Chapter 5 – Familiar Faces

Sixteen Years.

Jason wasn't sure how, but he'd managed to survive sixteen years in the Reach camps. They were years filled with hard, sometimes pointless labour, multiple transfers between ambiguous locations, and witnessing far too much death. They were also sixteen lonely years, where Jason refused to let anyone in.

He was over 50 years old when he was moved for what would be the last time; an age he truly never thought he would reach. With his long worn, stone cold face, Jason scanned the many other slaves of his new 'home'. Dull, blank stares met his own, until he looked at her face. The only face that still looked bright beneath the grey skies. Through shear exhaustion, Jason's outward appearance did not react, but he could not deny that his heart skipped a beat. Standing amongst a small group of people, some sporting familiar red hair, stood an old woman with a tired, but kind smile. Jason had not seen her since before his death, and he didn't even know if she was aware of his resurrection, but it was undoubtedly Iris West who stood before him.

Alongside the grey and red haired woman were three adults, and one young boy who couldn't be more than 8 years old. From the inhibitor collars around their necks, Jason could easily tell which two were the twins he'd heard of, but never met. Apparently super speed was genetic, who would have guessed? Apparently the Reach had. A small flare of anger welled up inside Jason when he noticed there was also a collar on the boy, but he didn't let it take hold. Instead, he simply walked off and went about his business, ignoring the niggling feeling in his gut that told him to go talk with them. A flicker that was clinging to his long forgotten life as a vigilante. But he couldn't, wouldn't get attached to another living being again. He'd promised himself as much.

And he lasted almost a whole month. He followed his usual patterns for dealing with arriving at a new camp. Presented a frightening and cold exterior to ward off anyone and everyone, the good and the bad. But despite his best efforts, he unexpectedly found himself interacting with the youngest member of the one family he'd desperately tried to avoid.


Bart Allen was a surprisingly energetic boy for someone who had only ever known the Reach Apocalypse. Jason thought the kid's family were undoubtedly to thank for that. He saw it as he watched from afar – even the smallest of interactions showed how much the family cared and looked after each other.

On a surprisingly quiet evening, Jason sat by himself in the slum-like living quarters of the camp, and quietly pondered nothing, all the while glaring at the air around him. It's what he often did on days like that, but for some reason it did not ward off Bart from approaching the grouchy stranger.

"You seem awfully lonely mister," spoke the kid's quiet yet oddly upbeat voice, however he was betrayed by his wide scared eyes and shaking hands. They painted a picture of a kid who had been dared to do something that inexplicably scared them, although there was no one who could have dared him, besides himself.

Jason simply scowled at the kid who was waiting for some kind of response, hoping it would make him scurry along and never bother him again. It didn't work.

"It's just, I see you sitting by yourself all the time," the kid mumbled while fiddling with the hem of his jacket, "and I don't know how you do that. I know I wouldn't handle it well if I didn't have my family with me here."

The more the kid talked, the more neutral Jason's face turned, and if anyone nearby had known him at all, they would've understood it meant that the kid was surprising him. He honestly didn't know what was driving the kid to attempt a conversation with him despite all the walls he very visibly built up around himself.

"Anyway my name's Bart, what's yours?"

"Well Bart," Jason began as his blank expression slowly morphed into a dangerous smirk, "many years ago, people used to call me the Red Hood"

"Oooh were you like some kind of superhero?" the kid asked with an expression of awe, and for a moment Jason honestly contemplated smashing his head into a brick wall to avoid this conversation that was veering all over the place, "My grandpa was a superhero! He could run really, really fast. Mum reckons I might be able to too, but the Reach put this collar on me as soon as I could walk just in case. You don't have a collar do you mister Red Hood?"

"Uh… no," Jason blinked several times trying to absorb all the information the kid had fired at him.

"Oh, ok… The Reach knew who my grandpa was," his voice turned solemn, far too solemn for a child of his age, "So that's why we have the collars. Me, my dad, and my Aunt Dawn you see. We're the only blood relations of the Flash…"

Jason tried desperately to think of something appropriate to say, but came up blank. Luckily the kid was like a spring and bounced right back into his cheery demeanour.

"So were you? A superhero I mean."

"Well, that is, technically, you could say... I was, sort of," Jason awkwardly muttered.

"I knew it! That is so cool. Did you know my grandpa? The Flash? Did you know all the other cool superheroes? Wait until dad hears about this!"

