stages of deterioration

{the dirt under your nails}

"Jason," Black Canary said softly. Her voice was scathing in his ears, and he was tired of listening to her. Why wouldn't she just leave him alone? "I know this experience has been a trial for you, and I won't force you to talk to me. But please, for the sake of the people who love you, don't shut yourself down again."

She didn't understand. No understood— how could they? He didn't understand it either. Maybe that was why he was so confused all the time. Maybe that was why he could feel nothing, and yet he felt everything. He couldn't feel angry toward Dinah for prying into his business, but he could feel the scratch of his clothes against his skin, the tight, hot fabric of his tee shirt and sweater as it all smoldered against him. He breathed air, but it caught in his throat like it was noxious, and food no longer tasted like food. It turned to ash on his tongue. Water was too thick, too heavy, and it was like swallowing petrol when he forced it down his throat. He wasn't trying to shut himself down. He just couldn't stand the battle his senses were fighting against the world that seemed to have a grudge against him.

He looked up at her, his eyes glassy and distant. He sank back into his chair, and he stared straight into the woman's eyes for a while. A minute, maybe, or two. She never budged from her position, and she did not back off. So, then… he did what he had to. He gave her what she wanted. But the words were not what she desired.

"I wish I stayed dead."

Six Months Earlier

Tim Drake didn't particularly have trouble busying himself. He was a young hero, and a very bright child, and thus he had a lot of things expected of him. The sad thing was, he tended to get his weekend homework done a little too fast, long before it was time to patrol or visit the Team. So Tim was at a bit of a standstill. He could simply peruse the internet, or maybe get his butt into gear and finish that video game Garfield had let him borrow… what, three weeks ago?

No. Tim was keeping himself amused by cleaning. Because he figured it would leave less work for Alfred, and frankly, Dick's old room was full of little treasures that no one would expect. Tim figured anything left behind was free game (Dick wouldn't mind, would he? Tim would ask him whenever he decided to roll around.).

There was a pile of books that had been thrown unceremoniously into the left corner of Dick's bedroom, and it was literally the biggest pile of random crap. Tim had no idea how anyone could avoid it when trying to navigate, because the bed was right there, and he was pretty sure he accidentally snapped the spine of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. How, he could never be sure, but that one mishap had prompted him to try and sort out the arrangement.

Okay, Tim thought, I'll put The Book Thief in the modern lit pile, there we go. Heart of Darkness, Les MisérablesLooking for Alaska…? When did Dick find the time to read these?

He thumbed through Looking for Alaska, and found that it had no chapters. Just days, ticking down to… what? Not the end of the book— some huge event… or a death. Yeah, I bet it's a death. Seems like all of these are just doorstoppers full of depression fuel.

Tim amused himself with the idea that Dick had indeed attempted to read all of these books, but had gotten so upset with the outcomes of all of them that he just flung them all at the wall and never touched them again. Then he realized that there were tabs in some of them. Sticky notes, with passages scrawled in an unfamiliar script, praises or jokes or quotes or…

The books were all sort of worn. The ones that weren't hardcover were the worst for wear, and when Tim checked the inside covers of some of them— Ender's Game and The Great Gatsby, for instance— he saw that they were library books. Stolen library books, it seemed like. Did Bruce know that Dick stole books from the library? Wait, why would Dick steal anything? Especially library books?

Tim wasn't surprised when Dick walked into the room in the middle of the quest to sort out the collection. There was a strange sort of silence as Tim's surrogate older brother stood in the doorway, staring rather blankly at the scene before him. It wasn't super strange, was it? Tim liked organization— and Dick's room was far from organized. Was it really so strange that he was trying to fix the giant fire hazard in the middle of Dick's old room?

Yeah, it probably was. Tim felt kind of sheepish about it now. He looked up from the stacks of books— some of which were nearing his height as he knelt— and he smiled wanly at the older boy. He held up The Great Gatsby, the smoky blue cover weathered to the point of peeling, and the thin pages were a little crinkled and yellowed.

"So, you realize that the late fee for these is probably around the price of your college tuition, right?" Tim joked, setting Gatsby down on top of Les Mis. The classics weren't odd to see, and though Tim hadn't read most of them, he figured he would get around to it eventually.

"I wouldn't worry about it," Dick said slowly. His eyes scanned the piles, and he moved forward, kneeling beside Tim. He smiled fondly at the literature, but it didn't take Tim long to realize something was off. Panic sparked within him, the startled thought of upsetting Dick almost too much to bear for a moment. He hadn't thought it would hurt him to clean up a little— Tim had just been bored!

"I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head quickly. "I should have asked before touching your stuff. I can put them back the way I—"

"They're not mine," Dick interrupted. He paused, and he looked down at the books, swiftly beginning to stack them himself. "I mean, I guess they are now— I used to look at them a lot. But… yeah, it's fine, Tim. No worries."

Dick smiled brightly then, and pushed the piles against the wall. The room looked much neater now, but also sort of… hollow. Like it was missing something now that half the floor was clean. Tim only felt ten times worse when he realized whose books these were. He didn't know what to think about them— he hadn't thought. That was the problem. He should have realized when he started reading the little notes that the books had belonged to the former Robin. He should have deduced that.

"I'm so sorry," Tim blurted. Dick shook his head, still smiling. He was sad, though, and Tim knew that it was all his fault. "I just thought… I mean, you never mind when I come in here, but I kept stepping on them, and—"

"Tim," Dick sighed, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. "It's fine! I totally get it. I actually meant to clean these up, like… I don't even know, before I moved out, definitely. I'm just super lazy." He laughed, giving Tim a gentle shove. A gesture to stand, it seemed, because Dick was already up and stretching.

Tim did stand. He stood, and he pressed his lips together, staring at the little library that Jason Todd had somehow assembled and read. Tim didn't want to admit that he was jealous. He loved reading mystery novels, but often he got too busy to think about simply gathering up a load of books to read for the fun of it. Jason… Jason Todd was a ghost. That was the simple truth. He was gone, but his presence could be felt all throughout the manor. There was no escaping it. And though Tim had never known Jason, he felt like… he had. In a weird way. Tim had gathered little tid-bits about the boy from simply standing where he once stood. Jason had been a very bold person, and he often hadn't followed orders (that was what got him killed, a voice in his head hissed), and he liked to write on his walls for some reason (gibberish), and apparently he'd loved to read.

Jason was the exact opposite of Tim. But still, there was a desperate admiration that Tim had to feel for the boy who'd been Robin before him. What did you do to make everyone love you so much, that they can't even say your name now?

"Did he read all of those?" Tim asked, his voice barely reaching over a whisper. No one liked to talk about Jason. It often ended awkwardly, and with a heavy air surrounding them until someone changed the subject.

Dick shrugged, bending down and scooping Heart of Darkness, which was rather thin, and yet filled with seemingly a hundred little sticky tabs. Jason must have analyzed that book to its core. Who took the time to dissect a book meant for AP Senior English when they didn't have to? Tim would. Dick wouldn't. And Jason? Well, the answer was in the huge stack of books that had just been rearranged.

"I think…" Dick always had trouble talking about Jason. He would go into a strange sort of daze, as if he was reminiscing and trying to forget at the same time. "He read a lot of them, but… he kind of would just collect them. For later. He… liked having a queue of books to read, I guess."

"Oh." Tim didn't know what else to say. All he could think was, wow, that makes sense. He watched as Dick tossed the very thin book on top of his old bed, and the older boy gave a long yawn, stretching his arms above his head.

"Don't take high school for granted, Tim," Dick said, pouting a little. "College is ten times worse."

Tim rolled his eyes, shoving his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt. "Yeah," he said. "I don't doubt it."

