There were different indications that Dick was going to have a bad day. Some of them were obvious – emergency alarm, someone getting hurt, someone dying – and others were more subtle – running out of cereal, Tim managing a trick that Jason always used to do, the vivid red of blood on his hands – but they always come accompanied by a constant.
A boy with dark hair and blue eyes and a brightness that had dimmed far too soon.
“Robin is magic!” the kid had once proclaimed, and Dick could certainly believe him, because he’d tried multiple times to get rid of the hallucinations but the ghost never wavered.
Dick opened his door, ready to slump onto his couch after a long, draining shift and recover some energy before he headed out on patrol. His gaze caught on the dark-haired boy leaning against the wall, scowl on his face, and Dick smiled faintly.
Fantastic. And he didn’t even know what had caused this one – Dick mentally ran down the list of his triggers as he shut and locked the front door, dropping his bag to one side, toeing off his shoes, and throwing himself on the couch.
“Hi, Jaybird,” he said absently, leaning against the back of the couch to observe his brother better.
Jason was…older. Late teens, by Dick’s guesswork, and big, almost as big as Bruce. A cruel reminder of a life cut short. Blue eyes were flickering a familiar, eerie green – Lazarus Pit, another frequent hope and nightmare, even though the Pit couldn’t bring someone back from the dead. A white strip of hair in his bangs, which was new. Dick observed it curiously, but could find no pattern behind it.
“Trying out a new style?” Dick asked, motioning at his own hair. Jason automatically tugged on his hair, and his expression fell into a perplexed scowl. He looked torn between punching Dick in the face and questioning his sanity, all wrapped up in confused-upset-angry.
Dick felt his heart lurch. He wished he could give his little brother a hug. That was the true torture – not the hallucinations themselves, which had gone from agonizing to merely painful, but the vivid reminder of a future that no longer existed.
“What the fuck,” Jason said flatly.
“Language,” Dick chided, waiting for Jason’s face to fall into a sneer or huffingly point out that Alfred wasn’t here.
Instead, Jason just looked taken aback. “Of all the things, you’re concerned about the swearing?” Jason asked, flabbergasted.
Dick wanted to relax before he had to head out on patrol, but if Jay was in a conversational mood, Dick was happy to oblige. It was better than the dead-eyed boy that screamed for Dick to save him, or the bloody ruin of a child staring silently, or the cackling demon that hissed his own insecurities back at him.
“What should I be concerned about?” Dick prompted, settling into place with his arms crossed on the back of the couch. He knew from painful experience that getting close enough to touch would only lead to heartbreak.
Jason cast a glance around the room, wide-eyed, like he couldn’t believe Dick was missing the point. Dick waited patiently, observing the subtler details of his little brother. He was dressed in dark armor, sturdier than Batman’s suit, and he had on a dark brown leather jacket. There were guns strapped to his belt, and he was wearing fingerless gloves that glinted at the knuckles.
“Me,” Jason answered, half-incredulous, half-questioning.
Dick couldn’t keep the patient smile, and he let it crack off his face. “I’m sorry, Little Wing,” he said softly, “I’m so, so sorry for not saving you. I – I’m sorry for not picking up your call, for not being there for you, for not –” he choked, and fell silent, eyes prickling.
He hadn’t even been on the planet. He’d been living it up with the Titans while his little brother choked and screamed and died, and Dick had listened to every voicemail when he’d gotten back, each one a dagger to his heart, and the last one had shredded his composure.
“…Hi, Dick. I, uh, I just – you said that I’m welcome to come over anytime. Is…is that offer still open?”
“I’m sorry,” Dick whispered, pressing his chin against his crossed arms and squeezing his eyes shut as the tears finally spilled over.
“How cute,” Jason said, his voice twisting, “You’re sorry. Well, that just makes it all better, doesn’t it? An apology from the great, golden Dick Grayson?”
The tears streamed faster. Dick couldn’t stop the sobs, deep and wrenching, because he knew that Jason had grown up in his shadow and he’d never attempted to stop it, never forced Bruce into picking a different name for Jason, or inviting him onto the Titans full-time, or putting aside his grudge with Bruce to help Jason navigate life with an emotionally-constipated father who never said what he actually meant.
And Dick had reaped the consequences.
“I wish it was me,” Dick said softly, and the blurry figure froze. “It should’ve been me. I – I was Robin, I should’ve stayed Robin, I – I should’ve killed him earlier.”
And that truly was the cherry on top of the sundae. Because he’d done it. He’d broken Bruce’s one rule, gotten himself kicked off the Titans and banished from Gotham when Dick had attacked Batman instead of letting him resuscitate the Joker, and if he’d had the guts to do it two years earlier, Jason would still be alive.
Too little, too late.
Jason was staring at him, his expression roiling in a mix of anger and glee and suspicion and the faintest, trace amount of hope. “So you did kill him,” Jason said quietly, “I thought that was just someone’s funny attempt at a joke. You actually murdered the Joker.”
