It was bad fight. One of the more verbally heated and aggressive that Jason and Bruce had ever had with each other. If Alfred hadn’t been there, Jason probably would have done more than just punched Bruce. But he had looked the butler right in the eyes and felt his entire inner being melt.
Hands still visibly shaking and bruised, Jason had stormed out of the Manor, ignoring Alfred’s sharp but hurting voice. Walking straight towards his bike, revving the engine and driving away into the night, refusing to look back. He was done looking back.
He could have gone anywhere. Could have gone back to one of his safe houses and calmed the storm of his anger with an angry sci-fi book exploring colonialism and slavery. Could have gone to Bludhaven or Metropolis to beat up some low-lifes without getting interrupted by family. Could have ridden down Route 66 and ended up at the bottom of the grand Canyon for all he cared…
So why the hell did he choose the ocean?
Jason Todd hated the ocean.
He always had. He had assumed it had something to do with the fact that he hadn’t learned how to swim until Bruce taught him during his intensive training as Robin.
Now, his dislike for the ocean had more to do with the murky green sea depths that bubbled up around you as your body sunk like a corpse. Seaweed grasping around ankles like talons ready to pull you down until your ears popped and saltwater filled your lungs and nose and you were clutching at your throat in desperation…
Jason Todd hated the ocean.
And yet, as he drove away down the interstate, hardly registering where he was going, his mind to filled with writhing emotions and thoughts and the roar of the engine to focus on the details, the ocean had called him.
He had pulled up along a quiet row of pastel-coloured beach houses, balanced on wooden stilts that had survived many a hurricane. Jason pulled his helmet over his head, shaking it and running his hand through sweaty hair with a deep cursory breath. He took a moment to let the heaviness of the pre-dawn atmosphere wash over him, sitting there hunched over in the silence, then slowly got off the bike and left it there, walking towards the distant crash of waves.
The old wooden bridge creaked beneath his boots as he walked over it, glancing around into the darkness as he took in the shapes of sand dunes and reeds rustling in the rough wind. When he reached the edge of the rough boardwalk he sat down, pulled his boots off, and rolled his cargo pants up above his calves.
Toes dug into cool sand as he stepped off the solid wood. Boots dangling by his side, Jason wandered out across the dunes, wincing against the pain of sharp shells scratching the soles of his feet. Soft, powdery grains became thick, grit, became cool water lapping against his ankles. Jason stopped, and looked out across the horizon with bated breath, his eyebrows furrowed, mouth twisted against the pain.
Pink clouds pooled across the edge of the calm ocean as the sun rose above the frothy waves, as if heralding Aphrodite’s birth. The sky was an orange soda mix of rose petals and hazy gold light that reflected off of the clear water that danced up onto the shore, only to retreat back to the great expanse that lay before him in white foam.
And suddenly, tears were streaming down Jason’s cheeks, the scene in front of him becoming a blurred, bokeh vision of light and fragile, waning hope that beat in his heart like the waves beating against the shoreline. He turned his face up to the sky and allowed the dim stars and constellations to fill his sight with something other than water.
Jason Todd hated the ocean.
The weariness burned in tired Jason’s bones, his lids growing heavy with the sleepless hours over the past week, and so he retreated back from the encroaching tide. He sat down in the sand, not even caring that it would get everywhere, and fought sleep while seconds and minuted ticked by unnoticed. The gentle sound of waves mixed with the occasional cry of a gull fought Jason’s stubbornness until he could stand it no longer. He felt himself sink back into a pillow of soft sand and drift away into nothingness, floating like a buoy on the waves…
His lifeless body thrown into a pit filled with glowing green waters that entered in through his nostrils and choked what little life he had left in him. It seemed intent on replacing his blood, mixing, coursing through veins until it pulsed with every choking, stuttered heartbeat…
Groaning, the sobs racking his chest in stilted breaths as his brittle nails shattered against wood, clawing like an trapped animal. A crack of boardwalk under his boots, the coffin caves in and mouldy earth and worms press against his emaciated body, sunken cheeks, filling his mouth so he can’t even scream anymore, can’t move a limb, trapped under the dirt…
Jason started awake, and found that he couldn’t move his legs. Breathing rapid and heaving, he dug his way out of the packed sand and scrambled back in confusion.
‘Aw, that took me like, forever. Why’d you have to go and ruin it?’
Jason blinked in the blinding sun, disoriented, throat dry and stomach still turning with writhing sickness. He shielded his eyes and found himself face-to-face with a boy wearing bat-branded swimming trunks and wielding a purple plastic shovel.
‘Kid…’ Jason started, his voice hoarse, the panic giving way to cold fury. ‘You can’t just bury random strangers while they’re sleeping.’
The boy sniffed, brushing a strand of tightly coiled hair away from his face and squinting at Jason dubiously, like he was crazy.
Jason let out a shaky sigh, running a hand across his sweaty brow. ‘Because. You just… you just, don’t. Okay?’
‘M’kay.’ He had the decency to look down, poking the sand in a somewhat apologetic, mostly distracted manner. ‘Well… sorry, I guess.’
They sat there for a moment in silence, Jason hugging his knees to his chest trying to calm his heart rate by taking in deep, slow breaths. But all he could see, all he could think about was the dirt collapsing in around him, burying him in the darkness. He shut his eyes, wishing the boy would just go away, but he could feel the kid’s stare boring through him.
‘Are you okay?’ the boy asked him finally, prying, curiosity mixed with genuine concern.
And Jason couldn’t help but let a small laugh escape him.
‘No,’ he admitted, his voice more scared than he had meant for it to sound, looking out towards the waves, his face stony. ‘No, I’m not. I don’t like the ocean. Or getting buried.’
The boy hummed thoughtfully, sitting down beside Jason and following his gaze.
‘Yeah… I don’t really like the ocean either. All my cousins can swim, but I can’t. That’s why I’m stuck here playing in the sand.’
‘Well, I’m sorry you can’t swim. But that doesn’t mean its okay for you to go around burying people in sand.’
‘Yeah, I guess you’re right,’ the kid admitted grudgingly. He picked up a shell and played with it, running his fingers over the ridges before he tossed it as far as he could. He turned to Jason and held out the purple shovel. ‘If you build a sand castle with me, I promise I won’t bury anyone else in sand.’
Jason looked down at the boy and smirked, half reminded of a much younger, carefree version of himself that used to make deals with Bruce. Bargains, compromises, bets just to stay out one hour later on patrol. And suddenly, he missed Bruce. He missed his hair-tousles and deep laughter and sarcastic come-backs. He missed the the hours they had spent together reading, training, studying, eating… learning how to swim.
Coming up spluttering from the deep-end, Bruce’s strong hand on his back, hugging Jason’s skinny body close to his bare-chest.
It’s okay, Jay-lad. You’re okay. I’ve got you.
‘What’s your name, kid?’ Jason asked the boy.
‘Do you want to learn how to swim, Jamal?’
Jamal’s eyes grew wide. ‘I thought you didn’t like the ocean?’
‘It’s not so bad when you’re not alone,’ Jason said lightly, shrugging his shoulders.
An impish, gleeful grin spread across Jamal’s face as he sprang up, kicking sand in Jason’s eyes.
‘Race you to the water!’ he yelled and dashed off.
Jason scrambled up after him with muttered curses, hoping the kid didn’t throw himself headfirst into the sea before he got there. His combat boots and Jamal’s purple shovel lay forgotten in the sand, abandoned in favour of peals of laughter that echoed across the ocean waters.