Chapter 1: The Boy With The Tire Iron
The Lamborghini looked absurd in Crime Alley. Jason figured he was doing the owner a favor by just taking the tires. The Wayne Foundation gala had provided their security guards, but those guys were busy keeping the local kids from throwing rocks at the limos and didn’t notice one kid in dark clothes sneaking up to the other cars.
Jason had two of the tires off and stowed and was working on the third one when he heard voices coming his way. He dove under the Lamborghini to hide - that was one car he was sure wasn’t going anywhere.
“It wasn’t that bad,” a boy’s voice said.
“You were bored silly,” a man responded. Jason couldn’t see their faces, but he was sure the man was smiling. “It’s okay. Nobody expects me to stay past the ribbon cutting and the first round of speeches.”
“Hey! Our tires are gone!” the boy said. Shit. This was their car. Okay, he just needed to stay hidden until they went for security and then he could make a run for it.
“Two missing, one loose,” the man said, circling the car. Jason held very still. The bright spotlights brought in for security also left deep shadows, good for hiding. “Looks like the thief got interrupted.” On the word ‘interrupted’, the man’s hand locked around Jason’s ankle.
Jason bit down on his lip to stifle a shriek. The man tugged on his leg and Jason scrambled out from under the car. The man grabbed the back of Jason’s threadbare jeans jacket. “Uh, hi! Sorry, is this your car? Some kids were throwing rocks and I just took cover here.”
“Hnn.” The man took Jason’s tire iron from his hand and Jay winced. Probably should’ve left that under the car, but he hadn’t been thinking.
“That’s just for self-defense,” Jason said.
The man patted the front pocket of Jason’s jacket, where the lug nuts he’d removed rattled together.
“Okay, fine, you caught me!’ Jason burst out. “What’d you expect, a car like this down here? You’re lucky I was just taking the tires!”
“Do you know what we’re doing here?” the boy exclaimed. He looked close to Jason’s age, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and he was all done up in a tux, black hair slicked back with gel. “We’re here because Bruce donated a whole bunch of money to help this neighborhood! What we get from you people is rocks and dirty looks and now you’re stealing from us?”
“Well, who asked you?” Jason demanded. “Not me. And I ain’t gettin’ any of that money, so what do I care? You come down here to look fancy and feel good ‘cause you threw a few dollars to the folks in Crime Alley and now you expect them to bow and bless your name. Fuck you!”
“What’s your name?” the man - Bruce - asked. Jason thought he’d be pissed, but he looked more amused than anything.
“Jason,” Jason said.
“You live with your parents, Jason?” Bruce asked.
Jason ran a hand through his hair, trying to look less like the street kid he was. “What’s it to you?”
“I’d like to have a word with them,” Bruce said. “Maybe we can avoid sending you to jail.”
“4365 Olive,” Jason said. He didn’t react to the word ‘jail’. He was caught, wasn’t he? Had to be where he was going.
Bruce entered the address into his PDA. He’d let go of Jason’s jacket, but Jason had a feeling from the man’s stance that attempting to run wasn’t a good idea. “That’s a psychic’s shop.”
“Yeah. My folks are dead. Clarissa’s your best shot at talking to them,” Jason said defiantly.
“Where have you been staying?” Bruce asked.
Jason shrugged. “Wherever.”
Bruce looked over Jason’s body and clothes with a critical eye. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Hey, I got breakfast at Manny’s Diner this morning. You can ask him,” Jason said. He pulled his jacket tight around himself. Bruce wasn’t looking at him like the johns on Third Street looked at him, but it still felt way too personal. Like Bruce could tell his whole life story just by looking at his clothes.
Bruce appeared to make a decision and he pressed a speed dial button on his phone. “Alfred, I’m afraid we’ll need your services tonight after all.... Yes, that’ll be fine.” He hung up the phone.
“Well, Jason, it seems we have a couple of options. I can deliver you into the hands of the police, if that’s what you prefer,” he said.
“What’s my other choice?” Jason asked warily.
“You can return home with us,” Bruce said. He gestured at the other boy. “This is Dick, my adopted son.”
“‘Dick’?” Jason snickered. “Really?”
“It’s my name,” Dick said. He folded his arms and met Jason’s eyes as if silently daring the other boy to make an issue of it.
“You return with us, where you will get a hot meal and a warm place to sleep. The bed will be for you alone and you may lock the door if it makes you feel secure.”
“What do I have to do?” Jason asked.
“Bathe,” Bruce said. “Put on clean clothing and allow Alfred to wash what you’re currently wearing. Eat, and get a good night’s sleep.”
Jason frowned. “What’s the catch?”
“If you decide to stay with us, you will have to follow house rules. This includes attending school on a regular basis and refraining from any felonious activities.”
Jason lifted his chin. “What about misdemeanors?”
“We’ll address those on a case-by-case basis,” Bruce said smoothly. Another limo joined the ones at the end of the parking lot and sounded a distinctive horn. “Ah, Alfred’s here. Dick, will you show Jason to the car? I’ll stay here and take care of this.” He patted the Lamborghini.
Maybe they were serial killers or frontmen for a child slavery ring, but maybe Bruce was for real. Jason figured it was worth the risk to get some food and sleep somewhere warm tonight. If it went bad, maybe he could steal some of their shit before he broke out of their house.
A tall, thin man with a moustache and a suit stood at the limo and opened the door when he saw them approaching. “Good evening, Master Dick. I’m sorry your evening did not go as planned. Who is your companion?”
“Alfred, this is Jason. Jason, this is Alfred. Officially he’s the butler, but really he takes care of everything.” Dick slid into the limo and motioned for Jason to follow.
