Everything was red. His fingers, the body beneath those fingers, the ground beneath the body. Everything. Jason cursed as he threw away the knives he had been using and took a look around.
Four, he wanted to tell himself. I’ve managed to save four.
Instead, all he could think about was the one he didn’t. The one that had just died right under his hands, due to that explosive capsule surgically inserted into the boy’s small intestine. Not an easy spot to perform surgery on, even with the optics of his helmet to guide him. Especially not in the field, without proper anesthetics or a proper scalpel. And now the boy’s belly was a mess of ruptured organs and flesh. Utterly unsalvageable. Dead.
He took off the helmet and threw it, then screamed a few more obscenities after it for good measure. He cursed the fucking bastard that experimented on those kids. He cursed Batman for dragging him into this, after three years of relative peace and quiet. After three years of healing. He cursed the universe for doing this to him.
Then again, the work was not over yet. The others had gone ahead, to take down the metahuman-experimenting, rogue government agency – he was not sure about the ‘rogue’ part, he had seen enough fucked up shit to know the government might just endorse human experimentation – and they might need help. He grabbed the helmet, rushed out of the infirmary... and ran straight into Nightwing.
“Red, what the hell?!”
Dick was on him almost instantly, but Jason didn’t fight back. He had learned to pick his battles. He also had eyes and he could see the rest of the cavalry approaching. Bruce, Tim, Damian, the two chicks he didn’t know. Black Bat and Batgirl was what Bruce had called them. A lot had happened since he had last checked in with the family. One of them, the Asian girl, was limping badly from a burn and pieces of shrapnel in her leg. There was too much he didn’t know, but one thing he was sure of: fighting back now would only make things worse. This was a battle he could not win.
“Which part of ‘cover our backs’ did you NOT get?” Dick had him by the lapels and he was yelling. It was supposed to be either intimidating or agitating, but Jason had lost his fears a long time ago. He wondered if Dick would still scream in his face if he knew just how hard it was to push down the anger. “You left our backs wide open and now Cass has a torn up leg thanks to your stupidity!”
It was the word ‘stupidity’ that did it. Jason knew. He could feel it spark the fire in his gut. He could feel the green-tinged madness clawing at his mind. The urge to pull one of his guns and shove it against Dick’s kidney, to tear his insides to shreds just like that boy’s, was strong.
Jason pushed it down, swallowed hard.
“I got all of it. I just had other priorities.”
Dick scowled. Bruce’s face darkened. Then, the demon brat scoffed.
“Typical Todd. I presume sending yourself to an early grave by being brash and selfish was not enough. You had to takes us down with you, too.”
For a moment, time stopped. He wanted to rage. He wanted to cry. He wanted to beat the kid into a bloody pulp and he could tell from the way Tim and Bruce bristled that they were anticipating that exact reaction. He could also tell that Dick would never even let him move an inch towards the brat. A brat who had killed without remorse when he had come to Gotham. A brat who was arrogant and selfish and brutal. A brat who was forgiven where Jason was not. That was why he wanted to cry.
In the end, Jason laughed.
It started as a dark rumble in his throat, but by the time it was past his teeth, the sound had warped into hysteria. And it hurt. He laughed so hard it hurt in his lungs, but perhaps that was just poetic justice for the one he had failed to save. Jason laughed until his throat is sore and his ears were ringing.
Dick’s hands sank. The escrima sticks sank. Bruce had shoved the brat a little further back, changed his stance, made himself a bigger target, and Jason latched on to that.
“Is that what you told them, Bruce? Is that how you think I died? That I simply ran off against your direct orders, for glory and thrill, and got myself killed by the Joker? That it was my fault? Is that how you remember me?”
“You did run off against my direct orders,” Bruce answered tersely. “I told you to wait. I told you not to go after Joker under any circumstances. You didn’t listen!”
“You’re right. I didn’t.” He drew the guns from his holsters, then instantly dropped them. Dick looked at the clattering weapons in utter confusion.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Jason?”
“No!” This time, he pushed back, and Dick was not expecting it, because it took him a moment to register what was going on. By the time he had caught on, Jason had ditched his jacket and was discarding every knife he kept hidden on his person. When he was done, he looked at Bruce once more. “The question is, what the hell is wrong with you, Bruce?!”
“Guys, can we do this back in the cave, please?” The blonde – Batgirl – interrupted him quickly. “Field names, ya’ll. And besides, Black Bat needs medical atten—“
“No.” Black Bat held up her hand and suddenly her gaze was back on Jason. It burned right through him, like she was reading him like an open book, until a shudder ran down his spine. The girl shook her head. “Area evacuated. Enemies knocked out. No one listening. He needs to talk. We need to listen.”
“Todd can wai—“
“You will listen.” She didn’t even raise her voice, but the demon brat flinched. Bruce, Tim and Dick suddenly looked like they were made of stone. She waved him over and Jason followed, reluctantly shuffling one foot in front of the next, then crouched down in front of her. One of her hands reached for his cheek. It was impossibly warm despite the cold night air. “You are hurt.” Somehow, despite speaking in almost monotone, Jason could hear, no, feel, the compassion swinging in her voice. “Poison in your soul. Let it out. Truth sets you free.”
