“Posters hung on building walls
Of missing faces.
Months go by without the cause,
The clues, or traces.”
Tim talked well.
He was good at this smart rich kid thing, Jason noted, particularly because it was more than just an act. Of all of them, Tim was the one who had spent his whole life in the kind of environment that one expected to produce a kid fitted to be Bruce Wayne’s son. No, that’s wrong, he thought. They were all that, but Tim was just good at this particular part.
His brother was presenting the new Park Row Housing Project. From the platform he talked about how it would benefit all the people who lived in the East End, encouraging everyone to get involved. He wanted him up there with him, Jason knew, but he was just not good at these kinds of things. Besides no matter how well meaning Tim was, it would just look like a stereotypical rags-to-riches story, and he didn’t want people looking at him anymore sideways than they already tended to do. Even more than that he didn’t want to be anyone’s personal hero.
So he hung back in the crowd, leather jacket and plain clothes making him blend well. All the attention was on Tim anyway, and it didn’t hurt to keep an eye out. He’d heard about the assassination attempt, the one where M’gann M’orzz had masqueraded as Tim and safely took the bullet for him. But that was one they’d known about in advance. Sometimes life as Bruce Wayne’s children was only marginally safer than Batman’s protégées. One never knew when there was an idiot with a gun around the corner.
He didn’t begin to make his way towards the stage until Tim finished and the crowd applauded. A few heads did turn, but Jason ignored them. His brother was smiling.
“Pretty good, huh?” Tim said when he climbed the steps two at a time.
“Yeah,” Jason agreed. “Might even get some of them to listen.”
He was skeptical about the projects. All good intentions aside, people – including the Wayne family and not just of the current generation – had tried to make a difference before, and had barely put a dent in the poverty on the East End. But Tim was nothing of not persistent. It seemed like everyone who lived in the area had come out to see this. It didn’t hurt that the teen had wisely chosen a Saturday morning when even most of those that had work didn’t to do this presentation. Good idea, but the lack of sleep after a night of patrol was making Jason grumpy. His brother just laughed.
“Okay, I get the hint. You’re not a morning person.”
He would have quoted Bruce and pointed out that bats were nocturnal, but with so many people around, Jason just made a face. “I should be sitting on the couch in my boxers, eating cereal, and watching Saturday morning cartoons.”
Tim gave him a dubious look. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen you do that, but since you’re so crabby, lets go get some breakfast. Food usually cheers you up.”
That course of action Jason liked. They turned and just made their way down the platform steps when an older woman blocked their way. She was portly with gray hair and light brown eyes. Jason thought she looked familiar, but it wasn’t until she started talking that he really remembered where he knew her from.
“I thought that was you,” the woman waged a finger. “As I live and breath, Jason Todd. Last time I saw you has got to be half a decade ago. How’ve you been?”
Jason smiled. “Hi, Mrs. Walker. This is my brother, Tim.” He turned to the teen. “Tim, this is Mrs. Walker. She’s... was a friend of... my mom’s.”
Even in the split second it took, he could still see the wheels in Tim’s head turning, almost like a puzzle being solved. He must have been thinking, Mom? Wasn’t Jason’s mom... oh... oh! Tim plastered on a grin and stuck out his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
“That’s right.” The woman snapped her fingers as if she’d only just remembered. “Bruce Wayne took you both in. Is it Jason Wayne now?”
“Yup,” he confirmed, because he really did like that.
The woman smiled. “I guess that answers how you’ve been.”
Not even close, Jason thought, but it definitely helps. Out loud he said, “Tim and I were just about to grab breakfast. Why don’t you join us? Is Manny’s still open?”
“One of the only places that is. Somehow made it through the quake and managed to reopen after the NML. Probably have your old man to thank for that too.”
Probably. “As long as they make the same food, I don’t care. Come on. We can catch up.Our treat, Mrs. Walker.” She looked like she was about to protest, but he shook his head. “How many times did I eat over at your place, huh?”
The diner was only two blocks away, so they started walking with Mrs. Walker leading. Jason hung back a step with Tim. It was a measure of instinct to walk beside him, even in the bright daylight, even in civilian clothing. It was a bad neighborhood, and he was his brother as well as his partner. Inside the diner was different, and Jason felt it was due only in part to the rebuilding. Sometimes his memory played tricks on him, like a corrupted hard drive which the reboot that was his little dip in the Lazarus Pit hadn’t quite fixed. Next to him, Tim eyed the place curiously, and when they say down in a booth table, Mrs. Walker on one side and the two of them on the other, he grinned at the teen.
