Dick wondered if he would regret this, and he was coming close to it now. His brother, on the other hand, looked terribly please. Jason grinned, folded his hands under his head, and crossed his feet on the dashboard of the Batmobile. Bruce would have never let him get away with it, but as it happened, the original Batman wasn't there. Dick gave him his best attempt at a Bruce-glare from under the cowl, but Jason wasn't even phased.
"Give it a rest, Big Bird. This is me you're trying that on, not the little demon. Remember that I survived the worst of dear ol' Dad, and I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but my Batman beats your Batman any day."
Even behind the lenses, Dick rolled his eyes and resisted to point out the flaw in that logic as they'd both been Robin to the same Batman. "I should've just taken Damian."
"No, you shouldn't have. Wanna know why? Because you're starved for adult interaction. Hey, I ain't complainin'; it's like the camping trip we never went on. No Dad, no little brothers..." Dick raised a brow. "Okay, no little brothers from my point of view, but you get to interact with someone over the age of seventeen. It's win-win. And I'm even on my best behavior, see? I've been so good I haven't even asked where we're going."
It wasn't at all lost on the elder man that that was exactly what he was not-so subtly doing now. Dick pursed his lips and played along, bringing out his best overly enthusiastic voice. "Hey, Jason, guess where we're going!"
"Oh my gosh, where?" For good measure his brother threw in a ridiculous valley girl accent.
"Staaaar City!" It came out like a game show host's announcement.
For a split second, Jason scowled, but continued the charade. "Holy shit, Batman!"
Dick dropped the act sensing that he was getting pissed. "Before you kill me, it has nothing to do with any other capes and mask or anything. I'm not going to force more social interaction on you than you can handle."
"I can handle anything you dish out," Jason said arrogantly.
"Right," Dick cleared his throat. "We're going to be working with some of the local authorities. There's been a pretty big influx of drug traffic in this area, more than they know what to do with."
"So you thought given my area of expertise..." Jason finished for him and waved his hand before Dick could say anything else. "It's fine. Actually this is good. Red bird and I put quite a bit of effort into pushing a lot of them out of Gotham, so I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up here. Who's our contact?"
"A police chief who's not very fond of masks after what Oliver Queen did."
"Fantastic," Jason snorted. "Gordon spoils us."
Dick laughed. "I know."
He had to admit though that despite his reservations about taking Jason so far from Gotham and Bruce and his general comfort zone, his brother was doing very well. In fact he was practically taking the lead in speaking with the detectives and officers and asking all the right questions. He was dressed in light body armor with a gray-black covering similar to Batman's own, but instead of the cape or cowl, an ordinary leather jacket was around his shoulders and a simple red domino mask covered his eyes. Out of a lack of creativity on the field name front, Jason still went by Red Hood, but the red bat symbol on his chest made it clear where his allegiance lay.
They worked late into the night, but when the sun began to show signs of rising, the two left, promising to return the next evening hopefully with some new thoughts. No matter what, no member of their family was a day-time person. Jason looked deep in thought as they took off.
"Something's weird here," he said. "The money doesn't add up."
"How do you mean?" Dick was a decent detective, but this really was the younger man's area of expertise. He was fairly sure there were few other people who knew the drug trade and traffic patterns better than Jason.
"The dealers are practically giving away this stuff," he pointed out. "Coke, meth, heroin... the amount of it on the streets here just shot through the roof, but the profit plummeted. Why?"
Dick frowned then ventured a guess. "Supply and demand? There's more dealers here, so they're trying to beat out the competition by lowering their prices?"
"Not by this much," Jason shook his head. "And not every drug at once. There's something else going on. Did they happen to mention anything else on the market? Anything other than the usual cocktails?"
"Not that I heard," Dick shook his head. "Come on. We're coming up on the forty-eight hour mark. Let's grab some food and head over to the hotel."
"I've gone more longer than two days without sleep before," his brother replied brashly.
"I know, but there's no reason to push yourself so hard now. Besides I want us both sharp and alert tomorrow, and I'm tired too."