“Welcome, Master Jason. Please let me know if there’s anything you require,” Alfred said, still holding the door.
“Thanks, uh, Alfred,” Jason said. He climbed awkwardly into the limo.
“Are you going to stay with us?” Dick asked.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Dick said. “I’ve never had a real brother before. My friend Tim’s kind of like a little brother, but it’s not the same.”
“What’s Bruce’s deal?” Jason asked. “Is he for real?”
“Yeah, totally,” Dick said. “His parents died when he was eight, so he looks out for other orphans. He’s got several charities just for kids without parents.”
“So I’m his new charity case?” Jason frowned and kicked the seat in front of him.
“Not exactly,” Dick said. “He’s talked to me a little bit about adopting another kid. I think he’d like to have a big family. Jason, I promise no one’s going to hurt you here. Why don’t you give us a shot and see how you like it?”
“I’ll think about it,” Jason said gruffly.
They arrived at the biggest house Jason had ever seen. “Wayne Manor,” Dick said, proudly, as if introducing a friend. “I know, it’s gigantic. You get used to it, though. I think I might still have the map I drew up when I first moved in.”
Alfred led them up to the kitchen and insisted on preparing dinner, despite Jason’s protests that he wasn’t hungry at all. (The loud grumbling of his stomach undercut those protests.) Then he led Jason upstairs to a room larger than any apartment he’d ever been in. The bed seemed large enough to swim in. The closet was a slightly smaller room attached to the main one. He even had his own bathroom with a shower and full bath.
Alfred brought in an armful of clothing. “Here are a few of Master Dick’s things that should fit you. He’s a bit taller, but you have broader shoulders. Tomorrow we’ll have you fitted for your own wardrobe.” Dick himself had changed into monogrammed pajamas while Jason ate.
“Fitted?” Jason’s eyebrows went up.
“That just means they’ll measure you all over and then bring clothes to you. So you don’t have to run around to a bunch of stores trying things on,” Dick said. He perched himself on the edge of a heavy oak desk and let his heels bounce off the drawers.
Jason was so out of his league here. They weren’t even playing the same sport.
Alfred showed Jason the laundry bag and the closet where he kept fresh towels and Jason understood the message - he was to clean the street off himself and change into better clothes before touching the fancy-ass sheets on the giant fancy-ass bed.
Jason relaxed a little when Alfred left the boys alone. “Alfie’s okay,” Dick said. “I know he’s got that British Stiff Upper Lip attitude, but he’s a good guy. I got the flu last spring and I was puking up a bunch and he just kept bringing clean buckets and fresh towels and mixing these ginger drinks that helped my stomach settle down.”
Jason sat carefully on the bed - his bed - and touched the carved pole at one corner. The poles held up a heavy canopy of velvet. The drapes were tied up right now, but he could untie them if he wanted and have a tent over the bed big enough for an indoor campout.
“I’m not fancy,” Jason said. “I don’t know manners and things and what forks to eat from. And I don’t care! Stupid stuff anyway.”
“My parents were circus folks,” Dick said. “All we had was a trailer. You could’ve fit that whole trailer on top of that bed you’re sitting on, but that was our home.”
“What happened to your parents?” Jason asked.
Dick hesitated for a long moment, and then said, “They were acrobats. The Flying Graysons. I was part of the act, too. We were in Gotham, doing one of our biggest shows, pulling out all the stops - quadruple somersaults, no nets.” He paused again. “Someone tampered with the swing. My parents, they.... they fell.”
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” Jason said.
“Bruce was there, in the audience. There were families in the circus that would’ve taken me in, but I wanted somewhere else, a place to get away from the memories. And also, Bruce understood what I was going through.”
“My mom,” Jason said, choosing his words carefully. Dick seemed nice, but he wasn’t ready to share everything with this stranger just yet. “My mom got really sick. My dad got a job - a dangerous job - to try and support her. It got him killed.”
“I’m sorry,” Dick said.
“I took care of her as best as I could, but the doctors said they couldn’t do any more, and then,” Jason discovered to his horror that he couldn't hold back the tears. He turned away, but Dick had already noticed. The other boy sat down on the bed with him and put an arm around Jason's shoulders. "they couldn't do anything, so they just let her die."
"No painkillers?" Dick asked softly.
"They wrote prescriptions," Jason said. "I had to find money to pay for them. I had to go and get them filled because she was too sick to get up. Sometimes they called me a liar and wouldn't give me the pills or they'd take away the prescriptions and she was just wasting away…" Reluctantly, he rested his head against Dick's shoulder.
The older boy stroked Jason's hair lightly. "You did everything you could," he said.
After a moment, Jason pulled away and wiped his eyes. "Whatever. I gotta get a shower before Alfred complains about me getting grease or something on his sheets."
Dick nodded. "Okay. My room's right across the hall, if you need me tonight, or anytime."
"Thanks," Jason said. He looked through the pile of clothes he’d been offered, skipped the fancy pajamas, and picked out a t-shirt and sweats. "I haven't decided to stay yet, you know," he warned.
Dick smiled. "I know. I'll see you around."
* * * * * * *
Jason came down for breakfast and found Dick sitting at the table with another boy, a scrawny younger boy with floppy black hair and wide blue eyes.
“Hey, Jason,” Dick said. “This is Tim. Tim, this is Jason. He doesn’t know if he’s staying yet.”
“Hey, Jason,” Tim said.
“Hey, Tim,” Jason said. “Uh - who are you?”
“I live next door,” Tim said.
Jason looked skeptically out the kitchen window. “There’s nothing next door.”
Dick smiled. “About a mile that way,” he said, pointing east. “Tim’s parents are out of town a lot on business so he comes over here to visit when they’re gone.”
