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And Here You Are Living

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The smell of oatmeal drifted through the apartment as Jason prepared a brown sugar and strawberry oatmeal for himself. Usually Dick would have joined him at the dining table, talking incessantly as he scarfed down three scrambled eggs, but Dick hadn’t come home last night.

Jason wasn’t overly worried about it. The overly affectionate man had probably convinced poor Tim to cuddle and watch cheesy movies. Dick maintained a love of horrible movies that defied logic. Jason blamed West’s influence. The man thought anything with an explosion was a quality film. Sure, the former Robin enjoyed explosions as much as the next vigilante, but he preferred his in person without the drivel that constituted a plot in most action films. Then again, West was a certifiable idiot, and Jason still didn’t know how Dick put up with the irritating speedster.

Finishing his meal, Jason donned his leather jacket over his jeans and red shirt. The weather did not justify the extra layer of clothing, but he felt naked and exposed without the jacket. The dripping sweat and clammy feeling was a small price to pay for the feeling of comfort the black motorcycle jacket provided. Lacing up his combat boots and making sure he had his wallet, Jason headed out the door.

It was a half hour commute on public transportation to the only decent public library Bludhaven offered, but Jason refused to take his bike. He didn’t trust that Bruce or Dick hadn’t placed a tracker on the motorcycle to keep tabs on him. Bruce was pretending to give Jason space since he was apparently cured, but Jason knew his dear old dad too well. He’d shoot himself in the foot if Bruce weren’t tracking his movements and bank accounts.

Bruce and Jason had developed an uneasy truce. Well, more or less. Bruce had a billion other projects that required his time, and Jason was too distracted with his own research to pay his darling father much attention because he was not nearly as cured as he led everyone to believe, nor were his questions regarding his resurrection answered.

There were no more blackouts and raging fury that he couldn’t control, but Jason’s mind was far less himself. He didn’t know how to explain it, and no one seemed to notice, so it was probably some internal crisis that every character in every novel Jason had ever read faced, but Jason could deal with feeling less like Hamlet and more like Jason Todd. …even if Jason Todd didn’t exist anymore.

Setting up a fake identity was not nearly as difficult as it should have been; the hardest part had been accepting that whatever he did from now on would be attributed to a man that didn’t exist. Well, and the fact that his overbearing father had tried to force him into a name that didn’t easily connect to Jason Todd, he had told him to shove it where the sun didn’t shine. He had lost his life, his death, his mind, and himself like hell was he completely giving up his name.

Jay T. Peterson nodded at the bus driver as he stepped aboard the 10:15 bus. He timed his commutes so that he’d miss the worst of the morning rush hour as minimum wage workers made their ways to their various underpaid jobs. More than a lifetime ago, Jason would ride the morning bus with his mom. Vague memories of clutching her hand bounced in his brain as the bus bounced from the potholes in the pitiable Bludhaven streets. Vague memories. That was Jason’s problem. His life before the damn Pit was all vague memories and missing pieces.

No one told him M’gann’s help would lead to a brain he could no longer trust. If were honest, he hadn’t felt himself since his resurrection. The lack of the green haze in his mind just knocked the issue to the front of his brain. It had just been a feeling in the back of his brain like he misplaced something important until he had mixed up Helena and Voila when talking to Alfred the other day about their plans to see Twelf Night. Alfred, bless the man’s pure soul, didn’t comment on it, but Jason still felt the shame. He had worked hard not to be an ignorant kid, and yet here he was 17, a freaking high school dropout, who couldn’t discuss the most basic of Shakespearean plays. He could have lived with mixing up Iago and Othello, as moronic as that would have been, but at least those two were in the same damn play!

Vague memories, crappy recollections, and the need to prove to the world that he was not some ignorant street rat drove Jason to the Bludhaven Public Library every day where he studied. Desperate to fill the damn holes in his brain, he studied everything from the chemistry he used to know like the back of his hand to the novels he had known better than himself. It was infuriating, but damn, if he weren’t going to relearn whatever it took to feel like himself again.

He also spent his time studying for the GED. It was bad enough that Dick knew he was studying for the SAT. If Jason remembered correctly, Dick took the stupid test after a four-day mission with his stupid team and still almost got a perfect score. There was nothing Dick wasn’t good at, which made it hard to not want to punch the man at times. Before his death, Jason knew he could have taking the SAT and done well, but now, he was even worried about the stupid GED. What a joke.

“Jay,” Mrs. Lewis pulled him from his thoughts. He hadn’t even realized he had made it to the BPL. “It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

Mrs. Lewis, an elderly widow, spent her free time volunteering at the public library because what else am I supposed to do? Sit at home and do puzzles. I’m too young for that. She kept her grey hair in 40s curls and frequently despaired the decline of fashion. She and Alfred would get along fabulously.

Jason gave her a roguish grin. “The pleasure is mine, ma’am.”