"So, are you coming for training tonight, or patrolling? Cassie's going to be there."

"Why are you wiggling your eyebrows?" Tim asked, frowning as Dick smirked. "Stop it, it's creepy."

"Don't tell me you're not the teeniest bit interested." Dick laughed, gesticulating the 'teeny bit' with his thumb and forefinger. "When I was fourteen—"

"Please," Tim said, his voice nearing a scoff. He was glad that the conversation had changed into something more lighthearted, but really… "When you were fourteen you'd already kissed every girl on the team. Maybe even some of the guys, I don't know."

Dick's eyebrows raised, and he barked a laugh of surprise. Tim looked down, a little unsure of his words. Dick was so easy to talk to, sometimes Tim forgot himself, and said things he knew he'd regret instantly. It was sort of a bother.

"I'm not confirming or denying anything," Dick declared, still laughing a little. "But come on. Cassie's your age, and she seems to like talking to you—"

"She likes talking to you," Tim said, folding his arms across his chest. "Not me. And I'm not really… sure something like that would work, anyway. It seems like dating within the Team ends badly for everyone."

"Not true."

"Artemis and Wally don't count."

"Ouch," whistled Dick. "I'm going to tell them you said that!"

Tim opened his mouth, quickly hoping to amend his mistake, but Dick merely laughed a little more. It sounded strange, and forced, and Tim felt awful. He shouldn't have touched the dumb books. "Uh…" Tim struggled to get the conversation back on track. "Anyway, I think I'm going to patrol tonight."

Dick shrugged, plopping down at his desk. Tim took that as a sign that he should leave. "Suit yourself. If Cassie mentions anything about you not being there, though, I'm going to start dropping hints to Barbara and M'gann."

"Please don't," Tim murmured. "You really don't get the concept of not interested, do you?"

The only thing he got in response was a chuckle, and the older boy simply went on to open his laptop, tipping his chair back precariously. Tim moved toward the doorway before pausing, and he turned, his back bumping against the doorframe. "Hey, are you staying for dinner?" he asked— just out of curiosity. Though Dick had moved out, sometimes it felt like he spent more time at the manor than in his apartment.

"Well, I can't let you eat alone, can I?" Dick cocked his head back, and he smiled. A real one, this time. And Tim smiled back, warmth and relief rushing through him. He wasn't mad. It was all good.


Abyss. Pure, ineffable darkness crushed his mind, and his heart, and his lungs— his lungs. It was all so tight, and grotesque, and he felt it all as it knotted all around him, tugging at his mind and soul. It was the calloused hands of death, meticulous and wraithlike, as he was assembled like a doll, piece by piece, muscles and tendons and veins and blood, stitch, stitch, with a needle and filament— always swift, and never mistaken— but this was a mistake, and it hurt so much—

He wasn't certain. He wasn't certain of anything. All he knew was the pain, and all he felt was the inexorable, inescapable, incorruptible force that was bathing his bones in long since decomposed tissue. The world was a haze of agony and loss, and there was no filter, no limitations, and he felt it at full throttle as the world seemed to emerge around him, rising up from the darkness and taking him by force. There were fingers clinging to him, inside his bones, and inside his head, and he couldn't scream— he had no control over his tongue. He felt violated, with the ghosts of fingertips reaching within him, digging into his chest, through the new skin and muscle, and sliding against bone, and swimming through the blood. The phantom fingers grasped him, locking and tugging, gingerly at first, but then harsher, more desperately, and it hurt so much he could barely— but he was barely aware— and he couldn't— but all of it mattered little in the grand scheme, because the fingers were dragging him up, and up, and up.

There was nothing between him and consciousness. He broke the surface of some ethereal lake, ice clinging to his bones and stinging his lungs— he felt nothing but the agonizing pain that piled atop him like a collapsed building, sitting on his chest and lungs, ash and fire and boom, boom, boom— and his back arched painfully as he gasped, his body threatening to snap beneath the pressure. He couldn't think clearly, and he certainly couldn't breathe properly. It was all a jumbled mess of maybes and left behinds and long buried emotions.

He screamed. He couldn't think of anything else. The taste of ash clung to his tongue, burnt flesh and the soft beep, beep, beep

forehand or backhand? a or b? what hurts more? what hurts more whathurtsmorewhathurtsmore

The sensation of something scratching against his skin was overwhelming. He hurt, and he could hear himself screaming, but his breath only blew back into his face. He tried to thrash, to make more noise, but his legs and arms simply slammed against something squishy and soft that only covered something hard as a rock. He couldn't spread his arms, and when he tried to sit up, his forehead smacked into a cushioned slab, forcing him to let another scream rip loose as he collapsed back into his prison bed. It was soft, and it was warm, but it was the farthest thing from comfortable. His fingers brushed against the linen covered sides, and he began to pound his palms against them, the world rattling in response.

dizzy and tired and— pain— he'll get tired of it— he'll stop— just a few more blows and I'll be okay, I'll be okay, just gotta hold it all together, and then I'll be okay

He stopped thrashing only when he realized he was having trouble breathing. Sure, it hurt to breathe before, but now it felt as if someone was crushing his lungs. The air was too hot, and he was cramped inside such a tiny space, and he couldn't understand what was happening. But instinct kicked in quickly, and he was craning his neck, blindly trying to find a weak spot. His arms screamed in objection as he raised them, his fingertips brushing across the lining of fabric that kept him all cozy and suffocated. He began to tug at it vainly, his chest heaving as his bones bent and bowed and threatened to snap beneath his skin.

chest is throbbing and everything is tinged with red and there's a sharp metallic tang on my tongue— shit, am I bleeding internally, or is that just from my busted gums— and I can't speak, just gurgles— where is he? where are they? it's getting so hard to breathe

When he realized he could search his body for something that could help him, he went right for the cold thing around his waist. It was the only remotely useful thing he could come up with, and he spent a few precious minutes awkwardly fumbling with the buckle, blindly unlooping it and pulling it closer to his chest. He had to ignore the pain now. He had to. He would turn it off, just so long as it helped him get out of this tiny little box. He'd feel better after. He had to believe that.

He could hear the scratching. The tearing of fabric. He was doing it all so effortlessly, he wasn't sure it was actually him doing the work. He felt as if he'd taken the back seat in his own body, and now someone— something else was using a belt buckle to tear away the thick linen, and he felt the wood beneath his fingertips. He didn't stop, though. His arms were burning, screaming in agony, aching and cramped, but he kept digging at the smooth wooden prison, kept at it, because if he stopped, what would become of him?

worm food. I'm gonna end up worm food if I don't slip these cuffs soon— stop thinking so loud, stop thinking period, just wait it out

The shrill sound of metal grating against wood set his teeth on edge. He wasn't sure what he was doing, or how much of an impact it would make, but it was all he could do. His hands worked away, whittling the wood down to an unrefined mess of gouges and serrations.

if he thinks I'm gonna scream

He twisted himself painfully, wedging himself against the side of his little box, and he took a minute or two to struggle out of whatever was restricting his arms. He slid it out from behind him, his fingers trembling against the fine cloth.

he's gonna be so mad at me for fucking up

Taking a deep breath, he strained himself to lean his head up, the skin of his forehead brushing against the shredded linen. He wrapped the weathered suit coat around his head, his mind only vaguely recalling this action as the correct thing to do in this sort of situation. He had no clue. He might have felt scared, maybe, if he hadn't flung all of his emotions back into the abysmal place he'd been torn from.

when I go home I'll punch him— or try too— then, then, then apologize— he was right, they both were, and

Once the coat was secure around his face, he felt around for the notches he'd made in the wood. Then, he drew his arm back as far as it could go in the small area given to him— and he punched.

why can't I feel my legs

He did feel the pain. He just couldn't receive it properly, and so he kept going. His fist battered against the coffin, one blow, two blows, three, and his flesh began to tear, he felt it, and blood was running hot down his hands. He couldn't breathe at all through the tightness of the coat around his face, not that there was much air to breathe in the first place, but…

my name— my name is

The moment his fist busted through the wood was the moment everything seemed to catch up with him. He felt the undying need to scream, and he struggled and twitched as he felt something run against his shirt, pouring hard and fast against his chest. He struck at the hole he made, listening to the slither of dirt, and he beat at it faster, harder, until a crushing pain spiked through his chest. It was all coming in at once, and he couldn't—

I'm going to die.

