"Sixteen," Dick muttered, placing another pin into his wall. "Sixteen."
The wall in front of him was a mural of photographs, maps, pins, readouts, and newspaper clippings. Mission briefings were strewn across the floor, maps were spread out on the counter. Bright red threads connected things on the wall.
There was almost no correlation between any of the things that the former Boy Wonder was pouring over, except the fact that, somewhere on each of them, the number 16 appeared.
"Dick," Artemis muttered, appearing in the doorway of his living room. The blonde looked exhausted. Her eyes were red, the skin underneath them puffy. She'd had another nightmare. She wore a too-familiar jersey and black sweats. Brucely was by her feet, whining softly. "You need to sleep."
"I already got three hours," he muttered, stabbing another pin into the wall.
"That's not enough Dick," Artemis said, growing irritated. "What's that you're doing, anyway?"
Dick dropped his hands to his side, turning to face her. His posture drooped. "I don't even know Artemis."
"Dick…" She reached up and pulled him down into a hug. "It wasn't your fault," she whispered. "It wasn't anyone's fault."
"I shouldn't have asked you two back in," he whispered, his fingers clenching at the shirt of her—Wally's—jersey. "You were out. They way you wanted to be—"
Artemis pulled back, her face full of anger. "The world was in danger, Dick. We would have come back, even if you hadn't asked. We were needed. We both knew the risks—" She broke off with a sob.
"I just wish it hadn't been him," Dick whispered, collapsing to the floor. She followed, sobbing brokenly.
They clung to each other, the two survivors of what had been three. It was wrong, like there should be another there with them. Someone with bad jokes and laughter and flirtatious comments and bright red hair. Someone to help them through this awful nightmare they had found themselves in.
But he was gone, and they were left to pick up the remainder, and it felt so wrong.
Brucely nudged them, whimpering softly.
"Come on Dick," Artemis finally muttered. "We both need sleep."
"Your turn for the bed," Dick said hazily, getting to his feet.
"You're already asleep Grayson," Artemis said firmly, pushing him in the direction of his bedroom. "Sleep in your own bed!"
"Not… gentleman like, 'Mis," Dick muttered, stumbling a little as he slipped into his nickname for her back at the Academy. Artemis's heart ached for those days.
"You never were a gentleman, Grayson. Alfred was so disappointed," she crawled onto the couch, Brucely following her.
"You brought your utility belt?"
"Never leave home without it!"
"Dude, that's what a best pal's for."
"Man, once this whole mess is over… I'm going to ask Artemis to marry me. Be my best man?"
Dick's dreams were a confusing haze of numbers and dates. Of Wally and Artemis and double dates with Zee and Raquelle, of missions and parties and good days and bad. Dick woke up to a bout of nostalgia that practically choked him as he woke up, half convinced that he was fourteen again and that he had to get ready for school.
Reality slapped him in the face in the form of Brucely clambering onto his bed. Dick muttered, reaching to pet the dog.
Brucely had been one of Dick's favorite parts of visiting Artemis and Wally in their Standford place. As soon as the two of them had moved out of Freshman housing, vowing never to stay in a dorm again, they had sought out to get a pet to accompany them. Dick had tagged along to the local shelter to help them pick out a pet.
"First time owners?" The woman said, looking at them.
Artemis smiled. "We've helped raise two dogs, but yes, this will be the first one that's just ours."
"Hmm…" the woman said, pushing her spectacles further up her nose. "Do you have a size preference?"
"Not tiny," Artemis said immediately, at the same time as Wally said, "Not too big."
The woman might have smiled, but she hid it by turning around. "I think I might have just the dog for you…"
She led them to one of the first kennels, where a white bulldog sat. At the sound of their approach, the dog raised his head. His tail started to wag.
One of them (all would deny it later, but smart money was on Wally) made a soft cooing noise. The woman smiled, opening the door and allowing them in.
"What's his name?" Artemis asked, scratching the dog behind the ear.
"Brucely," the woman said.
The three of them exchanged looks. And then burst out laughing.
"It's a sign," Wally declared.
"It's perfect," Dick said, ruffling Brucely's fur.
