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White Lighters / Afterglow

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Jason Todd was the worst kind of liar.

If you asked him, he would say he hated liars. That was true. (Except his mom, who had lied often about things large and small, but she hadn’t meant to. It wasn’t her fault when reality didn’t match up with what she tried to make happen. That was just life.)

He would say that he didn’t care what other people thought, that he spoke the truth, even when it hurt, because nothing hurt worse than a lie. That was true. (Except there were some people he couldn’t bear to disappoint, and others he delighted in hurting because he thought they deserved it, and sometimes they were the same, and what service was the truth when he couldn’t tell them apart.)

He was Jason Todd, Red Hood, dead man walking, and he wasn’t perfect, but he was right. He knew what Gotham needed. He knew the sickness that crept like corrosive rot through its steel girder marrow. He was the scalpel meant to excise the wound. Everywhere he looked, he knew what was needed. He had all the answers.

He thought he had all the answers.

He only needed one answer now.

The phone in his hand was ringing. He was glad he had it, glad it hadn’t been damaged in the fight. His helmet was on the ground next to him, eyepiece shattered, comm working but too public. He didn’t want it on him, anyways. It had felt too much like a box, shutting him in. He wanted the air on his face, nasty biting cold and slick with the smell of grease and spoil but unconstrained.

There was a ring, once, twice, and he only had a moment for a half-formed fear that it would ring without answer when a click interrupted.

“Hello?” The question was guarded, unsure of who was calling this line from an unknown number. There was noise in the background, the low rumble of chatter, a bright spark of laughter. A party? A function at least.

Jason had thought he was prepared. Another lie. But he licked chapped lips and hurried to speak before he was written off. “Hey. It’s me.”

“Jason?” More wary, not less, because of the unexpected response.

The wariness would have made him mad another day, another time, even though the wariness was earned. Or maybe it would’ve thrilled him, attributing the wariness to earned fear, like edging around a roaring lion, a coiled snake.

It didn’t make him feel anything now, just tired. The voice was like crashing onto his bed after the end of a long day. The springs creaked and the batting sagged and there was no real way to sink into it comfortably, but it meant he was where he was supposed to be.

“Yeah.” Jason cleared his throat, grimaced as it caught. “I… Got a sec?”

On the other end, the noise was already fading, receding down the end of a hall or shut off by a closing door. On his end, there was a far-off explosion, a gas tank maybe, a bullet hitting something it shouldn’t. Jason paid no mind to either. His focus was rapier sharp and honed to the voice and the voice alone.

“Always,” the voice was saying, no waver or hitch to betray a lie. It wasn’t a lie. This was a promise he had seen kept again and again and again. It was a blanket around his shoulders as much as a noose around his neck.

Keep breathing. There’s no smoke. Just get through it. He didn’t want to get through it. He didn’t want to reach the other side.

“Jay?” The voice prompted when he had been silent a beat too long. “Is something wrong?”

Oh God.

No point wasting time.

“I’m dying, I think.” The words tasted like wet earth cascading down his face, into his nose, between his lips. “I just wanted—I thought I should call.”

There was a sharp intake of breath and then nothing. Dead air.

“Bruce?”

“That’s not funny.” Harsh, a wall slamming into place, steel on stone.

Of course not. Of course it wasn’t funny. He wasn’t laughing.

“Not a joke, B.”

He wished it were, but there was no ha-haing away the steel embedded between his ribs. It had felt strange going in, more shock than pain. He’d been stabbed before, to the point that a stabbing was mundane, immediate pain and annoyance rather than surprise. But these grandstanding idiots used swords, not knives, and he had been unprepared for the push backward, for the feeling of foreign metal going through and through and through.

“Sorry,” Jason offered, not knowing why, knowing it wasn’t enough. It was a casual apology, like calling too early on a Sunday morning.

“Where are you?” Bruce sounded hoarse, throat squeezed around the words like he’d been mule-kicked in the chest and was struggling to breathe.