Jason hesitated. He wanted to cry. He wanted to yell. He wanted to thank her. In the end, he nodded, got up again, took a deep breath, and turned back to Bruce.
“Do you even remember Jason Todd?” Argumentative Public Speaking 101. Always open with a bold statement or a question. “Or do you just remember your Robin, your soldier? Do you remember the kid who loved to read? The kid who voluntarily ditched patrol to do extra-credit homework? The kid who didn’t have any friends in school because he spent every minute studying? The kid who was top of all his classes? The kid who wanted to go to Princeton?”
“Princeton?” Blondie raised her eyebrows at him, before fixating on Bruce. “Seriously?! All this fucking crap about ‘you never think things through, you always rush ahead, you’re just like Jason’… And you were talking about a kid who wanted to go to Princeton?”
“What else did you tell them, Bruce, huh?” It was a rhetorical question. He already knew. He had wire-tapped their communications long ago. It wasn’t pretty. It never had been. “Did you tell them that I was not good enough? Because I remember you telling me that I was doing great. I remember saving your ass – and Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s – from Mongul. I remember you complimenting me. Of course, that is whenever you weren’t telling me about how great Dick had been and how I was almost as good.” It hurt. Even now, saying it himself, it hurt. Jason swallowed back the green bile.
“Let’s set the record straight once and for all, shall we? I went to Ethiopia not because I was selfish or brash. I went there because you were displaying all the fatherly emotions of a brick! I went there because once, just once, I wanted to have a chance of actually finding a parent, not someone who told me they were not my dad despite literally adopting me, you fucking ass! And I did. And it was great. For all of five minutes. Then I found out that Joker was blackmailing her. I could have gone after her right then and there, but I didn’t. I came to you. Because I knew I was out of my depth. And after you went to stop that shipment… I didn’t leave for kicks. I left to do what you taught me to do: protect and save innocent people, even if it’s at the expense of my own life. Your teachings, not mine.”
“You went back to help your mother,” Tim murmured softly as realization slowly crept onto his face. “It was still reckless—“
“She was my mom, Tim!” This time, he did yell, if only because that memory was still a deep, bleeding wound. The alternative would have been to rage and he was tired of raging. Not to mention, he knew what rage awoke in him. It was not a place he wanted to go back to. “She told me he was gone. She promised me it would be okay… and then she watched as he beat me into a bloody pulp. Cracked skull. Shattered sternum. Collapsed lung. Forty other fractures. It wasn’t the explosion that did that! And she just watched…”
Something akin to horror and regret flickered over Dick’s face, but Jason chose to ignore it. Pick your battles, Todd. You can’t fight on all fronts at once. In the end, he turned back to Bruce.
“But you’re right. I am stupid. I am stupid because I still listened to you. I still tried to save a life, her life, at the cost of my own. Because that’s what you taught me to do. Because…” He swallowed back the tears and the green waters with them. “Because I figured if I was going to die, at least I could make you proud before I clocked out. I figured if I was going to die, at least it would mean something.” A short laugh escaped his lips before he could stop it. “And look what it got me! A glass case that dehumanizes me, a father who denounces me, and my killer, still walking free, getting a slap on the wrist and a few days in Arkham every now and then, while you tell everyone how ‘worthless’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘aggressive’ and ‘wrong’ I was.”
Of course, Bruce did not react. Part of Jason was not even surprised. The rest of him regretted that he had ditched his guns.
“You know what’s the worst thing about all of this? I wish I could hate you. I really do. At one point I even put a bomb under the batmobile, but I couldn’t set it off. I told myself that that would be letting you off too easy. But you know what the horrible truth is? I wish I could hate you as much as you hate me. I wish I could think as little of you, as you do of me, Bruce, but I CAN’T! You were my FATHER! The only halfway decent father I had ever had! Do you—do you have the slightest idea how much you meant to me? How much your approval meant to me? How much it hurt whenever you compared me to Dick? How much it hurt that I ended up being little more than a cautionary tale in your eyes?”
The silence seemed to stretch on forever. Jason let it. He was used to this. To Bruce acting like nothing was wrong. To Bruce waiting for him to become impatient, but this time it was not going to work. Jason shook his head, then retrieved the last of his first aid bundles from his discarded jacket and turned towards the Black Bat.
The burns are not too bad, Jason realized with a relieved sigh, but some of those shrapnel wounds will need stitches. She seemed to anticipate his moves two seconds in advance and ripped open the leg of her suit with a batarang to let him take out the problematic pieces and start working with disinfectant, needle, and thread to close the wounds.
“Those are some amazingly neat stitches,” the blonde next to him said, almost in admiration, and Jason could feel himself blush. It had been a while since anyone in their family had approved of anything he’d done. It had been a while since anyone had cared.