“Or if Alfred’s making scones,” Tim said. He picked up a triangular-shaped pastry, which Jason assumed was a scone.
“Sometimes he doesn’t even bother with an excuse and just shows up,” Dick grinned and ruffled Tim’s hair.
Tim squawked an objection and attempted to smooth down his hair.
“Whose is this?” Jason asked, picking up the camera sitting on the table next to the morning paper. He didn’t know much about cameras, but he was pretty sure a fence would give him a lot of cash for that piece.
“Mine,” Tim said. He took it from Jason and wrapped a protective arm around it, as if he knew what Jason was thinking.
“Tim’s going to be a photojournalist,” Dick explained proudly. “You never know when news will happen.”
“Don’t point it at me,” Jason said. “I’m not news.” And I’m not going to take your stupid camera, he thought.
“You are around here,” Tim pointed out. “But we can plan a photo session for a later time.”
The kid said it deadpan, so Jason wasn’t sure if that was a joke or not. “What’re you guys up to today?”
“Gonna teach Tim a few new tricks,” Dick said. “I told you I was in the circus - well, Bruce got me a full set of equipment so I could keep up on my moves. I’ve been teaching Tim a few things. If you want to come hang out, I could show you some stuff.”
“Nah, I think I’d rather get the feel of this place,” Jason said. “You serious when you said you made a map?”
Dick produced it from the pocket of his bathrobe. “Not to scale, but it should give you a sense of where you are. If you get lost, just stay in one spot and holler for Alfred. He’ll help you get back to where you need to be.”
Jason studied the map and shook his head. “Man. How is this all one house?”
“You get used to it, oddly enough,” Dick smiled. “Tim and I’ll be in the second ballroom, downstairs from here.” He pointed out the location on the map.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jason said.
* * *
It took him over an hour to get really lost. But rather than call for help, he explored for a bit longer, then found a room with walls of books and big comfy leather chairs. He considered napping in one of the leather chairs (and then denying getting lost when someone found him) but he picked up a book that had a picture of guys with swords on the cover and started reading it and found it was a really good story. Some of the language was weird and old, but the story itself was about warriors and honor and loyalty and had lots of fun battle scenes.
After a bit, he closed the book and did doze off.
He woke abruptly at the sound of a chuckle and jumped up, knocking the book to the floor. “No one said I couldn’t be here,” he said in his own defense.
Bruce chuckled again. He wore a tailored, dark blue suit with the tie loose around his neck and the top button open. “Relax, Jason, I’m glad you found the library.” He picked up the book and smoothed a few bent pages. “This was one of my favorites when I was your age.”
“It ain’t so bad,” Jason admitted.
“‘Isn’t’,” Bruce corrected. He put the book carefully back in its place on the shelf. “Alfred’s got lunch ready and I thought I’d join you boys, since I have some time before my afternoon meeting. Are you hungry?”
He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been hungry. “I could eat,” Jason said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and trying to look casual.
“Come on, then,” Bruce smiled, and led the way to the kitchen.
* * *
Jason never officially said he was going to stay. He stuck around for a few days and Bruce signed him up for school without discussing it. Jay didn’t object because then they would’ve had to talk about it and Jason would’ve had to make a decision about things.
A few weeks later, Bruce said, “Jason, I need you to come to court with me today so we can get your foster arrangement legally approved.”
And Jason said, “Yeah, all right,” and he got to skip school for an afternoon and go tell a judge that yes, he wanted to stay with Bruce. And so it was official.
Alfred made chilidogs for dinner that night. They were both the best and the worst chilidogs that Jason had ever had. Best, because everything Alfred made was incredible and worst, because chili dogs weren’t supposed to be made well.
Bruce noticed that Jason wasn’t exactly happy with his special meal and got him to confess why.
“It’s too good,” Jason admitted.
Tim frowned. “That’s not logical,” he said.
Jason scowled at the other boy. It wasn’t even his house! “Well, it’s true. Chilidogs aren’t supposed to be good, just taste good.”
“That doesn’t even make sense!” Tim objected.
But Dick nodded. “Yeah, some things just need to be cooked on a greasy grill that’s got drips from all the other stuff cooked on it that day.” He grinned at Jason while Tim just looked disgusted.
Bruce raised an eyebrow at that and didn’t comment, but that weekend he took Jason alone down to Manny’s Diner for all the chili dogs he could eat. Jason’s stomach rebelled that evening but he didn’t regret a single dog.
* * *
Jason hadn’t been to school for a while, but most of his classes were pretty easy to fake ‘til he could get caught up. Except math. He’d been good at math before his mom got sick, but he’d missed a bunch of stuff and now he was struggling. He didn’t tell anyone because he hated feeling stupid, but then he started failing tests.
The second time he got an “F” on a test, he crumpled it up and stuffed it in the outside pocket of his backpack. He was supposed to get his guardian to sign off on it, but he figured he could forge Bruce’s signature well enough to fool a teacher.
Except he forgot it was back there when he was sitting in the limo with Tim (who Alfred usually picked up with Jason at the junior high, since “there was no point in Tim’s driver making the trip” and at the time, Jason had been too stuck on all the drivers and limos to point out that taking the bus would likely be good for Tim’s character) and when Jason pulled out his PSP (a gift from Bruce) as they waited outside the high school for Dick, the test flew out as well, landed at Tim’s feet and the glaring red “F” pointed straight at the other boy.
Tim picked up the test, politely folded it and handed it back to Jason without saying a word. Jason thought maybe that was the end of that embarrassing incident, until a moment later when Tim said, “I’m pretty good at math. I could help you if you’re having trouble.”