And then he tore away the rest of the wood, and he felt the dirt collapsing on his face (if he hadn't covered it, he would have inhaled all of that...), the cataclysm pinning him onto his back. He would not die. That was the simple truth. He refused to lie down and let himself be crushed, not when he'd— he'd worked so hard—

He used all of his strength. Every last bit of it was used to push against the onslaught of dirt, and slither through the jagged hole— his skin and clothing was getting caught, and his lungs were screaming for air— and he clawed at the darkness, his fingers beating against something thick and heavy, and he pushed up, and up, and up. His body was so raw and broken already, but the strain felt like hell. He kept going, though. Up and up and up. He had no other options, and he dug, his arms—hands, especially the hands— throbbed with pain.

Somehow, he found himself grappling at open air. For a moment he thought it was a trick. The universe was beguiling him, trying to suppress him more with its dirt and its tiny boxes. But that was not the case. He reached, his joints all ready to pop from the strenuous task of fighting off the heavy rain of dirt and stone. It had felt like hours, climbing blindly and hopelessly, but it had only been a minute or so at most. And then he pulled himself, his neck meeting bare air, and his shoes still brushing the prison below.

He ripped the suit off his head and gasped, relishing in the cool, clear air as it washed through his lungs and bathed him in a whistling sort of relief, stinging him and slapping him hard enough to knock him right out of his hole. He reached out, still blinded, and he gasped, sucking the clean air through his teeth as he flailed and pulled and tore himself from the earth, his body wriggling free and collapsing.

It was only then that tears burnt his eyes, and his body no longer responded to its brain's call for mobility. So he did the only thing he could do. He let himself scream again, and all he could sense was the taste of dirt and tears, and the overwhelming anguish that draped across him, digging its spindly claws into his chest and ripping.

"I'm still here," Robin said, his eyes cast toward the smoggy sky. The late October night was nipping, and wind whistled and tugged gently at his cape. Batman was always reluctant to leave Robin alone on patrol— it only happened when something really bad was going down, and Batman didn't want Robin to be there. Except Robin knew that he used to allow Robin to go off on his own all the time. Before. Back with Dick, and then…

But things changed. Batman learnt from experience. And Robin never objected. He understood very well that this was not a test of his character. It was just a precaution, and trying to prove himself stronger? That would be a horrible mistake. Not following orders gets you killed. Jason and Tula are proof of that.

"Good," Batman stated through their radio link. "Stay there. I'll be done with this soon."

"Alright," Robin said. He kept his disappointment clear out of his voice. It hurt to know that Batman didn't trust him not to make the mistakes that had devastated them previously. But he wasn't dumb enough to walk right into a fight that Batman feared to be too dangerous for him. If Batman thought he wasn't ready, then he probably wasn't. He could deal with it. "Be careful."

He only got a grunt in reply.

Robin sighed after turning off the radio. The night was still young, and there was an incident near the docks. In about five hours, nearly two dozen people had been hospitalized with wounds ranging from broken arms to multiple stab wounds and lacerations. No one had died yet, thankfully, but people were claiming that… well, the rumor was that it was Death itself slashing its way through Gotham. Nineteen people in five hours? That was major.

It can't be the Joker, Robin rationalized. It just can't be. The attacks may be random and erratic, but the Joker is still in Arkham. Robin found himself checking twice more, his eyes glued to his wrist computer, trying to find some sort of abnormality with the Arkham Asylum security footage. But the Joker was just… there. Bobbing his head, as if he had some weird tune stuck in that psychotic brain of his.

Robin felt uncomfortable watching for very long, so he quickly moved onto something else. He wasn't staking out or anything, so he had no reason to be quiet or patient. He was nervous, and it was becoming more and more apparent. He could usually keep himself very still for long periods of time, stuck in a knot of deduction and plots. He couldn't seclude himself into his mind tonight. He wasn't sure why, but he was undeniably anxious, and so he had to keep himself busy.

Texting Barbara was unprofessional at best. But, hey, the alternative was disobeying Batman. He'd take the chance.

Are you in class?

Even if she was, it didn't matter. Barbara texted him during class all the time, whether he wanted to talk to her or not.

She answered about a minute later.


This class reminds me why I never took Religion classes in high school

the preachiness is getting to my head and i keep wanting to bring up how science has proved all of this wrong and stuff but i can't because it'll affect my grade and gdi i blame wally for most of my skepticism

why am i taking this class again

Robin smiled, and he sat down at the edge of the building he was stationed on, swinging his legs out into the air.

Biblical Themes can't be that bad. Even if you don't really believe it, it's all pretty interesting and informative. He knew Barbara wasn't an atheist— but she didn't really believe in much either. Religion wasn't a topic that was brought up often, because none of them really knew what to believe in. They tried to not think about it.

It's okay

Just boring and weird I guess

Please don't take me as an example of how to handle college

It's just this class I swear

The thing was, Barbara was handling college a lot better than Dick, so Robin was just getting mixed signals all over. And she was taking at least a five more classes than Dick. Robin didn't know how she remained so calm with all the work she had. He really admired her for being able to stick it out, on top of hero duties and a day job.

They talked back and forth for a little while. Robin wasn't worried about Batman finding out and getting angry, because Nightwing did this with Barbara constantly. On stakeouts. It was because Barbara had a lot of night classes, and sometimes they would go for weeks on end only seeing her when she was Batgirl. It was a downer, really, because Tim liked talking to Barbara.

When the radio in his ear began to buzz rapidly, Robin quickly cut the conversation short. She'd understand, and plus, he was making her miss a lecture. That was wrong of him. He quickly flicked his radio back on, dismissing the hologram. Maybe it was over now. Or maybe Batman needed back up.

"I'm here," he said, rising to his feet. The wind nearly knocked him backwards as it howled and spat, twisting his cape around his legs.

"Robin." Batman's voice was hoarse. Lower and thicker than usual, and it startled Robin to the point where he nearly lost his footing on the building ledge. He quickly flipped himself onto his hands, bouncing easily back toward the safety of the building. "Get the car and track my location."

"The…?" He blinked, his words only barely registering. He was trusting him to drive the Batmobile. That was… scary. "What's wrong? Are you alright?"

He was already springing from the building by the time he heard Batman's cold reply. "Irrelevant." In Batman language, that meant 'no time to answer, so hurry up and follow orders'. Robin felt a little jittered by it, but he focused himself forward, and moved swiftly. Batman was injured. That had to be it, he was hurt, but he didn't want to say anything.

Robin couldn't remember ever moving as fast as he was moving now. He was barely registering anything but his objective, and nearing it. He would get to Batman, and he'd give him the help he needed. That was all that mattered, and it was all he had to do. It was simple, and easy, and yet he felt like he was already out of time, and it was still so early— but Robin knew that he could do it. Because he had to.

When he reached the Batmobile, he nearly fell from his determination. He knew how to drive it, but… he never had a reason to before now. Don't think about it, he told himself, slipping into the front seat. His cape pooled around him, and his fingers hovered over the wheel, and the controls. Nightwing wouldn't think about it. Just go. Just drive!