“You were never just a cautionary tale, Jason,” Bruce finally said and there was an obvious finality in his voice that bordered on condescending. “I tried to save you.”
“Save me?” He finished stitching up the wound he was working on, then turned to Bruce. The green fire was still boiling in his gut. Slowly, Jason peeled down the collar of his shirt, exposing the scar beneath it. “Do you call that saving?”
“That…” Dick stared at him wide-eyed, seemingly at a loss for words. “That’s a batarang scar!”
“Sure is.” He rolled the collar back up again and fixated on Bruce with a glare that could have melted metal. “You know how sane people, loving people, react to finding out their child has returned from the dead? They say things like ‘oh thank you, Jesus!’, ‘I missed you so much, son’ or maybe ‘I am so happy that you’re alive’. But not one of you ever did.”
It hurt more than he liked to admit. It was a fact he liked to hide deep in his soul, but sometimes it didn’t work. Sometimes sleep ripped down his barriers. Sometimes trauma. Tonight, it was mercy that did him in. For the first time in… he couldn’t remember… someone had taken mercy on him.
“You asked me how it happened with all the casual coolness as if I had merely scraped my knee or something. Now granted,” Jason held up his hands in defense. “I was making your life pretty hard at the time, but then again, you were soooo worried about Dick that night. You begged me to let you go so you could save him. Do you know what that means Bruce?”
He did, but he didn’t answer. Jason was not surprised.
“It means you value his life more than mine. You would have gladly thrown me under the bus to save Dick, and you didn’t even have to say it. In fact, you gladly threw me under the bus to save Joker.”
“What?!” Dick was both fuming and freezing. Jason could tell by the way he was turned to Bruce, stance all defensive. “Bruce, please tell me that he’s lying.”
“I’m not.” Jason tapped the scar lightly. “How could you, Bruce? After I told you that I forgave you for not saving me… because I really do,” Jason finally admitted. “There’s nothing you could have done to get there sooner. After I took that burden off your conscience, after I told you that all I wanted was for that monster to be gone, to have you acknowledge that I was worth more to you than Joker… you still rejected me. You could have ended it right there. If you had killed Joker… it would have been over… Hell, you could have let me do it! Instead, you threw a batarang into my throat and left me to die. That is how much I was worth to you. Less than Joker. Less than the man who murdered me.”
“That’s not how it—“
“You called me a FAILURE!” Jason screamed before Bruce had a chance to finish that sentence. He didn’t want to hear it. He was too tired of this, too weary. He walked over to his helmet, picked it up, and opened the replay. Bruce’s voice came through the speakers, metallic and haunting.
“Of all my failures, you have been my biggest.”
“That was the beginning of your last words to me,” Jason spit out as he paused the recording. “I’m not gonna play the rest, because frankly, hearing your hypocritical ass claim that you take full responsibility for what happened to me, only to shift that responsibility back onto me by saying it’s all because of what happened to me when I was just a child…” The memories came back automatically, as they always did when he thought of the video. He forced them back down. He didn’t want to go back to those nights. He didn’t want to go back at all. “You are an asshole, Bruce. You have been blessed with the most dedicated, loyal family anyone could wish for, and you keep on treating them like dirt. You don’t deserve family. You don’t deserve friends. And I wish I could fucking hate you, but I can’t.”
He tried to think. Tried to remember. So many awful things had happened since he had returned from his grave... at times Jason wished he never had. He didn’t remember the afterlife, but he remembered a woman, long-haired and kind. If someone like that had been there to lead him into what had been supposed to be eternity, then it couldn’t have been so bad. It couldn’t have been any more unkind than his return.
“Oh yeah...” A smile hushed across his lips. “That... You probably didn’t tell them about that, either, did you?”
“About what?” the blonde girl asked. Jason smiled sadly.
“About how I came back.” Nobody moved an inch. Jason wanted to laugh, but the sound was stuck in his throat. “Come on, guys, no matter how much you hate me, surely you’ve asked yourselves that question before.”
“I have not.” Talia’s kid crossed is arms and scowled. “You did. That’s bad enough.”
“No-one cares, Grayson!” The boy bared his teeth. On any other child his age, it wouldn’t have looked menacing at all. On him, the gesture spelled murder. “It is bad enough he came back. I don’t need to hear the details to know that it was a mistake. The first thing he did upon coming to Gotham was murder people in cold blood!”
“Said the pot about the kettle,” Batgirl chuckled as she patched up another shrapnel wound on Black Bat’s legs. Her stitches needed work, Jason could see that even from a distance, but at least she was trying.
“Damian spent years getting brainwashed by the League of Assassins—“
“So did I, Dick,” Jason growled back immediately and he could see the ripple go through all of them. In some cases, like Bruce, it was barely a flicker, a little twitch. In Robin’s case, it looked like he was ready to tear his throat out. Jason grinned. “Yeah, that’s right, kid. I don’t know exactly how I came back and the first six months are a bit of a blur, really, but I was here. I woke up in my coffin, screaming for my dad, begging for help, terrified that I was gonna suffocate again and so I dug my way out. Nearly shredded my hands crawling out of that mahogany monstrosity, but I did it. Spent the next few months crawling through the streets, not knowing who I was or where... until Talia found me.”
