He had to collapse in the shadow of an air conditioning vent halfway back from the police station. What had started as a dry itch in his throat and a light headache evolved into a throat that felt like he’d swallowed a cheese grater, and a pulsing spike rammed behind his eyes.
He hadn’t had a choice. He had to push on—the meeting of the drug lieutenants was a rare opportunity, and he had to make use of it, even if the gunshots sounded like they were reverberating in his skull.
And then he couldn’t just leave the bodies, wait for them to stink and rot, so he laid out the tarp and—and the chainsaw, he was going to pass out just thinking about it, it had taken his headache and hammered it into every corner of his skull.
And then the duffel bag. And cleaning up, his stomach churning, taking shallow breaths as he desperately tried not to puke—knowing that the helmet had air filters, but tasting pennies on his tongue all the same. Jason wasn’t sure how he managed to pick up the duffel bag without shaking, but it was at that point he was forced to admit that it wasn’t just an annoying cold.
But he had the duffel bag all wrapped up, and all that remained was dropping it off, and at least if he did that, he could go back to his apartment and sleep. Jason was moving on autopilot, alertness coming in snapshots—the roof ledge—grappling—the glittering letters of the police station—the muffled thump of the bag hitting the ground—concrete under his gloves—shadows and neon lights—and receding just as quickly.
Case in point, he’d meant to close his eyes for a minute, but there was sunlight touching the distant horizon by the time he struggled to his feet.
Home. Out of the armor, out of the clothes that still smelled like blood. Something for his throat, something that didn’t feel like broken glass when he swallowed—milk with turmeric and pepper, maybe, or a salt water gargle—and then his bed. Sleep.
Jason barely remembered to reset the alarm on his window before he all-but-collapsed inside. He stripped his gear off in pieces, letting them fall on the floor on his way to the bedroom.
He should get a drink, hot soup, warm water, something—but his stomach was churning and his head felt like splinters and his chest ached every time he coughed and he could barely breathe and Jason collapsed on his bed and let his eyes slide shut.
He awoke to the sound of his window sliding open.
The alarm—he’d set the alarm, right?—didn’t sound, but Jason had spent years as a light sleeper, and even the cotton stuffing his entire head wasn’t enough to mute those conditioned reactions.
It was, however, enough to dull his movements, and Jason groped beneath his pillow and on the bedside table before realizing that his guns were nowhere in reach.
That was bad.
He didn’t hear the intruder come closer, but when he struggled up to a halfway upright position—his head felt like a watermelon that someone was in the process of carving up—he saw a figure lurking in the doorway.
Dark, nondescript clothes. Slight—either a kid, or just short. Dark hair, and blue eyes widened in shock.
Jason squinted—but that proved too much for his head, and his cheek was pressing against the pillow before he even registered what was going on, cotton-stickiness dragging him back under.
“Jason?” said a high, stunned voice.
Something was inside his mouth and Jason spat it out—he registered the red-and-white of a thermometer at about the moment he registered the teenager leaning over him.
Jason didn’t bother asking who, what, why—he immediately lunged up, ready to defend himself, ready to get away, ready to show this idiot exactly how he’d survived two years on the streets in the most dangerous city in the country—
It felt like someone had taken a nail and slammed it through his skull, the pain was that intense and overpowering. Jason could hear himself gasping as he curled up, hands pressed to his ears like that would make it stop, praying for the agony to recede.
The thermometer nudged back into his mouth, and it was too dry to spit back out.
“Go away,” Jason snarled—or tried to, but it ended up more like a huff. “Last warning.”
The kid rescued the thermometer, and made a sharp, displeased sound. “One-oh-one,” he muttered.
Jason was going to wrap his hands around that scrawny neck and squeeze. Just as soon as he could think without screaming.
“Scram, kid,” he hissed. The throbbing was getting worse and Jason couldn’t keep the tension locked into his muscles. “Or I’ll gut you like a fish.”