He quickly tapped into Batman's signal to the GPS, and he took a deep breath, his fingers brushing against the holoscreen as the dot glowed faintly in the darkness. Then he drove. He let himself rely on instinct, and he directed the Batmobile toward Batman, and he tried not to think too much about what could possibly await him. There was a possibility that he was too late, and that urged Robin forward faster, the knowledge that Batman was counting on him hanging over his head heavily, like a brick about to drop.

He took it as easily as he could. He did pump up the speed quite a bit, but he was very careful. He weaved between traffic, his body rigid as he tried to calm himself. He had to become steel as a preparation. He would be no help otherwise. Robin was very delicate with the controls, hoping that he didn't mess anything up too badly.

Whatever had happened, it hadn't been enough to trigger the police. Yet. There was no major destruction to the buildings around the docks, which gave Robin a little bit of a relief as he accelerated the Batmobile. Then, finally, he met his destination, and he flung himself from the car, nearly forgetting to put it in park. His fingers were already against the latch that held his bo staff to his back, and he hunched forward, listening closely for any sign of danger. To his surprise, he heard a muffled… sobbing.

He spun around, his head snapping up to meet the gaze of his mentor as the Batman stood, his jaw squared, and his lips white and thin. Robin opened his mouth to ask, but then he saw the small form that was clutched close to his chest, half hidden by the wisp of a black cape. Robin stared, his mouth opening for a moment, before he realized. He quickly opened the back door of the Batmobile, not saying a word. He didn't need to know now. There was a kid in trouble, and that was all he needed to prompt him.

"Robin," Batman said. Robin looked up, blinking as he gripped the door. He could see the blood, but he had no words. The kid needed to be treated by a doctor, and fast.

"I can call Nightwing and Batgirl to get a trace on our Unknown," Robin said, his fingers sliding against his wrist. "We can meet them after the civilian is stabilized and safe."

Batman was shaking. There was nothing more terrifying than that. Had Robin done something wrong? The way the man's broad shoulders shuddered, it had to be anger that shook him. Robin felt himself take a step back on reflex, his back bumping against the Batmobile, and he heard the soft muttering of the kid— the boy— as Batman took a few steps forward.

"Bruce…" whispered the boy, who was black and red all over. Dirt and blood marred his features, smudged and smeared across his youthful face. "Bruce…"

Robin could only stare. He was confused, not certain of what he was hearing, and then the boy's eyes snapped open. They were salient, like glassy spheres of ice glowing beneath the red that stained his cheeks and eyelids and lips. He opened his mouth, and a soft scream escaped it, and the boy twitched and thrashed and writhed beneath the grasp of the Dark Knight, a name still on his tongue as he lost control.

This isn't possible, Robin thought, recognition stinging his mind as Batman held onto the boy tighter, leaning forward to murmur something in his ear. Robin knew Jason Todd only from pictures and holograms. But even so, the former Robin had eyes one could scarcely forget. And they were open. They were staring straight at Robin, and there was nothing in them but pain and confusion and fear. You're dead. You can't defy the only truth of humanity— you're human, and death is finite. Or at least, it's supposed to be.

Robin acted quickly, and without command. He let his hand fly to his utility belt, and he dug through a pouch, withdrawing a small syringe. It wasn't very hard to catch one of the boy's— Jason's?— arms. The trouble was that he was fighting very hard, and he was screaming louder with every moment that passed. But Robin was quick, and he was precise, and the boy could barely register the short prick of a needle as the sedative was pumped into him.

Batman said nothing as to whether or not he was grateful for this action. It didn't seem to matter to him. He merely jerked his head toward the Batmobile, and Robin jumped up, grasping the top of the doorframe and swinging himself inside the car. He reached out, waiting for the boy— the maybe Jason Todd— to stop squirming and screaming, and allow the sedative to take its course.

After a minute or so more of agonized screams, everything sort of faded off, and Robin then had a head in his lap. They were moving before Robin could register the reality of it, and the boy blinked up dazedly at the ceiling. Robin spent a little bit of time trying to scrub some of the dirt and blood from his face. It only made him realize that most of the mess had not come from his wounds.

"He's our Unknown," Robin said softly. From the front seat, there was no reply. Robin knew it to be true though. "This… this is…"


There was no emotion in Batman's voice. There was nothing. He sounded less human than a robot. In fact, Red Tornado's voice was sounding particularly human in comparison. Robin frowned, and he looked down at the— at Jason. He was hurt badly, but… there was blood everywhere. Dried blood, warm blood, blood smeared in thick, harsh strokes. He looked back, his eyes still gleaming with fear and pain, but he was considerably calmer. If it wasn't for the way he blinked when he completely succumbed to the sedative, and the rise and fall of his bloody chest, Robin would think the boy was dead. Again.

"It could be a trick," Robin murmured, trying to rationalize this. "This is… I mean, how is this possible? How is he alive? Is it a trick?"

There was silence. Robin was still staring at Jason's face, tentatively wiping away the blood and dirt that caked his skin, revealing sallow hues and thin scrapes. The boy's lips were trembling as he sucked shallow breaths between his teeth. His pale blue eyes were flickering blindly, but sometimes they would land on Robin's face, and they'd be fixed there for a while. It was unnerving.


"I don't know," said the Dark Knight, his voice quiet. Robin didn't know what question he was answering. So he had to assume it was all of them.

"But… he's real." Robin swallowed hard, and he leaned his head back, feeling sort of dizzy and wonderstruck. "He's actually… he's alive. We have to tell Nightwing!"


That sent a chill striking through Robin's chest. Not tell Nightwing? When it was so clear that Jason Todd was and always will be Dick Grayson's biggest regret, and most painful scar? How could Batman be so cruel? Robin's fingers tightened around Jason's crimson and brown stained shirt, and the boy's voice rattled softly as he began to murmur under his breath. Oh. He wants to make sure it's really him. Giving Nightwing false hope is worse than… anything. But still…

Robin bit his lip. He quickly summoned his wrist computer, and began to type frantically, the light stinging his eyes as he tried not to think about what was next for them, what this all meant. He knew this wasn't possible. He was scared of it. He was terrified of the boy laying on him, bloody and responsible for the injuries of… so many innocent people… and for what?

Still, he couldn't do nothing. And Batman had said nothing about contacting Batgirl.

Can you check out the cemetery for me?

Her reply came without a hitch.


Is there any particular reason why?

His fingers were trembling against the little holographic keys. It was strange. All Robin could feel was the eyes of the sedated boy boring into his neck, scrutinizing his every movement, every breath.

Just want to test a theory. You'll know it when you see it.

The rest of the ride went on in an uncomfortable silence. Batman would say nothing about how he had come to find the dead boy. Robin could do nothing to help. Jason wouldn't be sedated for long, and Robin was nervous about what the boy would do when he woke up from the calm. Would he attack Robin? Most likely. I wouldn't be able to hurt him, Robin thought. If we fought, I'd end up holding back. I can't fight someone like him.

When they arrived at the cave, Batman had ushered Tim out almost immediately after Alfred appeared, and began working at cutting away the soiled clothing that clung to Jason's blood soaked chest. Tim couldn't find it in him to even try objecting to it. There was no point. He didn't want to watch. There was something inexplicably haunting about looking into Jason's eyes, and it got to the point where Tim could feel them on him still. Even though there were many walls and floors between them.

Tim ended up trying to pass the time by going back up to Dick's room and grabbing one of the books that he'd arranged earlier in the day. Heart of Darkness ended up being seventy three pages of long-winded prose and a strange and sort of icky insight into human psyche. A lot of Jason's notes on the book were jotted down words that he likely went to look up later— and Tim didn't really blame him. Other notes were short little jokes about the author's sanity, or the narrator's naivety.