He didn't add that he'd promised Bruce he would watch out for Jason while they were out of the city. In some ways, looking after the man only a few years his junior was similar to looking after ten-year-old Damian. They were both stubborn with a tendency to do the opposite of what Dick said just because he said it. They were also wicked smart which meant he had to resort to some admittedly underhanded trickery to get his way.
At least this time it worked.
An almost entirely nocturnal schedule meant breakfast came at sundown. Jason was checking a few leads, and Dick was just finishing his coffee when something in his pocket buzzed. His brother looked up.
"Please don't tell me that's the JLA communicator," Jason made a face even though he could see that's exactly what it was. Dick ignored him and replied.
"Hello?" A pause. "Yeah, I'm actually here now.." Another pause. "Oh really? Okay, meet you on the rooftop in few minutes."
When he hung up, Jason was scowling at him. "This is supposed to be our case. Do you have any idea how little I care about your JLA buddies?"
"Oh, I think you care about this one," Dick smirked all but pushing his brother out the door. "Let's go. Don't worry about the mask."
Jason must have been wondering why he'd said it, but the question was answer when they reached the rooftop and looked up. It was almost hard to tell against the backdrop of the evening, but then they could both see a streak of black and silver, and then Donna Troy was descending from the skies. She was smiling, her full attention focused on the younger man.
"Jason! What a pleasant surprise! Dick neglected to mention you were here too."
She went to hug him, and to Dick's bemusement, Jason couldn't quite hide his grin. "Oh, yeah," the younger man said. "Taking down drug dealers. His idea of brotherly bonding. But you're more then welcome to interrupt."
"That's not what you said a second ago!" Dick laughed. "Hey, Donna. What brings you here?"
All mirth fell from the amazon's beautiful features. "It's Slade, Dick. We got reports saying he and maybe his... Titans have been active in this area."
His breath hitched, and Dick was suddenly acutely aware that both Donna and his brother were looking at him. He didn't know what they were expecting. Slade 'Deathstroke' Wilson was to him what Lex Luthor and the Joker were to Superman and the original Batman. His demon, his fight. His eyes only regained their focus when he felt his brother's hand squeeze his shoulder.
"Hey." There was no mockery or sarcasm, nothing but sober intensity, in Jason's voice. "You're okay, yeah?" Unspoken went, "I'm here for you", but Dick heard it all the same.
He nodded and patted the younger man's hand reassuringly before looking to Donna. "This might be connected with our case. Slade's often resorted to various substances to enhance his strength, endurance..."
"Meaning he has problems getting it up?" Jason quipped.
"Meaning there might be something here he's interested in," Dick finished. "Let's check in with the police. Maybe they have something new for us."
Unfortunately only a few hours later they were back at the hotel with nothing but a few lab reports and a map riddled with dots of known drug dealer activity, color coded to denote what was supplied in each area. It was flattened out on the largest of their hotel room tables, and Jason was bent over it, fists resting on the solid wooden surface. The young man studied it in a silent concentration that reminded Dick of Bruce.
"He seems very... involved," Donna noted in a voice too low for Jason to hear across the large suite. It was true; on any other mission, Jason might have blown off the whole thing in favor of at least attempting to flirt with her.
"It's personal for him." Dick glanced up at his brother.
Donna cocked her head to the side, about to ask something, before a sound from the other side of the room made them both look. Jason didn't even bother to look up from the map as he threw his voice at them, tone dripping with annoyance.
"No, I'm not an addict, past or otherwise. The 'bad boy' image doesn't mean I ever did drugs. The worst thing I ever did was smoke cigarettes and get hammered once or twice. Satisfied? Seriously, if you're gonna talk about me, have the decency to wait till I'm out of ear shot."
Dick winced but went back to studying the lab reports because Donna did cross the room to Jason. "I'm sorry," he heard her tell his brother, "I didn't mean to imply..."
"It's fine," the young man cut her off a little harshly. "Let's just concentrate on this, okay?"
At that moment, Dick's cell rang, followed only half a second later by Jason's. They fished the phones out and looked at them almost simultaneously before giving each other looks across the room that mirrored one another in annoyance.