“The short order cook there used to make the best breakfast platters; fried eggs, bacon, sausage, ketchup, two pancakes, and maple syrupy. All for less than five bucks.” Tim clearly tried to look enthusiastic, but it came off more like pained. Jason gave him a small scowl. “Hey, Mr. Judgmental, that’s pretty damn good when five bucks is all you have.”
“I’m totally non-judgy,” Tim protested. “But I think I’ll just stick to pancakes.”
“Suit yourself,” Jason shrugged. “I’m having the whole thing.”
“You’ll be sick later.” Tim pointed out.
“Oh, hi, Alfred! I didn’t see you there.” His brother rolled his eyes at him. “Yup, I’ll be sick, but that’ll be later. Right now I’m gonna be happy and enjoy it.”
Mrs. Walker was smiling, no doubt thinking something along the lines of, “Aww, isn’t that cute?” They ordered and sat back waiting for the food. Jason took the initiative and answered her earlier question, talking a little about the few mundane parts of his life. Tim filled in some pieces with some colorful white lies. He really was much better at this than him. Mrs. Walker just smiled and listened, until the topic switched to her.
“Actually,” she looked a little uncomfortable, “there was a reason I wanted to get in touch with you, Jason. Do you remember Shana? Girl who lived a few floors below yours, a couple years older. She used to babysit you and a couple other kids when you were real young.”
Jason tried to recall, brought up only a blurry image. “Vaguely.”
“Well, she got into some bad stuff.” Mrs. Walker cast a questioning glance to Tim, who took the hint.
“I’ll be right back,” the teen rose. “Nature’s calling.”
He was gone in less than a second, and the woman turned her attention back to Jason. “Sorry ‘bout that. Figured you didn’t want him hearin’ this stuff. Anyway, Shana’s boyfriend got her into drugs and everything that followed. Real shame.”
“Yeah,” Jason said a little absently.
“But then she had her little girl,” Mrs. Walker went on. “And that did the trick, you know. She got clean, got a job, was a great mom and everything.”
“Good for her.”
He knew he didn’t sound like he meant it, but he really did. Of course he was happy someone managed to turn their life around for their kid, but Jason still found it hard to sympathize with addicts, even former ones. Mrs. Walker pressed her lips together, as if she was considering how to say what she wanted to next.
“About two days ago, her daughter, Leah, went missing.” Jason raised his chin slightly, and the woman held up her hands. “She told the police, and they just said they’ll look into it. You know that means squat ‘round here.”
“I know.” He agreed. Things and people tended to just disappear in the East End. One minute they’d be there, and the next minute gone. “I’m... sorry for her, Mrs. Walker, but what does that have to do with me?”
It might have been an odd statement considering what his and his family’s extracurricular activities, but that was as the Red Hood. As Jason, his job was to feign ignorance, no matter how much he hated it. But Mrs. Walker was a determined woman. She didn’t look like she was about to let him go until she said what she wanted to say.
“Everyone knows you Waynes have connections inside Batman Inc.. Your adopted father sponsors him, doesn’t he? I was wondering if...”
“If I could ask Batman to look into a missing kid?” He asked as if the request was as ludicrous as Mrs. Walker must have thought it was. “He’s Batman, not our personal bodyguard or mercenary or anything like that.”
Mrs. Walker sighed. “I figured as much.” She rose to leave, and then Jason really felt bad.
“Did she try talking to someone like Gordon or Montoya?”
“You know they have bigger things to worry about in Major Crimes.” The woman didn’t turn. “Just like Batman.”
Okay, now he felt like shit. Tim came back with perfect timing, just as the door of the diner closed behind the woman, and took her seat across the table from Jason. He didn’t have to ask how the conversation went; somehow Jason was sure he’d found a way to overhear the entire thing. But Tim was also not in the habit of giving him much space – he really overindulged the kid – so he spoke before his little brother had a chance to start the interrogation.
“I don’t know how he does it,” he commented absently in a low voice, stabbing the remainder of his pancakes with the fork.