After finishing the book, Tim felt really, really awful. He had no idea what was happening in the cave, and he was too scared to check for himself. What if Jason had died again? What if it had all turned out to be an illusion? This was all so impossible, and Tim had no idea how to handle it. He hadn't been trained to deal with this sort of situation. Death, yes! Resurrection? Not a chance.

In the end, Tim disobeyed orders.

"Robin?" Nightwing didn't sound very surprised. His face glowed on the computer screen, and Tim adjusted his sunglasses nervously. "You're done with patrol early."

"You need to come home," Tim blurted. He could see M'gann behind Nightwing, and she looked up, her eyes moving to the screen. She looked startled. "It's urgent. It's so, so, so urgent, and Batman told me not to— I'm really sorry, I know I shouldn't go against orders, but I think you deserve to know."

Nightwing was silent for a few moments. His lips parted, and then they snapped closed, and he looked hardened. It scared Tim how much he looked like Batman when he did this. "Is everything alright? Tell me the damage now, before I get there."

"I—" Was it a good thing or bad thing that Jason Todd was miraculously alive again? What was the damage of this miracle? Everything good always came with something bad. "I don't know. I'm not allowed to see. It's… I can't say, I'm sorry."

Nightwing's eyes narrowed, the whites of his mask turning to slits. Then he nodded, somehow understanding Tim through all of his confusion. "I see," he said. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. Tim watched him, and he pitied his older brother. He wouldn't handle this well. "I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Okay," Tim murmured. He looked down, and he saw that his hands were shaking. He tried to stop it by running his fingers through his hair, but it only sent his entire body jittery. "Okay…"

"Robin…" Nightwing looked at him with eyes wide with empathy, and he shook his head. "Stay whelmed. I'm going to be there in like, five minutes, alright? It'll be fine."

Tim could only bob his head and pray that Nightwing was correct.

True to his word, Dick arrived only a few minutes later. And Tim could only sit and peer into the Batcave cautiously, too afraid to face Bruce or Dick. They'd been arguing when Tim had ventured down to the cave. When Dick saw him, he looked relieved, and he left Bruce's side to pull him fully into the cave, babbling about thinking someone had died, and chastising him for not being clearer on the matter. It was obvious he didn't know yet.

Tim was too ashamed of himself to meet Bruce's eye. Dick had him by the shoulder, still talking up a storm, but somehow holding a defensive position over Tim, as if he meant to shield him from Bruce's wrath. It wouldn't work.

"I thought I explicitly stated to wait," Bruce said. His eyes were tired, and his voice was too throaty and loose. He didn't have the energy or the willpower to put on a show to intimidate Tim. There was no need. This scared Tim a hell of a lot more.

He took a deep breath. He could stand up to Bruce. He could. This had been his decision, and he'd had his own reasons for disobeying orders. "You told me not to tell him," Tim replied, looking up at Bruce with wide eyes. "And I didn't. But I think you should. This isn't the kind of thing you can keep locked up for a few days, or a week, or a month. Dick deserves to know now."

Dick looked at him, his eyes widening in surprise. And then he smiled gratefully, squeezing Tim's shoulder gently. "I agree," Dick said. "I want to know now, whatever it is. If it has Tim this upset, then I have to know. You did say no one died, right?"

Bruce sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, and he shook his head mutely. Tim looked around the cave, and saw that Jason was nowhere in sight. It was likely Alfred was patching him up in another room. Bruce gave Dick a level glare, which prompted Dick to tear his mask away, just so they would be on the same field of glowering. Tim inwardly cheered when Bruce relented. Outwardly, he managed nothing but a very small smile.

"Fine," he said, spinning around and pressing a button on his console. "Alfred, bring him in."

"Sir?" Alfred's voice sounded startled, and a bit unsure. "He's only just calmed. Are you certain—?"


Alfred paused, and when he replied, Tim could hear the strain in his voice. "Very well. We'll be there in a moment, Master Bruce."

It was that moment that Barbara decided to text him again. He pulled out his phone and glanced at the screen, flushing at the look Bruce gave him. It was pertinent, though, so he couldn't be blamed, right? He read Batgirl's message, and he felt a little twinge of satisfaction. Well, it answered the question of where Jason had come from. Or, really, confirmed it.

When Alfred appeared, he was beckoning a very small boy forward. Jason was all clean now, his skin raw and sort of peachy in color instead of sickly sallow, and his hair was washed and combed, and he wore a pair of flannel pajamas. He was barefoot, and staring at the ground, as if he was focusing on the movements of his feet.

Dick didn't react at first. He simply stared, blinking once, twice, thrice. Then Jason rose his head at Alfred's gentle prompting, and Dick took a few steps back, stumbling and catching himself. His face had gone very pale, and his eyes were so wide and terrified, that Tim felt like he'd under reacted upon meeting the dead boy.

"I-is this—" Dick choked on his words, but he could not tear his eyes from Jason's face. The boy merely stood, his eyes blankly staring back. "Is this some sort of joke…?"

Of course Dick knew it wasn't. It was a dumb question. Bruce didn't take offense to it, though. He simply closed his eyes, and shook his head. "No," Bruce said quietly. "He's real, Dick."

There were a few precious, heart-stopping moments where Dick's expression changed completely. He went from terrified, to anguished, to utterly ecstatic. He looked at Jason, and something glowed within his dark blue eyes, something Tim hadn't seen in… a very, very long time. Perhaps he'd never seen it before now. After all, Tim had arrived after the death of Jason Todd. Dick Grayson was broken, but it was only apparent when you saw him truly happy. There was a very large difference between the act Dick pulled to get people to not worry, and the true and pure elation that gleamed in his eyes, and stretched with his disbelieving smile, and rung through the cave with the soft, almost tearful laughter that slipped from his lips.

Dick didn't waste any time in dropping before Jason, and searching the dead boy's face for a few moments. "This is really… this is really you, Jay," he breathed, his body quivering as he reached out, his fingers brushing Jason's nose. Dick pulled back immediately, jolting as if he'd burnt himself on Jason's skin. Then he let out a shaky, shocked laugh, and he flung his arms around the boy, pulling him close and burying his face in his shoulder.

Tim could only watch. He hadn't known Jason. He was intruding.

He turned to Bruce, and straightened up, allowing himself to feel some satisfaction for doing the right thing in telling Dick. "According to Barbara, Jason's grave caved in. If there were any doubts before…"

"They're gone." Bruce nodded curtly. "This is Jason Todd."

It was. But when Tim looked one last time at the dead boy, he saw that he had not made a single move since Dick had hugged him. In fact, he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was being hugged. He only stared ahead, his icy blue eyes glossy and dazed.

Miracles come with a price, Tim thought sadly. This might be Jason Todd's body, but where's Jason Todd's mind?

There was nothing. A week after Jason Todd's miraculous revival, and he was just as dazed and unresponsive as that first night. Dick didn't really seem to care, or at the very least he hid his worry well. Bruce avoided Jason like the plague when he was home, and when there was an encounter, there was a very silent, very hollow staring match. Tim didn't know what Bruce thought he would accomplish by doing this, but it was about as effective in pulling Jason out of his stupor as bonking the boy on the head with a metal baseball bat. If anything, it made Jason worse.

Barbara had acted similarly to Dick, only a bit more subdued. She didn't hug him, but she did kneel before him and stare for a few minutes. Tim had left after she began to cry, not wishing to intrude anymore than he had already. It was strange, feeling like a stranger in his home. Tim found himself becoming more and more reclusive, rarely speaking in school unless he was spoken to, and only seeing the Team when he was sent on a mission. Tim had always been an introvert, but he knew he was getting ridiculous at this point. The thing was, no one seemed to notice. So he didn't need to try and integrate himself more into society, right? Right?