"I've got Timmy," Jason announced unsurprisingly.
"I've got Damian," Dick replied in the same flat tone.
So much for getting away from little brothers...
His concentration badly interrupted after a half hour on the phone as he and Dick tried to avert World War III between their two younger brothers, so Jason went up onto the rooftop for some air. He stood on the ledge, idly glancing down once in a while, but most of his attention was on the city as a whole. It was different from Gotham, but all cities had a rhythm, and he'd learned to listen. He wasn't at all surprised when soft footsteps followed him, and Donna stepped up next to him a moment later.
"I'm not going to jump, if that's what you're worried about." He didn't look back at her, just shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his jeans.
"I have never taken you for a coward, Jason," she replied mildly, "but I can tell something troubles you. Is it your brothers?"
He laughed. "No, they're fine. Just being stupid."
"Then," she said carefully, "is it the case?"
He shot her an annoyed look. "Nosy much?"
Not surprisingly, Donna returned the glare. He might have never really admitted it, but Jason actually liked the fact that she didn't put up with his bull shit most of the time. Though they'd gotten better about it, he still felt like sometimes his family walked on eggshells around him. Not Donna. She could let him have it in a way that made him reel, but she was also not ungentle either. That was why Jason felt like of all the people outside his family, he could talk to her.
"Truth is," he admitted finally, "I guess I am a little... home sick. I mean, it's not just them exactly, but the city in general. For all my globe – and multi-verse – trotting, being away from Gotham is still kinda strange. I feel like Damian did when Dad and Dick forced San Francisco and the Teen Titans on him. No offense."
"None taken. He didn't like it?"
"Well, Damian's not exactly... social, but really, I think he just didn't like being away from everyone in Gotham just when he was getting used to it. The difference is, he's ten. I'm a grown-ass man."
"That doesn't mean you can't miss your family," Donna pointed out gently, "just as you're getting used to them again. I think it's nice. They really love you, and you deserve it after everything you've been through."
Jason smiled despite himself. "I didn't think I did, you know? I didn't think I could ever have all that again. Or that I had to... compete with Dick and especially Tim. Which is stupid, because I'm pretty sure if it wasn't for them, I probably wouldn't have a father to come back to."
Donna smiled and took his hand. "I've said it before, and I'll say it again: you're a good brother, a good son. You're a protector, with courage and honor, despite what you might say. Forget masks; that's everything a great man should be."
"How would you know?" Jason challenged, but he was grinning. "You grew up on an island full of women."
Donna rolled her eyes. "Just take the compliment!"
"Alright, alright. I'm awesome. I know. And since I'm so amazing," The grin slowly morphed into a coy smile, "can you possibly be convinced to have dinner with me one of these evenings before we leave?"
The woman mocked shock. "Bruce Wayne's son out with an amazon? However will it look?"
"Like a tabloid reporter's wet dream?" She mocked shock. "Fine. For a lady, I'll try to curb the vulgar language. Is that a yes for dinner?"
She smiled. "Yes. After all, you should have some kind of excuse for being here. Batman and the Red Hood showing up in Star City at the same time as Dick Grayson and Jason Wayne might look suspicious."
"Oh, is that all?"
She didn't have a chance to answer because at that moment the door opened and Dick joined them on the rooftop. Jason silently cursed his brother's atrocious timing, but the words that came out of his mouth had his instant attention.
"There's something else in the drugs," Dick announced, a frown creasing his brow. "I went through the lab reports of all the major ones, and they all mention a matching but unidentified substance."
Jason thought about that. "It's gotta be something that makes them more addictive than usual," he declared finally. "That's why the dealers are so generous with the prices. Give it a few weeks, and the junkies'll pay anything for another hit. That must be what Deathstroke is interested in too."
It made sense, and Dick and Donna both nodded their agreement.
"We should check out some of the hot spots," his brother suggested. "Maybe get a few live samples, connect to the computer back home, and ask Bruce or Tim to take a look. They might tell us more than the underfunded labs here."
"Good call," Jason nodded. "There're a few places in particular we should start with."
