There's a specific kind of silence when you walk into a room and people have just stopped talking about you. Side-long looks, a certain kind of tension in how people stare at you while trying to look like they're not staring, as if actually locking eyes will somehow transfer the entire content of their just-ended conversation telepathically.
Jason's particularly familiar with that silence; he gets it pretty equally from both the criminal element and his family. It's still the same mix of awkwardness and fear, though it spawns from different places. The Bats just don't like to admit that they still talk behind his back as much as they do, and remain wary about what his reaction might be if he catches them at it. Like he doesn't know. The lieutenants of Jason's organization, on the other hand, are just afraid that the Red Hood might hear something he's not supposed to and decide they've crossed a line.
Fair enough, really.
To their credit, at least the 'family' is usually a lot better at hiding it, but that doesn't exactly mean much. They're trained vigilantes, they should be better at hiding it than the (ideally) above-average intelligence thugs that Jason keeps employed; keeping people in the dark about their real thoughts is basically their whole life.
They're good enough that when he gets off his bike, leaving his helmet on the seat and heading up towards the main console they're all clustered around, it's not to silence, but instead a light chatter that might fool… Well, any other version of him that hadn't seen about eight secondhand reports of a sighting of Red Hood fighting several Bats. While he was definitely nowhere nearby. Hell, Jason wasn't even in the city.
But no. Definitely the miscellaneous case files they've got pulled up are what they're talking about. The — he squints a bit behind the domino mask, peering at the screen as he walks up — two week old escape of Killer Croc from Arkham. Sure.
Tim's got a fresh cast on his right arm, and knowing Bruce, Jason's pretty sure the only reason he's out of costume at all is the heavy white bandage around his upper thigh. Looks fresh.
Jason's exactly self-hating and morbidly curious enough to ask, "I miss something?" instead of calling them all out on it.
There's a second of hesitation there, before anyone answers. Exchanged glances.
"Nothing we couldn't handle," Dick says, with a half-smile. It doesn't go all that great with the big black bruise on the side of his neck.
Jason looks at that. Tim's arm, and how he's adjusted to be half-behind Bruce's chair. Like he's going to start shooting or something, and the kid wants cover when he does. Jason… honestly can't remember the last time Tim did that. Even when they were outright enemies, Tim was always intensely willing to be aggressive. "Uh huh. Right."
Bruce doesn't contribute, but that's nothing new. It just means Dick steps into the silence, like he always does when there's more than one of them in a room.
Dick's snort is just the right amount of self-deprecating. "Just a couple lucky shots. This is just about wrapped up, I think?" He glances to Bruce, gets a small nod. "Great. What's up, Jay? Bringing us something?"
He's really never been great at just taking things like this.
"So we're going the bullshit route, then. Good to know. Alright, well, I ran into the Easter Bunny and a candy-corn themed villain when I got back into town and I just figured you might want to know holidays are coming to life in your town. You know, no big."
Tim, at least, has the grace to wince and actually look guilty. Bruce just frowns, and Dick, well, there's a tightening around his eyes that says he knows exactly what Jason's doing, even as he has the nerve to ask, "What do you mean?"
"Well, I came here to talk about why the hell I got a bunch of different notifications about Red Hood sightings when I've been out of town for the last two weeks, but apparently you all think I'm a blind idiot, so sure, let's talk about whatever it is you totally handled." He crosses his arms, looks pointedly up at the screen. "Killer Croc, is it?"
Bruce might be stubborn, but he does know how to pick the battles he wants to fight, even if that tends to be literally every one that comes within grabbing distance. But apparently, this time, he's got just enough sense to share another look with Dick and then, with a flick of one hand, swap the Killer Croc information with something a hell of a lot more relevant. A video paused halfway through, with a very familiar looking figure mid-kick on the opposite side of a rooftop. Mid-kick at a slightly blurred Nightwing, who doesn't look like he's quite going to manage to get out of the way.
It's… similar. Red helmet, brown jacket, dark armor. Right size in comparison to Dick, right proportions…
Bruce backs the video up to the start, and hits play.
Hard to say how it starts, because the feed cuts in with Bruce crouched down on the top of a completely different rooftop, already mid-fight judging by the shouts. It looks like his helmet. It sounds like his modulator. There's still some part of him that's holding out hope that it's just someone with a really good impersonation under there, until a well-timed strike from one of Dick's escrima bounces the man's head off a wall and cracks the helmet. By the way the man shakes his head, then takes off the helmet and flings it Bruce's direction, it must have fritzed out the display. Not that Jason cares much, seeing the face underneath.
His face. Older, with his white streak framed by speckled grey and the domino mask gone from the uniform, but… Him.
No, it can't be.
"Play it again," he demands, after 'he' jumps off the rooftop and apparently vanishes from sight, not picked up by any of the quick flashes of the mask's filters that the video shows.
He catches the sharp glance from Dick, but doesn't acknowledge it. With a tap of the keys, Bruce starts it over.
