Memories Are Dangerous Things
"Woke up, wished that I was dead." – World Spins Madly On, by the Weepies
There's no beginning to the nightmare, there never is. One minute there's nothing, and the next, sound. A maniacal laugh rings out from somewhere in the darkness. He doesn't know where he is. He doesn't know it's a dream.
Despite the lack of surroundings, the setting feels familiar, in a sickening, terrifying way. The laughter echoes around the emptiness, the black space, filling his ears like water. He could be drowning, for all he knows.
The laughter increases.
"Come on, little robin," a voice croons, punctuated by crazed giggles. It's high pitched but most definitely male, the slimy and slithery sound crawling down his spine and sending shivers throughout his body. Foreboding blossoms in his mind but is driven to the wayside by a cold spike of fear. "Don't you want to plaaay?"
Suddenly a fiery, searing pain ripples across his skin, almost like a ghost. The memory of real pain, phantom blows striking at his back, his sides, face, limbs. He would scream, but there's fluid in his lungs, on his lips – it tastes like metal and like nothing all at the same time. Well. Not screaming, that's good. He was never one for showing weakness. That would only get you killed.
He bites clean through his lip in an effort not to make a sound.
"Come on," the voice croons once more, laughing at his obvious agony. "Scream for Uncle J!"
A face looms up above him – a white, ghostly face, framed in green hair, dark shadows painted around the eyes and a red, gaping grin. He shudders and moans as the face leans away, only to be replaced by more pain. He's being hit again. An image flashes in front of his eyes, a crowbar. Is that what he's being hit with? Something in his gut tells him that sounds about right as the laughter continues to surround him and the blows just keep on coming. He closes his eyes.
A beeping starts, distant and muffled by the fire of agony wrapped around him like a blanket. With a final, wet CRACK!, everything stops. The crowbar retreats; the voice sighs. "Uncle J's gonna miss ya, kid," it announces, attempting to ruffle his hair and only managing to smear the hot, sticky blood across his forehead. He flinches away instinctively, garnering another crazed laugh, and sending another wave of hurt throughout his body. "Bye bye, birdie!"
With a final mad cackle, the voice disappears. All that is left is the distant beeping, slowly growing louder and louder, closer and closer. With a considerable amount of effort, he reopens his eyes, and is rewarded with the sight of a set of red numbers, blinking just before his nose. Counting down.
Something tugs at his heart. A longing for something – for someone – a regret. But he's too tired now, much too tired to dissect the feeling. I wish I listened, he thinks, too exhausted to remember just what he was supposed to be listening to or why. I'm sorry.
Down, down, down, the numbers count, red and red and red, blazing eerie and foreboding. He's going to die here, he realizes, he finally, really realizes, he's going to die here. He's going to die.
He is not, in fact, going to be saved this time.
His heart races. He starts to close his eyes—
-and wakes himself up, choking on his own gasping breath.
Immediately, almost mechanically, Jason clamps his mouth shut, breathing out harshly through his nose – a trick he picked up over the years to help control his breathing. He pushes himself slowly into a sitting position, rubbing furiously at his groggy, tear-encrusted eyes and trying to shake off the maniacal laughter echoing through his memories. After a moment and a deep breath, he takes quick inventory of himself and his surroundings.
Almost his entire upper body is covered with a layer of cold sweat, despite the Gotham summer heat. His heart rate, which had been racing, is starting to slow back into a normal rhythm. He's in one of his safe-houses, with an extra gun stashed under his pillow. Nothing is out of place. All's well.
Jason winces as a slow burn starts to develop in his side. Guess not. He reaches down to check on it and winces again as his short fingernails catch the slightest bit on the bandages. Imagining the sticky red flower that's surely blooming over the stark white background isn't all that hard. He must have pulled his stitches in the night.
He groans and clambers out of his bed, shuffling toward the cramped bathroom that houses his medical supplies. As he tends to the cut – a deep stab wound given to him last evening when he was taking down another meth lab – he finds himself wishing for Alfred, with his gentle touch and cool hands, more soothing than his own fumbling fingers. Alfred was always taking care of him, whether he was injured or sick. But that was then. That was back when he had a family.
That was back before the Joker.
Jason clenches his jaw and puts the thought out of his mind. He finishes wrapping his side and shuffles out of the bathroom, trying to decide whether he wants to eat breakfast at four in the morning or attempt to sleep through the day. The decision isn't actually very hard at all. Even if he manages to fall back asleep, the nightmare will only resurface. It always does, nowadays.
