The Cave had…changed.
Not drastically – the training mats and the lab were in their usual places, the central platform with the Batcomputer remained untouched, Dick’s stupid acrobatics equipment was still in the corner – but there were a lot of little things that hadn’t been there four years ago.
The garage, expanded to hold several motorcycles. The array of knickknacks next to the Batcomputer. The expanded weapons case. A third cot in the medbay. The line of uniforms along the far wall.
Jason drifted along the uniform cases, keeping his distance from the Bats as he waited for their strategy session to start. It wasn’t the first time he’d assisted them – he’d definitely noticed that the ratio of him dropping in to foil their mission versus him dropping in to rescue their asses had skewed over the last several months – and it wasn’t the first time they’d exchanged information – Oracle and her no-nonsense approach was a great go-between – and it wasn’t the first time they’d planned to work together – that dubious honor was held by Killer Croc’s escape, when Jason had been tagged to accompany Nightwing along a stretch of the sewers.
It was, however, the first time he’d been invited to the Cave.
The case wasn’t urgent enough to justify a rooftop planning session, but it was big enough to involve gangs from Bludhaven, a corporation based in San Francisco, a production route through Hong Kong, and a network of drug dealers stretching throughout Gotham but centered in Crime Alley.
So everyone was here to pool together their information – Black Bat was perched on top of the computer and Spoiler was chatting to Red Robin, whose masked gaze was fixed in Jason’s direction. Nightwing was cheerfully chattering away to a sulking Robin, while Batman discussed something with Alfred, cowl off.
Jason ignored them all and walked down the line of old uniforms – previous versions of the Batman suit, getting progressively more armored and sleeker as the tech evolved. Robin showed up in the middle, a child’s leotard and costume, evolving to include leggings and armor, the suit streamlining until it switched to the Nightwing costume.
Jason hurried walked past Dick’s earliest fashion disasters, absently noting the amount of blue decreasing until the Nightwing suit looked less like a laugh and more like a threat.
And then Robin again. His Robin suits. Thicker, more padding on the gloves, but functionally the same as Dick’s old suits, unlike the complete redesign that the Replacement had done. Very little about it changed as he got older, and he reached the last one in the line, right before the Replacement’s uniforms started.
This case was different. This was his last suit, the colors he’d been wearing when he stepped into a warehouse and made the worst mistake of his life. He could almost feel the searing heat on his limbs, wind chafing chapped lips as he waited on the dusty ground.
“Jason? Come with me. I want to show you something.”
“Mom? B said to wait.”
“It’s okay, honey. He’s not inside. Come with me.”
Jason wanted to go back in time and shake that stupid, stupid boy that fell for a bright smile and a chance of family. That had failed to notice blue eyes icy with betrayal until there was a gun levelled at his face.
The plaque across the bottom read ‘A Good Soldier’. Jason wanted to laugh. He wanted to laugh until he started crying because good soldiers followed orders.
What a joke.
He supposed that it was a reminder. Batman’s warning that the thing that had come back wearing his son’s face wasn’t Robin. That Robin had died far away from the city he swore to protect, and what crawled out was only a sad facsimile.
Jason Todd was dead. The Red Hood? The Red Hood was a sometimes-ally, capable of working with the Bats in dire situations. Which was the way Jason liked it.
Jason stepped closer to the case, until he could see the reflection of his helmet in the glass. “You were a fool,” Jason whispered, staring at the whiteout lenses of the mask, “To put your faith in family.”
Two fathers and two mothers, and every one of them had ended up betraying Jason before the end.
Jason exhaled slowly and stepped back, turning away – when was this meeting going to get started – and froze when the light caught the mask at an angle.
There was a slight distortion in the weave and Jason stepped closer – stitches in black thread, tightly wound in the right corner, just below the eye –
Metal swung down, crashing into his face, and the lenses shattered as his mask tore.
No. No. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t.
Jason dropped his gaze to the rest of the uniform, examining it for anything out of place, any other imperfections, his gaze skipping over the cape and red material and dark leggings and –
A scuff in the collar –
A hand curled into his suit, a horrifying smile suddenly far too close to his face.
A discoloration across the emblazoned R –
The crowbar caught him fully across the chest, and he felt his ribs break as he gasped for breath.