Even now, months after the deed, Dick still flinched. He could still see the blood on his hands, the coil of simmering rage lashed up tight – even tighter, now that he knew what it could do – and the cold, aching emptiness because it hadn’t changed anything. It hadn’t brought his little brother back.
“Why?” Jason asked, almost desperate, almost frantic as he surged away from the wall, getting closer.
Dick stared at him. At the question he’d gotten so many times before, from so many people. Why why why why why.
Why kill the Joker?
Why did you break the rules?
Why did you lose your temper?
“Because he murdered you,” Dick said, slow and soft, “Because I thought he murdered Tim. Because he taunted me with your death – how you screamed, how you cried, how he broke half your bones like you weren’t a child, like you weren’t my little brother, like you weren’t a shining brightness that never, ever deserved to die.”
Jason’s face had gone pale.
“Because he deserved it,” Dick finished, “And because I was tired of letting him get away.”
Because the rage inside of him had exploded, and for the first time in Dick’s life, he hadn’t cared about leashing it again.
Jason took a step closer. Dick could imagine stretching out and touching him, and coiled his fingers into fists before he could do it.
“But you don’t kill,” Jason said, his tone bewildered.
Dick crooked his lips into a smile. Oh, he could still remember the time that that had been true. “Who told you that, Jaybird?” he asked.
He didn’t kill as Nightwing. He tried very hard not to kill as Nightwing. But Bruce had been right – murder desensitized you, Dick’s day job didn’t have the same rules as his vigilante life, and eventually it had started to bleed over.
Blockbuster, and a night Dick never wanted to remember. The Joker. Dick tried, he really did, but there were days when he wanted to go out to the streets and start punching and never stop.
Days when his dead brother’s face never stopped haunting him, a grim reminder of what he’d lost.
Dick slumped further onto the couch, and let go of the last hope that he’d be able to go out on patrol today. He hated it, Bludhaven needed a protector twenty-four-seven, but in this state, he’d do more harm than good.
“You – I just don’t – how,” Jason spluttered, shaking his head, “You would never – not for me, not for the street kid that took your place, you wouldn’t –”
“For my little brother,” Dick said, cutting him off, “I would. I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you, Little Wing. I’m sorry I was too late.”
Jason let out a broken, hysterical chuckle. He looked disbelieving. He looked happy. “I can’t believe you actually did it,” Jason said hoarsely, “You actually killed him. For me.”
Dick let the sad smile stretch across his face. At least he made someone happy, even if they were dead.
“You – fuck – you cared,” Jason’s voice cracked, “You actually – you did it – for me – you –” his voice broke entirely, and Jason half-turned away, but not before Dick caught the glint of tears. “You cared,” Jason said, awed, like it was a pronouncement, like he hadn’t known, like Dick was that shitty of an older brother that Jason had never realized how fiercely Dick had loved him.
“Of course I care about you, Jaybird,” Dick said softly, “You’re my little brother.”
Jason let out a low, choked sob, before abruptly whirling around and lunging at him. Dick instinctively jerked back, even as his mind careened into confusion, and everything stuttered when warm arms wrapped around him and clutched tight.
Dick automatically hugged back – it had been so long since he’d held anyone, he hadn’t seen Bruce since the incident and Tim’s last visit had been a couple of weeks ago, and he was warm and this felt so good and his little brother was hugging him and –
Dick’s mind rebooted, jerking free of the desperate desire for warmth to catalogue that there was a stranger in his apartment wearing a dead boy’s face. Dick shoved at the intruder, trying to scramble back, and only managed to tip off the couch to land in a sprawl on the ground, winded and shocked and confused.
Jason – not-Jason peered over the edge of the couch, green eyes crinkled in worry. He was wearing armor. Guns. Jason’s face.
“What the fuck,” Dick said blankly, because there was ‘ambushing a vigilante at their civilian address’ and ‘ambushing a vigilante at their civilian address wearing their dead brother’s face’ and Dick was having a hard time figuring out who both detested him and knew enough about him for the latter.
“Language,” not-Jason responded teasingly, worry dissolving into amusement, “I never thought I’d see the day Dick Grayson passes up a hug.”
Civilian identity thoroughly compromised. Apartment thoroughly compromised. Dick needed to get to his weapons – to a comm – how dare someone walk in here wearing Jason’s face –
Rage coalesced into seething fury, and Dick attacked – the smile twisted into confusion, and then into determination as not-Jason met his lunge, lashing out at Dick’s ribs to avoid the strike to his face.
“Dick – Dick, stop,” not-Jason wheezed, toppling them both off the couch as he rolled. Dick held on grimly, but his fist was blocked by a twist that nearly snapped his wrist, and not-Jason took advantage of the pain to grab his throat, green eyes flaring as he pulled Dick down.
“Dick,” not-Jason snarled, and Dick abandoned the punch in favor of bringing his knee up, aiming for soft tissue.
“Who are you?” Dick spat out, trying to buck not-Jason’s grip – fingers shifted to twist into his hair, and he hissed, forced off as fingers yanked. “What the hell do you want?!”