Now I’ve got your attention, huh, Jason thought as he scowled at Bruce. It was another nail in his proverbial coffin. Sincere declaration of traumatic return from the dead? No reaction. Mention of the evil, hot chick? Instant interest. Again he felt the sudden, almost overwhelming urge to just pick up his guns and start shooting.
Again Jason pushed it down.
“Talia, yes. She took me in, against Ra’s’ wishes, but instead of handing me over to you, she tried to ‘fix’ me. Not because she cared about me, of course, oh no, but because she wanted to return me to you whole, to gain your appreciation.” His gaze flickered to Damian for a second. Just a child. A spoiled, troubled, really fucking angry child, but a child. Another victim of another fanatic. “I hate to break it to you kid, but you and me... we’re both little more than tools for her. She spent a year waiting for me to get better and when that didn’t work... she dumped me into the pit.”
“The green pit?”
“Yes, the green pit. The Lazarus pit,” Jason confirmed with a quick glance at Black Bat. She looked spooked, almost haunted, and the realization instantly put a damper on whatever anger was starting to swell inside him. “You know how it feels...”
“Confusing,” Black Bat tried, but it was clear that that was not the word she had been looking for. She shook her head. “It is anger. Unfocused anger. Madness.”
“FINALLY!” He couldn’t help it. With a desperate laugh, Jason threw his hands up towards the sky. “Hallelujah! Someone understands!” Then, almost as quickly, the full implication of what she had just told him hit him. He lowered his arms again, took a deep breath, and looked at Black Bat once more. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. I’m sorry you died.”
“I’m sorry you died, too.”
Jason blinked. He wanted to do more. He wanted to say something witty. He wanted to deflect the sudden, strange influx of emotion with violence. The pit called to him, from the depths of his mind, planting thoughts of rage inside his skull, and it was all he could do to take more deep breaths, to force himself to use the focusing techniques he had learned over the last couple of years.
“She tossed me off a cliff,” Jason finally said, looking at Bruce and all his brood in turn. “She told me I had not been avenged, then threw me off a cliff and left me to find out about it all on my own. The Joker. The new Robin,” Jason sneered at Tim. He was a good Robin. A very competent Robin. Part of him still hated the guy’s guts. “Of course, then I did that entire bomb thing and she figured she’d better stall me, so I don’t kill her dearest beloved. I dare say setting me up on a training program of professional killers, most of which were truly awful, horrible people – I’m talking pedophiles and human traffickers here – wasn’t her brightest idea.”
“Jay...” Dick’s face was an ocean of emotions and Jason tried to navigate them quickly, even as he took a step back for every step Dick took towards him. Sadness, empathy, anger, and horror. He knew Dick had to settle on one eventually. “Jason, I’m sorry. If we had known—“
“Bruce knew”, Jason muttered through clenched teeth, but the bastard didn’t even give him the satisfaction of flinching. “I told him about how I clawed my way out of my grave, but I’m guessing he took that about as seriously as all the other crap I’ve gone through in my life. And you... what exactly would you have done, Dickie-bird? Huh?! Tell me! What would you have done?!”
“I would have tried to help you,” Dick murmured softly. His palms were up, empty, weaponless hands stretched out to help him and he could feel the lure. It was like a siren’s song, soft and sweet and magical all at once. “You are my brother, Jay. I would have helped you then. I want to help you now. Always.”
It was also a horrible lie. It was a retcon if he’d ever seen one. Selective memory. Gaslighting. Emotional torture, whether Dick knew it or not. Jason could feel the warmth of the words bleed from his body as the memories took hold.
Truth sets you free, Black Bat’s voice echoed in his head and he knew she was right. Jason’s lips twisted into a sneer even as he retreated. He eyed Dick’s hands like they were poison.
“You really are Bruce’s golden boy, his best,” Jason mocked him. “You have mastered the art of lying to yourself. Congratulations.”
“I’m not ly—“
“I CAME to you!” Jason yelled, and the sound froze Dick in his tracks. “I came to you, Dick, and granted I was killing bad guys at the time, but I came to you wanting to work with you! The first thing I did was save your fucking ass from a fall! Do you remember that night in New York?”
He did remember. Jason could see it in the way his eyes narrowed, in the brief shadow of guilt that darkened Dick’s features. From where he stood, it was not nearly enough.
“I wanted to have a brother again, and some brother you were! You went from taking me up on an offer of a friendly drink to yelling at me for wearing your costume and calling me a deranged, murdering misfit in all of five seconds!” Oh yes, Dick remembers. He could see the guilt in the way Dick flinched and it felt good. “Here’s some other things you called me, in case you forgot: a crackhead. Delusional... oh you loved that one! Must have used it at least a dozen times in one night. And then, after those metahuman psycho twins sicced that creepy, alien bastard on me that turned me into a life re-enactment of ‘The Blob’, you just up and left. I’m guessing you were banking on one of them taking me out so you wouldn’t have to deal with me yourself.”