The ragged hems of the leggings –
They took his boots and metal slammed onto his bare feet, over and over and over, until he couldn’t even scream anymore.
No amount of shine could hide the ragged soles of the gloves –
He scrabbled against the ground, gloves slipping against the knots around his wrist – the crowbar caught his shoulder and the world dissolved into a breathless shriek.
Spots of the tunic were a darker red –
Blood, blood everywhere, choking him, bright around his lips, as bright as the smile that wavered in his vision as the room spun, round and round and round.
“Let’s try and clear this up, okay pumpkin? What hurts more?”
He could feel his collarbone break.
A strike to his dislocated shoulder, and world almost whited out.
It caught the jut of his pelvis and he didn’t even have the energy to curl up.
Another hit to his head, the edge of the crowbar catching his scalp and dragging, fresh pain slicing across his skin.
Straight into already broken ribs, and strangled whimpers cut out entirely because there was no air to breathe, his lungs spasming uselessly against their shattered cage.
“A little louder, lamb chop!”
Mouth full of blood, a wavering, pale target – his head slammed into the ground again, darkness surging and ebbing.
“Now that was rude – the first Boy Blunder had some manners.”
Harsh, guttural breathing –
A boot digging into his spine, metal raising, please, please make it stop, it hurts –
Laughter. Laughter, echoing off the walls, echoing in his ears, echoing in his soul.
“Tell the big man I said hello.”
Smooth stone floor digging into his kneepads –
Rough, dusty ground hard against his knees as he forced himself up, swaying, because he had to get to the door.
The air was stale, too stale, it was pressing in around him, confining him, trapping him –
Pain, jagged and slicing, but he just had to get to the door –
“Jason! Jason, can you hear me?”
Another step. Another. Another –
“Jason?” A hand heavy on his shoulder –
The dislocated shoulder burst into fresh agony as he forced his arms up, the handle was right in front of him –
“Take off his helmet!” Hands pressing around his head, fitting into grooves and finding catches –
He pulled on the handle. And again. And again, but it didn’t turn, rattling in place, and frustrated tears blurred his vision even further, and –
“Why the fuck did he put a bomb in his helmet?”
“Shut up and let me defuse it!”
Tick. Tock. He squinted at the timer – too far away, his head was aching, the room was washing in and out –
“There – take it off now.” Fingers curling against his neck, a click settling into his teeth, fresh air.
No, please, Bruce, help, please –
“Bruce, Bruce, please –”
“I’m right here, Jason, I’m right here.”
Fire. Fire everywhere, searing through his bones, and it was pain like nothing he could ever imagine, and he wanted to black out, he wanted to die.
“Jay, I’m here, I’m right here.”
“No – no – it hurts – make it stop, please, B – make it stop –”
“I got you, it’s going to be okay, I have you, Jason –”
His lungs struggled uselessly against the smoke, choking on every breath – pain and fire, flaying him alive – and he couldn’t move, couldn’t even twitch –
A shadow crossing his vision, a voice hoarse and cracked –
“Jason. Jason, breathe.”
Arms wrapped around him, choked, desperate pleas –
“I have you, you’re safe, Jason, I swear –”
Glistening blue eyes. Teardrops that felt like miniature flames. The rattling, terrifying certainty that this was the end.
Darkness. A darkness that ate him alive.
“I’m here, Jay-lad, I’m right here.”
A darkness that spat him back up.
The Cave ceiling, dark and shadowed –
Darkness, absolute darkness, and his searching fingers met cool satin –
An array of masked and not-masked faces, staring down in concern –
Trapped, he was trapped, was this a sick joke –
Bruce – Batman – Bruce looking at him with wide eyes, armor hard against his elbow, the sound of desperate, gasping breaths –
He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe –
“Jason. Jason. You need to breathe. Jason.”
Frantically lashing out with hands and fingernails, scrabbling at his prison, his heartbeat choking him –
He lashed out and caught ahold of – of a gauntleted arm, fingers squeezing tight around the armor. Real. This was real.
Belt buckle, scraping against wood –
He pressed further against the armor, until he could hear another heartbeat, out of sync to his own but beating just as fast as arms tightened around him.
