body, starting from the tips of his toes and moving upwards at an alarming rate. What was going on? The next phase of the toxin? He couldn’t afford to stay here and keep up a conversation, however enlightening the other may find it, damn it, he—
Suddenly, Jason lurched forwards.
Before the boy could hit the ground, Clark had him in his arms and was up in the air, wild eyes searching the boy’s face for a hint of how much pain he was in. Jason’s mouth was wide open, chest heaving in an effort to bring in enough air to sustain his body. Accelerated stages?
As Clark began to fly in the direction of the others, mindful of the vigilante in his arms, he listened carefully to the other heartbeats in the city, and with a sinking heart confirmed what he already knew; no one else’s heartbeats were as erratic as Jason.
“Hang on, Jason,” he murmured over the roar of the wind, wondering if he could even hear him. “Hang in there.”
He touched down mere moments later, the sudden weight cracking the asphalt beneath his feet. Diana and Bruce both lifted their heads to nod in greeting, but the latter froze at the body in Clark’s arms.
“No…” Clark heard his best friend breathe out, the single syllable drenched in horror. Now there was another heartbeat as erratic as Jason’s.
Diana and the other Leaguers watched on, concerned, as Bruce forgot everything he was doing and strode towards his best friend. Jason was doing his best to breathe, to grant himself some level of comfort, but it was impossible; Clark wondered if his lungs were closing, or collapsing, or—
“Hey, Clark,” the ex-Robin rasped. “If I don’t make it, make sure…make sure Talia Al Ghul gets my body, alright?”
“Stop that,” the Man of Steel admonished quietly, eyes burning. “You’re not dying today, Jason.”
“We don’t have an antidote,” Bruce was finally at his side, and behind him, Clark could see the other Bats staring, Nightwing already beginning to run in their direction, his teeth gritted. “Damn it, Superman, we don’t have an—”
“I know,” Jason cuts in, voice hoarse. “Don’t sweat it, you ol’ geezer, I know.”
Bruce reached out, trembling fingers checking his son’s pulse. Too slow, too erratic, too…abnormal. Jason was watching him, he realized, watching his reactions to see how bad it was.
“Where was your mask? Where was your mask, Jason?” He finds himself asking, voice harsh as fear overtook his senses. He was going to lose his boy all over again, he was going to lose Jason again before they could mend things, before they could fix it—
“Unbelievable…I’m fucking dying and you’re choosing now to lecture me? You asshole,” Jason throws back, somewhat good-naturedly, though Clark could hear the undercurrent of anger. Bruce’s fingers had found his damp hair, and were gently pushing the thick locks out of his face. “Lecture that glass case you have in the cave.”
“Jay,” and then Nightwing was there, hands reaching and searching and stroking. Jason didn’t have the strength to push him away. “Little Wing…no, no no no no no.”
“I got a piggyback ride from Supes before you did, Goldie, how do ya feel about that?” Jason manages a feeble smile, and Clark found himself wondering how Gotham’s son could have so much warmth left in him. A sob tore itself from Nightwing, who clung to his little brother’s shaking fists in vain. “Chin up, the batbrats need your ass. I…look—”
The sound of heavy motors cut him off, and a strange look crossed the man’s face. They all looked up, and watched as a sleek, midnight-coloured jet descended onto the ground. Why did it look…familiar? Almost as if Clark had seen it before, seen it in use…but it wasn’t from anywhere around here—
Before the wheels hit the ground, the grounding door was open and Talia Al Ghul, heir to the Demon, was racing down the platform, a vial in her hands and naked fear on her face.
“Heh,” Jason chuckled. Bruce was watching wildly, eyes going back and forth between the duo in a way that most would deem undetectable. “Didn’t think she would make it.”
“You fool,” Talia snaps as soon as she’s in hearing distance. Clark watches in wonder as she races right up to his side, despite her status as a wanted criminal, and began to check Jason’s pulse frantically. “You damn fool, fighting wars that not yours to fight, getting hurt…”
“Already got a lecture,” Jason cuts in dryly, weakly tilting his head in Bruce’s direction. “Tell me you brought two of those vials.”
“Of course I did!” Talia glares at him, and Clark takes in the sheepish look that suddenly appeared on Jason’s face. “You and your damn hero complex would not have let me do my duty otherwise.”
“Save it for when I’m not dying, mom.”
At that, Bruce visibly flinches. Mother and son spare the man a fleeting glance, but then Clark had all of Talia’s attention.
“Put him down on the ground,” she instructed, eyes daring for a contradiction. They had none to offer. “He needs space. I will care for Hood while you and Batman get the antidote replicated. It’s of a weaker concentration than the one I prepared for him, but it should be enough.”
Clark glanced at his best friend, and found the man’s jaw clenched so tight he was worried his teeth would crack. But…Jason had asked him to bring his body back to Talia. Talia had brought the antidote to them, only because of Jason.
He set Jason down on the ground and accepted the second vial from the woman, stepping away and letting her get to work.