"We'll take him," Artemis said, wrapping her arms around her three boys.
Dick's nostrils flared. He grinned slightly, recognizing the smell of Artemis's pancakes. He got out of bed and trotted into the kitchen, Brucely on his heals.
"Morning 'Mis," he said, smiling. And then he froze.
Artemis was collapsed on the floor, crying softly. The pancakes lay on the gridle, unattended. Dick went to her immediately, wrapping his arms around her. She let out a loud, sudden sob, and buried her face in the baggy fabric of Dick's shirt. "I made too much," she sobbed. "I made triple batch. Because he always eats—" She broke off, tears and snot blocking her airways.
Dick clung to her, trying not to think of Wally and breakfasts in their place at Stanford. Of Brucely and Wally begging for bacon bits and Artemis singing along to Rocky Horror Picture Show as she flipped pancakes and Dick making three types of coffee—one black, one mocca, and one decaf, because Wally was Not Allowed Caffeine.
Artemis eventually managed to pull herself together, but not before the pancakes were black and the smoke alarm went off. Dick went to disable it, and she managed to make pancakes for them, putting the leftover batter in the fridge.
"We should get out of the house today," Artemis said quietly.
"Your mom called," Dick said, looking at the landline, where the red unlistened to messages light was blinking. A large number sixteen flashed next to it.
One from Bruce. Three from Tim. One from Jade. Two from Roy. Five from Paula. Two from Conner. Two from M'gann. All untouched.
"Yeah," Artemis muttered, swirling a forkful of pancakes in maple syrup. "Maybe I should go see her." She looked up suddenly, eyes clear. "You should talk to Bruce."
Dick slumped slightly. He'd been avoiding Bruce as much as possible. He didn't want to talk to him. He didn't want to look Bruce in the eye, admit all the mistakes he had made, all the lives he had nearly cost as he pursued the Mission. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I know," he muttered.
"You going in soon?" Dick said. "I know Kaldur called you yesterday."
Artemis shrugged. "I might go in next week. But I'm… I don't think I'm ready for full time yet."
"Keep up, Dickface!" Jason laughed, arms out wide as the two of them slid down the bannister of the grand staircase of the Manor.
"Be careful Little Wing!" Dick called, grinning ear to ear. "That sounds like a challenge!"
"Oh, you're on!" Jason shouted, leaning forward, picking up speed.
The doorbell rang. Both of the birds looked up in unison, losing their balances in a completely undignified way. The door swung open, revealing an amused Artemis Crock and Wally West.
"Bannister races?" Artemis said dryly.
"You bet," Jason said, grinning. "Hey 'Mis! Hey Speedo!"
"Brat Wonder," Wally said fondly, ruffling Jason's hair as he helped him up. "How do you put up with this one, Dick?"
"Years of practice with you," Dick said, smirking.
Jason cackled, tackling Artemis from behind, wrapping his arms around her neck. "You two joining us for patrol?"
"Nah," Wally said, looping an arm over Dick's shoulders. "We were thinking the four of us could go hang out at the Cave. It's movie night, after all."
Jason's eyes went so wide that Dick probably could have used birdarangs to measure them. "Wait, you mean?"
"You're going to the Cave, Little Wing!" Artemis laughed, reaching up and mussing Jason's hair. "Bruce finally gave the okay!"
"Wooo!" Jason cheered, letting go of Artemis in order to do a backflip. "Finally!"
"Better get into costume, Little Wing!" Dick said. "You know the rule."
"What, Jay's not breaking out the shades and hoodie?" Wally said, raising an eyebrow.
"Second time, Wally," Dick said, laughing. "Gotta make a good first impression."
Jason's face fell. "They already have one," he pointed out. "You. They're going to be expecting you."
"That's not true!" Artemis said, frowning. "You're your own person Jay. They know that."
Jason shrugged, dubious. "If you say so." He climbed the staircase, leaving the three of them in the entryway. "I better go. I've got some homework to do. You guys go do your Golden Trio thing."
Dick pushed open the doors of the Manor. Not much had changed over the years. The chandelier was new (the last one have suffered a rather tragic death involving Dick, Wally, Jason, and the Great Prank War of 2014), the carpets had been restored recently, and pictures of Tim had joined the pictures of Dick, Jason, Bruce and Alfred on the walls. Idly, Dick wondered how Jason and Tim would have gotten along.