Sleep had always been hard to come by for him, even back when he was young, but ever since he came back to Gotham it's just been one nightmare after the next. At least he doesn't scream anymore, not like in the beginning. Screaming attracted too much attention, attention Jason did not like to have when he wasn't actively seeking it out. Screaming means weakness.
The thought reminds him of Talia. She'd comforted him, in those early days after he rose from the dead, came running when he cried out at night. It had been awkward – he'd never pegged Talia for the mothering type – but also kind of nice. Then again, she also kept using the nightmares as points in her argument that he should run back to Bruce. That was a front on which he had always been conflicted. He wanted to go home, but at the same time, it was obvious that home didn't want him. Home forgot about him.
Eventually, he had stopped screaming, and she had stopped coming.
Without his permission, his mind wanders further back, to nightmares of the decidedly non-Joker variety. Jason holds his breath as, unbidden and unwanted, other memories float to the surface of his thoughts. Waking up from nightmares that now seemed so much less, going to find Bruce, who seemed to be constantly awake, and just sitting with him. The two would sit in silence for an indefinite amount of time, either in the cave or in Bruce's study, while Bruce worked and Jason watched. Sometimes he would pitch in, other times he nodded off and had to be carried back to his bed. Neither spoke of those nights during waking hours, but it had been something Jason cherished. And, apparently, grown far too used to, if the empty feeling that often plagued him now was any indication.
He shakes his head. For the last five or so years he'd been dealing with the nightmares by himself. Instead of leaving it alone, he fills the hole inside him with anger, replaces the regrets with fury. It's not the healthiest way of coping – Jason laughs bitterly – but since when was he ever concerned over his mental health? Hell, even before he died, he'd spent his nights running around rooftops in scaly green panties and punching colorful criminals.
Sometimes he wonders just how much his death really effected – not the world, but – well. At first he didn't realize it, consumed with his need for revenge, but once things had settled down slightly he noticed that everything seemed darker. Grittier. Sure, life in Gotham had never been a cakewalk, but people smiled more, the Rogues gallery had been goofier, and even the sky seemed lighter. Now, it seems that Gotham is the hellhole it had always been said to be. It's as if Jason's death had crossed some invisible line, and everyone knows that once you cross a line you can't ever turn back.
He snorts. Getting arrogant, he thinks to himself, rummaging through his kitchen cabinets to see if he has any edible food left or if he has to order takeout again. It's really quite clear that his death didn't change anything. After all, he had been replaced within the year. Child heroes still exist. Robin still exists.
And the Joker is still alive.
"Hrmph," Jason grunts and pushes that line of thought to the side, pulling down a box of cereal and peering inside. Lucky Charms, still enough left for a bowl. Except he's out of milk. Shrugging, he grabs a beer from the fridge – never out of alcohol – and plops down on the ratty old couch. He munches on a handful of cereal as he flicks on the television to some random news station, just for some background noise.
"—Joker has broken out of Arkham Asylum once again—"
The beer bottle smashes against the floor.
Jason is frozen, staring blankly at the screen. Not again, please, some part of him whispers, but he pushes it to the side because he is not fucking weak. So the Joker got out again. So what? So he hadn't left Arkham since the Incident. So what? This is his chance, isn't it – find the Joker and this time, once and for all, put him out of his crazed misery? This is his second chance for revenge.
…except he doesn't know if he really wants it. Oh, he wants to kill the clown all right – as slowly and painfully as possible, preferably, though a quick death would be most efficient – but Jason also doesn't want to go through the trouble of reopening old wounds, not after last time. Last time he wasted his time, his chance at revenge, and for what? Trying to get daddy to notice him? No, never again.
He's Jason Todd, former street kid, former Robin the Boy Wonder, he's the motherfucking Red Hood, and he does not need anyone's validation. He does not need Batman, and he sure as hell does not need Bruce Wayne. Not anymore.
"—happened around midnight, leaving six dead and four injured, authorities have made no progress in finding—"
He takes a deep breath, clenches and unclenches his fists. His mind is in turmoil. Neither his desire for revenge nor his (admittedly questionable at times) morals will let him leave this alone, but god, he just feels so damn tired, of everything. Of Gotham. Maybe he should just leave, take a vacation for once.
(Sometimes he wishes he'd just never bothered to come back at all.)
But then the date flashes across the bottom right corner of the screen. The twenty-sixth of June. Of course it had to be today, of all days. He shakes his head. Ten years.
Ten years to the day he met Batman . . . Bruce Wayne . . . the only father figure that, once upon a time, had been worth something in his life.
Time to do some clown-hunting.