As those who've been subjected to my wackiness for more than twelve months (or those who read the issue I pimped out yesterday) might recall, August the sixteenth is the canonical birthday of one Mr Jason Peter Todd. Last year, I killed everything he loved
. I sure know how to celebrate an occasion.
Okay, so. I wrote two stories, but one of them's pre-crisis without being funny/cracky, so I've posted it as a back-dated entry in my journal to spare your friendspage. It's here
, and it's called 'Message in a bottle'.
Now, for the one which people might actually want to read...Both of us
Summary: Jason catches up.
Thanks to Jack and Te for audiencing and encouragement.
"Her death's on both of us."
Batman doesn't turn around. Jason's not surprised. He doesn't want to go through the whole 'look at me, dammit' thing again, so he settles for leaning against the wall of the alley and waiting.
Batman turns. The lenses on his cowl are retracted. Jason's glad of the double layer of helmet and mask hiding his own eyes. He's not so good at having Bruce look at him yet.
But that's what this is about, isn't it? Being ready. Failing to be ready.
"How can one death bother you, when you've caused so many?" Batman asks. His voice is quiet, but not soft.
Jason shrugs against the rough brickwork. "Because she didn't deserve it. Because she was one of the pretenders. Because I could have stopped it, if I hadn't pissed around waiting until I felt ready before starting the cleanup on this city. Pick whichever reason suits."
"I wish you wouldn't call them that."
"Yes. Just because they came after you -"
Jason laughs. The helmet muffles some of the sound, but he knows Batman hears anyway.
"You think that's why I use the word?"
Batman looks puzzled. "I assumed -"
"Of course you did."
"Because we're all pretenders, Bruce
. Nightwing, me, Robin, and her. We pretend that we're invincible. That we'll never get hurt, or die. Or grow up. That we won't fail you. But it never quite works out like that, does it?"
Batman just glares.
"It's on both of us. Don't kid yourself otherwise," Jason says, and walks away.
It's the evening before his birthday. He's not sure if he counts as sixteen or nineteen. He feels neither.
He's kept an eye on Dick. Chess was never Jason's greatest talent -- even the easy setting on the computer could beat him half the time -- but he knows better than to let one of the bishops roam free at the edge of the board unchecked.
The first phone number Jason has listed as current rings out, but the second is picked up on the third buzz.
Jason knew he could rely on Dick for dramatic reactions. He snorts. "Oh yourself, Dickwing."
He wonders if Dick ever knew when his birthday was. Could've read it off a headstone or an obituary or something.
Even if he knew, it's doubtful he'd remember.
"What do you want, Jason?"
"Straight to the sixty-four-thousand dollar question, then?"
Dick just waits. Jason laughs. "You're not as good as that as you think you are. The brooding quiet."
"I'm going to hang up now."
"See, there you go, ruining it by talking. No way he'd say that. Give a warning."
Quiet on the line.
"Hey? Dick? You there?"
The static of a breath comes through, and Jason scowls at how relieved it makes him. "Fucker."
"Just ask it. I don't have time for this."
"Gimme a name. Someone you killed. And don't bother giving me that whole life-is-sacred bull, because I know you've never pulled the trigger and let slip the dogs of war yourself. But I also know that there's someone in your head you see before you go to sleep. Someone you carry the blame for."
"You never used to be this chatty."
"I'm making up for lost time. Now give me a name."
"What's it to you?"
"Humour me, Dick. It's my birthday."
This stretch of silence goes on, and on, and on, but Jason knows that Dick's still there.
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
He talks to the girls working the block where he's staying, until he gets a lead on who's gone missing recently. He visits the pimps who've had the most losses, and finds out where the hush money's coming from, and changes his gloves for an unbloodied pair.
The brownstone's nothing special from the outside, but inside it smells like bleach and air freshener and new carpet. It wouldn't take a former protege of the world's greatest detective to sniff a rat.
Jason finds the owner of the house asleep in the master bedroom upstairs. Nothing special about him; a neat salt-and-pepper moustache and a thinning cowlick of hair, the start of a middle-aged spread under cotton pajamas.