She pulled a key out of the old desk drawer. It gave a loud squeak in protest. The ancient thing should have been relegated to a dump years ago. “I saved you the study room on the third floor.”

The third-floor study room was the only one with a widow to the outside. It also happened to be were the test prep books were kept. “You’re a saint, Mrs. Lewis.”

“Oh shush! Save your flattery for someone your own age!” She shooed him off, and Jason headed to the third-floor chuckling.

He stared at the history section of the GED practice test. He knew this. He knew which amendment granted woman the right to vote. It wasn’t the 15th that was everyone but women, so that meant it had to be the 16th or the 19th, surely it wouldn’t have taken the United States five more amendments to give women suffrage. He circled B and moved on to the next question.

An insistent knock at the door distracted him from his studies. Mrs. Lewis looked in at him with expectation. He scooted his chair back and let her into the room. She moved into the room like a lioness pouncing on prey, pushing his books to the side as she placed an overly large Mary Poppins bag onto the table and began pulling out food.

“I thought food wasn’t allowed in the library,” Jason said, dumbfounded.

Mrs. Lewis continued to spread out her plates as she replied, “That only applies to clumsy rhinoceros who would leave food crumbs or stains in my books.” She turned to face Jason with an eyebrow raised. “I trust your capable of eating without damaging public property.”

Jason nodded.

“Then, I don’t see a problem. Now sit and eat. Day in and day out, you come to this library to study, and not once have I seen you leave for lunch,” Mrs. Lewis scolded. Actually scolded him. He wasn’t sure if he should laugh or be annoyed.

“I eat a big breakfast.” Plus, he didn’t notice the time passing when he was focused on schoolwork. He never had. Not once he had discovered how much joy there was in knowledge. His older brother never enjoyed schoolwork, especially essays of any kind, always putting it off until the last second. Once, Jason swore Dick wrote an entire paper in a passing period. But Jason had never shared Dick’s loathing for school. Growing up on the streets taught Jason that education was the most valuable gift someone could be given. Gotham Academy had brand new books and working heaters. He had walked through the wardrobe into Narnia, and he would be a king of Narnia. Eh, the metaphor fell a bit flat, but the point remained the same. Reading transported Jason to different worlds, and education offered the potential to experience a life he never thought possible.

Mrs. Lewis offered him a piercing stare. “Well, now you’ll have a big lunch. Sit down and tell me how your brother is doing while we eat.”

Jason froze. Jay Peterson had a sick mother, who had died, but he was an only child. He didn’t remember talking to Mrs. Lewis about Dick, but it wasn’t like his memory was the most reliable. Damn. How was he supposed to keep a cover if he couldn’t remember the most basic facts of his life? What had he even told her about Dick?

He hedged, “He’s good.”

The library volunteer nodded, and Jason breathed a sigh of relief. His eyes caught sight of an African American man perusing the shelves across from the window of the study room. His head was shaven, and he looked oddly familiar to Jason.

“Do you expect me to care?” Jason hissed as his boot pressed down on the chest of the man in front of him. “You sold to kids.”

“Please, please, don’t,” Tommy Tones begged. Jason received a sick satisfaction of having the black man beg from him. “I won’t do it again.”

He traced the man’s broad face with his knife, enjoying Tommy’s panic clear in his wide eyes as he tried to watch the knife.

“Here’s the thing, Tommy.” Jason tapped the gangster’s nose with the flat side of the knife. “Second chances are bad for business.” Red Hood sliced the man’s jugular before he could speak another word. The blood squirted across his helmet and own to his jacket and body armor. He smirked inside his helmet as he separated head from body. Soon, no one would sell to kids.

An incessant buzzing sound distracted Hood from his task. He looked around the room. That wasn’t right. Why was there an older woman here?

“Your name is Jay Peterson. You’re in the Bludhaven Public Library. You are studying for the GED.”

Oh freak. A flashback. He had a freaking flashback in front of Mrs. Lewis. What was he going to do next attack innocent children?

Jason tried to push himself off the floor, but then he noticed his shirt was covered in blood. Oh god. Who did he hurt? His eyes flicked to Mrs. Lewis, but she didn’t seem hurt. She was still repeating the same sentences over and over again. Jason checked himself. Oh. His shirt was red. He was wearing a red shirt.

Forcing himself to stand, Jason grabbed his jacket off of the back of his chair. He mumbled an apology and fled the room. Taking the stairs three at a time, Jason tore through the library until he was outside, and an autumn breeze hit his face. He was okay. If only his body would get the message. The sound of a brakes screeching sent Jason’s heart into overdrive. He had to get home before he ran into a crowbar or heard the eerie sound of laughter.

Not trusting himself on public transportation, Jason popped his headphones into his ears and listened to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack as he hurriedly walked home. As long as he made it before the hypocritical mother hen did, he’d be fine. Jason just needed time to collect himself.