“Sorry,” the kid said, not sounding very sorry, “But I’m not letting them lose you again.”
Who was he—what was he—the throbbing spiked, and Jason let it take him, hoping for a less painful death this time around.
There was something nice and cold on his burning forehead. Jason moved with the palm tilting his head, and groaned when he felt the edge of the glass pressing against his lips.
“You need to drink water, Jason,” the voice said, pressing the glass more insistently.
Jason tried to glower, but opened his mouth anyway. It felt like he was trying to choke down concrete, and the glass finally relented as Jason’s breathing broke on a hitched inhale, three swallows in.
“Jason, I’m sorry,” the voice continued. “But if you don’t eat and drink something, I’m going to have to set up an IV.”
No. “No n’dl’s,” Jason slurred, opening his mouth for the water again. This time he swallowed it all, and the last of it slid down his throat with tears pooling in his eyes.
“You’re doing great, Jason,” the voice murmured—it didn’t sound familiar, but there was something of the cadence that reminded him of a lower voice and fingers sifting through sweaty hair. “Just a little oatmeal now, okay?”
Jason opened his mouth to plead for a break, but he was met with a spoon and a vaguely honey-flavored, lukewarm mush. Jason swallowed, and the exertion was enough to send him sinking back into the pillows.
The voice sighed, and readjusted itself so it could prop his head up on a knee as it brought the spoon to Jason’s mouth again. “A few more bites, that’s it.”
Jason sucked the oatmeal off the spoon, but he hesitated a full two seconds before swallowing—the rough-scraped-raw of his throat brought stinging tears to his eyes, and he just wanted to go back to sleep until this torture was over.
“Two more spoons, Jason, I promise.”
Jason didn’t like promises. Someone made a promise to protect him forever and ever and they hadn’t. It had broken something inside of him, something Jason didn’t know how to fix, something he’d tried to drown out with green and red.
The voice didn’t lie, though. After two miserable, choked swallows, Jason was allowed to drift back into the darkness.
“—not sure it’s him, but it certainly looks like him—and it makes sense, looking at Hood’s movements—”
A pause, and the speaker huffed, “If I use the Cave, B is going to know the second the results come in.”
Jason could hear a low, tinny buzz, like someone speaking through a phone line, far away.
“It’s—it’s him, I don’t—it just makes so much sense now—” The buzz grew louder and the voice cut it off, “His eyes are bright green. If you’re looking for a possible explanation.”
Bright green. That remembered him of something, something howling and dark and furious, something that terrified him, something that became him.
“I, just—he’s sick, Babs, and his temperature keeps climbing and I want to tell B, I do, but—yeah. No, he’s definitely Hood, you have no idea how many guns I stumbled across. He even has a freaking rocket launcher.”
The dull ache spread all over, a heavy weight pushing him down.
“Just—keep distracting him. Yeah, B still thinks I’m sulking. I don’t know, how long does it take to get over a fever? No, he’s not coherent, I—yeah. Okay. You’re the best, O.”
Down and down and down.
His whole body ached, like he’d been hit by a bus and then run over by a train for good measure. His head was, for once, not shrieking in agony, and Jason carefully eased upright, slow, incremental movements, praying that the dull fog wrapping around his brain would keep.
He would take the fog over the pain. Even if it made it difficult to remember where he was or what he was doing. He was on a bed, sheets tacky with sweat, and Jason shivered as he pulled them up, wrapping them firmly around himself as he sagged against the headboard.
He’d finished his work, whatever it was, he could feel a small kernel of satisfaction among the other dulled feelings. He’d earned his rest—not that this was particularly restful, he was ill and exhausted and there were a lot of things he didn’t want to think about beyond the fog, he could feel them pressing close.
His attention was happily distracted by a figure appearing in the doorway, carefully holding a bowl in his hands. The figure—the kid, he couldn’t be older than sixteen—froze when he saw Jason sitting up and staring at him.