“No,” Jason scowled, because failing math was bad enough, but being tutored by a younger kid was even worse.
Dick joined them in the car and Jason hoped Tim would drop it, but no, the little geek had to say, “I did that stuff in a unit last semester and it’s not that bad, honest. It looks tricky, but I know a few shortcuts -”
“No!” Jason exclaimed. “I don’t need your help!”
“With what?” Dick asked.
“Jason got an ‘F’ in math,” Tim told him.
Jason pulled back his fist as if to hit Tim and Dick leaned forward to put himself between the boys. “I failed a test! One test!” Dick didn’t need to know about the other one. “I was having a shitty day, that’s all!”
“It’s okay, Jason, it happens,” Dick said in a soothing tone, which only made Jason more annoyed at him. “Bruce could get you a tutor-”
“NO! I don’t need a tutor! I don’t need anyone’s help!” Jason was yelling now. “I can handle it myself!”
Alfred rolled down the divider between the front seat and the back seats. “I believe your argument would be just as convincing, Master Jason, were you to present it in a lower tone.”
Jason folded his arms across his chest and scowled at Alfred’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Alfred matched his gaze with a piercing calm expression.
“I’m sure you’re right, Jason,” Dick said, and Jason was nearly ready to punch his smug face until he said, “Though Donna could probably use the spending money if you change your mind.”
Dick’s group of friends from school hung out at the Manor sometimes and Jason’s favorite was Donna, a long-legged, dark-haired demi-goddess with a brilliant smile and gentle heart. Jason was pretty sure he was falling in love with her, but that was an absolute secret, since she only saw him as Dick’s little brother. But he was sure if he only had more time with her, she’d get to know him as his own man and return his feelings.
“Hnn,” Jason said, keeping his arms crossed. “Maybe. As a favor to Donna.”
“Of course,” Dick said.
* * *
“... and then you just have to solve for X,” Donna explained. “Does that make sense?”
“It always does when you explain it,” Jason said. He worked the problem quickly and she leaned over to check his work. He breathed in the scent of her shampoo; something sweet and floral with a hint of spice.
“Very good!” she said, drawing a quick star by his solution. She’d been tutoring him for two months now and he was caught up with his class, but he hadn’t told anyone he didn’t need the help any more. Math was way more fun when Donna explained it.
Jason heard the door of the library open and he and Donna both turned to see Bruce enter the room. “Ah, I’m sorry,” Bruce said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your lesson. Jason, I’d like to speak to you when you’re done.”
Something in Bruce’s voice made Jason tense up. Was he in trouble?
Donna looked at Jason, then back at Bruce. “I think we’re done for today,” she said cheerfully. She gathered her things and slid them into a blue messenger bag embroidered with gold stars. “See you later, Jay.” She slung the bag over her shoulder and headed out the door. Bruce stepped aside to let her pass. “Bye, Mr. Wayne!”
“Goodbye, Donna.” Bruce closed the door behind her and sat down across the table from Jason.
“What’s up?” Jason asked. He closed his notebook and math book and lined up his pencils neatly so Bruce wouldn’t notice his hands were shaking. Bruce was way too serious for this to be anything good. Of course, Bruce was often serious, but right now it was like every word and movement had invisible weights tied to them.
“Jason,” Bruce said. “I’ve been considering this matter for quite some time and if you agree, I’d like to adopt you. It’s entirely up to you and -”
“Yes,” Jason blurted out. Of course he’d say yes! Bruce was a great parent and Dick was pretty good for a brother and of course Alfred was a great... Alfred. Why wouldn’t he want to make that permanent? Oh, crap, was Bruce going to think he didn’t mean it if it looked like he hadn’t thought about it enough? “I mean, yes, I’ll think about it. And probably say yes. After I’ve thought about it.”
Bruce smiled. “All right. While you’re thinking it over, I’ll have my lawyers start the legal process.” He reached over the table to ruffle Jason’s hair. “If you decide you don’t want to, nothing has to change. You have a home here for as long as you like.”
Jason smiled back and didn’t bother to smooth his hair. “Yeah, I’ll have to talk to my lawyers, but I think this might work out.”
* * *
[Next: Death in the Family]
Chapter 2: Death In The Family
Jason's adoption hits a bump when he finds out he has a biological mother that's still alive. Prequel to my HS AU series and a retelling of the Batman storyline "A Death In The Family" for a world without costumed heroes.
Bruce called Jason into his office. “I need to speak to you about the adoption.”
Jason refused to sit. He stood behind one of the high-backed leather chairs and leaned on the back. “What is it? Something wrong? Can’t you adopt me?” Don’t you still want to?
“Does the name Sheila Haywood mean anything to you?”
Jason thought about it and shook his head. “No. Should it?”
“It appears that she is your biological mother,” Bruce said.
Jason felt like the floor had been yanked from under him. His biological mother? Wasn’t Catherine Todd his biological mother? If not, why hadn’t anyone ever told him? Why hadn’t he ever met this woman? Did his father know - oh, that was a stupid question, of course he knew. Jason tried to find a way to vocalize all these questions, but all he managed to say was, “Oh.”
“I’ve checked up on her and run a DNA test and she appears to be legitimate,” Bruce set aside a folder on his desk. “As biological parent, she’d have to sign off on any adoption. She has indicated a willingness to do this, but she wants to meet you first. She was unaware that Willis and Catherine Todd had passed away.”
“Okay,” Jason said. “Yeah. I want to meet her, too.” He had questions to ask. Like, oh, say, if she was really his mother, why hadn’t she ever tried to contact him?