Before Jason could stop him, Bart was running off back to his family with a small grin on his face. Jason sighed, but picked himself up and slowly followed after the kid. It was an interesting introduction, or part re-introduction to the Allen/West-Allen family, full of Bart blabbering excitably about his new hero 'friend', Jason attempting to smile but more likely grimacing, and the rest of the family watching him with mild astonishment. Iris however looked upon him with a kind but knowing smile. He didn't ask, and she didn't say, but some kind of understanding passed between them. After several probing questions, Jason begrudgingly told them parts of his history, skipping everything from before his death, and really only skimming over his role in the rebellion. Before Jason had a chance to run off back to his solitary lifestyle, they were welcoming him into their fold. Unintentionally, he had once more become part of an unconventional family.


From then on, Jason spent a fair amount of his spare time with Bart. He'd tell the kid stories of his heroic activities, about the bats – his family. He told him tales of his misadventures with his brothers, even slipping in several from his time as Robin, but never revealing too much. He skimmed over the worst parts of his story, only vaguely alluding to his countless tragedies and losses, as much for his sake as Bart's. The wounds caused by his brother's deaths would never truly heal, no matter how many years went by.

It was those wounds that caused him to doubt whether he should be letting anyone else in, as much as Bart continued to slip through his walls like they weren't even there. He watched out for the kid and his family, and in a way, they watched out for him too. As much as Jason worried that he was only going to end up losing this family like he'd lost the one before, they made him feel like he could care about another living being again, despite the world literally falling apart around them daily. And he need not have worried so much, because while every member of Bart's family would one by one pass on before the young boy was even thirteen, Jason would be the first to go.


It happened around the middle of the day, when all the people from the camp were working on completing their set tasks. Jason had been trying to manoeuver an over loaded trailer when he lost control of it. Unfortunately, it nearly ran over some important Reach official who was none too happy about it. Jason mouthed off at him, letting his temper get the best of him as per usual, and was electrocuted by a guard for his troubles. Usually that wouldn't have been a problem, but for some reason that day, his heart decided it couldn't take it anymore. As the Reach walked off, Jason stayed where he was, crumpled in the dust, clutching his chest.

Bart, having seen the whole altercation, quickly ran over to try and help, but there was nothing he could have done. Jason always knew that his was not a happy story, but as he looked into Bart's face, knowing that the kid was going to watch him die, he forced himself to smile. It wasn't much, but one last time, he wanted to make someone feel like everything was going to be ok, even when it almost certainly wasn't. This time, he was more than content to take his final breath smiling.


Jason never found answers to the questions he asked himself after Tim died. Why did he come back to life just to watch everyone else die? What was so special about Jason Todd that he got a second chance ahead of every other man, woman, and child that gave their lives in battle? He didn't realise the answer was right in front of him. Who else could inspire a child who would go on to lose everything? To inspire them to hope when the world would tear him down. If Jason had never come back to life, where would Bart Allen be now? Would he have ever made it out of the Reach's camp? To a time machine that would let him fix everything? Without the man who called himself Red Hood, Bart Allen never would have saved the world. This was not a happy story, because this was the story of Jason Todd. Bart Allen's story, well, that's another matter.


Epilogue

There was a war raging in Bart's mind.

He could not reconcile the images of the ruthless, gun-toting villain on the screen before him, with the man who had looked out for him when he was a young child. And this man was supposed to be a Bat? Assuming they were one and the same person of course.

Bart was beginning to wonder whether his stopping of the Reach Apocalypse had caused this dramatic, and quite possibly disastrous shift in the path of this one man. Deep inside, he was beginning to blame himself for the terror the Red Hood was causing around the world. 'The Light's newest partner' – it just didn't make sense with what he knew of the man.

And the secrets weren't helping. Bart was so very tired of them, and had been since long before Wally had come back. Yet they were still there, contributing to his racing, confused thoughts. Wally seemed to think the best course of action was to keep quiet about what they knew, but Bart wasn't sure. Just because he might not be the same man. Just because he wouldn't share the memories Bart had from his timeline. The information they were withholding could turn the tide in their mission to defeat The Light. But for at least a little while, Bart was willing to trust Wally's judgement on the matter, because Bart believed that one day soon he would surely come face to face with this man who was calling himself the Red Hood. And when that time arrived, he would be able to confirm for himself whether this was the man who had told him countless stories of the Earth's mighty heroes. But more importantly, it would give him a chance to write his wrong. He would be able to see if he could save this man from the damage he'd done to the timeline. He'd put him back on the path of a hero. But until that day, he could only hope that his actions had not created just another doomed timeline.


THE END


A/N

And so the supposed one-shot that took on a life of its own finally comes to a close.

Thank you to everyone who reviewed, favourited, and followed, I hope you've enjoyed the ride.

And a thousand thank yous to Shinigami Merchant, my forever patient beta on this story. Truly couldn't have done it without them!

If you're wondering what's happening with the sequel to A Tempest of Ash yes it's still on the way! I have officially started writing the first chapter, but it is still somewhat in the planning stages. I'm really hoping to start posting it early next year :)

Until the next time,

~MiriB