“Go,” Bruce growls, voice low. “I’m staying right here.”
Clark, expecting no less, hurtled away with the antidote clutched in his hands, throwing a final look back at Jason. He would be okay.
He would have to be okay.
Jason was starting to feel the fatigue that was no doubt the last stage of the toxin, and could barely keep his eyes open. Nevertheless, Talia worked fast, taking his jacket off and cutting off the sleeve of his undershirt.
“Sorry,” he manages to whisper. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
Finally, Talia’s eyes warmed, and she offered him a crooked smile that he knew she reserved for those quiet moments she could steal from the League. Moments for her sons. “You never do, but I worry every time you are in your father’s city. He is the only one capable of truly hurting you.”
Jason quiets down at that, and somewhere above him he could hear Bruce take in a shaky breath, as if the realization had just dawned on him. He can see Dick, his hand on Bruce’s shoulder, and the rest of the crew behind them. The Demon Brat was staring at his mother, arms crossed and posture stiff. Batgirl and Spoiler were watching on, the latter wringing her hands in what his brain perceived as worry. Replacement stood beside them, shoulders tense but nonetheless waiting for the man to pull through.
Jason ignored the odd pang in his heart and turned his attention back to Talia, who was emptying the vial’s contents into a syringe. It was odd, the colour of the antidote, and seemed to catch in the light. In fact, it looked familiar…oh.
“I’m sorry, my son,” Talia murmured, voice strained. “It was the only way we could think to bypass the toxin’s gene structure. The normal antidote wouldn’t have worked on you, given your resistance to drugs, so we had to.”
With that, she emptied the Lazarus Pit-infused antidote into his veins, and everything went green.
A weak gasp left his lips, and Jason arched his back off the ground as a jolt of current shot through his entire being. Talia stayed right there with him, as she always had, and watched on as Jason writhe on the ground, his body accepting the long forgone substance in a desperate attempt to heal itself.
“You pr-promised,” he managed to snarl through the pain, through the hazy nothingness that had enveloped him. “You sa-said…n-ne-never again. You said never again!”
“Talia!” Bruce all but roared, but before he could intervene, Dick stopped him with a solemn look. “Dick—”
“Stop, there’s obviously more to this than we know, and Talia…I hate to admit it, but she knows more than we know about Hood’s circumstances.”
Bruce opened and closed his mouth, chest tightening as he was forced to accept defeat and watch his son suffer on the floor of a broken street, at the mercy of one of the deadliest assassins to ever walk the planet.
Jason, on the other hand, was having a hard time keeping his body complacent and staving off overheating his sensory muscles. Everything was louder, brighter, too much, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. It was eerily similar to the first time he had experience the Pit’s magic, had drowned in its glowing throes.
Had risen, born again, and collapsed into Talia’s awaiting arms with his cry for Bruce dying on his lips.
It took a total of five minutes and forty-five seconds for the tremors to settle down. They knew because all of them had been keeping count.
By the end of it, Jason looked even worse than he had looked to begin with, but he was breathing normally and his skin wasn’t as pale as before. Talia smoothed back his now dripping hair, and allowed herself a chaste kiss to his forehead.
“You’re okay,” she murmured, a small smile gracing her lips. He gave her a wolfish grin, but she could see the affection beneath the fake bravado. She stood, eyes still watching Jason’s shifting form, but her words were addressed to Bruce.
“Get him into the jet, my beloved, he needs somewhere to rest, so I’m taking him back with me.”
“Absolutely not,” Bruce glared at her, eyes burning with sheer determination. “I am taking him back to Gotham where he belongs, and he will rest up in the Manor where we can monitor his status.”
“And throw him back into a cell as soon as he’s back on his feet?” Talia challenged, her own anger simmering just under the surface. “I thought we all decided you weren’t the best for him anymore, had we not?”
“I am his father,” Bruce scowled, unwilling to lose this fight. He would not, not when Jason was watching him so intently. “He…doesn’t belong in a cell. But he is a son of Gotham, first and foremost, and I daresay he’d want to keep himself updated on the state of his sectors.”
There was a pause, in which Talia glanced back down at her son’s sprawling form. They locked eyes, and it pained Bruce to see them have a silent conversation. He and Jason had lost that ability long ago.
(Had they ever had it? They had to have, for him to have heard Jason’s phantom goodbyes all those nights after Ethiopia.)
“Fine,” she finally replies after a hefty silence. She shoots Bruce a venomous look, coupled with a lethal smile. “I’ll be in touch with him, though, and at the first notice of anything going awry, I will bring the League’s entire wrath down upon you and your own.”
Bruce, acknowledging the weight of her promise, nodded. He bent down and picked up his wayward son, shifting him in his arms gently as he followed Talia towards the jet. Behind him, Dick herded the others together, quietly handing out instructions. Though the other leaguers were busy with handing out the antidote, Clark turned and watched them go, his eyes on Jason’s prone form the entire time.
Bruce only held him closer.
Today had not been the day he had lost his son. That day would not come for a long, long time if he had anything to say about it.