“That... clueless billionaire act. The one where he convinces everyone that he’s an idiot who doesn’t care about anything past the next pretty girl. I can’t do that!”
“You don’t have to,” the teen said calmly. “Anyway, Batman and Gordon might not have time, but we know someone who does, don’t we? Two someones, actually.”
Jason grinned. “So, hey, what are you doing tonight?”
“Funny you should ask. I was sort of thinking I’d hang out with my big brother.”
“Awesome. I’m just gonna assume that’s me since Dick is on Damian duty.”
“Ah, the glamorous assignment!”
* * * * * * * * * *
In Tim’s opinion, Jason really didn’t give himself enough credit.
Actually it wasn’t an opinion. Just a fact. Like how in the field, he now – mostly – managed to keep his temper under control, how he didn’t get too close – normally – to the line, how he – usually – thinks things through. Tim knew one of the reasons his brother preferred to patrol with him was that he thought he couldn’t keep things under control without someone there, but in his opinion that wasn’t true at all.
A little selfish part wouldn’t let him tell Jason that, though. It was still nice to be needed.
“You’re here for moral support.” Jason had told him with a healthy amount of sarcasm as if he didn’t really need it and was just saying the words for Tim’s benefit.
So that’s why he was here now as Red Robin, in the apartment of some girl whose daughter had gone missing. A girl who was about to be roused from sleep and interrogated by the Red Hood. He didn’t really need to be here – the day Jason intentionally hurt a civilian, especially a woman, was the day Bruce brought a fire arm into the field – but his brother had asked for his help, so here he was.
The place was composed of little more than a kitchen, living room, and small bedroom, small but not particularly dingy. There were unwashed dishes in the sink and a hamper of dirty laundry but everything else looked fairly in its place. Tim’s keen eyes noted that these were signs of the tenants recent distress, not long term neglect. All the dishes and utensils came in pairs, and there was bread in the pantry, as well as a box of cereal. The fridge was not empty either, though the expiration date on the milk had past yesterday.
When they found her, the girl was on her bed, apparently sleeping. Her hand was fisted in a soft pink blanket, no doubt her daughter’s. He even spotted a coloring book on the living room table and a stuffed animal. The child who had lived here had obviously been cared for. The other things in the room looked like they belonged to a child about five years of age. She must have had her when she was very young, still in her teens. It made him think of Stephanie.
Jason – the Red Hood – unceremoniously reached for the covers and yanked.
It was not quite the Batman voice, but loud scary enough that the girl jolted awake, scrambling to the head of the bed.
His frame might have almost been large enough to impersonate their father when emerged in shadows, but the absence of a cape was a definite tell. The girl’s sleep-blurred eyes began to adjust, and she reached for the light switch on the side table. Jason aloud it, though his face didn’t look any friendlier when the lights were on. To make her feel just a little better, Tim offered a small smile in her direction. She seemed to relax marginally.
“The red team.” She breathed. Tim saw the corner of his brother’s mouth twitch at the somewhat-affectionate term the citizens of Gotham had dubbed them. “What do you two want?”
“Your daughter.” The Red Hood said simply. “Tell us what you know.”
Though the girl must have spent the last few days crying, she still found it in herself to glare at him. “I told the police everything.”
“And now you’re going to tell us.” He crossed his arms.
She wiped her face. “Batman’s birds busy themselves with a missing kid?”
“With whatever we damn well please,” Jason snapped. Tim could see he was getting agitated. “Tell us what you know.”
She took a breath and looked around. “I... I was working late three days ago. When I came home, the window was broken, and Leah was gone.”
Tim glanced at the bedroom window. There was a a fist-sized jagged hole in it covered with clear tape. He turned to the girl. “Was anything else missing? Money?”
Shana snorted. “What money?”
“Do you have any enemies?” The Red Hood asked. “People you owe money too? Dealers?”
Her face turned hard. “I am not a junkie!”
Before Tim even began to step forward to defuse the situation, Jason venomously shot back, “But you were.”
He reached out and grabbed his brother’s bicep, gloved fingers digging into the leather of his jacket. “We’ll look into it, Miss,” he told the girl with extreme politeness, before tugging on Jason’s arm with more force. In the beginning of their partnership, Tim thought that, okay, maybe he’d have to pull him back once or twice from going over that line with some thug. It had never crossed his mind that he’d have to pull him back from... this!