Jason holds a gun to his temple and makes him march down to the basement. The bleach smell is stronger here, and there's a thin shape of a girl curled in one corner. Jason can see that her hands are bound to the water pipe running the length of the wall, but he can't tell if she's alive.
"Unlock her," he tells the man, pressing the gun in against skin by way of punctuation.
The girl stirs. Her hair's a pale brown with darker roots and her eyes are grey. She looks starved, but any fear she had before has been replaced with anger in her eyes.
That makes Jason feel good.
"Are there clothes for her?" Jason asks. The man nods, the moments feverish. Beads of sweat are sheening his face.
"Yes. There's a trunk upstairs. Please, I don't -"
"Save your begging," Jason says, and kicks the man's legs out from under him. His knees make a painful-sounding crack against the cement floor.
Jason cocks his gun, and -
"Wait." The girl holds her hand out. There are faded bruises in the crook of her elbow, and raw patches where she'd been bound. "Can I?"
They almost never say that. He likes it better when they do.
She knows how to shoot, too.
He wipes the gun clean after she hands it back. "Fingerprints," he explains.
They almost never say that, either. He prefers it when they don't.
The late-night edition of the newspaper Jason picks up from a stand states that two teenage boys have been shot and killed by a liquor store clerk. They were after the $94 in the till, and a packet of cigarettes.
He hopes that Bruce will see it and know what Jason's thinking.That's two more on the both of us.
[00:16] RED5271: tell me the name of some1 u feel guilt over
[00:22] 003ROBIN457: What difference does it make?
[00:24] RED5271: i want 2 kno how far 2 is from 3. + its my brithday
[00:28] 003ROBIN457: I know.
[00:32] 003ROBIN457: Red?
[00:32] RED5271: im here
[00:32] RED5271: name.
[00:34] 003ROBIN457: There are a lot I could choose.
[00:38] RED5271: who was yr fault
[00:44] 003ROBIN457: Johnny Warren.
[00:50] RED5271: thanks
[00:51] RED5271: do u have a scar
[00:52] 003ROBIN457: Yes.
[00:55] RED5271: guess u owe me 1
He ends up at one of Gotham's neater graveyards, because it's his birthday and he doesn't feel like being alone. There's always someone in a graveyard, though Jason's yet to meet a ghost. The skin of his cheeks feels so sensitive in the air. So alive. It's why he likes the helmet. But it would feel wrong to wear a costume here. There are enough symbols here without the people turning into them too.
A petite asian girl in jeans and a jacket is standing at the grave that Jason was planning on visiting. She's got a bunch of pale peach roses in her hands; it looks more like a wedding bouquet than anything else.
"I guess you're who I think you're are," he says. She looks up at him, and nods. "And I guess you're not planning on kicking my ass, or you would have already."
"I wouldn't. Not here," she replies.
They stand in quiet for a few minutes. There's not a lot of light, but Jason can make out the shape of the headstone in the gloom.
"You hurt him."
Jason turns at the sound of her voice. "Yeah, well. That's intentional."
"He loves you."
"What are you, the exposition? Despite the family fiction, sweetheart, I'm not stupid. I know
how he feels."
"He loved her, too."
"Didn't save her, did it?"
That shuts her up so fast that Jason feels bad.
"He took me to your grave, once." She stares at him. Most people don't hold eye contact for as long as she does. Jason wishes he had his masks. "I can't really know people with just words. Pictures are better. Movement is best. But I learned... you. A little. He told me."
Jason looks away from her unwavering gaze and down at the headstone. "Tell me about her, then."
He can feel that she's still looking. Her voice is barely more than a whisper when she speaks again. "It's not... yours. Her death."
"I could have prevented it."
"She wouldn't have wanted you to kill."
"I bet she didn't want to die, either, so that evens things out."
"Stop trying to hurt me with her." The words are a furious mutter, and when Jason looks up there are tears in the girl's eyes. "Stop it."
"Then tell me about the girl I let die because I was too busy pissing around to get this city clean fast enough."