He hadn't actually memorized the map, but it was a solid bet there was a lot of drug activity outside the local schools. Star City was not as dark as Gotham, but then again the dealers here hadn't spent the last few years under his 'gentle' guidance. Every dealer in Gotham knew that if they hung around school yards or tried to sell to kids, they did so at their own peril because the Red Hood did not tolerate it. Even if he now wore the bat emblem, the effects of the threat were apparently still felt. But here, even those who fled Gotham, thought they were safe.
Crouching on the rooftop of a high school, Jason smirked.
These bastards had another thing coming.
Dick was scoping out the area somewhere a few blocks away, and Donna surveyed from the skies, but the three remained in touch via the ear pieces the brothers had taken with them and agreed to report in at least once an hour unless something happened first. School might not be in scion in the middle of the night, but he found that dealers often didn't stray too far from their hunting grounds. Jason hoped someone would come. He was itching for a fight and was not disappointed when a tall figure wearing a red baseball hat came by the fence, followed a few seconds later by the emergence of a shorter, portlier one from the shadows.
Jason pulled out a pair of foldable binoculars. He was more interested in the dealer, but there was something about the buyer that made him pause. Jason squinted through the lenses, waiting for the man to turn in a way that would reveal his face. It didn't take long, and when he saw who it was, Jason bared his teeth in a feral grin.
Oh, but this was gonna be good…
Not bothering to get word out to his brother or Donna, Jason hopped from balcony to balcony, landed in the alley below, and sprinted for the pair across the street. He shoved the dealer aside without looking and slammed the now-familiar junkie into the chain-link fence. The red baseball hat went tumbling to the ground.
"Harper!" He pressed his forearm into the man's throat. "Guess I should've known you'd be here. Shit always floats up. Come with your new buddy Deathstroke?"
"Fuck off," the other man snarled.
Jason just laughed, and the sound was frightening. "Yeah, right. Always knew you were a looser, Harper. Finally showing your true colors."
Arsenal shoved at him, but he quickly spun out of the way. Though older and maybe even stronger, none of it reflected in the man's movements. He'd crashed, Jason could tell, and without another hit, his mind and body were far too preoccupied with the effects of withdrawal to put up any kind of a fight. And Jason wanted blood tonight.
"You know where you're standin', right?" He jabbed a thumb at the school. "Your little girl might've gone there, and here you are buying dope from the same scum bag that would've sold it to her in a heartbeat."
Roy's face twisted in fury. "Don't you dare talk about Lian!"
Jason ignored that, letting the man's anger pass over him without effect. Harper was pathetic, and he had bigger fish to fry. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the dealer attempting to make a break for it. No way he was letting that happen, not when he suddenly realized that Arsenal wasn't the only one there he recognized.
It was Benny, the fat old meth-head who moonlighted as a part-time dope dealer. The one who'd once got his hands on Tim and shoved a needle full of heroin into the teen. Bile rose in the young man's throat, and he was moving before he could think, Roy Harper completely forgotten. When he spun the dealer around, it wasn't his forearm but a ten-inch solid steel knife he pressed to the man's throat.
"Well, well, if it isn't Benny boy. Was hoping to run into you again, Ben. Looks like you didn't get the message last time. No little birds to save you now."
His voice dripping with acid, so much so that Jason barely recognized it. It should have scared him, but instead he reveled in it. The thrill that this time... this time justice would be done. He wouldn't let this dirt-bag who cowered and struggled for breath, this piece of shit who'd dared hurt his little brother, escape. He didn't even feel the hand on his shoulder until a surprising strength pulled him away. Jason actually stumbled for half-a-heartbeat, before turning to see who had dared interrupt.
Donna stared back at him, wide-eyed, and a second later Batman landed half a foot away from Roy. He thought he saw surprise pass over what he could see of his brother's face as Dick asked the other man what he was doing there. They must've heard over the com, Jason thought angrily and struggled.
"Let go, princess," he warned.
"No." She held firmly. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were about to kill that man."
The dealer was now on the ground on all fours, coughing and clutching his throat. There was a thin line of red on his fingers, but it was nothing but a scratch. Jason was just sorry he hadn't pressed the knife deeper. He struggled again.