He gave him room all the way back to the cave, but then the masks were off. Jason was walking in long strides, so Tim had to run to catch up with him. He came around, blocking his way up the stairs to the manor.
“What was that?”
“Investigating.” But Jason was looking past him.
“No! That was...” Tim stammered. “Terrorizing the victim! Since when do we do that?!”
“Since I’m not so sure she’s a victim.”
Tim’s brows disappeared into his hair. “What is this? Twilight Zone version Jason! Who are you and what have you done with my brother?”
That must have hurt, because Jason visibly recoiled. Then his face hardened. He purposefully walked around him and headed up the stairs without another word leaving Tim to just stare after him and wonder what had just happened. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen harsh interrogations before. Batman – Bruce-Batman – was not exactly warm and fuzzy and had a tendency to bulldoze his way to the point, but this was Jason! Jason who was always so outraged that so many victims never received justice. Jason didn’t do this!
Luckily for both of them, Tim had a few tricks up his sleeve as well. Being the third in line, he often found himself comparing himself to the first two. He didn’t have Dick’s combat skills or Jason’s physical strength. He’d been told by almost everyone that he was the smartest of all of them, but Tim wasn’t so sure about that. What he was certain about is that he had at least one thing going for him: tenacity.
When he strode into Jason’s room and plopped himself into the circular hammock-like seat, his brother was just finishing changing into civilian clothes – he should have done it down in the cave, but oh, well. He glared at him, but Tim just tucked his feet under him and smiled innocently, as if the last few minutes had not taken place at all.
“I’m going to sit here until you talk to me.”
“Are you kidding?”
Tim laughed. “You know you usually start cursing when you know you’ve been beaten?”
That earned him another glare. “Any other keen observations from the little detective?”
The teen looked up, feigning deep thought. “Mmm... nope. That’s all I got.”
“Good. Get out.”
“No.” Another glare. “Look, I can sit here until Bruce comes home, and you talk to him, or you can tell me. Up to you.”
“I’m serious. What is it about this one that made you go off the handle? You practically implied that she sold her kid for drugs.”
“We don’t know that she didn’t.” Tim stared at him in disbelief, and Jason crossed his arms. “Go on. Tell me I have issues.”
Boy, do you ever. But that wasn’t different from the rest of them. He decided to take the logical approach. “Your friend, Mrs. Walker, said she cleaned up her act when she had her kid, and I didn’t see anything at all drug-related in that apartment.”
“That means jack.” Jason cut him off. “Lots of junkies are real good at hiding their habit.”
“For five years?” He looked at him dubiously. “That’s a long time to pretend to be clean.”
“So?” His brother shot back. “My mother did it for at least twelve.”
Ah, so now we come to it. “And did she do a very good job of it?” Tim tried to be as gentle as he could when he said it.
Jason gritted his teeth, a sound akin to a snarl escaping from him, then sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He sank down on the bed, arms resting on his thighs.
“You have no idea,” he said softly. “You have no idea what it’s like to be a kid in a place like that, around people who only care about their next fix.”
Tim tensed. Words like that didn’t usually bode the start of a nice rational conversation. More often than not it meant Jason was about to explode again and tell him he knew nothing, having grown up fairly privileged, both with his biological parents and later with Bruce. But his brother must have picked up on the tension. When he looked up at him, his eyes were soft.
“I’m not… accusing you of anything, Timmy. I wouldn’t wish that life, anything that happened to me, on any of you. I’m just saying your optimism might be… misplaced.”
He knew that. Jason could rival Alfred in the protective instincts department. That was one of the reasons Tim knew that no matter how dark things got, he would never slip too far. He cared too much. Even having experienced death already, there was not a shred of doubt in his mind that Jason would step in the path of a bullet for any of them.
“I don’t think it’s so much optimism on my part as pessimism on yours,” Tim said mildly. “Look, why don’t I get started on digging stuff up, and you can take a break. I’ll call you if I find something one way or another.” Jason glared at him half-heartedly. “Oh, as if you don’t boss me around.”
“I’m older. Big brother prerogative.”