This time it's her who looks away first, down at the flowers in her hands. "She... never listened. To 'no'. Or 'stop'. Her laugh made... other laughs. Like... candles, from one flame. Even Batman. She was like him. Anything she loved too much... she -" She makes a pushing gesture with her hands, palms pressing out away from her chest against the air. "Giving up made her sad. Angry, but sad first. She kept a diary. She tried to teach me. She painted her beeper purple. Sometimes she would smile at me. I would..." Her breath shudders. "Know why Batman wanted to keep her safe."
"She sounds like someone cool." Jason wants to touch the girl's shoulder, but doesn't know if it'd earn him a broken finger or not.
"Like water," the girl agrees with a nod, and drops the bouquet onto the grave. "Hi, Stephanie."
Jason doesn't have a flower or anything, so after a second he just gives the headstone a lame little wave. "Hi, Stephanie." He wants to add If you ever come back, I'll buy you a pizza
, but doubts that it's an appropriate thing to say.
But maybe the girl beside him hears him say it, even though he doesn't open his mouth, because she gives him another long look.
"If she ever comes back," she says. "I won't waste it with being angry."
She walks away before Jason thinks up a good reply.
Later, he wonders if he should have asked her if there was anyone she guilted over, but doubts that she'd tell him if there was. She was never a Robin. She doesn't owe him anything.
The Cave probably has tons of new security, so Jason decides to spare himself possible maiming and go for the front door.
He expects Alfred, but it's Bruce who opens it, dressed in a robe. The cowl never looks so much like a costume as this does.
"Turns out that it's really damn annoying when someone walks away from you in the middle of a conversation," Jason says. "So I thought I'd give you a chance at having the last word. I know you like that."
"Do you want to come in?"
"No. You wouldn't let me in anyway."
"We'll never know," Bruce answers. It's after dawn, so it's not surprising that he looks tired. "I carry them all, Jason. I know the deaths that are on my head."
"I know." Of course he knows. He always has. "I wanted you to know that I know mine, too. And I sleep like" the dead
Bruce quirks an eyebrow. Jason thinks about punching him.
"Don't bother investigating the guy on Baker street. That was one of mine," he says, and that's as good as a punch. Bruce even rocks back a little.
"Every girl he doesn't
kill is on my head, too. Their lives. Do you think that the good will outweigh the bad when I die, this time around?"
Bruce doesn't answer. Jason laughs, the sound bitter in his mouth, and turns to go. His bike's parked on the perfect gravel of the driveway.
"I guess mourning her makes it easier to hate me," Jason calls over his shoulder as he walks away from the door. "If she's the dead one, that makes me the bad one."
"I could never hate you," Bruce says, voice at a reasonable volume, the words only a little strangled. "Never
. You know that."
Jason has to bite his tongue. He said that Bruce could have the last word, and he'll keep to that. No matter how it stings.
And then there's a hand on his shoulder, spinning him back to face the house. Jason finds himself missing the way Bruce used to tower over him. Crowd into his personal space. But that was long before he even died. Growth spurts happen.
"You know it's you."
"What, your biggest foe of the year? Your most annoying enemy? You have to be a little more specific."
"The name. The death I carry closest. You know it's you."
Jason wishes he had his mask on. He wishes his eyes were still blanked out with death. He wishes Bruce would stop looking at him, because he can't breathe.
"Still nice to hear you say it," he manages to say. Bruce's hand is still on his shoulder, and after a moment Jason realises that Bruce wants to touch his neck. To feel the pulse there. "Does it go away? Now that I'm alive again?"
"Of course not."
Now Bruce's thumb is on his cheek. Jason wants to close his eyes, but he can't even blink as they begin to sting and water.
"I have to go," he chokes out, finally, and makes the mistake of letting his eyelids drop. The tear feels hot on his skin, like it came from some other, warmer body than his own. "It's not like I can come in and have breakfast and... and fall asleep to the sound of the birds in your garden, is it? It's not like before."
"Just today," Bruce insists. The callus on his thumbtip rubs brushes over the tear, wiping it away. "It's your birthday."
It's a second that feels like it should go on forever, held in freeze-frame on a film reel. The moment of truth, as crappy tv shows might put it. He has to sink or swim. Fight or flight.
"Just today," repeats Bruce. "It doesn't have to mean anything."
"Everything means something." And some things mean everything.
But Jason's good at pretending.
He follows Bruce inside.