“Romania, I think? Or… or maybe Moldova. Ukraine…” His chest hurt. The shock was lifting, letting the pain crackle through like static on the TV. “We… we might have crossed a border somewhere.”

We being the Outlaws. They had been chasing a gang, child traffickers. It wasn’t supposed to be a big mission. Jason wasn’t even sure he’d told anyone he was leaving town.

“Where’s your team? They can get you out of there. I’ll send—“

“They’re pinned down,” Jason interrupted. He could still hear them, ordinances rattling the broken glass scattered all around him. Maybe someone else was dying, too. He didn’t know. Wouldn’t know.

He’d popped off a round point-blank in the eye of the man who’d stabbed him, lethal even for a rubber bullet. It had been instinct. He hadn’t had time to feel sorry about it or to rue leaving behind one final stain on his name. He’d stepped over the body of his killer, hands wrapped around the blade to keep it in place, and had staggered to a shadowed corner.

“I’m not being hysterical.” And he wasn’t. Jason’s voice was calm, almost flat, hiccuped only by a catch of breath when his body fought free from his control. “There’s a sword in my chest and it’s bad.”

He’d known. He’d known the second it had gone in and the warm gush of blood had tumbled down his torso. That one step over the body had been all he could manage before crumpling to his knees. He’d tried to get up but had half-crawled the rest of the way, animal instinct pushing him to retreat, to not be a distraction to his team, to find a quiet place to curl up and die.

Bruce was saying something. To Jason? To himself? Jason cut through it, clean and brutal like a blade. This was his time to claim. “I don’t have long. I just… I wanted to call. Before.”

There hadn’t been another option, not really. For a moment, he had envisioned another number, another voice, but had recoiled from the thought of that call like a hand yanked from the fire. Jason told himself he was brave, but that, too, was a lie. There was no reality in which he was brave enough to listen to Alfred’s heart break.

He needed to stay on track. He’d called for a reason. There were things he wanted before the end.

“I need you to promise me you won’t bring me back.” Jason’s body gave an involuntary twitch, and he bit into his lip until it bled. “I don’t, I can’t do that again. Don’t bury me. And don’t let Ra’s get me. I can’t, B, I can’t—”

Bruce was shushing him, soft, caressing noises like they were sitting bedside in Jason’s old room, coasting off the end of a nightmare. “It’s going to be okay,” Bruce soothed, but his voice cracked in the middle.

“The fuck it will,” Jason retorted, but just hearing the words eased the knot in his throat a little. “Promise me, Bruce.”

There was a pause, an age of nothing, and then, “I promise.”

Jason released a shaky breath and closed his eyes as tears pricked at their corners. It had been a long time since he’d let himself trust Bruce’s promises, but they were all he had now. They would have to do.

“They’re going to blame themselves for this,” Jason muttered as he listened to the gunfight in the belly of the warehouse. Then, to Bruce, “Don’t let them. Don’t blame them and don’t—” He shifted, not thinking, and a sharp flare of pain broke through the shock and he couldn’t fully stifle the cry.

“—ason? Jason?!” Bruce’s voice filtered through the haze, deepening with panic instead of rising.

“‘m here. Still here.” For how long? The pain that he had feared was here now, but blood loss was on its heels, ready to wipe him clean with a burning cold. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath.

“What do you need from me?”

Bruce had wrested himself back in control and was speaking in the voice Jason had always secretly loved most, the one that said I’m here, I’ll take care of you, there’s nothing to fear.

The question was a cool hand on his clammy forehead. Jason let the comfort of it settle into him, sinking past the quick, biting response of a blood transfusion, a new liver, a new life.

Deeper answers waited, but he let them go, too. They were too many. Tell Alfred I’m sorry. Tell Dick not to make it his fault. Tell the kids to be careful. I won’t be there to watch their six anymore, and they’re too young.

Here was a truth Jason Todd had lied about many times. He feared death and he feared dying. One he couldn’t recall and the void frightened him. The other he remembered all too clearly.

What do you need from me?