A trickle of dirt –
He squeezed his eyes shut and watched the shadows play against his closed eyelids, burrowing further into the warmth.
The taste of mud –
Something soft and heavy draped over his shoulders, gloved fingers running through his hair, low murmurs around him, a hand rubbing circles on his back.
A desperate gasp –
“Jason. Jay-lad. You’re in the Cave, Jay, keep breathing. You’re safe.”
Rain on his face –
“It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re safe here. Just keep breathing.”
Someone was crying, Jason noted distantly. Soft, shuddering breaths, cracked by hitched inhales and wet exhales. Fluttering in tune to his pounding heartbeat.
Soft rustling behind him. Near-silent footsteps coming and going. The heartbeat in his ears slowed.
“I brought water.”
“Thank you, Tim,” rumbled through the armor beneath him.
“Cass, what are you doing?”
“Cover. To not see.”
The hand on his back stuttered. “Right,” Dick exhaled softly, something dark creeping into his tone, “I can’t believe you didn’t –”
“Dick,” the Replacement said, quiet but sharp, “Not now.”
Dick subsided, but the tension lingered in the air. Jason pressed further into the arms around him, still sucking in large, quick breaths, still afraid that the air would turn stale – dead, it smelled like death – and hot – muddy – dry – rain –
“Bruce,” his voice cracked, his fingers trembling as they tried to grab the cape.
“I’m right here,” murmured into his hair, “Jay, I’m right here.”
His eyes prickled – he couldn’t hold on, his hands were too weak, his limbs shaking, he had to trust that Bruce wouldn’t let go, and that faith felt like splitting his heart open.
“Don’t leave,” Jason choked out. He could feel the mask pressing into his skin – there was a case, they’d been planning something, he’d been invited to the Cave –
“I’m not going anywhere,” Bruce said quietly, and Jason let out a shuddering breath.
He focused on breathing – inhale, wait, exhale, inhale, wait, exhale – forced to start over every time an inhale hitched or an exhale turned into a cough, but gradually his heart dulled its pounding in his ears and his lungs stopped squeezing – his breaths settling into a steady rhythm, in tune to the slow circles rubbed around his shoulder blade and the gentle fingers in his hair.
Batman, some distant part of his mind sounded, you’re holding Batman. It was something he should care about. He was the Red Hood, he wasn’t a part of the family, he needed to get away –
He remembered dying.
He remembered coming back.
And he remembered screaming for his father to help, to save him, to just make it stop hurting.
His limbs were weighted down with exhaustion, as completely as though they had chains wrapped around his wrists –
Rough rope, biting into skin, turned slick with blood as he tried and tried to break free –
Jason choked, and Bruce brushed the side of his face with a callused thumb. “You’re safe,” he said, his voice gentle but firm, “You’re in the Cave. I’m right here.”
He went limp at the quiet surety.
“Jason?” Bruce asked softly.
Jason turned his face until it was fully pressed against the armor, right at Bruce’s collarbone, and took a ragged breath. He didn’t want to cry. He didn’t want them to see him cry. His fingers wouldn’t even curl into a fist, and Bruce was holding him tightly and Dick was pressed to one side and he was so tired.
Laughter – mud on his tongue – dry heat – that goddamn laughter – the sickening snap of bone – fire, fire everywhere – he couldn’t hear anything other than that fucking laughter –
“Please,” Jason exhaled, unsure of what he was asking for, desperation singing through his veins.
“You’re safe, son,” Bruce said quietly, “I’m here.”
Too late, some part of his mind shouted, furious and bitter and spiteful, but the greater part simply didn’t care.
Better too late than not at all.
When he woke up, he felt like he was opening his eyes to a dream. Or maybe closing his eyes to one – a long, terrifying, bleak dream of poison water and murder and hatred and fury so potent he could taste it – of attacking his family over and over and over again – of dying, of coming back, of laughter that never ever stopped.
His bedroom was just how he left it. He was fifteen again, and he was mad at Bruce, and he was ignoring his homework in favor of sorting through the stuff that Willis had left behind and –
And he’d left on that stupid, foolish trip – Jason could see the empty place on his shelf where he’d taken a book, the credit cards scattered on the side table because he knew better than to bring those with him, the open box of belongings still not sorted and put away.