His long strides and quick pace had his body dripping sweat uncomfortable and his throat was parched, but Jason refused to remove his jacket. His hands were still trembling by the time he got to their building. He fumbled the keys four times before he managed to get inside the building. Not wanting to be in an enclosed space, Jason took the stairs to the fifth floor, where he only barely got the key in the lock on his first try.

Jason ripped his jacket and shirt off. Wadding the shirt into a ball as he headed to his closet and tore every last piece of red clothing off the hangers. Jason threw them in the kitchen sink and doused them in rubbing alcohol from the bathroom before lighting the whole pile on fire.

He stared at the fire as it engulfed the clothing, allowing the dancing flames to calm his nerves. It was strangely peaceful to watch and his heartrate and breathing slowed to acceptable rhythms.

Until the smoke detectors went off… Jason cursed at himself, opened the windows, and fanned smoke away from the detector with a towel – which, of course, was when Dick walked in.

Dick’s trained eyes swept the kitchen for threats, and Jason swore he saw a hint of a smile when his older brother caught site of the red clothing on fire in the kitchen.

“Any particular reason you’re burning your clothing in the sink?” Dick asked as he leaned casually against the counter. Their kitchen was little bigger than a hallway with the sink and dishwasher directly parallel to the stove and microwave and about 3 inches of counter space.

“Because we don’t have a fireplace,” Jason snarked and turned on the sink to douse the remaining flames.

Before Dick could respond a gust of wind almost knocked Jason over. Great. West was here.

“Don’t you knock,” Jason groused.

Wally ignored him and turned on Dick. “Do you know what today is?”

“Friday?”

“It’s date night!” Wally exclaimed. “For the past two years, Friday has been date night, except for when you stole my girlfriend to do your dirty work!”

Dick’s fond smile disappeared. “I’m on a break. If Tigress is on a mission, I had nothing to do with it.”

Wally’s limbs were moving so quickly that Jason wondered how he didn’t accidentally hurt himself as he raged. At least, West shifted Dick’s attention off of him, even if the former Robin wasn’t exactly keen to listen to the speedster complain about his love life.

“No, this isn’t about the team,” Wally hissed. “This is about how I hid your suicide attempt –”

Jason’s world came to an abrupt halt. “What?”

Green eyes widened as if they noticed Jason for the first time and his mouth opened in horror. Dick shoved Wally out of his way.

“Great, thank you. Is there anyone else you’d like to tell?”

“I didn’t. I mean. I didn’t know,” Wally replied.

“Forget it,” Dick said as he stormed out of the apartment.

Wally grabbed the bridge of his nose and banged his head on the cabinets above the counter.

“You want to explain, West?”

Wally gave a rather large sigh and pulled out his phone. Jason tried not to allow his anger to rear up, but it was a near thing.

“What are you doing?”

“Texting Roy,” Wally told him after he pocketed the phone. “Come on.” Wally headed towards the living room.

Jason followed him but refused to sit down. He crossed his arms and glared at Dick’s best friend. Wally sat on their oversized couch and rested his forearms on his thighs.

“Look, it happened three years ago,” Wally said raising his eyes to meet Jason’s. “You don’t need to worry about it.”

“It happened while I was alive?!”

Wally groaned and threw his head back.

“Tell me what happened.”

West stared at the ceiling as he spoke, “Three years ago, Dick called me to say good-bye, I guess. He sounded funny on the phone, and it took me a minute to realize he wasn’t okay. He admitted he planned to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. I raced there and pulled him off before he could do anything.”

Jason swore and swore again. There were not enough curse words for how he felt. “And this happened while I was alive? What the hell? Why would he do that”

Finally, tearing his eyes of the ceiling, Wally looked at Jason. “You’ll have to ask Dick that.”

“Oh, I will.” Jason grabbed his motorcycle jacket and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” West was suddenly in front of him. Damn, speedsters were annoying.

“To talk to Dick.”

Wally gripped his shoulders. “Let Roy handle it.”

Jason threw Wally’s hands off his shoulders.

“At least put on a shirt.”

Frozen, he looked down at himself. He was shirtless, clutching his motorcycle jacket with hands that still held a slight tremor, and trying to chase Dick down for what? If he went after Dick now, it would be a fight, and Jason couldn’t know if a fight would send him into a flashback. He rubbed a hand down his face.

“Why aren’t you going after him?”

Wally stared at him for a moment. “Because I can’t handle Dick’s issues right now.”

It was the truth, and if Jason were honest, he couldn’t either.

“Fine.” Jason threw himself on the couch. “We’ll wait for him to cool off.”

A red eyebrow rose. “We?”

“Shut up, West.”

Wally sat on the opposite side of the couch.

“Are you going to put a shirt on?”

Jason threw a pillow at him.