Jason Todd was the worst kind of liar. He lied to himself, all day, every day, with every breath he drew, and he hadn’t known it, not fully, until there were no more lies left to tell. He had chosen a lie from someone else, that he hated Bruce Wayne, that they were through, that he didn’t need him, and he had wrapped the lie around himself like armor. But it hadn’t stopped the sword, and as he’d dragged himself to his final resting place, he’d finally let go of the lie.

He didn’t want to die alone. He wanted his dad.

“Don’t hang up,” Jason rasped. “Just… don’t hang up.”

Bruce was crying. Jason could hear it over the line, and the quiet, shaky breaths drew answering tears down his own face.

“I won’t. I would never.”

The phone was too heavy now, the weight of it drawing his shaking hand to the cold concrete. He fumbled for the speaker button, managed to turn it on, then let his eyes slide shut. He wanted to hold on as long as he could.

“I’m sorry,” Jason said again, and hoped he was loud enough for the phone to catch, and that Bruce could unpack on his own the life of things he was sorry for.

“Don’t. There’s nothing—“ A cough, suspended between a rough catch of the throat and a groan. “It’s a gift, Jaylad. Every minute of it.”

He couldn’t focus. He could feel himself slipping, one moment crumpled small and broken next to a beeping countdown, the next sprawled and cold as warfare exploded around him. He wanted—

He wanted. He still wanted so much.

“You weren’t there,” Jason whined, heart kicking like a rabbit in a trap. The hand around the blade had fallen away, too cold and stiff to hold on. How could his body feel so heavy and still but so full of his own heartbeat? “You weren’t there, Dad, and I was so scared.”

“I know. I know. I’m so sorry, Jay.”

Bruce was here now, though. It was different this time. He’d made it be different.

“You gotta be different this time.” Talking hurt. Thinking hurt. But this was a thing he wanted, so Jason ground out the words. “You can’t be stupid.”

Tim had said Bruce had tried to follow him. Jason had laughed, mocking the idea even as he’d recoiled. Bruce wasn’t allowed to give up.

“I’ll be okay,” Jason gasped, and it was the cruelest of lies, because he was dying, he was dying, and nothing was going to be okay. He hurt and he was dying and he’d hoped he could at least make it to thirty this time. Instead, he’d be dead again before Bruce hit fifty.

But he had called Bruce thinking only of himself, and now a horror was growing in him, a Robin’s scramble to shore up his Batman. He hated hearing his dad cry. “It, it hurt last time. I’m n-not scared. Just stay on the phone. Don’t leave.”

There was a boom so loud it shook the world, and fading though he was, Jason flinched. Dying he could do, because he had no other choice. But he wouldn’t burn again. He would pull the blade from his own chest before he let that happen.

“—here,” Bruce was saying, and Jason forced himself to focus on his dad’s voice again. He wanted this to be the last sound he heard. “I’m not going anywhere. You’re doing fine, just keep talking to me.”

There was a noise like a sniffle, and then, more steadily, “I love you, you know. I know I don’t say it enough.”

He knew. But it was like life to hear.

“Yeah,” Jason rasped. Yeah. Me too. He couldn’t say it, coward to the end, but he hoped Bruce knew.

The fight was so loud. He was too far gone to make it make sense, but the cacophony of it was like a physical weight. Jason pushed it all aside again. He hoped he was the only casualty on their side. He hoped the others didn’t mourn too long.

His world was shrinking, constricting down until eventually there would be only a pinpoint left, then nothing at all. Right now, he couldn’t feel his hands, his feet. The pain in his chest was still bright and blooming, but the chill of the concrete beneath him and the corrugated metal against his back would fade.

With his eyes closed, he could pretend he wasn’t here, that none of this was happening. Except that was a lie, and it was too big to swallow.

He had so little time left.

The warehouse was silent. No explosions, no gunfire. Just empty, ringing silence.

Was this it? Was this how it felt when the end wasn’t a flash and an explosion but instead a slow, quiet emptying?