“I knew you could handle it,” Dick said, but Jason could hear in his voice that he was not convinced, which was just as well. It had been cruel either way.
“I sent you a telegram after I got out of that mess, remember?” That memory still tore him to pieces, but he couldn’t let it go, either. Jason swallowed hard.
“Dear Dickie-bird. I survived and I am all back to normal, in case you’re interested. Leaving town to find my own way. Thanks for coming for me, brother. I know we don’t agree on much. I just wanted to believe we could be family again.
“Tell me, Dick, did it cross your mind to come looking for me then? At a time when I was not ‘a delusional, murdering, crackhead misfit’? When I all but begged you to reach out to me – did you read between the lines even just once?”
Dick didn’t answer. Jason shook his head.
“I don’t think you did, because I didn’t exactly make myself hard to find after that. As a matter of fact, I came to you! Again. Because at the end of the day, Bruce had made it clear he did not want me in his life, which made you just about the only family I had left. I came to talk. I offered you intel, free of charge, without any hidden agendas, not even a hint of a request! And what did you do?”
“Call you delusional again?” Batgirl shrugged at the angry stare Dick gave her and repaid him with one of her own. “What? I’m sensing a theme here.”
“Good guess,” Jason admitted. “But, no, this time it wasn’t ‘delusional’. This time it was ‘you never think things through’. I gave you intel that helped you free an innocent man from prison and what did you do in return? Not a single thank you. Hell, you did not even have the decency to inquire what I meant when I told you Bruce always loved you best. You just glossed over it. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. But, oh wait, it got better!”
He paused, took a deep breath, and swallowed the rage for the hundredth time this night. He was gonna have to call Him when this was over. He was gonna have to talk.
“Next time I see you, you actually call me! Telling me we need to talk. And for a moment I actually thought ‘hey, maybe he really does want to give me a chance!’ I was so happy, Dick! I was so glad to think there might still be a way... and then I get there and it’s you and Tim and all the Titans ganging up on me over a murder I didn’t even commit! I didn’t kill Duela! I saved a woman’s life and I tried to save hers, as well! Yet neither you nor Tim even gave me the benefit of the doubt! It took Donna standing up for me to get you guys to back off, even if only for a few seconds, before coming back to kick me like a dog and laughing about it!”
“Wait, time-out!” Batgirl again. Jason rolled his eyes. He swore all she was missing was a bowl of popcorn. “I thought Donna didn’t like you. At least that’s what I heard...” She gave a long, hard glance at Bruce and Dick. “Not that that’s all too reliable...”
“She used to like me a lot,” Jason admitted. “Back when I was Robin. She told me I was brave and wise beyond my years. She used to compliment me, treat me like a little brother. After I came back... she was the first person to show me genuine compassion.”
“What happened?” Black Bat somehow managed to look tired and alert at the same time. Someone to his right tried to move, but she gave them the stare of death and the movement stopped. Jason sighed.
“We were searching for Ray Palmer and ran into a foe we could not beat. Our only way out was to gain his trust. I pretended to want to join his forces, even killed right in front of him to prove my resolve, but he wanted more. So I shot Donna.”
Batgirl gasped. Dick bristled. He couldn’t see what the others were doing, but he didn’t care.
“It was not a lethal shot. It was not even going to hurt her for long, but it was our only ticket out of there. I apologized later. I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t listen anymore and Kyle... well, let’s be honest, he hated my guts from day one and would have gladly left me to die if given half a chance.”
The Green Lantern’s animosity had been almost palpable. In hindsight, Jason could only marvel at how different they all were, especially compared to his own dysfunctional family. Bruce had a habit of molding everyone who put on a cowl into an offshoot of himself. Once upon a time, Jason had considered that an honor. Now it left him reeling.
“I tried to retire, you know,” Jason said to none of them and all of them. “After all that universe hopping, after finding a universe in which Batman actually did kill Joker, in which he welcomed me back once he was sure that it was me. I tried to retire. I went to Gotham U. I studied biochemistry. Most people need at least three years to complete a BS. I did it in one. For once, I was too busy to even think about all the crap you bastards have put me through, and it felt good.” He found Bruce’s face, still blank as stone, and zoned in on it. “I graduated top of my class, summa cum laude, you know. I studied a hundred hours a week to get that degree. I didn’t fail a single test, I didn’t miss a single day. I wasn’t just good. I was excellent.”
He remembered that day as if it had been yesterday. Graduating, getting his degree, listening to the valedictorian wax philosophical about the last four years, while trying to ignore the fact that everyone had someone to come back home to and brag to about their achievements afterwards. Everyone but him.