Not-Jason cursed as Dick’s elbow drove into his ribs, but the armor was in the way, Dick couldn’t get in a solid strike, and not-Jason twisted up, yanking Dick’s arm behind him and following the movement to shove his face into the ground.
Dick hissed, trying to struggle free, but not-Jason had clearly heard of his flexibility, because his hands were crossed behind him and shoved up, past his shoulder blades, until his arms threatened to dislocate with every heaving breath. Not-Jason was straddling him, a heavy weight across his hips and boots digging into the back of his knees, and no matter how hard he thrashed, the weight didn’t budge.
“Dick, stop,” the intruder snarled, “It’s me – it’s Jason!”
“Fuck you,” Dick spat back, trying to surge forward – his shoulders creaked painfully, but if he dislocated them, he could maybe win a second of surprise.
“It’s me, Dickhead,” not-Jason snapped, “The last time I heard your voice was the voicemail I left you, telling you I wanted to come over. The first thing you ever taught me was how to do a handstand. You took me train surfing and made me promise not to tell anyone. When you gave me the Robin suit, I said I’d make you proud and you said that I already had.”
Dick didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to hear, how did this man know all of this –
“You can check my grave, it’s empty,” not-Jason said desperately, “Or – or any test you want, my blood, my DNA, whatever, it’s not a trick.”
Dick couldn’t keep struggling, and he gasped against the floor because he couldn’t breathe.
The grip on his arms loosened slightly. “It’s me, Dickiebird,” his brother’s voice said softly, “I swear.”
No. No. It wasn’t possible. It was – shapeshifter, Clayface, clone, something, it wasn’t Jason, Jason was dead.
Dick had never told anyone about the train surfing. Hadn’t worked up the nerve to teach Tim before – before –
“Jason?” Dick wheezed, and the grasp loosened further, “You didn’t die?”
Had it all been a trick? Was that why Bruce had been so upset when he’d killed – wait, the Joker had taunted him about Jason, was that all a lie –
“No, I did,” his brother’s voice said slowly, “I came back. I don’t – it’s a long story. I – are you going to try to punch me again if I let you go?”
Dick took a moment to consider it. “No,” he said levelly.
The grip tentatively retreated, and the heavy weight shifted off of him. Dick pushed himself up and twisted – there, crouched next to him, his brother’s face looked at him with an expression half-worried and half-hopeful, watching Dick with more than just caution.
Option one. Everything he’d said was true – Jason had died and come back to life, and there was a miracle sitting in front of Dick.
Option two. He’d lied – he was Jason, but he’d never died, and Bruce was a lying liar but his little brother wasn’t dead.
Option three. He’d lied – he wasn’t Jason, but he’d put a great deal of effort into acting like he was, and he hadn’t killed Dick despite multiple opportunities so he wanted something else.
Option four. This wasn’t real – Dick had cracked completely, and maybe he was locked up in Arkham, his broken mind seizing upon a dream to comfort him in his insanity.
Dick considered his options, and then opened his arms. Jason’s expression split into a smile, and he surged forward to accept the hug.
Seventy-five percent chance that this was Jason, real or not, and right now, that was all Dick cared about.
Dick shook, clutching his little brother tightly, burying his head against Jason’s shoulders as tears spilled out. “Don’t cry,” Jason said hoarsely, his voice hitching, “Dickie, please don’t cry.”
Dick shook his head, unable to open his mouth or trust that words would come out, and merely tightened his grip. Jason shuddered, and Dick could feel wetness dripping down his shoulder. “Thank you,” his brother whispered, “Thank you for killing him.”
Dick shifted his grip, burying one hand in Jason’s hair as he held him close. “You’re alive,” he murmured, marveling in the heartbeat pulsing against his cheek, “You’re alive.”
If this was a dream, Dick never wanted to wake up. If this was an imposter, Dick hoped they killed him before he realized the lie.
“I thought,” Jason’s voice cracked, “I saw – Batman and Robin – he just – he replaced me – and I thought – thought he didn’t care – but you –”
“I missed you so much, Little Wing,” Dick said, his voice wavering, “So, so very much.”
“You thought I wasn’t real,” Jason almost grumbled.
“Forgive me for not immediately jumping to the conclusion that my brother was back from the dead,” Dick hiccupped, his voice dropping, “Forgive me.”
Forgive me for not killing the monster before he hurt you.
Jason held him tighter, and Dick slowly relaxed. “You thought I was, what? A hallucination?”
“Seemed like the reasonable answer,” Dick murmured.
Jason huffed, “Since when are hallucinations reasonable?”
“Jaybird, I see your face every other day, I didn’t exactly –”
Jason stilled. “You hallucinate me every other day?” he squawked. At Dick’s uncertain ‘yes’, he pushed himself free of the hug, hands curling around Dick’s shoulders, and stared at him, shocked.
Dick met his gaze, blinking, and Jason’s expression turned from observing to haunted. “What happened to you?” he asked softly, his eyebrows furrowing.
That was a long story, and it had several parts Dick didn’t want to tell. He curled forward, wrapping around Jason because he’d be damned if he ever let go of his little brother again.