"You don't know better." He spat. "You don't know what he did to Red Robin."
Somewhere amid the mist of red that clouded his vision, he saw Dick mutter a curse. Batman abandoned trying to talk to his former teammate and instead made for the dealer who had somehow managed to make it to back to his feet. Before the man could react, a gauntleted arm struck him on the back of the neck, and he crumpled back to the ground unconscious. But even knowing that his quarry wouldn't get away now didn't temper Jason's fury.
"He's not going anywhere." Dick held up his hands in what was no doubt meant to be a calming gesture.
"He's going straight to hell if I have anything to say about it!"
"That's not how we do things, you know that." His brother shook his head. "We'll take him into custody. Hopefully get some useful inlet, but, Jay, you've got to calm down."
"Don't tell me to 'calm down'! The cape and cowl don't make you my father!"
Dick had heard enough of the same from Damian not to be phased, but to his utter fury, Harper had the gal to laugh.
"Righteous fury on behalf of your precious bat clan? The same one you spat on and tried to beat to a pulp on more than one occasion? You're such a fuckin' hypocrite, Todd."
If Donna hadn't been holding him back, Jason was sure he'd make sure that Harper would be dead by now. He spat an obscenity. Roy lunged for him, but Dick got between them, arms outstretched.
"Jason, calm down," he repeated. "Roy, back off. You have no idea what you're talking about, so shut the fuck up."
He'd never actually heard Dick curse like that. It sounded so odd that it actually managed to break through some of his rage. Jason exhaled sharply and ran a hand through his hair, and Donna seemed to think that it was safe to let him go. His brother took a step towards him and placed a hand on his chest.
"Jay, you don't want to do this." His voice was low and calm. "I'm not trying to make excuses for him, but Roy's sick. He doesn't know what he's saying. Just go back to the hotel and wait for me, okay? Please. Maybe call Bruce while you're at it."
A part of him rebelled at the idea, the embarrassment and irritation that his big brother was telling him what to do, but rationality was slowly starting to seep back in. Dick was right, and something in the way he'd said it did make him sound like Bruce. Jason stepped back and held up his hands, fingers splayed in a gesture of concession. But he barely turned his back on Green Arrow's former parter and took a few steps away when Harper's sneering voice caught up with him.
"That's right, Todd. Run back home to Daddy."
It was immensely satisfying to see Harper's blood on the knuckles of his gauntleted glove as he drew back his fist. So much so that he could almost ignore the looks of disappointment from Dick and Donna.
Jason felt little better when he returned to the hotel. The rage subsided only by a fraction, continuing to churn inside him like a maelstrom of poison. It only took a few minutes of pacing the suite to decide that, no, this was definitely not the place he wanted to be. Or rather, he wanted it too much, wanted to go out there again and slit the throat of the first dealer he came across.
Without over-analyzing it much, he grabbed a sheet of paper and pen.
And after a second's hesitation, he reached for a second piece of paper also added:
Screwed up. Rain check for dinner?
The second letter he crossed out and crumpled up before tossing into the trash almost as soon as he wrote it. What was the point? He grabbed his bag and shut the door. It wasn't until Jason got outside that he realized that his brother had the keys to the car. A lopsided grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. Messing with Batmobiles was his specialty, after all.
He crossed one of the bridges into Gotham when the sun was already rising. Another quarter hour max, and he'd be at the manor. Jason felt tired and tense, but he knew that was unlikely to change. He needed to be home, needed to exercise this anger, then maybe he could sleep. Most of all he needed to see his father.
The cave was empty when he pulled in, and Jason took the stairs two at a time until he was on the ground floor of the manor. Even then the house was quiet. He frowned a little. Even though the number of people who lived there was small in comparison to its size, usually every sound was echoed ten times over in the old mansion. Jason checked his watch. Seven fifteen... ah, that explained it. Whoever had gone out on patrol had probably come back less than an hour ago and was already sleeping.
But when he rounded the corner of the staircase, he saw his youngest brother was on his way down. Damian blinked at him, a little surprised.