This time, Jason watches more sharply. Analyzes everything he can think of to focus on. Movement, speech patterns, the details in the suit, all of it. It's good. It's damn good. Someone's picked up his exact Gotham-streets' accent, mixed and bastardized like it is with what Alfred corrected, and then his travels all over the world morphed it into. There are details in the words, too, the kinds of things that no one else should know about them. At least, not anyone that hasn't studied them. The suit's a near-perfect copy, minus a few changes that could easily be explained away as adjustments made over the years, or something.
(That's the idea, isn't it? That's what they're thinking? An older him has to be from the future, or an advanced timeline parallel universe, or something like that. Or, if Bruce stopped to think for a moment, maybe it's something like what he pulled with Hush and Clayface, all those years ago. If you age someone up, details are excused away. It doesn't have to be perfect.)
The movement is what catches his eye. It's his moves, for the most part, but there's a sprinkling of other things he sure as hell doesn't know. They look almost like League training. It's not overt, but it gets his attention, and once he's looking, he sees the rest. It's smooth. Jason knows what he's capable of, and he knows what he's not, and he doesn't move like that. It's slippery, almost, how the man wearing his face just avoids things, weaving in and out of the way of things to strike back. That's Tim's style, or Bruce's.
He falls closer to Dick's tactics than Bruce's, any day. Maybe it's something an older-him could have learned to change, but it's not how he is now.
Dick shifts uneasily to his right. Bruce's eyes never left him to begin with.
He lets his gaze track the man's face nearly idly this time, as he focuses on the voice. They've nailed it, whoever they are. It sounds just like— Just like him. Just like a very specific him, actually. Bitter, angry, and needling where he knows it hurts to get the reaction. The taunts are different, but the patterns are just the same as they were when he first came back to Gotham.
"That's not me," he says, when the video ends. He pulls his gaze down from the screen, to Bruce's judging-but-trying-to-look-unbiased frown. "You see the League moves in there, right? That's not how I fight; you know that."
The frown deepens just a little bit. "I'm aware that your training with the League was minimal." His voice is guarded.
Jason feels his own brow furrow as he holds that gaze, trying to pick apart why Bruce sounds... like that.
Then it clicks. Like the hammer of a fucking gun.
"You think…” He glances up at the video, fingers digging into his own arms. "You think some future version of me went back to the League? Why?"
It's intensely, purposefully neutral the way that Bruce says, "It's possible your decision may have been influenced."
It takes another second for that to make any sense. Then it does. The Lazarus Pit. He's talking about the Lazarus Pit.
Jason feels the familiar anger swelling up through his chest, and takes a careful breath to try and quell it. It makes sense, if you're Bruce. The League moves in the impostor's styles could make sense, if you assumed that Jason had gone back to the Pit at some point. If you assumed that how he behaved when he came back to Gotham was because of the Pit. If you assumed that his issues were explained away by being dipped in the same shit that turned Ra's into what he is, and not caused by completely justifiable reasons like your murderer walking free years after your death.
If you come from that biased position, then sure, a future him learning League training and then coming back to try and kill them would be easy enough to believe. As if all this time hasn't meant anything. As if he's still just a carefully calculated and accepted risk, instead of part of the family.
That's all he ever fucking is, isn't he? Just the wolf in the den, with all of the rest of them just waiting for him to turn on them again.
"Yeah, well, fuck you, too," is what he says out loud. "It's not me. Maybe instead of just assuming that I go nuts sometime in the future, you should look into who has enough information to pull off copying me like that, and why they'd do it."
"Jason," Dick breaks in, with that perfect, practiced, united-front bullshit with the slightly-disappointed edge, as if he can't believe you'd think badly of Bruce, "you know we always investigate every possibility. We'll figure it out."
Yeah. Sure. "Well good luck with that, then. Definitely sounds like you're open to all the options."
Dick starts to breathe in, straightening up like he's going to do that stupid preaching thing he does, and Jason snorts and turns away before he can. He doesn't want a fight, and if he stays and listens to any more of this bullshit he's going to end up punching Dick right in the face and proving them all right about who they think he is. To hell with it. When they get their heads out of their own asses, they can call him.
None of them try and stop him.
Three weeks later, and a week after Jason hears that his other-self has finally been brought down (though there's no mention of exactly where he's been put), a shadow shows up at the very edge of his peripheral vision. He takes an inhalation of the cigarette he's in the middle of, legs hanging off the rooftop and the lower half of Gotham spread out in front of him, and doesn't acknowledge it.
It takes about thirty more seconds, and his pointed lack of attention, for Bruce to detach himself from the darkness near the maintenance shed and actually approach. Another twenty, once he's standing close enough he's apparently sure Jason can see him, for him to realize that Jason's got no intention of making this easy, or letting him get away with his silent bullshit.
"He's been dealt with," is the first thing he says.
Jason doesn't look up. "I heard."
Bruce stands there like a statue for nearly two more minutes. The wind barely even stirs his cape, like it knows to leave it, specifically, alone. "It wasn't you."