"Dick!" Tim said, standing on top of the staircase. "You're here!"
"Yeah well," Dick shrugged, grinning at his younger brother. "I figured I'd been gone too long."
"That is a correct observation, Master Richard," Alfred said, materializing out of nowhere. "You have indeed been gone far too long."
"How long are you staying?" Tim couldn't disguise the hope in his voice. Dick felt a rush of guilt. He had barely seen Tim since Wally's death. He'd been so busy with grief that he had barely paid attention to his younger brother.
"At least for dinner," he said, smiling. "Alfred, do you mind if Artemis joins us?"
"Of course not," the butler said, granting Dick a small smile of approval. "It has been far too long since Miss Crock has joined us."
Tim grinned at him. "What do you want to do until then?"
Dick threw his arm over Tim's shoulders. "How does basketball sound?"
"Hand-eye coordination?" Tim said, smirking.
"One on one," Dick said in agreement. "After that, let's see if you can beat me in chessthis time."
Jason had been Robin for almost seven months when he finally got the clear to go to Mount Justice, and he had been training for almost six months before that, hearing stories about the Team and the Cave the whole time. He'd met Wally and Artemis of course—how could he not, they practically lived at the Manor—but never the others. He was excited to meet the others. Kaldur, Conner, M'gann, Zatanna, Raquelle, Tula, Garth, Gar, and Donna were all so elusive to him. He'd heard stories, seen pictures, and even spied a tiny bit via security camera, but he'd never gotten to meet any of them.
The twelve year old grinned at Batman with feeling. "This is awesome!" He said.
"C'mon," Dick said, handing Jason his domino mask. Bruce placed a hand on Jason's shoulder.
"Let's get going," Bruce said, slipping into Batman. The three of them entered the Zeta-Tubes.
"Recognized. Nightwing. B. Zero. One. Recognized. Batman. Zero. Two. Recognized. Robin. B. One. Three."
Jason felt the familiar rush of zeta-beams, and then blinked as he materialized in the mountain.
"Nightwing!" Artemis called. "Robin!" She and Wally looked disheveled, as if they had been sparring—or, more likely, making out again.
"Hey Artemis!" Jason said, grinning crookedly. "Hey Zippy!"
Wally just shook his head at him.
"Nightwing!" M'gann, Conner, and Gar entered the main room. Her eyes landed on Jason, and she lit up. "And you're Robin!"
"Sure am!" He said, beaming.
Gar flipped forward, tail switching back and forth. "You're the new Robin! That is so cool!"
"Beast Boy, right?" Jason grinned, deliberately using Gar's chosen future hero moniker in favor of Gar or Garfield. He was rewarded with a huge smiles from both of the green inhabitants of the cave.
"Uh, good to meet you," Conner said, just as awkwardly as Artemis had predicted. "Nightwing's uh, he's told us a lot about you."
"All terrible?" He asked grinning.
"Only mostly," Dick reassured him.
Bruce patted Jason's shoulder.
"I have a Watchtower meeting," he told them. "I'll see you later tonight."
The Atlanteans entered just as Batman exited. Tula and Garth were nice, and Kaldur was just as amazing as Dick had described him.
He got to meet the three girls next, and Jason was as star-struck as a hormonal twelve year old out to be. Raquelle was gorgeous, Zee was pretty, but Donna was beautiful. She wore a leotard that was covered with stars, which seemed to spread to her dark, thick hair. She had deep blue eyes that danced when she smiled and smooth skin and Jason really needed to be more careful about what he thought in front of mind readers.
He met Sphere and Wolf, got a full tour, ate M'gann's amazing cookies, and got to see the wall of souvenirs. With Artemis's help, he taped a little piece of paper with "Robin was here!" to the underside of the top shelf.
"When do you join the Team?" Troia asked him, laughing when she saw what he'd done.
"Not soon enough," he told her.
It would be two more months.
Artemis pushed open the door to her old apartment.