Jason woke up in a bed, in a room somewhere in Wayne Manor. He also woke up with Bruce’s hulking form right beside the bed, the man slumped over and asleep. Once Jason let loose an instinctual groan, however, the man shot out of his seat, eyes frantically searching his son’s face for any sign of discomfort.
“Feels like someone ran me over with a truck, and made sure to back up over me,” Jason muttered, shooting Bruce a squinty glance. “What are you doing here?”
“I was waiting for you to wake up,” Bruce said it like it was obvious, and even if he had trained the reactions out of him, Jason still found himself flustered.
“To make sure you were okay, Jason.”
They lapsed into a silence, neither knowing how to carry on with a conversation. Jason knew what the older man wanted to ask, wanted to know, but he didn’t…he didn’t know how he would word it. How to put it into words, his gratefulness for Talia.
“You were brought back through the Lazarus Pit,” Bruce finally started, the question coming out as a statement.
Jason shook his head slowly, turning his head to look out the window. Though his memories of…then were hazy, he remembered enough. Too much, on those nights he woke up screaming and crying and sobbing for Batman, Bruce, to save him.
“No,” he finally manages to whisper. “I woke up in my coffin still screaming for you. I, erm, scratched and clawed my way out, and then it’s all a mess. I remember…I remember Talia finding me, I vaguely remember some time at the League…but not much before the Pit.”
“They took your memories?” Bruce sounded angry. Jason would have to clarify, even if he didn’t want the man to know. For both their sakes, really, because the truth was not an easy pill to swallow.
“Nah, I…still had brain damage. From the Joker’s beating. When I was on the streets, I survived on muscle memory, but when Talia brought me back and hoped for me to regain all my senses, I…couldn’t. So she threw me into the Pit, while Ra’s was in there, and I came out crying and sobbing for you.”
He could hear the small gasp Bruce took. He could feel it, almost as if it was a tangible thing. He could feel the despair, the pain, and uncontainable self-loathing…and, for some reason, he felt guilty.
“But I’m here now, and I’m okay, thanks to Talia. She nursed me back to health, trained me, kept an eye on me while I traveled the world training…and she checked up on me after I came back to Gotham,” he felt the need to say. I’m okay. I’m okay.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce finally says, the words choked and strained and sounding nothing like the man Jason knew. “I’m sorry I failed you, I’m sorry I continued to fail you even after you came back.”
Jason was stunned into silence. Bruce…apologizing?
“Hey, B, you only get like 10 apologies for your entire lifespan, don’t waste them on me,” he felt inclined to joke, even if it fell completely flat and came out stilted. “I ain’t worth it.”
“You are,” Bruce cuts in, voice still not sounding like himself. “God, Jason, you are. You’re worth an apology and so, so much more.”
Jason blinked. There was a familiar burning in his eyes, his throat closing. He swallowed down his sobs, his tears, and instead regarded the man who was now holding his hands tightly between his own.
“I’m glad you’re alive, Jay,” Bruce murmurs, a heartbreaking smile on his face. For him. Jason heard, and felt, a quiet whimper escaped him. “I’m glad I got a second chance to fix this.”
“You’ve…you’ve never said that before,” he sounded dazed, and he pretty much was. Maybe he had died. “You…I’m a mistake. I’m everything you never wanted to be, that was the entire gimmick I built my legacy on!”
“I know I haven’t, and I should have. And no, Jason, you are not a mistake. You were one of the best things to ever happen to me. You were my Robin, but above all else, you were my son. You are my son. And I am determined to fix things, if you give me the chance.”
He was floored. Bruce…oh, damn, the old man was asking for another chance. Could he…could he really? Did he want to? Jason stared hard at the man he once considered his father. Saw the hope, shining in those eyes of his. Those same eyes that had seen Gotham at her lowest, had seen his parents die. Had witnessed tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, and yet…had he done that? Put that light in Bruce’s eyes?
Did he want this?
(“You were always meant for great things, my son. Everyone you’ve ever met has known that.”
“I don’t…I didn’t ask for that. You know I didn’t. I just…”
“So what did you ask for?”)
“Okay,” Jason says. “Okay.”
Next thing he knew, he was in Bruce’s arms, a few tears slipping down his cheeks. He felt…fuck, he felt like he was finally home. He felt Bruce squeeze tightly, a shudder running through the Dark Knight’s body, and Jason pretended not to notice the rattling breath the man took.
“Thank you, Jason,” he heard his father murmur into his hair. “And welcome home, lad.”
He was home.
Later that week, Bruce tossed a newspaper at him. Jason nearly dropped his cup of tea in his haste to catch it and shot Bruce an annoyed glare in response, but the man only smirked and gestured to the paper.
There he was on the front page, helmet on and facing down one of the Krux generals from the invasion. In the background was old Gotham, and the outer edges of Crime Alley. True Gotham as Gothamites knew it, and where he had been born and bred.
The article outlined the Red Hood’s heroism and his dedication to protecting his city, written by one Clark Kent.