What a surprise. He settles for just saying, "Never would have guessed."
Not even a little bitten off sigh. Bruce really must be trying to fumble his way around that apology. "Ra's al Ghul. Apparently his other attempts to use one of us as a replacement body failed, and he took you, instead."
His stomach twists, a little. He'd almost be insulted, except that Ra's has always been weird like that. Bloodlines and hyper-focused intelligence and all that. The only time Ra's has ever focused on him was after Talia shoved him in the Pit. Fun to know that there's some future version of him that gets possessed by a centuries old terrorist madman.
"I'll keep an eye out for that."
His cigarette loses another half inch before Bruce finally shifts forward, stiffly crossing the last six or so feet to sink down and actually take a seat next to him. "You were right," is what comes out of Bruce's mouth. "I assumed it was you because of my own bias; I shouldn't have."
It's probably as close to an apology as he's going to get. Not surprising, just frustrating. "Well that's what happens when you work off of faulty information."
Fuck, he didn't mean to say that.
He can practically feel Bruce's fixation already, even if he's deliberately not looking at the cowl. Those are exactly the kind of vague statements that Bruce likes to latch onto and then chew at till he figures them out. Or thinks he does, anyway. Who knows what Bruce thinks he's talking about right now, but if he leaves it at that, Bruce is going to come up with some theory that's probably so far off from being true it'll be painful, and he'll have to correct it. Or he'll hit the nail on the head, and then he'll brood for at least three goddamn months before he even tries to say anything.
"Fuck it," he mutters, flicking the last tiny bit of the cigarette off into the air. He's got Bruce right here, he's listening, and he's apparently in a mood to realize that he's not actually right about the entire universe, so this is probably as good a chance as Jason's ever going to get to correct some of those assumptions he's made over the years. It's not like it isn't going to come out at some point, anyway. Why not on his terms?
What's the worst that can happen, really? Pity? Rejection? He's dealt with all that already.
"The Pit doesn't do what you think it does," he says, shoving the words out of his mouth before he has a chance to reconsider it. "It didn't make me insane, Bruce. Maybe it emphasizes the worst parts of you, I don't know, but it made me… cold. Sociopathic, almost. I was angry, sure, but it barely influenced me. I was rational. Ruthless."
"You weren't sociopathic, Jason. I've known sociopaths."
Of course he has. (And he really doesn't know. Jason knew that had to be the case, but actually hearing it out loud is something else. Bruce really never linked him to any of it. Bruce really never even considered him as an option. Fuck.)
Jason shakes his head. "You don't even know what I'm talking about."
"Do you remember a night, years ago, when Penguin was trying to buy K.N.R.'s off a mercenary group?" He doesn't look over to see the reaction, just takes a breath and keeps talking. "There was a mix-up with the times. The Penguin was late. Hours. It was a fat payout, though, so the mercs waited. So did you. You parked your car six blocks away, tucked in an alley. Took what, almost four and a half hours, total? Took them down without a scratch, though."
Beside him, Bruce is deathly still. Hardly even looks like he's breathing.
Jason takes a breath for the both of them. "Eight inches in from the back left tire. Used to be the closest spot you could get to the fuel lines. Gelatin adhesive to mask the contact, so the car's sensors didn't pick it up. Bomb wasn't anything special, but it didn't need to be. I set up the sale on both sides, I put out the information where I was sure you would hear about it, and then I waited for you to take the bait." It's tempting to light another cigarette, but he resists. Barely. "Took a little over three hours to get it on there. State of the art wet work suit. One inch every five seconds. Talk about stress positions, right?"
Bruce still doesn't move. Doesn't react. He's gone pale, though, so that's something.
"Do you know why I didn't hit the trigger?" It's rhetorical, and he already knows that Bruce doesn't, anyway. "I watched you get in the car, finger on the button, and I decided that it was too easy. You would have died, instantly, never knowing what happened, or why. You never would have known it was me, and that wasn't good enough. So I left.”
He takes another breath, deep enough it hurts, and sweeps his gaze out over Gotham's skyline. All her dark, twisted beauty, in the light and the shadow. Harder to see the grime, from up here, but not impossible. Bruce doesn't say a word. Maybe it's better that way.
"I know it's easier for you to think that everything I did was because of the Lazarus Pit," Jason says, trying not to show how that still stings, "but it wasn't. It was just me. The anger, and the bitterness, and all the rest of it. Just me."
He gets to his feet, balancing at the ledge. Bruce rises, too. Probably automatic, more than anything. He brushes his pants off, pulls the grapnel off his hip and eyes the city below. This was only ever supposed to be a brief break. He has work to do, still.
"I know what I am, Bruce," he says, as he checks the grapnel more out of habit than anything, "and I know what I'm not. Maybe next time you should listen to me when I tell you that."
He braces his foot on the edge, and jumps. The grapnel clicks, shoots, and draws him into the sharp arc of it as it hooks, swinging him out of the taller buildings and down towards the darker, lower end of the city.
If Bruce calls his name, it's lost in the wind.