Jason frowned—dark hair, blue eyes, but Dick was older than this. Taller. And he moved different, he moved like gravity was merely a minor inconvenience. This kid was all gangly limbs and wide eyes, almost like a little flustered fawn.
“Jason?” the kid asked slowly.
The kid knew who he was. But Jason could swear he didn’t have a little brother. Right? He nudged at his memory, but a lot of it was beyond the fog and Jason didn’t want to go there. The only impression he got back was the kid’s face was familiar, and there was definitely something tangled up with family.
Maybe he was new? That was a distinct possibility—Jason frowned, someone was laughing, Dick was laughing, something about empty nest syndrome and not being able to wander away for two hours before Dad brought home a new kid.
Jason was, however, blanking on a name. He blinked at the kid. The kid blinked back, making no move to introduce himself—but why would he, what kind of idiot reintroduced themselves to their brother every time they woke up?
“Baby bird?” Jason tried—Dick was Big Bird, so it made sense.
The kid blinked, and then flushed, a splotchy red. He held out the bowl like a shield. “I—I made soup,” he squeaked. Honest-to-goodness squeaked.
Jason felt his lips twitch. Definitely a baby bird.
“Thank you,” he said, accepting the bowl and taking a careful sip. The soup was hot, but he made a face—swallowing was acutely painful. He thought it might be tomato soup, it was red, but he couldn’t discern any taste through his stuffed nose.
Jason groaned and finished the bowl, sip by raw sip, until he didn’t have the energy to lift the spoon anymore. The kid rescued the bowl before the dregs could tip over onto the sheets, and slowly eased Jason back into the bed.
Jason managed two sips of lukewarm water from the glass that the kid held to his lips, and sighed as his eyes fluttered closed.
“Thanks, baby bird,” he hummed—the brief burst of energy was deserting him, and he made a small sound when a cold hand settled on his burning forehead.
Sleep claimed him before Jason could ask why a kid was taking care of him.
Cold metal on his tongue.
“A hundred and three. This is bad.”
“—why did you have to be so heavy,” the kid grumbled. Sheets slithered against each other, cold wind striking like needles against bare skin.
He whimpered, searching for the warmth, but it drew too far for him to reach.
“You’re overheating, Jason,” the baby bird said, “I need to get your temperature down, and I can’t carry you to the bathroom.”
A cold touch on his face, soft and dragging across skin with a gentle swipe. Across his forehead. Down his cheeks. Around his eyes.
It was cold, Jason didn’t like the cold, but the touch was soothing, movements careful as they slid across skin, getting rid of the tacky clamminess of sweat, and Jason hummed, drowsiness curling back around him.
He felt exposed. Vulnerable. But this was family, it was okay, they would take care of him. He’d been alone for so long, alone and afraid and hurting, but he was safe now. It felt like an awful burden had been taken off his shoulders, and Jason could finally relax.
There was something pinging in the back of his head—someone had to pay, someone had to hurt, he needed his revenge—but Jason let it drift. Family meant help meant he didn’t have to do it alone.
The soft, wet sponge left refreshing tingles in its wake, and Jason shivered, but the cold wasn’t enough to stop him from slipping back under.
A cold touch on his forehead, damp cloth settling next to his hair. “Please, Jason,” a quiet voice said, cracking, “If—if your fever doesn’t break tonight, I have to call someone and I don’t—I don’t know how to explain this and I just—I need you to tell me what you’re doing and why you haven’t called Bruce and I—”
The baby bird sounded too stressed. Jason managed to move his hand in the approximate direction of the voice, and cold fingers slowly, hesitantly enveloped his.
He tried to say, “I’ll be fine,” but he was pretty sure it came out garbled.
The kid made a choked noise and the cloth on Jason’s forehead was adjusted. “You’re an asshole,” the kid grumbled, “Don’t make me try to explain the guns to Bruce. Shit, don’t make me try to explain the rocket launcher to Bruce.”
Rocket launchers were cool, what was there to explain?