He’d left, and he never had the chance to come back.
He’d destroyed his chance to come back.
Jason staggered off the bed – the sheets were the same ones he’d used last, plain blue and purple – mentally reeling as his legs hit the ground much faster than he’d been expecting. The cognitive dissonance was dizzying – his memories overlapped with his vision as he stared at his bedroom with a vantage point that was nearly a foot taller than he remembered.
Everything felt small. And far away. Like he’d stumbled into a replication of his bedroom but they’d gotten the scale wrong.
A mirror world. A dream. A nightmare.
Jason didn’t realize he’d faltered back until his heel hit the edge of his desk. His knees wavered, and he dropped instead of waiting for them to crumple entirely. There was a small gap between the desk and the bed, and with some judicious wriggling and more than a few bruises, Jason managed to wedge himself inside.
Definitely easier when he was fifteen.
Someone had removed his body armor. His leather jacket was hung up on the rack behind the door. He was wearing a soft, loose shirt and comfortable sweatpants – judging by the size, they could be no one’s but Bruce’s.
The thought should’ve made him seethe. He didn’t want Bruce’s handouts. He didn’t want Bruce’s help. Not after he’d failed him the last time.
Jason drew his knees up and buried his face in them. Alfred hadn’t changed detergent brands in the last four years.
His breath caught in his throat as a lump swelled up, threatening to choke him. Jason took slow, shallow breaths, ignoring the prickling in his eyes.
The dream – always the same one, the thread he couldn’t let go of, ever since he woke up surrounded in green – was what if I didn’t die?
What if he never went to Ethiopia? What if he listened to Batman, and hadn’t followed his – lying, traitorous, betraying – birth mother inside the warehouse? What if Bruce had come in time?
What if I went home?
He’d never considered going home after. Walking back to the Manor after being resurrected. Leaving his trainers and Talia and all that killing behind. Going home – before Red Hood, before hurting Tim, before the Joker and the bomb and forcing Batman to make the choice that had shattered his heart.
Before he set each and every one of his bridges on fire.
The door creaked open and Jason curled up tighter, pressing his forehead to his knees and letting out a ragged exhale. Quiet footsteps made their way inside, pausing right in front of him.
“Jay?” Bruce asked quietly, crouched in front of him, “How are you feeling?”
Like shit, Jason didn’t answer. I had a flashback to my death, old man, how do you think I’m feeling, he didn’t answer. I want a hug, he didn’t answer.
Instead, he took a deep, controlled breath, and asked, without looking up, “If I came back, after the Pit, before all the killing, would you – would you have let me come home?”
A sharp inhale. Jason waited, arms wrapped around his knees, his heart rate increasing with every second of silence. It stretched, every heartbeat too loud in the small space, and Jason finally dared to look up.
Bruce was staring at him, frozen, face pale, and there was something fractured in his eyes.
“Jason,” he said softly, his voice trembling, “This will always be your home. You can come back whenever you like.”
That was – that couldn’t be true – that wasn’t possible – Batman had – Bruce had – they all had –
…No one had told him that he couldn’t come back, had they.
Jason watched Bruce, still suspicious, and saw the man briefly close his eyes, take a trembling breath, and open them again, his expression still raw and wounded.
“Jay-lad,” Bruce said, quiet and gentle, “You’re my son, and you will always have a home with me.”
Jason narrowed his eyes. “You’ll let a murderer back inside your precious Manor?” he sniped.
“You are not the first member of this family who has killed someone,” Bruce replied calmly, “And you’re not the last.”
Jason scowled deeper – but Bruce was right.
“Yeah,” Jason glared, “And I saw how much being part of the family mattered where it actually counted.” Bruce’s face shuttered, as it did every time Jason even hinted at the clown still breathing in Arkham Asylum. “You replaced me, Bruce.” Not just as Robin, which hurt, but Bruce had gone and gotten another blue-eyed black-haired child six months after Jason had died.
He took a sharp glance at his room and laughed hollowly, “How long did it take you to recreate my room? Kicked the Replacement out?”
Bruce looked confused for a second, before he sighed. “This isn’t Tim’s room,” Bruce said levelly, “It’s yours. It hasn’t been touched since – since you left.”