"Artemis!" Paula emerged from the kitchen, looking overjoyed. Artemis had not gone to see her mother since the day before Wally died.
"Mom," she muttered, falling into the hug that was long overdue. Tears streamed down her face as she embraced her mother, feeling as if she was falling back into her childhood again.
"Tất cả sẽ được tốt.Tất cả sẽ được tốt," Paula whispered, stroking Artemis's hair.
"Không có nó trách nhiệm về sai sót không được," Artemis corrected, leaning into Paula.
"Không sớm, nhưng nó sẽ được tốt hơn," another, unexpected voice said. Jade emerged from the kitchen, Lian propped on her hip. "Hey Sis," she said, smiling softly.
"Jade," Artemis muttered. Jade moved over to them, adding herself into their hug. Lian let out a gurgle of joy, reaching for her grandmother eagerly. Paula accepted Lian, muttering in French.
"French, Jade?" Artemis said, looking at her sister. "Really?"
"Roy doesn't know Vietnamese," Jade explained with a roll of her eyes. "He does speak French though. He says that if I teach her Vietnamese, he gets to teach her Navajo."
"Roy's French accent is atrocious," Artemis recalled fondly.
"I've been helping him," Jade said, smiling. "Him and the other one."
"You've been spending time with Arsenal?"
"He's a cute little brat," Jade said fondly. "Utterly and completely creeped out by Lian, but cute nonetheless."
Artemis let out a low chuckle.
Robin was a welcome addition to the Team. Wally and Kaldur told Donna that he was similar to Red Arrow in many ways. Fearless, brash, enthusiastic, with a quick temper and a heart of gold, Donna enjoyed his company greatly.
He made friends with Gar, being the closest to him in age. He spent time with Billy when the Justice League member had time to come hang out with the Team. And Donna and he, being younger than the rest of the Team, also spent a lot of time together. Zee teased Donna frequently, warning her about how charming Robins could be.
Artemis smiled at Donna when she asked what Zee had meant. "You'll see," the blonde said after silencing a snickering Wally.
Dick, when she approached him, choked on his sandwich, forcing Donna to resolve to figure it out on her own.
Time passed. Donna was a bit surprised to catalogue the changes in her interaction with Jason. She watched as he grew up, puberty shifting his features from adorable to attractive. She started to appreciate him when he sparred shirtless with the other boys far more than was probably proper. Casual contact began to make her blush.
She checked the list against one of the magazines M'gann had given her,and was slightly worried to see the result.
She consulted Artemis again, who laughed and confirmed Donna's suspicions, and then gave her advice.
The next mission, once the job was done and the explosions (surprisingly) avoided, Donna and Jason flew back in the bioship, accompanied only by Wally and Artemis, who had also been on Alpha.
They both stopped, realizing the other was speaking. "You first?" He asked, fiddling with his cape.
"No, you," she said, flushing the color of Wally's hair.
Jason blushed, ducking his head. "Um… so, uh, I was wondering… would you, y'know, uh…"
"Spit it out, Boy Wonder!" Wally yelled. "Ouch!" Artemis had kicked him.
"Wouldyouwanttogooutsometime?" Jason said, the color of Wally's pants.
Donna felt a smile slip onto her face. "I'd like that."
Roy Harper (The Second) knelt beside the hologram of Wally. His head was bent in grief, his shoulders shaking.
"I am surprised," Kaldur said quietly, stepping into the memorial grounds. "I… I did not expect to see you here."
Roy froze, not turning to look at the man he had once called his best friend. "Yeah, well, apparently we didn't know each other as well as we thought."
"Roy…" Kaldur's voice was pained.
"Save it," Roy spat, getting up. He still refused to look at him. "You made it pretty clear."
"I could not bring you into the mission," Kaldur said quietly. "Not after Jade."
Roy spun on his heel, glowering at Kaldur. "What does Jade have to do with it?"
"She came to me when she discovered she was pregnant," Kaldur said, taking a step forward. "You were about to be a father. I could not take you away from that…"
"You knew?" Roy demanded.
Kaldur nodded. "How is… your child?"
"She," Roy whispered. "Lian Nguyen-Harper."
"How is she?" Kaldur asked.