Jason shifted, a herculean task, until he was pressing against the kid’s bony knee. “Shush,” he meant to say, but the drowsiness was pulling him down again.
Fingers slowly ran through his hair, and Jason lost the battle entirely.
Cold metal, pressing on his tongue.
A deep, heavy sigh.
The kid was squirming, trying to get out of the bed, and Jason growled, tugging him closer, making use of his weight advantage because his muscles felt like limp jelly.
The kid gave up and sighed. “Jason,” he whined.
“Baby bird,” Jason whined back, half on top of the skinny kid and arm curled around his shoulders.
“I need to go make your breakfast.”
“Sleep,” Jason said instead.
“Jason, you need to eat.”
Jason didn’t want to get out of the bed, and he didn’t want the baby bird to get out of the bed, and they should just stay here because Jason said so. Alfred would bring up breakfast, anyway.
“Jason, please let me go.”
“Not until you sleep.”
“It’s nine o’clock in the morning!”
The kid huffed, and gave up. Jason snuggled him closer, smug in victory.
“—‘m fine, I’m studying with a friend—”
The voice was low, but there was an edge to it, and that slowly drew him away from unconsciousness.
“—don’t have to tell you my whereabouts at all times of the day—”
The voice on the other end of the conversation sounded annoyed, a grumbling tone that was very familiar.
“—well aware that I’m grounded, you don’t need to keep telling me—”
An admonishing tone.
“Do I ever go looking for trouble, B?” the voice sounded amused now.
“I’ll be safe. Bye, Bruce.”
The click of the line heralded silence again, and Jason drifted, half-expecting to feel a large hand carding through his hair and a soft kiss on his forehead.
Jason opened his eyes with a groan, wincing as the afternoon light stabbed into them. His head hurt.
Someone made a sympathetic noise next to him and Jason gingerly flopped over, resting his head on a lap and closing his eyes again.
“Your head hurts?” they asked, gentle fingers running through his hair, just enough pressure to each the ache.
Jason hummed in lieu of an answer.
The fingers briefly stopped stroking and rested on his forehead, cool to the touch. “Your fever broke,” they said, “So that’s good news.”
That didn’t stop his head from hurting and Jason relaxed fully as the fingers started carding through his hair again.
“Dinner is soup again,” the voice said, “I’ll get it in a little bit, okay?”
Jason didn’t care what the fuck they did, as long as they kept stroking his hair.
The soup was blissfully warm against his ragged throat and Jason slumped further with every spoon. He was so tired, he felt like he could sleep for days, and the solicitousness was soothing—taking the bowl from him when he was done, handing him warm water, supporting him on the brief journey to the bathroom, tucking him back in bed and rubbing at the knots at the base of his neck until the tension eeled out of his spine.
Jason cracked his eyes open and took a deep breath. It hurt, but he had memories of it hurting worse, so he took the win.
He slowly eased upright, careful to make sure the dull throb of a mostly subdued headache didn’t flare back into the agony he dimly remembered, and inhaled slowly when he sat up.
His body ached, like he’d gone toe to toe with Bane, and his joints weakly protested as he raised a hand to scrub at his face. He felt like he was stepping out of a fog, his head clear and in vivid contrast to memories of swallowing down something spoon fed to him and fingers petting his hair and quiet, exasperated complaints—but that didn’t make any sense.
No one had taken care of him in years, not since before he died—his brain felt fuzzy, like he was trying to shove memories into the wrong hole, but the gentle caring and warm attentiveness was from before, the memories of a dead boy, why did it refuse to go with all the other things Jason didn’t like thinking about—
A kid stumbled through the doorway, yawning, accompanied by the sharp scent of fresh coffee. He beamed when he saw Jason, “You’re awake.”
Jason stared at him. At Robin. At the Replacement.
Baby bird, something in his mind insisted.
What the fuck.
“Do you want oatmeal for breakfast?” the Replacement asked, “Or I can make toast?”