Bruce looked at him for a long moment, then said in a quiet voice, “Jason, it is possible that she would like you to live with her. If this is the case, then there are two things I want you to know for certain. One, if you decide to live with your biological mother, I will do nothing to fight it. I care for you deeply, but this is an opportunity to connect with a long-lost parent and few of us ever get that chance.”
Jason nodded. Yeah, he got that. Bruce was amazing, but if Sheila was really his mother, how could he turn her down? “Okay. What’s the second thing?”
“That you will always have a home here. No matter under what circumstances you leave here, you are always a part of this family and you will always be welcome.” Bruce stepped out from behind the desk and walked over to take Jason in his arms for a hug. Jason clung to his father-figure for a few moments, then went upstairs to his room to pack.
* * *
Sheila was a doctor who operated a clinic in Northern Vermont. Jason flew into the airport with just a suitcase and a backpack. If he decided to stay in Vermont, Bruce promised his stuff would get shipped to him. Jason took a cab out to Sheila’s place.
He’d changed three times before going on the plane. First he’d gotten Alfred to pick out an outfit for him, then he worried that he’d look like a snob in designer pants. So he’d pulled out his favorite jeans and a Radiohead t-shirt, which then had him worried he’d look like a slob. Finally Dick and Tim had caught him stressing over his clothes and helped him choose inexpensive khaki pants and a button-down shirt.
“She’s your mother,” Tim had said. “If she doesn’t like what you’re wearing, she’ll just make you get new clothes.”
“You’re amazing, Jason. She’ll love you,” Dick had said.
As the cab drew closer, Jason wondered if he should have gone with Alfred’s choice after all. Could he get the cabbie to pull over and give him a chance to change? But he’d need to find an iron and - too late. The cab pulled into the driveway of Sheila’s house and there he was.
He paid the cabbie and knocked on the front door. It opened immediately and a woman, probably in her early thirties, stood in the doorway. She wore a neatly tailored shirt, a vest and a long, straight skirt. A cigarette dangled from one hand.
“Hi,” Jason said. “I- I think I’m your son.”
“Jason,” she said, looking him over. “Come on in. I’m Sheila. I mean, I suppose you can call me ‘mom’ if you want, but Sheila’s fine, too, since we barely know each other.”
“Sheila, then, since you don’t mind,” Jason said. “Maybe when we know each other better...” He picked up his suitcase and backpack. “Uh, where should I put my stuff?”
“This way,” she said, leading him through the house. It was a one-story building with lots of windows - plenty of light and air. She lead him to a room in the back, an office with a large desk and filing cabinets, with a cot set up along one wall. “I’m afraid I haven’t had time to redecorate,” she said. “But now that you’re here, we can find a bed you like and get the furniture you need - I’m not up on the decor for teenage rooms these days, but we can paint it however you like. I’ll move my office stuff to the other room.”
“It’s fine,” Jason said. “I’ve slept on worse.” He wasn’t sure if he intended it as a guilt trip, but she didn’t flinch.
“Well, that’s in the past, isn’t it. And you’ve done pretty well for yourself. Bruce Wayne’s ward! I’d like to know how you managed that trick.” She laughed and took a drag from her cigarette.
“He caught me trying to steal the tires off his car,” Jason admitted.
“And decided to bring you home?” She gave him a skeptical look.
“I guess I looked hungry,” he said.
Sheila looked him over with a critical eye, but the phone rang before she responded.
“Hang on, I’ll just be a minute,” she said to Jason. She took the phone into the other room. She probably didn’t mean for him to overhear, and he tried not to listen in, but he didn’t have anything else to focus on and bits of the conversation trickled his way. “No, no, next week, I promise.... the money’s coming in....”
Jason took this to mean she was behind on some debts. Well, not everyone was Bruce Wayne. He’d have to get a job if he stayed, show her that he could earn his own keep and help out around the house. He wasn’t a freeloader.
“Sorry about that,” she said, when she returned. “Jason, I know I’m not a great mother.” She pulled out the chair from the desk and sat down. Jason took that as a cue and sat down on the cot. “Your father and I split up while I was pregnant with you. I was young and scared and when he asked for full custody, I didn’t object.” She stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray on the desk. “I’ve regretted that for a long time, but I didn’t know how to approach you.”
“You could have just called,” Jason said, letting his resentment slip out in his voice. He took a cigarette out of the package on the desk.
“I should have,” she agreed. “I thought you were happy with your family, though, and I didn’t want to disrupt that.” She leaned forward with a lighter for his cigarette, then stopped when she realized what she was doing. “Oh, hell, you’re too young to smoke, aren’t you? I need to set a good example.”
Jason took the lighter from her hand and lit his own cigarette. “I’ve been smoking for years, now,” he said, only exaggerating a little. “I’m almost fourteen. I’ve done a lot of stuff.”
“I suppose you have,” Sheila said softly. “I’ve missed so much of your life. I don’t want to miss any more. Will you stay here with me?”
Jason thought of his home back at Wayne Manor, of Bruce, Dick and Alfred who had formed a small family and invited him to join. He even thought of annoying little Tim, who’d stuck himself to that family like a barnacle. Did he want to give that all up for a woman who’d never even sent him a birthday card?
But she was family, blood family, his mother, something he thought he’d never have again. She couldn’t replace Catherine Todd; she’d never be the woman who raised him, the one who used to come into his room and tuck him in after she’d worked a late night shift. He’d always woken up when his mom - Catherine - came in, no matter how late, but he’d pretend to be asleep so she wouldn’t feel guilty and stop coming in. He liked knowing that she’d come home safely every night.
Sheila wouldn’t be that woman. But maybe she’d be a different kind of mother, one who take pictures of him before he went to Prom and cry at his wedding when he married Donna.