“And then you ‘died’.” He accompanied the word with air quotes and an accusing glare in Bruce’s direction. “You were gone. You left us, with a city full of criminals and a row of glass cases full of empty suits. And so I tried to do what you taught me, Bruce. I tried to do my part—“
“Your part involved starting a gang war,” Tim lobbed back at him. “I fail to see how that’s helping.”
“I know that now.” It had gotten ugly. Much uglier than it should have been. In hindsight, he wished he could take it back. “You did great, though, Tim.” The shock was written plainly on Red Robin’s face. It made his lips curve into the tiniest smile. “And I’m not just saying that because you helped me escape from prison and let me back into the cave, even if only for Bruce’s fucking disaster of a will. You really did well.”
“I always thought you hated me,” Tim stated, still baffled and obviously not quite sure of what was happening. It turned Jason’s smile into a smirk.
“Fucking hell...” He shook his head. “Sometimes you can be really dense for a world class detective, do you know that? I all but spelled out my gripes with you and Bruce the first time we met! I bared a piece of my soul to you – willingly, I might add – that it took Bruce and Dick and Alfred weeks and months to dig up. And what did you do, oh great detective, hm? You called me insane and all but blamed me for Joker murdering me – an event you only knew about through people who hadn’t been there either!”
He counted to ten, uncurled the fist he had barely noticed forming and pushed the green haze back once more. Always once more. It never stopped.
“I hated you so much that night, but even then I had to admit that you were good. I wondered what would have become of me, had I had friends like yours, support like yours. And a few months later I got my answer.” He turned to Bruce once more.
“There was a universe out there where I was Batman, you know? Where I had allies and a decently happy life. So I knew it was possible. I knew I had it in me. So when you died, when not one of your precious muster students stepped up to defend this city from the criminals that were threatening to tear it apart, I did.”
And hadn’t that ended well, Jason thought as his gut grew sour at the memories. I shot Damian. I nearly killed Tim. I nearly killed Dick.
“I’m sorry for a lot of the things I did back then,” Jason finally admitted as he glanced back and forth between Damian and Tim. “I’m sorry I nearly killed the two of you. And I appreciate you finally growing half a brain and finally remembering that you used to be a brother to me, Dick...” There was a glimmer of hope in Dick’s eyes. “But it was too little too late. Do you honestly think that, after everything you did to me, after all the ways in which you’d let me know all of you wished I had never come back, I was honestly going to trust any of you ever again?”
“You locked me up in Arkham. With the Joker! The man who murdered me!” He let his voice become steel, cold and unforgiving. “I was right down the hall from him, did you know that? And it’s a pretty small place. Word travels fast. I was right down the hall and every night I had to listen to that piece of shit taunting me, telling me over and over again how good it had felt to hear my body break under that crowbar, what an epic show it had been to see Batman nearly kill me! I have spent YEARS trying to get his laugh out of my head and you put me right in there with him! Right where I had to listen to him laugh. Every day. Every night. You should have stuck me back into the fucking coffin! It would have been a mercy.”
“Oh God...” To Dick’s credit, he looked absolutely horrified. Honestly horrified. And yet, Jason knew he won’t have the capacity to grant him forgiveness, even on the off-chance that he we were to ask for it. “Oh God, Jason... I did not know... I swear I had no idea they put you—If I had known—“
“I don’t care.” Jason braced himself. A miserable end was better than endless misery, as his German hand-to-hand combat instructor had been so fond of saying. “I don’t care how much you regret it now. I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what you want. I am done playing this game. I am done pretending that you ever cared about me only to have you turn around and wail on me. I spent years living in your shadow, clinging to the vain hope that maybe I could be more like you or you could be more like me. And every time I ended up worse than I was before. Every time I have to fucking deal with you, I suffer. And I’m tired of suffering, Dick. The last person I ever want to have anything to do with again is you.”
Dick opened his mouth, tried to speak, failed. Jason huffed indignantly at the utterly crushed puppy-dog-eyes look on his face. Maybe it wasn’t fair that he was hammering the point in now, but then again, life had never been fair to him before. Why should it not be unfair to Dick for a change? There was a part of him, a dark, twisted piece of his soul, that even relished the agony and regret that was written all over Dick’s body right now, but Jason blocked it out. He knew what the Lazarus pit turned that feeling into. He did not want to go back to that place.
“Now I’m gonna answer the question that started all this and then I’m going home. What the hell was I doing back here? Why did I not jump after you guys and provide back-up? Well, you might have noticed that there were five kids in that makeshift infirmary back there.”
“Yes,” Tim admitted. “But they were alive and breathing. Shocked, yeah, but they were just fine.”
“No they were not,” Jason growled. “You jumped to conclusions, again. You didn’t look close enough, again. The bastards that experimented on them had implanted a capsule full of high-grade explosive into each of their little guts. A kill switch, for cases just like this. While you were running ahead, cornering the bad guys, cracking femurs and ulnae, I was down there, trying to save five little lives. I lost one of them, but I managed to save four, which – if you have ever had to do intestinal surgery in the field – is a fucking miracle. I’ll take four living kids over four of you any day.”