Had Jason wandered into an alternate dimension? Or was he seeing things? Why the fucking hell was the Replacement asking him about breakfast preferences?
Maybe he was seeing things.
“Who are you?” Jason croaked out. He discreetly scanned the room—no weapons in easy reach.
The kid’s expression went through several complicated feelings, landing firmly on embarrassment as his face turned red. “I’m Tim Drake,” the kid said, shifting from foot to foot, “I mean—I’m Robin.”
I’m Robin. That was a gut punch to the stomach. Jason knew that, but hearing it so blithely felt like a knife twisting into his heart.
Something must’ve shown on his face, because the Replacement hastily backpedaled. “I meant—I wasn’t—I didn’t—I didn’t know you were alive—I...can we start again?” he asked weakly.
Jason raised an eyebrow.
“I’m Tim,” the kid said, “And, um. I’m sorry for breaking into your apartment? But you were very sick.”
Jason stared at him. The explanation did not answer any of his questions—in fact, it just raised more.
Before he could get the chance to voice them, though, the kid spoke up again, “How are you alive?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that! But you’re supposed to be—Bruce thinks you’re dead,” the kid said, twisting his fingers together, “And you’re here, and you’re not dead. And you’re the Red Hood.”
Jason ignored both the seething, spitting fury at Bruce’s name, and the aching longing for the rumbling voice that used to sit by his bedside and read him a story whenever he was sick. He needed to focus.
The kid had broken into his apartment. The kid had found him, even though Jason was still weeks away from his planned confrontation with Batman and the replacement Robin.
“How did you find me?” Jason asked, something cold settling in his gut. He couldn’t sense anyone else’s presence, but if the Replacement could find him, who was next? Nightwing? The big man himself?
“You weren’t exactly subtle with that duffel bag of heads,” Tim said slowly, “And you were spotted on a few security cameras when you left.”
“Who else knows I’m here?” Jason demanded, sliding out of the bed—he wobbled, and Tim moved forward as if to catch him, but Jason shot him a glare and the kid backed off.
“Just Babs,” he said, and Jason roughly shouldered past him to check the rest of the apartment and the alarms on his windows.
Hadn’t kept out interfering little baby birds, but hopefully they were more effective on bats.
“Jason?” the baby bird—the Replacement—Tim—shit, Jason needed to get his head on straight—asked, “Are you okay?”
The words drew Jason up short. He’d opened his mouth to snap out a terse ‘I’m fine’, before he realized that no one had asked him that question in ages.
“Get out of my house,” he said instead. His muscles were still weak, he was getting a headache again as fever-bright memories insisted on shoving to the surface, and he couldn’t even look at the kid’s face without three contradictory messages leaping out at him.
Kill him, the green hissed.
Replacement, the wounded, hurting, jealous kid snarled.
Baby brother, the stubbornness asserted.
“Uh, no? I’m not leaving until I get some answers, Jason—you did just drop off a bag with the heads of eight drug lieutenants and turned half of Gotham into a powder keg.”
“Leave,” Jason snapped, whirling towards him. He was the goddamn Red Hood, he didn’t answer to anybody, and certainly not to snot-nosed brats waltzing around in his old suit. Robin was going to regret coming here without his brooding backup.
The kid stood his ground. “Not until you give me a good reason why I shouldn’t have called Bruce the second I saw you,” Tim said, crossing his arms.
Jason stalked towards him—the kid stepped back when Jason pushed into his personal space, and he matched him, step for step until the Replacement was against the wall and Jason’s hand was on his shoulder, thumb curling to rest in the hollow of his throat.
“Get out,” Jason hissed, “Before I make you regret ever laying eyes on me.”
The baby bird looked supremely unimpressed with the threat. The green hissed and sparked at that, but the greater part of his mind contended that he’d lost the ability to terrify the kid when he demanded hair pets.
Jason groaned and let his face hit the wall with a soft thud.
The kid softly patted Jason’s arm as he ducked out from Jason’s hold. “It’s okay,” he said, “We can have breakfast first.”