Cute euphemism. Since he ran away and got blown up by a clown.
“Really,” Jason drawled, “You just kept your dead kid’s room exactly the way he left it, down to the half-finished homework on the table?”
Bruce wasn’t looking at him now. Bruce was staring at the carpet, his jaw tight, his face strained.
“I promised you,” he said, his voice barely a whisper, “That I would never touch anything inside your room.”
Jason remembered that promise. He remembered extracting it, twelve and terrified, all alone in a huge manor with a man three times his size, and remembered Bruce nodding solemnly at all of Jason’s terms.
He abruptly straightened, wincing as his hipbone banged into the bedframe as he scraped himself free from the small nook.
It was a lie. It had to be a lie. No one kept a promise to a dead kid. That didn’t even make any sense.
Bruce watched, still sitting cross-legged on the floor, as Jason examined the room. The homework on the table, he picked up and placed into the right folders, waiting in the drawers of the desk. The pens were in the correct alignment in the cup. None of the books in his shelf had been touched or moved – not even the three he’d taken from the main Manor library.
He dumped out the contents of the backpack next to his desk – homework, textbooks, notebooks…and a school library copy of Redwall. Jason flipped it open to the sign-out sheet – his was the last name on it, dated from four years ago.
“I’m not paying the overdue fine for this book,” he said, aiming for casual but ending up with hoarse.
Bruce slowly straightened to look at what he was holding. “I bought them a new copy,” he said quietly.
Jason abruptly dropped the book and his bag.
His clothes were all in the closet, most everything far too small for him right now. He pulled out a Gotham Knights sweatshirt that was several sizes bigger than the rest, and threw it on the bed. “That’s Dick’s,” he said, kneeling by the edge of the bed.
“No,” Bruce said, sounding faintly amused and choked up at the same time, “Dick stole that one from me.”
Jason ignored him in favor of trying to squeeze under the bed – he’d chosen this hiding place because Bruce was too big to fit between the bedframe and the floor, which was admittedly shortsighted of him. Finally, he gave up, withdrawing with a grumble.
“Do you want me to move the bed?” Bruce asked.
“No,” Jason scowled, “I need someone thin enough to fit underneath.”
“Damian?” Bruce asked.
“The brat’s arms are too short,” Jason said, “Get the Replacement.”
Bruce sighed, but moved to the door. “Tim?” he called out into the hall, and a half-minute later, the Replacement poked his head into the room.
“Yes?” he said, his answer turning into a question when he saw Jason.
“Jason wants you to help him get something from under the bed,” Bruce explained. Jason’s scowl deepened – that was not what he said.
The Replacement looked similarly skeptical, and Jason growled, “It’s not going to eat you, kid.”
Tim made a low mutter that sounded like ‘can I have that in writing’ but edged inside the room, darting another look at Jason – he rolled his eyes and took a full step back – before kneeling at the edge of the bed and wriggling underneath it.
“What am I supposed to be looking for?” Tim asked, his voice muffled.
“Loose floorboard, near the top left,” Jason called out, “There should be two boxes inside.”
There was some shifting noises, the scrape of a box on wood, and then Tim emerged back from under the bed, dragging two shoeboxes with him. “What’re these?” Tim asked, brushing the dust from his hair.
Jason opened the first one, and ignored both Bruce and Tim leaning to look over his shoulder. It had protein bars, a jar of honey, and a jar of peanut butter. He counted the protein bars instinctively – twenty-four, not that it mattered to him anymore – before closing the shoe box and sliding it aside. “Probably expired,” he said.
“Is that a food stash?” Tim asked slowly. Bruce had a pinched look on his face.
“Was,” Jason corrected, “Was a food stash.” Bruce’s pinched look grew more pronounced.
The other shoebox was what Jason was actually searching for – a picture of six-year-old him with Catherine – with his mom – in a frame he’d stolen from somewhere in the Manor, along with a set of silverware and a glittering sapphire necklace, all cushioned by the faded, tattered red hoodie that lined the inside of the shoebox.
“Didn’t Alfred throw that hoodie out?” Bruce asked, frowning.
Jason stared at him, nonplussed. “Is that really your first reaction?” he asked, incredulous.