Roy slowly reached into his pocket. He pulled out his wallet, and opened it to a picture of him, Jade and Lian, sitting on the couch in Paula's apartment. "She's amazing, Kaldur."
Kaldur moved over to examine the picture. "She is indeed, my friend."
Donna sat on her motorcycle, outside of Gotham Academy. She was nervous, even though she'd already talked it over with Artemis and Dick, both of whom told her that it was "not creepy" to do this. Her motorcycle was black and sleek, as was her helmet. She wore dark tight jeans,a red shirt, and a black leather motorcycle jacket, all gifts from M'gann and Artemis.
The final bell rang, and the doors pushed open, the students flocking out, eager for the weekend. Donna spotted Jason quickly, walking side by side with a bottle blonde who must be Holly Robinson, Jason's best friend when he was a civilian.
Jason's eyes landed on her, and his expression was better than Dick's had been when Kaldur of all people had died his hair pink. He walked up to her, Holly following, a curious expression on her face.
"Donna?" His voice was incredulous.
"Hey Jason," she said, smiling as she lifted the visor of her helmet.
"You're Donna?" Holly said. She looked at Jason and looked back at Donna. "Yep. Way out of your league, Todd."
"Shut it, Robinson," Jason said, making a face at her, as Donna laughed.
"You must be Holly," Donna said to her. "Nice to meet you. Mind if I kidnap him?"
"Help yourself!" Holly said. "Have fun, you crazy kids!" She wiggled her eyebrows up and down, reminding Donna surprisingly of Wally. Jason rolled his eyes, catching the red helmet that Donna threw at him. He got on the bike, wrapping his arms around her waist.
"Where are we going?" He asked her as Donna revved the engine.
"You," she said, "Are going to show me your city." She tore out of the parking lot.
Klarion, Lord of Chaos, member of the (temporarily separated) Light, walked through a Gotham cemetery, his beloved Teekl on his shoulder. "Are we there yet?" He demanded.
"Meow," the cat said, or at least on the mortal plane. On the magical plane, it sounded more like Almost, you impatient idiot, move forward three more headstones.
"Fine, fine," Klarion muttered, moving forward. "Ah, here we go!"
The tombstone in question was made of white marble. An angel was engraved into it and JASON PETER TODD was carefully carved into the smooth stone.
"Nice birdie, dead birdie, little dead boy," Klarion sang, softly, pulling a blue bottle out of the astral plane. Inside of the bottle was something white and smoky. To anybody with sufficient magical ability or knowledge, it was a soul, which should not be on this plane. "Let's see how you like this!" Klarion cackled, pulling open the stopper. Slowly, reluctantly, the soul exited the bottle, hanging above the grave. Klarion's glowing red magic clung to it, keeping it anchored into the mortal plane. "This is what happens when you hurt my cat, birdie boy!" Klarion adressed the soul, face stretched into a demonic grin. He raised his arms into the air and shouted a chant in a language that had been rarely heard on Earth in the past few millennia. The soul writhed in place as a lightning bolt sliced right through it, and then was suddenly pulled down through the soil, towards the corpse that lay below it.
Klarion settled on top of a nearby headstone, smiling to himself. His ears morphed, becoming larger and more sensitive. He patted the large cross that belonged to someone named Thomas Wayne and laughed as he heard the little dead boy scream as he woke up in the coffin.
"Bruce!" There was a faint thump of fists hitting the padded insides of the coffin. Klarion laughed, stroking Teekl. "Batman!"
Teekl meowed, rubbing his head against Klarion's hand. There was a scrabble as the boy started clawing his way through the coffin.
It took too long for Klarion's taste, but the Witch Boy was kept amused by the boy's frantic screams and pleas for help. Eventually, the dark haired boy emerged from the soil, gasping for breath, his hands a bloody mess. "Bruce," the boy whispered. "Bruce…"
"Dead!" Klarion announced, beaming from ear to ear.
The dead boy looked at Klarion. His eyes shot wide with fear. "Klarion…"
"Hey dead boy!" Klarion said, teleporting down from the grave. "How was being dead?" He invaded the boy's personal space, pulling him up by the lapels of the suit he'd been buried in. "Oh I suppose you don't remember much of it. I grabbed your soul a while back!" He leaned in, smiling even wider. "It's hard to take revenge on a dead bird, after all!"