He studied the glowing tip of the cigarette. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll stay.”
* * *
They visited the junior high the next afternoon to get paperwork started for the transfer. He didn’t have to go to classes yet, at least. Transferring to a new school just a couple of months before the end of the year wasn’t going to be fun. At least in the fall he’d be starting high school and everyone would be new; he’d be on much more even footing then.
They called Bruce after that. Jason told him what he’d decided and Bruce took it stoically. “We’ll miss you,” he said, “but I understand your choice.” Jason thought of the family he was losing and something twisted in his chest. He shoved the phone at Sheila so she could deal with the practical arrangements and he walked out of the house.
He wanted a cigarette, but he’d left them back in the house. He stuck his hands in his pockets and hunched up his shoulders as he walked down the street; not heading anywhere in particular, just needing to keep moving. Bruce and Dick and Alfred weren’t really his family, so why should it matter if he lost them? He didn’t belong in that huge, expensive mansion. Last time Bruce had a party, Jason had knocked a bowl of mashed potatoes into the lap of a Senator’s cousin and then sworn like a sailor while trying to apologize. Better this way, to end it now before they got tired of him and tossed him out. Sheila was family, real family, and you couldn’t break bonds like that.
When he got back to the house, Sheila was off the phone and had ordered Chinese takeout. She didn’t seem pleased at his abrupt departure, but didn’t call him on it, either. She offered to take him to a movie after dinner, but he waved her off, and went back to “his” room to play video games.
Dick called just before Jason was going to go to bed. Jason ignored the call the first two times, but picked it up when Dick called the third time. “What?” he asked, his temper worn.
“He lives!” Dick exclaimed. “Hey, little brother, how’s the wild North?”
“I’m not your brother,” Jason said sullenly. “What do you want?”
“For you to pick up the phone the first time I call, but hey, we can’t have everything,” Dick said. “How’s Vermont? Spot any moose yet? How’s your... your mother?”
“Dick, if you want to know something, just ask,” Jason said. He stuck the phone on speaker and picked up his PSP.
Dick was silent for a long moment, long enough that Jason checked that he had switched to speaker and not hung up on the other boy. Finally he said, “Maybe I’ll come visit you this weekend. Check out the new digs.”
“You’re not invited,” Jason said. “What’s going on?”
”Just tell him,” a voice said in the background.
“Is that Tim?” Jason asked. “Would you just tell me?”
“Take me off speaker,” Dick said. Jason picked up the phone again and switched off the speaker setting. “We - Tim and I - we accidentally overheard some stuff today in Bruce’s office.” Which meant they’d been in the west wing guest suite, flat on their bellies, pressing their ears to the vent next to the dresser to try and listen to what was happening in Bruce’s office. “I don’t know if it’ll matter, but I thought you should know.”
“Dick, if you don’t spit it out, I’m coming down there to kick your ass,” Jason growled.
“You could not - okay, look,” Dick said. “Sheila said Bruce could have you back if he paid her a million dollars. Otherwise, he’d never see you again.”
Jason’s stomach clenched. “She tried to sell me?! What did Bruce say?”
“He said you’d stay with whoever you chose to stay with and if you weren’t happy there, he’d make her life hell. He was pretty angry.” Dick paused, then said, “Are you happy there? Are you safe?”
“‘Safe’?” Jason asked. “Dick, she’s my m-mother!” But the word stuck in his mouth.
“I know,” Dick said quietly. “I know. I shouldn’t have said anything. Bruce didn’t want you to know.”
“Yeah,” Jason said bitterly. “Then I might change my mind and he’d never be rid of me.”
“He doesn’t want to get rid of you, Jason,” Dick said.
“But I’m not worth a million bucks, either,” Jason said.
“Jay-” Dick began, but Jason cut in.
“Thanks for telling me. I gotta go,” Jason cut off the call without waiting for a response. He listened to the house for a few moments, but Sheila was either being very quiet or she had already gone to bed. Jason slipped into the bathroom to be quietly sick.
He stayed on the cold bathroom floor even after his stomach had settled. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, wishing he could fold in on himself tight enough to disappear altogether. No wonder Sheila’d finally wanted to meet him after ignoring him his whole life. It was Bruce Wayne’s money she loved, not him. Now he was trapped here, with a woman who didn’t want him. Too late to go back to Wayne Manor; Sheila would want payment and Bruce never would, not at that price tag. He supposed he could run away, live on the streets again, but he’d gotten used to regular meals and a warm bed. Maybe he could put up with Sheila for a couple of years, just until he was old enough to get a real job and place of his own.
Jason finally washed up and dragged himself back to the little office/bedroom to try and get some sleep. He flung himself down on the camping cot and one of the leg joints snapped, spilling him onto the floor. He grabbed the pillow and blanket off the cot and curled up on the floor where he’d fallen. He didn’t think he could sleep, but the long day had taken its toll on him and he finally dozed off.
* * *
Sheila frowned in disapproval when she saw the cot, but only said, “Well, we need to get you a bed anyway.” Jason just nodded, resolved to speak to her as little as possible.
Dick tried to call again. Jason ignored his calls, and when they didn’t stop coming, he blocked Dick’s number.
Bruce called, next, later in the day. Jason stared at the phone when the number appeared on the screen, deciding whether or not to answer it. He debated for long enough that the choice was taken from him. Then he stared at the phone, wondering if he should try calling Bruce back. He was interrupted from his brooding at last when the house phone rang and Sheila thrust the cordless handset into his hands.
“Hi,” Jason said, cautiously.