“Huh,” Tim said, staring into the box, “Alfred mentioned something about the silverware going missing.”
“Some detectives you all are,” Jason muttered, carefully easing the photo out of the frame and straightening up – the empty frame, the silverware, and the necklace were deposited back into the box after he removed the hoodie. “Here,” he said, handing it to Bruce, “You can have your stuff back.”
He hadn’t been able to bear taking the silverware and necklace with him when he’d run away – to be faced with Bruce and Alfred’s disappointment at the street rat turning out to be a thief after all.
Bruce looked at the box with a strange expression on his face, before he shook his head and stepped back. “Keep it,” he said.
“Keep it – Bruce, what the hell am I supposed to do with a set of old silverware and your mother’s necklace?”
“Your grandmother’s necklace,” Bruce corrected quietly. Jason sucked in a sharp breath. “If you want it, it’s yours.”
Jason stared at him.
“Wait a minute,” Tim said, narrowing his eyes, “Are we allowed to just take stuff from the old jewelry boxes?”
“If you want something, go ahead,” Bruce said, not looking away from Jason.
“Oh, great, I’m going to get my hands on those cufflinks before the demon brat,” Tim said gleefully, jogging out the door. There were three beats of silence before Tim called out, “Dick! Cass! Bruce said we can take stuff from the old jewelry boxes!”
“What,” Dick shouted from somewhere deeper in the Manor, “I call the rose brooch!”
“I want the amethyst earrings!” Steph shrieked, “No, Cass, you don’t even have piercings – yeah, sure, we can change that –”
“Those are all my rightful possessions, you ungrateful thieves!” Damian’s tinny voice echoed from somewhere deeper in the Manor.
Jason stared at the sapphire necklace, and then back up at Bruce, whose expression had gone back to his default blankness.
“…You realize you just started World War III, right?” Jason asked.
Jason set the shoebox on the table with a sigh.
What kind of father kept a promise to a dead kid?
Like it or not, there was only one real answer.
Bruce slowly crept towards the box, and removed the empty glass frame. He held his hand out and Jason wordlessly handed him the photo. Bruce carefully eased the photo inside the frame and placed it on the desk, adjusting it so that it faced the bed. Then, he took the sapphire necklace and wound the gold chain around one corner of the frame, until the sapphire pendant dangled next to his mother’s face.
Bruce stepped back, and Jason felt his throat close up again.
“…You should probably give the silverware back to Alfred, though.”
Jason managed a rusty chuckle.
“And hide that hoodie before he sees it.”
That threat, Jason took seriously. He took a step back and did a slow spin, cataloguing his room from his new, higher vantage point. He wouldn’t be able to fit under his bed, so it was time to set his sights higher.
Finally, he decided on the closet, tucking the red hoodie underneath a set of winter clothes on the highest shelf, and carefully rearranging it until the rust-red color was completely hidden.
Bruce was leaning against the doorframe, watching him with a soft expression on his face. And ignoring the distant shrieks, cries, and vehement threats.
Jason picked up the Gotham Knights sweatshirt. One last thing to do.
Bruce followed him out of the room, watching silently as Jason opened every door in the hallway to peek into the rooms until he found the one he wanted – several piles of clothes on the floor, two teetering stacks of notebooks on the desk, and four laptops scattered on the bed.
He gave the room – and Bruce – his best judgmental stare, before folding the sweatshirt and dropping it on the bed.
“Tim’s more of a Meteors fan.”
Jason snapped his head towards Bruce. “Bruce,” he said slowly, “And I mean this in all sincerity, why did you adopt him?”
Bruce gave a half-shrug.
“Cass?” Jason asked, half-desperate, “Steph? Damian?”
“Cass doesn’t like baseball,” Bruce ticked off, “Steph either doesn’t like baseball or doesn’t like me, and Damian prefers cricket.”
Jason stared at him, shocked.
“Bruce. Bruce. You have to take everyone to a game. I can’t believe you’ve let this travesty continue, old man.”
“Sure,” Bruce smiled, “Maybe the Knights will actually win this time.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.”
“I don’t know, Jay,” Bruce said softly, his gaze fixed on Jason like he’d disappear if he blinked, “It seems like a season for miracles.”