Not-Robin squirmed in his grip, but he didn't have much strength left after clawing his way out of his own grave. He was taller than he had been, but Klarion didn't really care about things like that. "So," he said, tilting his head to the side. "Let's see how much youlike it!" Red lightning flashed down his fingers, pouring into the dead boy's newly restored body. His mouth opened, let out a beautiful anguished scream.
He let the boy drop, twitching, to the ground. "And that's just the beginning!"
Over the course of the next three hours, Klarion had fun. He broke the not-Robin's bones sixteen times. He set the brat on fire. As a tribute to the Joker (one of Klarion's favoriteagents), Klarion blew him up. (It was a pain to recreate the brat afterwards, but it was worth it, really). Eventually, however, even torturing a stupid formerly dead hero bored the Lord of Chaos. "I wonder what the heroes will think," Klarion said to Teekl, walking away, leaving the dying (again) boy leaned against his own headstone, "When they find the brat all dug up again?"
Jason Todd muttered, as soon as Klarion was teleported away. "Bastard," and stumbled to his feet. "Bruce…"
Artemis and Wally curled up on the couch. Wally's shoulder was serving as a pillow for Artemis and their arms were wrapped around each other.
And Dick Grayson's feet were propped in their laps.
"Nothing like a movie marathon," Artemis said, wielding the remote as if it was a scepter.
"Nothing quite like it," Dick agreed, scratching Brucely behind the ears.
Wally snorted as Artemis poked him in his side. "C'mon, babe, start the movie!" He said, eyes wide. Artemis laughed, kissing his nose, before pressing the play button on the remote.
"Harry Potter," Dick whispered in a raspy voice.
"The booooooy," Wally continued in a high pitched manner.
"Who lived," Artemis finished, voice deeper than the depths of Bruce's pockets.
Artemis and Paula made their way towards the Manor. Jade was going back to her husband with Lian, but Alfred had been kind enough to extend Artemis's invitation for dinner to include Paula.
"You need to visit again," Paula said quietly. "I know it is hard. But I am here for you. I will always be here."
"Thanks Mom," Artemis said, squeezing her mother's hand.
Suddenly, Paula froze. "Không thể," she whispered.
"Mẹ?" Artemis asked, trying to follow her mother's gaze. A cry broke free.
The Team was on a mission. Recon only, so Jason brought extra explosives. He'd caught on quickly.
"The Injustice League," Donna said, her fingers intertwined with Jason's. "I remember first hearing about them."
"Same," Jason said, squeezing her hand comfortingly. "But this time the line-up's a bit different. Copperhead's a lightweight compared to Vertigo."
"Don't' underestimate them Robin," Aqualad warned. "Copperhead is still highly dangerous."
"Don't worry, bossman!" Robin grinned. "That's why I brought the C-4."
Kaldur smiled at him. "Robin, I want you, Aqua Girl and Tempest as Gamma—go around and disable the weapon. Troia, you will join Miss Martian, Superboy, Artemis and Nightwing on Alpha. Primary objective is to engage the enemy, draw away from the others. Rocket, Kid Flash, Zatanna, you three will join me on Beta."
Garth and Tula grinned at Jason. "Good team," Tula said.
"Head out in three," Kaldur called.
Donna quickly kissed Jason. "Be careful."
"Always," he told her, flashing a grin.
"Aqualad!" Robin said, running through the forest. Tula ran beside him, eyes scanning for their target. "The weapon is disabled. Aqua Girl and I are pursuing the Joker. Tempest is holding off Copperhead."
"Be careful," Kaldur said. There was a slight explosion in the background. "The Joker is incredibly dangerous."
"We know," Robin said flatly. Tula looked at him as they ran. The boy—only fourteen, Tula thought fondly—had a thin, bleeding line on his face from the shrapnel of the weapon. Robin had used all of his C-4 destroying it.
They came to a stop in a clearing. Robin looked around, wary. The Joker was nowhere in sight. "He's close," Robin said quietly. She saw him palm batarangs.