"What are you doing here? Is Dick back, too?"
"No, he's still in Star City," he replied curtly. "Where's Dad? I need to talk to him."
"Early business meeting at Wayne Tower." Before the boy could respond, Tim jogged down the stairs after Damian. "Should be done by eight, though. What's up? Everything okay?"
"It's fine," Jason lied easily, but he could tell neither of his brothers were buying it. "Really. I'm fine, Dick's fine, and I just need to see Dad. I'll be back soon."
Damian scowled but didn't seem to want to press it. He jumped over the remaining few steps and ran in the general direction of the kitchen. Jason was just about to turn to go too, when Tim stopped him.
"You'd tell me if it was something bad, right?" Worry was etched into the teen's face. "We're partners, remember?"
"Absolutely." Not a lie this time. Never a lie. After their father, Tim was the next person Jason knew he could turn to. "Yeah, I had a crappy night. If you still want to know about it later, I'll tell you. Let me go see him, get a few hours of sleep, and then we'll hang. Maybe go on patrol tonight. Deal?"
"Yeah, sounds good," Tim nodded, apparently a little reassured.
"Good. I'll see you soon."
Jason didn't really like going to Wayne Tower or any other place associated with the business simply because he wasn't yet – and probably never would be – comfortable in navigating all the suits who gave him curious looks. He was up at the top floor where Bruce's office was at five past eight and really hoped that meeting hadn't run too late. He smiled at the receptions.
"Hey, Brenda, is my dad around?"
"Just got back. Let me check if he's not on the phone." She pressed a button. "Mr. Wayne, your son's here to see you."
Which one? Jason privately laughed. There's four of us.
Bruce must have thought it would be Tim or Damian because when Jason entered, shutting the door behind himself, the billionaire looked momentarily surprised before the look turned to concern. It was a good thing Bruce had made sure years ago his office was absolutely sound proof. Before he could ask, the young man shook his head.
"No, there's no crisis. Dick's back in Star City. Donna's got his back. No one got maimed or killed or anything like that, though maybe someone should've been. Do you have a minute?"
His schedule must have been packed – it always was – but he replied with, "I have as much time as you need, Jason. Tell me what happened."
So he paced and recited the events of the last two days, and his father listened without judgment. "Harper's pathetic," Jason said towards the end, "but I probably shouldn't have said some of those things to him either. Things about his kid."
"No, you shouldn't have," his father replied mildly.
Jason almost shot back with a version of 'He started it!' before realizing how childish that would sound. Bruce was still looking up at him from the sofa where he'd spent most of the tale. It was as if he could read his mind, and it was probably something like that. The whole 'parent' thing that he always fell back on whenever one of them did something stupid.
"I know you were angry, but you're not like Roy, not an addict. You can be the better man. You can help it."
He wasn't sure how much of that was true. Sometimes the rage did feel very much like a drug, like something he had only on the barest leash no matter how hard he might try. Then again he suspected his father knew that much too. Bruce moved on.
"What about the dealer?"
"I was going to kill him," Jason said flatly and honestly. "If Dick and Donna hadn't stepped in, he'd be dead."
"Why? Why would you have killed him?"
Bruce's tactics lately have been to ask leading questions and guide Jason to a conclusion. It was not meant to illicit anger, but the young man often found the strategy infuriating, especially when applied to these kinds of topics. His father was saying, "Why would you choose to take a life?" but what he heard was, "It's not enough that he hurt your brother." Just like before, when it was even more personal, when he heard, "I didn't love you enough to to rid the world of the man who took you from me."
But I know better now, Jason reminded himself, pushing past the lingering hurt. He does love me. Loves all of us. That's not what he's saying.
Still he replied with the obvious reason. "He hurt Tim."
And unsurprisingly, Bruce shook his head. "We get hurt all the time. Why did this one deserve to die?"
"Because..." Jason swallowed, his fists clenched. "If... if I hadn't been so God-damn soft on those dealers... I knew he was scum... if I'd taken care of him right away..."