“I understand you spoke to Dick last night,” Bruce said, skipping the formalities. “It seems I need to get a better lock on the door of the west wing guest suite.”
“Yeah, he told me that my mother wanted to sell me to you,” Jason said, looking Sheila right in the eye. “‘Least someone had the balls to.”
“Jason, you don’t understand, I owe money to people who -” Sheila began, but Jason turned away, not wanting to hear the lies he could see her forming.
“What do you want, Bruce?” Jason asked.
“To tell you that if you want to come back to Gotham and live with us, I’ll make whatever arrangements are necessary,” Bruce said.
That Jason hadn’t been expecting. “You - you’d pay her the money? A million dollars?”
“You’re worth much more than that to me,” Bruce said.
Jason looked sharply back at Sheila, wondering if she’d heard that, and if she’d raise the price. And then he was just sick and tired of the whole damned thing. “Yeah? Well, maybe I ain’t for sale,” he said. He turned to face Sheila, wanting her to be sure to hear every word. “I got offers before this, you know, when I was on the streets. Maybe the price tag’s bigger now, but I said no then and I’m saying no now. Because I don’t need ANY OF YOU!” On his last word, he threw the handset against the wall, just barely missing Sheila. The handset shattered, but Jason didn’t stand there to watch the pieces hit the floor. He stormed out of the house and didn’t look back to see if he was being followed.
* * *
Jason spend the night curled up behind the bushes in a small park a few blocks from the house. Fortunately it was warm enough that he didn’t need more than his jacket, since he hadn’t thought to storm out of the house with any blankets. Either he’d picked a good hiding spot or the police didn’t patrol like they did in Gotham; in any case, he wasn’t disturbed until the morning, when he woke to find Sheila standing over him.
“Come on back,” she said wearily. “I’m taking you back to Gotham.”
Jason sat up and ran a hand through his hair, brushing away the leaves that had caught there. “Bruce wired you the money already?” he asked bitterly.
“No,” she said. “I told him to forget it. It was a stupid idea, Jason, and I’m sorry.” She held out a hand to help him up. He eyed her suspiciously for a moment, then accepted the hand up.
They trudged back to the house in silence. Jason felt like he ought to tell her that it was okay, he wasn’t mad and everything would be fine. Except it wasn’t okay, he was mad and when had anything been fine?
Sheila let Jason back into the house long enough to gather up his things. “I’ve got you booked on a flight to Gotham at 11:30,” she said. “We can stop and get you some food on the way, or I can give you some cash and you can get something yourself.”
Jason shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. He went around to throw his stuff in the trunk while she slid into the driver’s seat. He came around to the passenger side and opened the door, but froze when she spoke again.
“I want to visit you in Gotham,” Sheila said. She turned the key in the car’s ignition. “I know you’re upset, but -” The world exploded. Jason tasted fire and blood and then everything went black.
* * *
Jason woke up somewhere bright and blurry. His tongue felt thick and his chest heavy. He turned his head, trying to force his eyes to focus and suddenly Bruce’s face was above him.
“Jason! Oh, thank God, Jason,” Bruce said. His voice faded in and out. “... in a hospital, you’re going to be... need to rest... “
Jason just nodded weakly and closed his eyes. When he finally opened them again, it was Dick above him. “Hey, little brother...”
He stayed like that for a while, drifting in and out, with no way to tell time or know if it was all happening in a single day or over a period of years. Usually it was Bruce there, or else strange faces he didn’t recognize. He guessed they were hospital staff and hoped they weren’t friends he couldn’t remember.
He saw Dick frequently, and Bruce’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Talia al Ghul was often there. Donna showed up a few times, and he caught a glimpse of Tim now and then. They were usually reading or watching TV, though they dropped what they were doing when he woke up. One time, Bruce had been intently focused on the TV news; something about a plane crash and Haiti, but he’d switched it to mute when he saw that Jason was awake.
Jason never saw Sheila, but he supposed she must be in another hospital bed and not up to visiting him any more than he was up to visiting her.
His periods of consciousness grew longer and less blurry, and finally he was allowed to sit up and watch TV and eat real hospital food instead of living off the IV. It was bland and mushy and everything required a spoon, but he was hungry enough that it tasted like a feast. For the first meal, at least; he got bored of it by the third time and requested a chilidog. Chilidogs, as it turned out, were absolutely off limits, but after much persistence, they brought him a hot dog - no bun or toppings, boiled soft until no flavor remained and cut into pieces so tiny it might as well have been pre-chewed. He took it as a victory anyway and ate it gleefully. Bruce smiled to see him gobble it down and promised Jason a trip to Manny’s Diner once the doctors gave him the all-clear.
He’d been in the hospital for weeks, apparently, and along with a lovely collection of broken bones and battered skin, he had had a particular kind of brain injury that had swelled up and nearly killed him. Fortunately, Talia knew a team of surgeons in India who specialized in this particular kind of injury; she’d flown them in the minute she heard of his situation and they’d saved his life.
Jason noticed, after a time, that no one mentioned Sheila’s name. Once he started paying attention, he could hear the conversational detours used to avoid mentioning her. Or sometimes, sudden verbal swerves or sharp subject turns. He finally worked up the courage to ask Bruce directly.
“Sheila’s dead, isn’t she?” he asked Bruce bluntly, at the very start of their visit one day.
Bruce didn’t hesitate before answering, and Jason knew he’d been waiting for the question. “Yes,” he said. “She died instantly when the bomb went off. I’m very sorry, Jason.”
“S’okay,” Jason said. He didn’t have to fight very hard to keep his expression neutral, and he wondered if he’d grown cold, if he only had it in himself to grieve for two parents and nothing was left for Sheila. “I didn’t know her very well.”