Numb fingers fumbled for the phone. He couldn’t hear Bruce. He wanted Bruce. He didn’t want to leave in silence. He wanted—

He was rising, lifted into arms that cradled. Not his dad’s arms, but Jason bit back a sob as he sank into an embrace that was warm and firm and safe.

“I got him,” a voice rumbled against his cheek, curt and familiar. “Nearest hospital is Saveni. Take the zeta.” A kiss pressed to Jason’s forehead. “From your dad. Hold on just a minute more, Jay.”

But Jason was already slipping down into the dark.


The dark was waiting for him when he woke again, cool and soft against his closed eyes. There was a voice speaking, hoarse and frayed like use had worn it down to nothing, but it didn’t falter until he turned his face toward it.

“Jay?”

He knew that voice.

“Dad?” Jason croaked, or tried to.

The hand that had been in his hair lifted, then reappeared, cradling his face. “I’m here. You’re okay. Open your eyes for me, son.”

Jason tried, not wanting to disappoint, but he was so tired. Finally he pried open his eyelids and lifted, struggling like Atlas against the weight of the world. Bruce’s face hovered above his, grizzled and careworn. When it smiled, the lines carved into it deepened.

“There you are.” A thumb rubbed his cheekbone, swiping at tears that were no longer there.

He had been crying? Jason blinked slowly, trying to remember. Something was wrong about all of this, but he couldn’t…

Bruce’s hands moved, one supporting his head and neck while the other brought a glass with a straw to his lips. “Slow,” he urged, but that seemed to be Jason’s one speed anyways.

Slowly, slowly, it filtered back. The fight. The sword. The call. The dying.

But he was here? Bruce was here, and they weren’t fighting. He didn’t feel angry or alone or scared. Maybe this was heaven, after all.

Wait.

Jason choked on a mouthful of water. Bruce was leaning over him, the glass gone, helping him to lie back against the elevated bed, to breathe.

“You—” Jason wheezed. The coughing made pain flare in his chest, where he remembered the sword plunging in but where now only clean, white bandages remained. The pain itself was far away, as if he were feeling it from the other end of a long, narrow hallway, the sensation echoing down to him in waves.

When he could speak again, Jason clawed in a deep breath and glared at Bruce. “You sent Clark?” The hot, sour embarrassment of a child interrupted by an older, uncool relative spiked sharp in his stomach, burning his cheeks. Saved by “Uncle” Clark. How mortifying.

Bruce should’ve wilted under the force of it, but instead, he just looked fond as he settled back into the chair at the side of the bed. Then he sobered, blue eyes shadowing as he said, “You coded twice before I could get here. Any later…”

His hand twitched where it rested on his knee, fingers curling. Jason wished they were back in his hair. He didn’t know how to ask.

“Close call,” he grunted instead, as if it were nothing. A funny blip of a moment and nothing more.

“Too close,” Bruce agreed in a voice so low it was little more than a growl.

Too close. Everything he had said, that he had to live with now that he wasn’t dying.

Right?

“I’m…” Jason began hesitantly, braced for the worst.

“Going to be fine,” Bruce finished with a firmness that brooked no argument. Even if it weren’t true, he would make it be true. Batman’s will against the world. “You’ve been stable for twenty-four hours already. Twenty-four more, and I’ll get a transport to take us stateside.”

Us.

“Rest, then physical therapy,” Bruce was saying. “You may need some follow-up procedures, but we’ll handle those steps as they come.”

We.

Jason drew in a slow, shaky breath through his teeth, then let it out again. “Not dying today, huh.”

“No.”

No. As if that was all there was to it. Sorry, not dying today, Dad said no.

Maybe that really was all there was to it.

“Rest,” Bruce said, and his fingertips returned to Jason’s hair, rubbing against his scalp tentatively, ready to be ordered away.

Jason relaxed against the pillows, eyes closing as the medication tugged at him like a siren’s hand around his ankle.

“Thank you,” he murmured, “for answering.”

“Always,” came the immediate reply, echoing down after him into sleep.