One week, and everything that seemed normal was disrupted. Dick still slept at his apartment, but he'd skipped all of his classes for five days, and he spent the majority of his time at the manor trying to get some sort of reaction out of Jason. It seemed to Tim that Dick was wasting his breath. Jason did nothing all day but sit for hours staring at a wall, or wander about the manor aimlessly, or scare Tim half to death whenever he slipped Dick's eye by appearing behind him rather suddenly and silently.

Bruce had informed the Justice League, but they were the only ones who knew. The world was oblivious to the reappearance of Jason Todd, and it went on without budging in response. If nature had been warped and unraveled to bring back the former Robin, it did it in secret. No one knew. No one cared. And Tim found that he didn't care either.

It was only when Tim was awoken in the night to strangled screams that he began to realize how awful he was being. How awful they were all being. No one was helping Jason get better— they were only making his condition worse. And one week later, it became clear that he couldn't survive like this.

Tim got to him first. He was the closest, and the moment he'd heard the screams he'd torn his blanket away, stumbling in the darkness and rushing into the hall, his head snapping back and forth confusedly. The screams were rattling off the walls, shattering the quiet night like bullets against glass. Tim sped to Jason's door, but he found that it was open, and the room was in shambles— pictures had been torn from the walls, crumpled and ripped, and there were albums scattered across the floor, cracked cases and broken picture frames and snapped pencils and destroyed notebooks. Tim could feel panic bubbling inside his chest, and he gripped the doorframe, his eyes growing wide and his face growing white in absolute terror.

He spun around, his bare feet clapping against the floor, and he began flinging open doors. "Jason?" he called, his voice cracking in fear. "Jason!"

The screams only got louder, and Tim finally pinpointed where he was. He sprinted through the halls, twisting and stopping before the bathroom door, his fingers grasping the doorknob. The door didn't budge, but there was light and steam streaming through the cracks, and the screams were so loud now, they were beginning to hurt Tim's head. He rattled the doorknob, bewildered at the idea that the boy had managed to lock the door.

"Jason! Open the door!" Tim pounded his fist against the wood, and the screams only got louder, more erratic, and every so often a sob would break into the horrible line of shrieks. "Jason! I know you can hear me, please! Please, open the door!"

It went on. Tim inhaled sharply though his nose, and he gave the doorknob one last jostle before taking a step back. He prayed Jason wasn't anywhere near the door's path, and he took a deep breath, twisting and kicking the door with just enough strength to force it in on itself. The door slammed back against a wall, and Tim staggered into the misty bathroom. His eyes flashed fast between the shattered, foggy mirror, the puddles of water from the shower, which was running hot and steaming, and the creamy white walls, which were smeared with stains of red. Tim reached forward, his fingers brushing against the still wet blood, and he withdrew them, his stomach twisting in horror.

"Jason…?" Tim swallowed a bit of bile that had crept up his throat. He hopped carefully between the puddles of water, fighting through the steam, and narrowly avoiding slipping. He reached the bathtub, and through the translucent glass he could see the faint shape of Jason's shaking form. Tim shook his head, pushing away his fear, and he slid the glass door to the side.

Jason was curled up beneath the berating water that streamed from the showerhead. He was still wearing his pajamas, and his dark hair was sticking to his ruddy face and neck as he leaned into the scalding cascade and screamed. If he was crying, the water masked it. But it was also burning his skin, turning his neck and face an angry red. Tim reached through the water, choking on his own cries as it scalded his hands and arms, and he flicked the faucet off. The water abruptly sputtered to nothing, and the screams were suddenly deafening. Tim had heard them from his room, in his sleep, between how many walls and doors, and the din of running water? Did the boy even know how to breathe?

"It's okay!" Tim gasped, his hands hovering over Jason's quaking shoulders. He was clutching his hands to his chest and rocking back and forth, his face contorted in pain. "Jason, stop, it's okay, look!" Tim took Jason's hands, and he felt a little sick when he saw that were was glass imbedded into his palms, and blood was pooling and glistening, runny and thin as it mixed with the water in the tub. "Oh, god… Jason…"

He wouldn't stop screaming. Tim was getting so panicked, he couldn't think properly. How did you stop this sort of thing? Tim tried to pull Jason out of the tub, but the boy merely pushed and screamed louder, slapping at Tim with bloody hands. Tim sighed, wincing as he forced himself to climb into the tub beside him, water sloshing and burning at his bare feet and soaking through his sweatpants. There was so much water in the tub— pink tinted water, almost to halfway full. Oh, god, was he trying to drown himself?

"Alfred!" he shouted, pinning Jason's arms to his side and attempting to hush him. Dick would know what to do. Dick knew everything about Jason. He knew exactly how to keep him quiet, didn't he? Pretend he's a child, Tim thought frantically. Hug him! Dick would hug him, so I should hug him. Tim breathed in, choking on all the steam, and he pulled the thrashing boy to his chest. "Jason, please… it's okay now, you can stop screaming."

Jason only began to quiet down when Tim began to rub his head slowly, uncertainly pushing the boy's slick black hair away from his face. He was still sort of fighting Tim off, but his screams were breaking apart, more sobs falling through, and by the time Alfred arrived in the doorway, Jason was clinging to Tim's shirt and only shrieking a little bit between sobs. Tim looked at Alfred, his eyes pleading, and the old butler quickly moved to help remove the boy from the bathtub. If he was disturbed by the blood or the screams, he didn't show it. He looked at Tim though, and there was a strange gleam of gratitude there.

"Can you call Dick?" Tim croaked, too scared to pry Jason's fingers from his chest. He'd sort of curled into himself while still holding onto Tim, as if he didn't really want to be holding onto him, but he couldn't bear to let go. "I… I don't know what happened to him. What do we do? Where's Bruce?"

"Master Bruce is currently out." Alfred's lips twisted into a grimace, and Tim knew that he wasn't happy with the way Bruce was acting either. "But, yes, contacting Master Dick would be… the best option at this point. Will you help me take Master Jason to the kitchen?"

It wasn't like Tim had much of a choice. He felt incredibly uncomfortable having Jason hold onto him like a lifeline, but only because he felt like, if Jason had been aware of what he was doing, he'd be mortified. Tim wasn't really an affectionate person, and he liked having his own space. That often clashed with Dick's need to touch everything and everyone. Tim felt like Jason would be somewhere between there in the comfort spectrum.

They left puddles everywhere they went. Jason eventually went silent, and he returned to his usual vacant behavior. Only now, whenever Tim wandered away from him, his head would snap to face him, and his eyes would go wide and then narrow. It made Tim a little uncomfortable at first, until he realized that it was progress.

Dick came and made everything better. It amazed Tim how easily he could manage Jason's condition, and how he got little responses from the not-dead boy. When Dick hugged Jason, the boy leaned into it. When Tim had hugged him, he'd fought like hell before finally giving in, and that was probably out of exhaustion and terror more than anything else. Dick's soothing words elicited flickers of emotion in Jason's hollow gaze, and after a little while, they'd lulled him to sleep.

"What…" Tim's voice was wobbly, and thin. "Why did this happen? He… destroyed everything in his room, and then…"

"I don't know." Dick looked solemn, and he was holding Jason's tiny-looking body very close. He smiled, though, and he stared at Tim with a grateful gaze. "Thank you. Alfred said you were the one who calmed him down, and that's… pretty amazing. Jason never was one to give up fighting easily."

"I… I just held him, that's all." Tim could feel his neck and cheeks flushing in embarrassment. "I was just doing what I thought you would do."