But that night, after Bruce and left and the graveyard shift of nurses arrived, as he laid alone in a dark, sterile room smelling of antiseptic and plastic, he thought of all the things he’d never get to ask Sheila and all the things he’d never get to tell her and all the possibilities that went with having a living mother that were once again lost to him and he cried for her and for himself. He directed his sobs into his pillow to keep quiet and keep the nurses from checking on him. He still had a damp spot on his pillow in the morning but the cheerful, brown-eyed girl on the dawn shift offered him a fresh one without asking any questions.
Bruce gave Jason a little background a few days later. Sheila had owed money to a crime boss named Kerr and when she fell too far behind on payments, he decided to make her a colorful example for his other clients. Bruce sent his own PI, an ex-cop, to Vermont to assist in the investigation and make sure nothing fell through the cracks. “She’s good at asking questions,” was all Bruce would say.
The day finally came when Jason could leave the hospital. They rolled him out in a wheelchair and he still had plenty of physical therapy to look forward to, but at least he got to go home. Wayne Manor had elevators, fortunately. Jason could walk a bit, with help from a cane, but he didn’t have a chance of making it up the grand staircase by himself. The elevators had been built with the mansion and were the first elevators ever installed in Gotham. Jason took in this historical fact with a skeptical look, but Bruce smiled and assured him that the elevators had regular maintenance and any worn parts were immediately replaced with new ones. Jason accepted this with a grunt and hoped he wouldn’t be stuck appreciating the historical value of Gotham’s first domestic vertical transport system from the inside for any extended length of time.
It wasn’t until Bruce was pushing him down the old familiar hallway that he dropped the big news. “That’s Tim’s room, now,” he said, waving at the door across from Jason’s bedroom.
Jason swiveled in his seat so abruptly that he rocked the chair. “Tim’s room? He has a room here, now?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” A guilty look flashed over Bruce’s face and Jason wondered if he’d “forgotten” to mention it until now intentionally, but the guilt was replaced by concern so quickly that Jason wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it. “Tim’s parents were killed in a plane crash. He’s staying with us now.”
“Doesn’t he have family?” Jason asked, aware he was being petulant, but not caring because dammit, now he would never be rid of Tim the tag-a-long, that annoying little know-it-all.
“He has us,” Bruce said firmly and Jason read the message within those three words. No, Tim didn’t have anyone else and yes, Jason had better damn well get used to having the kid around or else Bruce was going to have words with him.
“Lucky us,” Jason muttered, but Bruce let that pass. Jason lifted himself carefully out of the wheelchair and picked up his cane from the rack on the side.
Bruce opened the door to his room. Alfred had been here just recently, as a tray with a cold bottle of soda and a selection of Jason’s favorite processed snacks had been left on the desk.
“Welcome home, son,” Bruce said.
* * *
Dick stopped by after he got out of school. Jason was propped up in bed, scowling at the study list his new tutor had just dropped off. Even near-death couldn’t get him out of homework when Bruce was around.
“Glad to be back home?” Dick asked.
“No, I’d rather have people waking me up at six every morning to stick needles into me,” Jason retorted.
“Dumb question,” Dick admitted. “Good to have you back. You have no idea how worried Bruce has been. We’ve all been worried.”
“Yeah, I see you ran out and got yourself a replacement just in case,” Jason said, shooting a pointed look in the direction of Tim’s bedroom.
“Jay,” Dick said, a warning note in his voice. “Don’t give Tim a rough time. He’s been through a lot.”
“He’s been through a lot?!” Jason asked. His hand clenched, accidentally crumpling the study list.
“He just lost both his parents,” Dick said sharply. “Don’t make this into a competition.”
Jason tried to smooth out the study sheet on his math text. “I got a bunch of schoolwork to make up if I wanna start high school in the fall, so we’ll have to discuss this another time.” He opened his math book to a random page and held it up in front of his face until he heard Dick give up and leave the room.
* * *
Jason woke up late that night with an empty stomach. He laid in bed, annoyed by his hunger, until he remembered he didn’t have to wait for the morning shift to get something to eat. Bruce had left the wheelchair by his door, but he ignored that and used the cane to support himself as he limped down to the kitchen.
Even using the elevator, the journey downstairs was longer and more painful than it used to be, so he was already in a bad mood even before he saw that someone else was already raiding the fridge. Someone too short to be anyone but his new neighbor.
Why can’t that kid just stay out of my way? Jason had himself geared up to tell Tim just that when the boy turned around and Jason could see that Tim’s eyes and nose were red and swollen and tears still wet on his cheeks.
Tim swiped the arm of his blue monogrammed robe across his face and gave Jason a weak almost-smile. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” Jason said. He didn’t try to smile back.
They stood looking at each other for a long, silent moment. Tim finally grabbed a juice box from the fridge and closed the door. “It’s all yours. I’m not hungry.”
The words burst out of him before he could stop them. “I’m sorry about your parents,” Jason said.
“Thanks,” Tim said softly, and rubbed his sleeve across his face again. “I’m sorry about your mother.”
“She wasn’t-” Jason began, but found he couldn’t actually deny her out loud. “Thanks,” he said instead.
The silence between them stretched out again. Tim turned to go, but this time it was Jason who spoke.
“I was gonna make a sandwich,” he said. “Easy enough to make two at once, if you want some?”
“If it’s not any trouble,” Tim said warily.
“Nah, no big deal,” Jason said. “‘Sides, it’s about time I introduced the family to my peanut butter and Doritos masterpiece. It’s a classic.”
This time, the tiny smile Tim gave Jason was genuine. And this time, Jason smiled back.