"Surrender, Joker!" Tula called. A faint, maniacal laugh—creepily similar to Nightwing's—filled the woods. Robin snapped around, focusing in on the source of the noise, cape flaring as he threw his projectiles.
"Why Booooooooy Wooooonder," Joker emerged, smiling broadly. a knife lay half-hazardly in his left hand, a gun in his right. The gun looked odd, painted bright purple as it was, but there was something else about it too. Tula growled, wishing she knew more about surface world guns.
"It's been too long!" The Joker said, moving towards Robin.
Tula thrust out her arms, not liking the look on the Joker's face. She called upon the water in the plants and surrounding air, pulling together a funnel. She started moving it toward the Joker, intending to drive the Joker away from Robin.
"Booooooriiiiing," the Joker sang, swiveling his gun to face Tula, even as he continued towards Robin.
The gun went off, and Tula ducked, although no bullet seemed to come out of it. "Tula!" Robin yelled, charging towards her.
Suddenly, the world pitched, colors flaring up, burning at her eyes. Her feet staggered, and she fell to the ground. "Ro… bin," she muttered.
The last thing she heard before falling asleep was Robin crying out—in pain or for her, she couldn't tell.
"C'mon Tim!" Dick laughed, dribbling the ball behind him. "Can't be that hard!"
"Acrobat," Tim spat as Dick did a backflip to avoid his grab for the ball.
"It's not cheating," Dick told him smuggling. Somehow, he had managed to get to the top of the hoop, and was perching there like a demented bird, grinning from ear to ear.
"That so is!" Tim yelled as Dick dropped the basketball through the net with a satisfyingswoosh.
Donna flew into the clearing, where Tula lay on the ground towards the edge. Garth ran to her. "Tula!" Dick walked in, supporting Wally with Artemis's help. Wally's unlucky streak against the Injustice League had continued—his ankle was twisted and he was now unable to run. Zatanna half-carried Raquelle, who had been taken down by Black Adam.
"Tula, are you alright?" Kaldur asked, lingering back. Donna felt a stab of sympathy for Kaldur. He didn't talk about it, but it was pretty obvious to Donna that Kaldur wanted to be the one rushing to Tula's side.
Tula groaned, getting up slowly. Garth helped her, wrapping his arms around her waist. "I'm… I'm fine. How's Robin?"
The group froze. Kaldur's hand went right to his comm link. "Robin, report. Robin, report."
"Nightwing—" Kaldur began, but Nightwing was already working on it, holographic computer out as he searched for Jason's signal.
Donna noticed someting by her feet.
She leaned down, unwilling to admit she was seeing what she was. "I… I found his comm," she whispered. It had been crushed.
"His belt tracker says he's in the woods!" Dick said, voice desperate. "C'mon!"
Donna and Conner tore through the forest, followed by the others.
"No," Conner whispered. Donna froze.
Jason's belt hung from a tree, impaled by a large knife. There was blood on the knife.
M'gann placed her hands to her head, searching for the Joker's and Jason's minds. "They're out of my telepathic range!" She said, desperate.
"They can't have gotten too far!" Dick said, frantic.
"Keep looking," Kaldur said. "And call the League. We need to find him."
The "Before it's too late" went unsaid.
Babs knocked on Dick's apartment door. He didn't answer.
She pulled out her phone and texted him. —If you're home, I will infect your computer with a virus. You know I can. We need to talk.—
After a second though, she also texted Artemis. —Have him call me?—
She didn't get a response. She didn't really expect one.
Sixteen hours passed. They'd torn apart the forest. They'd searched through the nearest cities, interrogated the other members of the Injustice League, and tried to use every tracking device possible.
But the Joker—and Jason—remained untraceable.
Dick was a mess. "We have to keep looking!" He said, pushing against Dick and Artemis.
"You need to sleep!" Artemis said, grabbing his arms. "I know you're worried, we all are, but you have to let us keep working while you rest!"
"I can't lose him!" Dick yelled. "I can't!"
As Artemis looked, she saw Jason Todd stumble over the hill, bloody, bruise, but alive. "Jason!" Artemis yelled.