Dick looked at him, his deep blue eyes sad and surprised and dim. He looks so old…

Three days later, Dick moved back into the manor. After that, whenever Jason would wander at night, he always ended up at Dick's door with a nightmare and a silent plea.

"'I guess humans like to watch a little destruction,'" Tim read aloud, a few weeks later, and no closer to a breakthrough. Jason was still a well kept secret. The only people who knew aside from the League were Wally and Artemis, and that was only because Dick told them everything. "'Sand castles, houses of cards, that's where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.'"

This is how Tim spent his evenings nowadays. It became so regular, in fact, that Jason began picking out the books he wanted Tim to read. It wasn't anything huge, like actually speaking, but it was a nice sense of consciousness. There was someone behind the lost gaze and blank expression. Jason Todd was alive. Maybe.

Jason was staring straight ahead, his arms tucked into his chest, and if he was listening, he gave no inkling of it. Tim liked to think he was, though. Otherwise he'd feel weird talking to himself. Tim leaned over, sticking the book under Jason's nose and pointing to one of the sticky notes tagged on the side of the page.

"Do you remember writing this?" Tim asked, vainly hoping he would show some physical response. "It says, 'It's funny how Death gets humans better than humans get humans.' See, you drew an arrow to that passage—"


He jumped, and he twisted his body around to look at the doorway to the foyer. He snapped the book shut and set it on the coffee table, standing to face Bruce. Tim was surprised to see him. He was still trying to avoid Jason— Tim had figured out that he was just trying to find out how he'd be resurrected, just in case it wasn't permanent. He was still being an ass, though.

"He likes it when people read to him," Tim said, trying to keep his accusation out of his tone. It didn't really work. "He picks out the book and everything."

"That's…" Bruce looked somber, and it made Tim nervous. "An improvement."

"I think he just needs time to… remember how to live," Tim said slowly. He glanced at Jason, who was still sitting stolidly.

"Perhaps I may be of help, then," a gravelly voice said, gently. Tim blinked in surprise as Bruce stepped aside, and J'onn entered the room. He'd taken his human appearance, wearing civilian clothes and a mild expression. Tim only felt a little twinge of worry for Jason, before he batted it off. J'onn knew what he was doing. He wouldn't hurt Jason.

"Are you going to fix him?" Tim asked, navigating around the couch as J'onn moved to Jason's side, peering at the catatonic boy.

"If it is possible," said J'onn, frowning as he stood directly in front of Jason, lifting his chin up gingerly. "The human mind is very… complex. I have never encountered one that has experienced true death, and so… I am unsure of the damage that has been done."

"But you will be able to tell if he's still in there," Bruce said. Tim winced at his tone. He wanted to tell Bruce that he was, that Jason really was getting better but— how could he? He didn't know that for sure.

"Yes." J'onn nodded. "That is a certainty. I must ask, though… if there is I chance I can pull Jason out… would you allow me to?"

"Why wouldn't you?" Tim asked, confused. If there was a chance, why wouldn't he take it? Then Jason would be okay again, and Bruce would stop trying to distance himself, like he would break him or something.

J'onn sighed, closing his eyes. "The process would be… tricky. Yes, tricky, and dangerous. I could very easily only trigger something worse. Something deadly."

"Do what is safest for Jason," Bruce said flatly. J'onn looked up at him, and he nodded in resignation, his fingers drifting to Jason's temples. Tim stared for a moment, and he spun to face Bruce, something striking him.

"Dick should be here," he said. Bruce's expression remained unchanged. "He's the only one who Jason likes having around when he gets scared."

"He's on a mission."

And then there was nothing else Tim could do to help. Having Jason around was like stepping up and becoming an older brother (even though Jason was technically older— kind of), but it was alarming how little Tim could do for him. So Tim did nothing but watch beside Bruce as J'onn worked, eyes glowing, and minutes ticked past. Tim found himself wondering what he would do if they really could bring Jason's mind back. Would Jason want to take Robin back? Tim would let him have it. He could find a new identity, like Dick did. It made him sad to think about though.

When J'onn pulled away from Jason, both Bruce and Tim were at their sides, staring intently down at them. J'onn sat for a few moments, pensively cupping his chin. Jason looked very much the same, which made Tim frown.

"It didn't work," he stated quietly. He could feel Bruce stiffen a little beside him. J'onn merely shook his head.

"His mind…" J'onn sucked in a breath, his eyes squeezed closed. "It is a… a labyrinth. He has built himself an entire world to lock away all of the… pain, and the memories— I saw a few of them, when I was searching for him. They were unpleasant."

"Well, he died," Tim said briskly. "It really doesn't get more unpleasant than that."

J'onn shook his head again, his head bowed. "No, I did not see his death. He would not allow me to see that, but… I saw other things. Before you found him, he was… I cannot explain it. I do not know what to call it. But it is unpleasant, and Jason has locked it away in the catacombs of his mind."

Tim forced himself to not let his mind wander in response to this information. "You said he wouldn't let you see his death?" Tim asked, looking up at Bruce eagerly. He looked interested too, but also troubled by whatever J'onn was implicating. "Then that means that he's still in there, right? Right!"

J'onn managed to smile at this. "Yes, that's right." He nodded, rising to his feet. "I could sense him within the labyrinth, as he could sense me. He did not seem to want me to intrude, but… he did allow me to. The labyrinth is unstable at this point, and I do believe— with some time, and enough prodding— that it will collapse, and Jason will be free."

Tim smiled brightly, excited at the idea of fixing the not-dead boy— until he realized. "But…" His eyes widened, and he looked down at Jason's quiet body. "He built those walls to protect himself from the bad memories, right? If they all fall…"

"It will overwhelm him," Bruce growled. Tim looked to J'onn desperately. But the Martian could only shake his head, a sign that he didn't know.

Tim was the one who ended up escorting J'onn out. He paused at the door for the moment, smiling contentedly to himself, as Bruce sat down beside Jason and pulled the book into his lap.

Thanksgiving came and went, and Jason was only making meager progress. Barbara and Dick were trying to teach Jason how to write again, but the most they got was little doodles of bread and stars and sometimes bold scripted R's. Sometimes they would take turns reading to him, when they were all together (it happened a lot more often than it used to). Sometimes Dick and Barbara would just talk to him, hoping to trigger his memory by bringing up the old missions they'd gone on, and all the times they'd studied on patrol (Batman had let them do that?).

Jason still had night terrors. Sometimes Tim would just lay in bed, listening to the screams, and wondering if he'd ever get better. How did one get better after dying? That wasn't something that you could just get over. Dick was the only one who could calm Jason down, really, and Tim wondered if Jason ever slept in his own room. He probably just couldn't handle being alone.

One night, when the crying didn't cease, Tim found himself crawling out of bed, his ears ringing from exhaustion. The night was chilly, and the nip of the air outside was seeping through the old walls of the manor. Tim rubbed his bare arms, blinking into the darkness, and he followed the walls to the soft, muffled sobs. The hard wooden floor felt icy beneath the soles of Tim's feet, and he hugged his arms closer to his chest, peering around corners. He found him at Dick's door.

"Jay?" Tim called softly, his voice sharp in the silence and the cold. Jason's body was shuddering as he sat, cross-legged before Dick's closed door. Tim stared confusedly for a moment, before he quickly moved to let Jason in. Only when he peered into the room, he found that Dick was not there, nor did it appear that he'd come home at all. Tim sighed, looking down at the broken boy.

"I bet you don't want to sleep in an empty room, huh?" Tim shook his head, kneeling beside the weeping boy. Jason did not look up, but he stiffened, curling tighter into himself. "He's okay, you know. He probably just got wrapped up in a mission, or got too tired to make it home. It's not a big deal."