That was it. He'd let Ben and others like him roam free because he thought he could control them. What did he care about loosers like Roy Harper who had chosen the drugs? If he had done something... something other than let the dealers that supposedly followed his rules run around about their business, his brother wouldn't have been taken.
It was his fault.
He'd known that, had apologized to Tim before, but seeing the dealer in the flesh had brought the guilt back up all over again. Again, his father seemed to know exactly what he was thinking.
"If you'd killed him, it might have been another. Unfortunately there's no shortage of them, especially in Gotham. Tim knew the risks, and I know he doesn't blame you. But that doesn't matter because you seem to blame yourself enough for the both of you."
"Damn straight," Jason folded his arms over his chest. "I just... I screwed up, Dad."
"Yes, you did." Bruce rose then and taking a few steps towards him placed both hands on his shoulders. "But you recognize that. You own it and take responsibility. It won't happen again. Not because you can kill every drug dealer in Gotham, but because you're going to watch out for your brothers. Yes?"
"Yeah." He wiped a hand over his face and felt better. Then a different thought crossed his mind, and Jason actually laughed. "Dick's gonna have to find his way back to Gotham on his own though. Kinda took the car... kinda hot-wired it in a rush."
"My cars are just not safe around you."
"Nah, just the 'special' ones." He smiled at his father. "Thanks. I needed the sanity check. I knew if I stayed I'd do something stupid."
"Then you did the right thing." Bruce squeezed his shoulders and looked straight into his eyes. "You can always come to me, Jason. No matter what."
Upon his return to the manor, Jason did as he'd planed and slept, more peacefully than he'd expected. When he awoke in the mid-afternoon, he felt refreshed and rested and more than glad to be dragged along when Tim said there was something he wanted to show him. However, he was a little surprised when they found themselves near his old apartment in Park Row.
Tim looked at him sheepishly. "You don't mind being here?"
"Kid, you worry too much." But really Jason was touched. "I spent more than half my life here, you know. Though I don't remember some of these places being so... clean. What's that devious little mind of yours got cooked up this time?"
His brother grinned. "You know how Bruce let me renovate the theater, right?"
"And turn it into a mini-cave-slash-half-coolest-bachelor-pad-ever."
"Right, well, I started thinking..."
"I thought 'why stop at the theater'? This whole neighborhood's in bad shape."
Jason didn't have to point out that the area around Park Row had been in 'bad shape' since before Bruce's parents were murdered. There was a reason it had been so infamously named 'Crime Alley'. Having lived there for years, he knew the name had been earned.
"So..." He urged Tim to continue.
"I think we should do something," the teen declared. "Not just the usual nightly patrols or even charities, but something more permanent to help the people here climb out of poverty. Public housing projects to fix up some of these old buildings, things like that."
He launched into a plan of how it would all work and how everyone would benefit. Jason honestly only followed a fraction of the details, but Tim's enthusiasm alone made him smile. He wasn't sure how realistic it was – people had tried to help out around there before – but his brother was persistent, maybe just enough to make a long term difference.
When he was finished, Jason threw an arm around the teen. "It's a good plan, Timmy. I approve."
"I was hopping you'd say that." He took a breath as if he was about to ask something he wasn't sure Jason was going to like. "Actually, I was hopping you'd join me on this one. You know how it is here, Jay. The people, the problems... I thought maybe you could help. If you want. No pressure."
Jason was stunned. He hadn't been expecting that at all. Of course the Wayne family had been involved in countless charities, but they were also well aware of his slightly antisocial tendencies when it came to the general public. If he allowed himself to be dragged to a Wayne Foundation event, it was considered a small miracle. To actually be involved in a project like that as Jason instead of the Red Hood... He looked around. Yes, he could do that, make a difference some other way than with his fists. Besides he owed Tim big time.
"Between this and patrols you're gonna get pretty sick of me," Jason said and watched a grin spread over his younger brother's face as the teen realized he was taking him up on the offer.
If it was going to happen, it didn't on that particular patrol. When they returned to the cave just before dawn, Jason felt the good kind of normal that meant he had a solid grasp on his emotions and sanity. He had done the right thing, there was no doubt about that now, but he did wonder how Dick was making out back in Star City. All the drama aside, Jason had genuinely wanted to help with the case.