He fell to the ground. Artemis grabbed him, cradling his head. "Jason, Jason?" Her voice was desperate.
He grinned, despite the fact that his face was a bloody mess. His lip cracked. "Hey… 'Mis," he muttered, voice dry. "Miss me?"
They'd finally found them. A warehouse, fifty miles from Jason's abduction site. No one was sure how the Joker had gotten him that far, but right now it didn't matter.
Barry was off world. Wally was out of action. Doctor Fate was off doing Zeus-knows what. The BioShip was the fastest method of transportation.
Jason had been in the Joker's clutches for thirty-four hours. Donna just hoped they weren't too late.
They flew over the warehouse. Donna got to her feet, preparing to jump out and break the Joker's face.
Just as they flew into the drop-zone, everything changed.
The explosion was huge, rocking the BioShip.
"No!" So many voices cried out that it was impossible to tell who was who—but Donna knew that she was one, as was the man in the cowl beside her.
She leapt out of the ship, Conner beside her. "Donna!" She heard Dick yell.
The warehouse was decimated. Donna tore through the rubble, searching for Jason. "Robin!" She screamed. Conner was doing the same. Kaldur emerged, helping them shift through the remains of the warehouse. "Robin!"
"Jason!" Dick yelled. "Jason!"
Bruce joined them, tearing through the rubble as though it was nothing.
Finally: "I found him."
It was Bruce.
He held the body, cradling it.
Donna fell to her knees, crying desperately, sobs shaking her body.
Jason Todd was dead.
Paula grabbed Jason from Artemis. "Go get help!" She ordered, using a voice that left no room for argument.
Artemis tore down the driveway, still unsure as to what was happening. The grey clouds that had been gathering started to release their hoarded rain, transforming the dirt road into mud as Artemis ran.
She pounded on the door desperately, wondering what she could possibly say to explain this impossible situation.
Alfred opened the door, looking a bit displeased. "Miss Artemis…" He stopped, seeing the look on her face. "What has happened?
Artemis felt helpless. "I don't know, we just found him… he's hurt badly, call Dick and Bruce!"
Alfred quickly grabbed a first aid kit, summoned Bruce and Dick, and joined the m in their treck through the rain and mud to where Paula was.
"Artemis, what's going on?" Dick asked„ worried. Artemis just shook her head. She couldn't tell them. They had to see for themselves.
The three men had all seen horrible things in their lives. But all of them froze at the sigh of the former assassin cradling the former Robin, softly singing a song in Vietnamese to comfort the restless boy.
"Jason," Bruce whispered. He took Jason from Paula, looking more vulnerable than Batman ever should.
"We don't know what happened," Artemis said quietly. "He was just… there."
Wally and Artemis lay on her bed. His hands were tangled in her hair, hers were around his neck as they kissed.
They had been dating for nine months now. The date was September sixteenth. Junior year was now in full swing, and they were supposedly studying for Artemis's physics class.
There was a rap on her door. "Artemis," Paula called. "I'm coming in. Kindly at least pretend to be studying."
They broke apart, quickly, rolling over to grab books and look serious.
Artemis left the Wayne family and her mother behind in the rain. She ran towards the cemetery. She needed answers.
Artemis was no detective. She'd always left that to the others. But even she could add some basic evidence together. Jason's grave was torn open, as if someone had dug their way out of it. There were scorch marks on the grass and far more blood than there should be.
She pulled out her phone—a gift from Wally. He'd wrapped it in her colors and filled the camera with pictures of him making faces and posing with Brucely. She'd laughed so hard and then kissed him until they were out of breath—and started taking photos of the desecrated gravesite, trying not to think of how Jason must have crawled through the coffin and the dirt.
Sixteen pictures later, she fell to the ground, sobbing.
Why Jason? Her mind whispered, even though she didn't want to. Why not Wally? She felt filthy for thinking it. Guilt shook her, because Jason was alive and that was great. Jason had never deserved to die. But…
She needed Wally. She needed him and his stupid jokes and his ridiculous hair and his bad habit of wearing dirty laundry and his souvenirs and his himness. She needed Wally and it hurt so much.
If the universe was bringing back the dead, couldn't it have given her Wally?
To Be Continued…