Christ, the kid thought he was cranky.
“Toast,” Jason said into the wall, muffled, “I don’t want that slop you tried to pass off as oatmeal.”
“You were sick and delirious,” the kid grumbled, “You couldn’t taste anything.”
He couldn’t taste much of the toast either, but nibbling on it helped settle his growling stomach and give him a brief jolt of energy—not enough to deal with the kid’s questions, but Tim wasn’t giving him much of a choice.
“So. Red Hood. What the hell is that about?” Tim asked.
Jason narrowed his eyes, “I had plans.”
They were good plans too. He was going to make Batman confront his failure, once and for all, and give him a chance to atone. To see that his way wasn’t working—that you couldn’t let the system do its job when the system couldn’t be trusted.
He had plans for the baby bird, too. Plans that ended in death. Plans that ended in torture. Plans that ended in screaming and crying and laughing, that ended with blood and violence and broken bones.
Jason lunged out of his chair faster than the kid could blink, and he was heaving into the kitchen sink, the toast making a reappearance from its brief stay, along with soup and bile.
“Jason?” the kid said, alarmed, and there was a soft hand rubbing circles into his back as Jason retched, shuddering.
He’d been planning on hurting this kid, and glorifying in it.
His fingers tightened on the countertop as he tried to breathe through his mouth, head dropping as his stomach cramped. Even the green wasn’t enough to salvage his horror and disgust, not in the face of half-lucid memories of fingers carding through his hair and cool cloths on his forehead.
“Maybe the toast was a bad idea,” the kid said, “Should’ve stuck to the oatmeal.” Jason’s legs were trembling, his body shivering in exhaustion, and he let the baby bird lead him back to the chair and push an empty bowl into his hands.
“Okay, we can hold off on the questions until you feel better,” Tim said softly. Jason didn’t look at him, he couldn’t, not willing to face the concern when he could imagine how those eyes would look, wide and terrified and glimmering with tears. “But I do need to know a couple things now. Can I tell Bruce you’re here?”
No, Jason wanted to lash out on instinct, along with screaming and rage and vicious malice. He didn’t want Bruce, he wanted to hurt Bruce, to make him feel as bad as Jason did, the twisted feelings inside of him when he realized that Batman had failed to protect him and then failed to avenge him.
And replaced him too, in the bargain.
The ideas flashed in his head again, revenge schemes playing out behind his eyes, one after the other, and Jason hunched further over the bowl as Tim rubbed his back.
He was sore, he was aching and exhausted, he was hurt and confused and he—he just wanted someone to hold him and tell him he was going to be okay.
“Yes,” Jason rasped—his mind immediately began shrieking at him, a combination of ‘you’re ruining everything’ and ‘kill him’ and ‘he doesn’t want you he never did’ and ‘the poor, deluded street rat who thought a mask made him a prince’.
“Okay,” Tim soothed, “I’ll call him now. He’ll be here immediately, okay, Jason, he missed you so much.”
Jason wanted desperately to believe that it wasn’t a lie.
When the baby bird said he’d call him now, he meant now. Jason could hear the line ringing as Tim stayed next to Jason’s chair and Jason tried not to throw up the remaining contents of his stomach. Black dots fluttered in his vision like fireflies whenever he didn’t take deep enough a breath.
“Tim?” Bruce’s voice came through, soft and happy, and wounds that had never healed ached anew.
“Hey, Bruce,” Tim said, suddenly nervous again, “Um. You remember when I said I was staying with a friend?”
There was a long, stretching silence.
“Tim,” Bruce said, voice turning flat and what-did-you-do. “What happened?”
“I may have slightly fudged who that friend was. And also the friendship in question.”
“Tim,” Bruce said warningly.
This was painful to listen to, and Jason’s stomach was twisting again. He looked up, and snagged the phone from the baby bird’s ear before Tim could open his mouth in protest.
“Hey, Dad,” Jason croaked into the phone.