“Yeah?” Tim smirked. “Little brother prerogative dictates I’m to be a pain whenever you’re being an idiot.”
Jason threw a pillow at him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Tim was actually out when Jason finally woke around noon and dragged himself down to the cave. He wondered where he was until it occurred to him to check his cell where he found a text sent around seven.”
Needed in San Fran for a few hours. Be back tonight. Don’t leave without me.
P.S. Left some research on the computer you might wanna look into.”
“Fantastic,” Jason muttered under his breath. Only in their circles was it possible to say ‘gone to the other side of the country, be back in a few hours.’ The kid really was spread way too thin. One of these days he’d have to use that big brother card for real and order him on a break. It had never worked when Bruce or Dick tried to do it, but that didn’t mean it was not possible. They were partners after all, so the guilt trip of “You’ll get both of us killed if you’re too tired to function in the field” was bound to work wonders.
Jason eyed the computer dubiously. He didn’t really want to look at the research, though he knew he was wasting precious time. Still, it would be hours before Tim returned and hours before it was dark enough to come out and play. His brother had bothered to look everything up and leave it for him practically gift-wrapped. Jason owed it to him to at least skim it.
He attacked the research with an outward-in approach. Being already somewhat familiar with the case, Jason began by checking if there were any similar kidnappings in the area, then in Gotham as a whole, to rule out external factors. He almost hoped it would be something like that; Jason had dealt with child slavers before. There was no indication of that though, so he opened Shana’s file.
Nothing he found surprised him. Drugs, dancing, though not prostitution, and considering she wasn’t in prison or on the streets, it was better than a lot of people in the East End. His attention turned on the boyfriend. Again, nothing terribly interesting. Carter Sanderson, a fairly low level dealer who tried to bite off more than he could chew by taking a cut for a few side-sells. He was bound for either jail or dead – traders didn’t tolerate that kind of double-crossing – but fortunately for him, he ended up with the non-lethal outcome.
So where did the daughter come into all this? Jason leaned back in the seat and gazed up at the screen, staring at the fresh kindergarten photo of a little girl with hair done into two tight neat braids. Clean, smiling, apparently the real kind of happy, not the kind of act a lot of kids in the East End put on just to keep from being taken by social services. It wasn’t hard to remember what that felt like, and Jason unconsciously tried on the fake smile again. Corners of the mouth and lips pulled back... He looked at his face reflected in the computer screen. More like a snarl than a smile.
“What are you doing?” In that same reflective surface, Jason saw Damian’s scowling face. He cleared his own expression and turned to his little brother.
“Doesn’t look like ‘nothing’.” The boy pointed to the computer. “Looks like a case.”
“Yeah, and it’s mine, so butt out.” He should have known better, because Damian looked only more curious.
“Is this what you and Red Robin went out last night for?” the youngest Wayne reached for the consul, but Jason was faster. With the click of a button the screen went dark. The boy’s scowl deepened.
“What’s your problem?” Damian demanded.
“There’s no problem,” Jason snapped. “But if you don’t go away, I’m calling Dad and telling him his demonic brat is interfering with my case.”
It was dangerously close to crossing the line from brotherly squabbling to something truly malicious. In the past, Damian would have surely lashed back with full-on violence. But the boy just crossed his arms and smirked.
Now Jason really wanted to punch him, baby of the family or not. Luckily Dick came jogging down the stairs. Noting his older brother’s gym clothes, Jason finally noticed that Damian was dressed the same way. They were probably going to train here, which means he wasn’t likely to get any peace. He glared at both in annoyance. Huge mansion and the cave, and there was still not enough oxygen to go around. His skin felt itchy.
Dick hadn’t caught the start of the conversation, but he’d obviously picked up on the tension. Meeting his questioning gaze, Jason just gave him a dark look. But the eldest had enough years of playing big brother to such a diverse group of individuals, none of them particularly easy-going except maybe Tim, that he could read the situation without Jason having to say a word.
“Bruce is upstairs,” Dick said casually. “Kitchen, I think.”
Jason might have been annoyed at everyone’s presumption that he had to see his father every time he felt on edge. But it was not entirely unfounded, as Bruce was often a point of stability for him. Besides this was just too good of an opportunity to waste. He grinned at Damian wickedly, all teeth.
“How ‘bout that? Just the person I wanted to see.”