Unsurprisingly Bruce was down in the cave, not suited up – he hadn't gone out that night as far as Jason knew – but working diligently over the computer. Alfred was walking over to him with a tray of steaming coffee and some kind of food but paused long enough to smile at him and Tim and ask if what they would like.
"I'm just gonna steel some of the coffee. Al, did he sleep at all?" Alfred gave him a look that somehow managed to convey that he'd just asked a stupid question without actually saying it. "Right." Jason turned to Bruce. "You know there's four of us, right?"
"Plus Babs and the birds and Stephenie," Tim added.
"Right, which means you can afford to get in more than your usual three hours in two days. We got this," Jason gestured between himself and his brother, and Tim nodded helpfully.
"I have no doubt about that." Bruce finally looked up from his work and took the coffee. "How was it out there tonight?"
"No masks but ours, so quiet by our usual standards." Jason didn't miss that their gentle persuasion had gone ignored. Oh, well. They'd get him one of these days... maybe. He put a hand on the back of Bruce's chair and glanced at the monitors over his shoulder. "What are you working on?"
"Analyzing information your brother sent from Star City. You were right, Jason; there's an additive in all those drugs. From what I could find, it's called Bliss, and Deathsroke was very much involved, though I'm still trying to understand how. This isn't his usual batch of steroids."
"He's never been in the trade," Jason frowned, but Tim interrupted his thoughts.
"Where's the little demon?" The teen looked around.
"Here," Damian announced trotting down the stairs that lead up to the manor. He looked, as ever, mildly annoyed. "Come say that to my face. There's a baterang with your name on it."
Jason snorted but let Bruce reply.
"There will be no use of field weapons to settle domestic disputes." He said it with perfect calm, as they were two normal squabbling siblings and he'd just told them not to throw things in the house. "What is it, Damian?"
The two younger brothers exchanged their customary glares, but finally the boy replied.
"Something's wrong," he complained. "Dick's not back yet..."
"I just heard from Dick," his father assured him. "He'll be back tomorrow night."
"... then why is that girl here to see Jason?"
It took half a second for him to realize what connection there was between those two statements, but by that time Tim was already asking. "What girl?"
"The amazon. Admittedly she's... not bad looking. Thus my question why she's here for him."
The boy nodded his head at Jason, and he knew he was in trouble when it was Bruce who raised a brow and translated, swiveling the chair to turn to him. "So there's a beautiful woman here to see Jason. Lucky you."
"Yeah, lucky me," the young man muttered. "Shouldn't you be telling me to be careful?"
"Alright. Be careful." But it sounded terribly like he was humoring him.
Donna was in the living room when he jogged up from the cave, and Jason was suddenly painfully aware that he was still in full work clothes save for the domino mask and was fairly certain he didn't smell his best either. Which was not different from most of the times he'd seen her, but how that she was standing in his home rather than out in the field, he was aware of it. He cleared his throat and she turned.
"So, I imagine you're not used to being stood up."
"No, but at least you left a note," she said a little too sweetly, pulling out the piece of paper he'd crossed out and tossed in the trash. Jason winced. "Dick is wrapping things up, but I thought I'd fly ahead. See how you were. Are you alright?"
"Yeah." He ran a hand through his hair, a nervous gesture. "Talked to Dad, talked to Tim, Cooled off. All's well with this universe."
"You can talk to me. I do know something of these things."
She did, he knew, but Donna had come back to the open arms of her friends and had embraced them. He'd spat on everything his father was and been directly responsible for hurting each and every one of his brothers. She didn't feel the guilt he did every time he looked in the mirror. She didn't second-guess if she was worthy of the people who loved her.
"I know. I will." He promised. "Just... not yet. I'm okay, Donna."
She didn't sound like she completely believed him but was willing to let it go for now. Her face softened, and she waved the wrinkled note and a real smile touched her lips.
"So can I cash in that rain check, Mr. Wayne or do we have to wait for another crisis to hit?"