Jason pushed pitifully at Tim's chest when he wrapped his arms around his shoulders, trying to remember the little techniques Dick had showed him that could calm him down faster. Jason began to sob a little louder, and then he collapsed, burying his face into Tim's shoulder, his body quaking from fear and chills. Tim looked up at the ceiling, rubbing his back slowly, not sure if he was being much of a comfort at all. Jason wanted Dick, and Tim was a horrible substitute.

"I don't think Bruce is home, either," Tim murmured as Jason's sobs faded to quiet gasps. "Sorry. I know it must be hard."

Jason could be as catatonic as possible during the day, but there was no escaping his mind when sleep came. Tim knew it, and he felt a surge of pity for him, because how could he keep living on like this? He was no more self-sufficient than a toddler, needing to be spoon-fed everything, and he flinched away from the most harmless things. Even daylight seemed to send him jittery.

"Come on," Tim sighed, tugging Jason to his feet. The boy did nothing to object, but he did tilt his head back sadly, his eyes flashing fitfully in the darkness. Tim led him carefully down the hall, holding his arms tightly, just in case he decided to fight again. But he didn't. Jason was surprisingly compliant, and he didn't do much aside from hiccup and blink.

Tim shut his door behind him, rubbing his face tiredly. He didn't really… know what else to do for Jason. He'd stopped crying, which Tim was thankful for, but otherwise…

"You can sleep here," Tim said, tossing one of his pillows, and a stray blanket onto the floor for himself. He gestured to his bed, and smiled over that the boy. Then he blinked, and yelped. "What are you doing?"

Jason was fiddling with a device that Tim left on his desk, the smooth dark glass glowing a bit in the darkness. He blinked up at Tim, and he set the device on top of the blanket Tim had thrown to the floor, tilting his head as it whirred into life. Tim gaped, his eyes widening as the room was bathed in a soft glow, luminescent stars dotting the floor and walls and ceiling. The projector was mostly something Tim used when he had nightmares— but only because he had no one to go to. The revolving lamp sent out a myriad of incandescent stars, and it was always surreal to watch.

Tim stared for a moment before dropping to his knees across from Jason, his eyes following the stars as they roved around the room. He watched Jason lift his hands to the light, dipping his fingers through the dotted stars, staining them a bright white. Jason looked up at Tim, and he smiled.

In the morning when Dick appeared, sheepishly apologizing for not coming home— Bette Kane, though? Really?— Tim couldn't even find it in himself to be angry.

It was very much like drifting in a shallow pool, letting the slow current push and pull him wherever it saw fit. There was water in his ears, and in his mouth, and he was drowning, perpetually locked in crushing pressure and distant, muffled voices. There was frost clinging to his hair, and ice stinging his lips, and he floated. He wasn't sure who or where he was. He was just there. Half there, half elsewhere.

okay for now, right? We'll be back soon

There were stars. Above the frozen pool, and inside it, burning against his sides and blinding in his eyes. It made him feel warm, but only a little, because warmth was so foreign, so lost to him, and he wasn't certain anymore what it was to feel anything besides cold and hollow. He was in the midst of a maelstrom, a tempest that swirled and spat and howled. That was where all his emotions had gone. That was why he could not move.

Don't leave, he thought, his voice locked tight in his throat. Please don't leave me, not again, please…

The world was a flutter of noise and a stab of pain. Ceaseless muttering and guileless eyes, in the darkness, in the sky, behind the stars, beneath the water. Was this purgatory? Lifeless and lightless, cold and unfeeling, a somnolent in-between and a cavernous dream. He wanted for nothing, but his thoughts knotted into convoluted questions and pleas, desperately trying for answers and truths that would not come. He was lost.

A light opened in the sky. It struck him as familiar, and he blinked, his jaw slackening. It was a beacon, and the walls around him shuddered gently as he sat up, reaching for the stars and the light and the cacophony of sounds that drowned the world around him. He had a need to live. He had to find them now, now that everything seemed to be… falling. The pool was drying beneath him, and the walls were screaming, bricks crumbling and cracking. The maelstrom dispersed, collapsing on top of him, and he spluttered, blinking and clawing at the air, his fingertips brushing the white-hot stars, and he smiled, warmth spreading through his arms and legs.

the red looks really cool! kinda jealous that my new suit isn't snazzy anymore

Bright and flushed and moving, living, zooming, screaming…

if you're going to live here, you're going to school, and that's the end of that. please don't look at me like that

Voices and screeching, lights and flares and the taste of smog and dust.

you know I won't tell, but you really shouldn't steal books. I know you love to read but

Pain. Battering, and blows, fast and erratic against his bones and muscle and soft, raw skin. The stars exploded around him, and he screamed, fire lancing through his heart and head, and he felt the walls go down, and down, and down, crumbling into themselves, and suddenly the maelstrom kicked and shuddered, and twisted around him, choking him with memories and pain.

His eyelids peeled back, sticking languidly together, as if he was waking up from a long slumber. There was a blur, and a shock of pain running through his chest, and his head snapped up. Where was he? He… he couldn't… remember. He grabbed whatever weapon that was being utilized against him as it almost crashed down upon his chest, and he tore it from the thug's grasp, rounding it back in his face.

For a moment everything was quiet. He peered at the weapon— and a scream ripped from his throat, angry and anguished, and he spun around, turning on the thug— what was this, who was this, what the fuck was happening— and he flung the crowbar away, his fingers feeling sticking with blood. It was his own, he realized. Was he wearing pajamas? His mind was a mist of confusion and pain, and he saw that there were other thugs, more and more, and he leapt, twisting and bouncing on the tips of his feet.

"Shoot him!" shouted the one that had been beating him. "Quit muckin' around and finish the little shit!"

He grabbed that man by his neck and slammed his face into the ground, rubbing his nose finely into the pavement, and he snarled in response. He couldn't form the words to describe how much he wanted this man to go stick his cock into a woodchipper, or something equally cruel and painful.

Everything was so startlingly vibrant, too bright and too loud and too coarse. He couldn't handle it. He flung himself to the side, spinning and toppling two goons with a shaky flip and a dirt streaked bare foot to the throat. Why didn't he have shoes on? How had he gotten here? It was so cold— well, it was winter, wasn't it? That made sense. That was the only thing that made sense.

The gunshots nearly deafened him. He swayed, surprised when he felt a bullet tear through his upper arm— he was supposed to be faster than this. Why wasn't he…? He couldn't recall… and it hurt. He darted forward, his arms locking around the thug's, the one with the gun, and he gritted his teeth as he applied pressure, lots and lots and lots of pressure, and he heard a satisfying crack. The thug screamed, and he flung him into a wall, catching the gun with blood slick fingers. Who was next?

There was a soft rustle of fabric, and a few muffled cries of shock, and he spun, cocking the gun and pointing. His chest was heaving, and his body ached all over, and he felt as though his head was about to split in two.

The figure loomed over him, dark and scowling, and he could only stare, his finger on the trigger— but no, that wasn't right— this was… this… was…

Jason's eyes began to grow wet, and his hands trembled against the gun as Batman took a step forward, a red clad boy following in his shadow. He couldn't let go. He couldn't. This… it was…

"Is this hell?" he choked, staring up at Batman with wide, tearful eyes. The man could only stare. He looked down at the gun, and he let it fall to the ground. "Am I in hell?"

All he received was a set of pitying stares.

This is pretty damn long, and I'm sorry for that. But hey, it was fun! This will be a three shot. I'll update as soon as I can. =]

If you can't tell from this last part, Jason wakes up. I don't think I need to explain much else. I'm leaving how Jason was revived ambiguous. I could easily touch upon it, but I don't know if I really want to? Hmm...

Once again prompted a bit by something adorable pragmatism said on tumblr. She's just got great angst ideas.

Review, please? =]