He expected Tim to be the one to say something, to at least acknowledge what he had done. Or possibly Damian, to try and call him a liar again. He expected pretty much any of the guys to say something, except maybe Bruce, but in the end, the first words came from his left.
“You saved lives.” The Black Bat was on her feet and Jason frowned. He was tempted to tell her that not all the stitches she had gotten were as good as his. He was tempted to tell her that she should not be walking, what with the current state of her legs, but from everything he had heard, this one was basically a younger, female copy of Bruce. He might as well have talked to the rubble around him. And so Jason merely watched as Batgirl helped her hobble over, until she was right in front of him. “You changed. You chose saving over killing.”
“Oh, surprise!” Jason rolled his eyes. “Newsflash, princess: it’s not like I ever enjoyed killing. I never did it for fun. Saving lives... that was always the goal in the end.”
He expected a lecture on ends and means. He had gotten that often enough from Bruce and Dick and Tim and ... well pretty much everyone he’d ever met. Instead, her arms curled around his torso softly and Jason froze as the warmth from her tiny body snuck under his armor. Literally and figuratively.
“You changed!” There was more than just happiness in her voice. There was hope, which was confusing, and pride, which was downright what-the-fuck material. Why would you be proud of me, Jason thought as the Black Bat smiled at him. “You changed. You chose peace.”
“Well...” He shifted from one foot onto the next when she finally let go of him. Keeping the blush off his ears was a sheer act of will. “I would love to take full credit for it myself, but that wouldn’t be fair to Sasha and the Guy I Will Not Name, Because The Last Thing I Need Is For Bruce To Go After Him.”
“Sasha... That’s Scarlet, right?” Batgirl helped Black Bat sit down again, then turned to him with unbridled curiosity. “What happened?”
“Does it matter?”
Jason shrugged. They’d been standing here, talking, for what felt like an eternity. Any minute now someone – crook, cop, civilian, blood-sucking reporter leech, whatever – could come by and interrupt them. He wanted to be gone by then. He didn’t want to deal with this tonight.
“It matters to me,” she explained, her voice soft as a feather, “because I just found out that everything everyone else ever told me about you was basically just a way to tell me to fuck off. I had to fake my own death to get back some sense of who I was and where I belong. What did it for you?”
Jason hesitated. It was a long story. A really, fucking long story. He took a deep breath.
“Long story short, Sasha and I were on a field mission, when we ran into The Other Guy. We fought. It was a lot of back and forth. At one point he could have killed me, right then and there, but he didn’t. He looked around. He looked at what I had done and how. And then he just sat down and talked to me.”
Even now the memory made him laugh. It really was ridiculous. Jason sneered at the gaggle of caped crusaders to his right.
“He figured it out in one fight, in just a few minutes, even though he didn’t know me half as well as you did. Why I had tried to be Batman. Why I had tried to ‘recruit’ all of you as my ‘Robins’ at some point.”
Batgirl sat down next to her friend. There was no defensiveness in her pose, no alertness. He could have killed her right here and now, in a matter of seconds, but the thought didn’t even seem to cross her mind. Instead, she seemed to be a thousand miles away. There was nostalgia in those big blue eyes.
“You were trying to be to them what Batman hadn’t been to you,” Batgirl said casually, as if she were reading from the morning newspaper rather than his very soul. Jason felt paralyzed. The last person to see right through him had actually had the training to justify it. So who the hell was this girl?
“Batman had refused to save you, so you tried to find a Robin of your own. Someone you could save. Someone you could use to save yourself through them. You were trying to save yourself.”
“Your father?” Black Bat asked and Batgirl nodded.
“My father was a criminal. He never did the right thing. He never turned himself in. He put mom and me in danger every time he committed another crime. And since he refused to take responsibility, I did it for him. And I thought I was doing the right thing by throwing myself into crime-fighting and trying to fit in with this murder of morons,” she nodded into Bruce’s direction, then looked straight at Jason again. “But it wasn’t helping. Not really. I just made myself feel worse. What I needed was distance. My “Other Guy” was Leslie. She deserves so much more credit than she gets.”
“Yeah, so does He,” Jason admitted with a sad smile. “He said the same thing. That I needed distance. He also pointed out to me that, considering that Sasha was my ‘Robin’, I should have really paid more attention to what was going on with her. Then he let me go. He didn’t even try to detain me. Just told me to think about it and gave me his card – his damn, civilian business card – and told me he’d be there if I wanted to talk. Then he left.” The memory still gave him strange feelings, and Jason shook his head.
“It was the first time since I had died that anyone offered to help me, whenever I needed it, no strings attached. I mean, Donna did it, too, at first, but that changed after I had to shoot her. This Guy... I emptied six magazines in his direction and all it did was make him fight back harder. That night, I went home and talked to Sasha. She’d been... less crazy ever since her mask had come off. It took me a while to get her to actually tell me what was going on, but eventually she broke down crying. Told me that she just couldn’t shake the wish to have a normal life again and that she hated herself for that, because she knew that ‘Sasha’ was useless to me and she didn’t want to be useless. That’s when I remembered the glass case.”
He stared at Bruce, stoic as always, but with an ever darkening, grim expression on his face, and twisted his lips into a sneer.
“Yeah, you know the one. You didn’t see Jason when you looked at me. You saw a failed Robin. And I was doing the same thing to her.”
The realization hurt, back then, and it wasn’t much better now. He took comfort in the fact that he had learned from his mistakes, though. He took comfort in the fact that he had finally seen the light, and the knowledge that Bruce would be boiling with anger on the inside, if he knew just how great a pun that was, only made him happier.
“I was looking at her only as Scarlet, as my Ersatz-Robin, when I should have been looking at her as Sasha. And Sasha didn’t need more training with guns and knives. She didn’t need more parkour lessons or battle plans. Valentin had butchered her, physically and emotionally. She needed a good shrink to talk to and a good surgeon to repair the physical damage. So I told her I’d take Him up on His ‘talk about it’ offer if she came along. And I decided to stop the crime-fighting for a while and go back to college.”
“Columbia.” Jason grinned. “Princeton doesn’t have a med school. I’m halfway through my third year now. Another sixteen months, and I’ll be an officially licensed surgeon. Gotham General is always looking for people because no one is crazy enough to work here. So that’s where I’ll start.”
To his right, Bruce shifted, finally, for once displaying an ounce of emotion. There was shock in his eyes.
“You are studying to become a doctor?”
“Studying and succeeding,” Jason added as he retrieved a cigarette from his jacket and lit it with practiced ease. The cold smoke felt good in his lungs. It was a nice counterbalance to the burning, green pit in his brain. “Straight A’s so far. Full points, not a single sick day. Which is precisely why I should be going now. I’m starting a sub-internship in emergency medicine tomorrow.”
“You really expect us to believe such blatant lies, Todd?” Damian sneered at him. To his right, Tim muttered ‘shut up’ just loud enough for Jason to hear it, but if Jason had had to take a guess, it was the look of utter disappointment and disapproval on Dick’s face that made Damian clench his teeth and shut up.
“What you believe is not my problem,” Jason finally said as he stubbed out the cigarette and got up. He held his hand out for Batgirl, then helped her get Black Bat back on her feet. “My problem is that what’s left inside me of the Lazarus pit acts like a catalyst towards anything I feel. Anger becomes rage, confidence becomes pride, fear becomes despair, pain becomes torture... and I had been afraid, angry, and in pain ever since I came back from the grave.”
“Not your fault,” Black Bat whispered next to him and Batgirl nodded her head in agreement.
It was an inadequate word. It could not possibly describe the relief he felt as the words wash over him, as, just for once, the barriers he’d put up fell one by one and he let any of their words touch him. It was a gamble. He never quite knew what feelings they would trigger.
Jason wanted to sigh in relief at the spark of hope in his chest. He prayed the Lazarus pit would amplify that as well.
“I don’t expect any of you to believe me,” Jason snapped at his brothers. At Bruce. “It’s clear you’ve all made up your minds about who you think I am. Honestly though? Next time you see Donna, ask her how I willingly stayed behind to look after Raven’s mom while everyone was rushing into battle. Hell, when you get back home, ask Alfred how many hours I spent with him in the cave, letting him teach me proper stitches and burn care, not that horrible, shitty mess of a clinical procedure you guys apply in the field. I took care of my mom, Catherine, for months, before she died. I think in a way medical work has always been my calling. It’s always given me a sense of purpose. A sense of peace.”
“Truth sets you free,” Black Bat smiled at him. There was a spark of mischief in her eyes that all but spelled ‘I won’, but Jason let it slide. It was not worth getting worked up over. Not tonight.
“Get some sleep, Black Bat,” Jason put a hand on her shoulder, squeezed lightly. It was amazing how someone so small and petit could have so much muscle. It was not really healthy either. “Go easy on that leg.” She nodded and he turned to the blonde. “Batgirl—“
“Stephanie.” She flipped Bruce the bird the instance he scowled at her. “I’ll make sure she gets home safely.”
“Good.” He mirrored the gesture. “And ignore whatever that asshole says. If you were not good at your job, Oracle wouldn’t have you caught dead wearing that costume.”
Batgirl—Stephanie, laughed out loud. Jason retrieved his jacket, guns, and gear, and was all but ready to grapple off into the night and finally head home when Bruce’s voice reached his ear.
“Jason. Who is He?”
“Someone qualified, in contrast to you,” Jason lobbed back at him. “Someone who hates your guts. I guess that’s why we get along so well.”
The grapnel gun connected with a loud click and a moment later he was rushing to the top of the ruins. He broke into a run, jumping and grappling from rooftop to rooftop until he’d crossed half the island. To his surprise, no one had followed. With a relieved sigh, Jason climbed to the top of the radio tower and took a deep breath.
Black Bat was right. Truth set him free.